January 13 2013

Signs from God – a response to “two jars”

God's existence

My brother Tony recently performed an experiment to see if God would prove his existence to him.
He describes what he did and what his experiment taught or confirmed for him.
If you have not read his blog entitled, “Two Jars”, you must stop reading now and click HERE,
as this blog is a personal response to my brother’s blog.

Tony, your blog was really interesting, moving and caused me to reflect on my own experience of God.

Honestly, I am sad God did not move the stones. Unlike the hypocritical theists you refer to in your blog, I do not have any problem with the idea that God could or would do such a thing. In fact, one of the first questions I asked after reading your blog was, “Why didn’t God do it?”

For you, I can see that the experiment and its result was very significant and genuine. I also see that for you, the result does not prompt in you the same question it does for me. For you, it “puts to rest my belief in a particular type of God” and “It was like I had asked if this world was actually the matrix. The answer was that this is real; the earth, sky, my family and me are all very real.” In this blog, all I would like to do is encourage you to be cautious about what exactly you “put to rest”.

Before performing the experiment you prayed this prayer:

“Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please empty the jar I have filled with stones and fill the empty jar next to it.”

paint cornerYour prayer was simple and innocent and I believe genuine. But by praying this prayer did you think that you were painting God into a corner? Or even, painting yourself into a corner? What I mean is, was your prayer a question or a test? Read your prayer again. Did you allow for God to simply say, “no”?

Now, I don’t mean this as if you were being petty or childish, but was the subtext of your prayer something like, “Yahweh, if you are there and real, then you will give me a sign. I ask that the sign that you use to prove your existence to me be to move these stones from one jar to another.”?

Again, I don’t imply that you prayed that mockingly like the Pharisees saying to the crucified Jesus, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42). I only suggest that, by concluding that a particular type of God was put to rest by your experiment, you had some huge expectations behind it all. And by your “Matrix” analogy, these expectations were as great as if you were questioning reality itself.

The reality is, all you have done is put to rest the particular type of God that proves his existence to us on command with experiments that we set up for him to complete. Did you allow for the possibility of God saying, “I want to prove my existence to you another way.” or “Despite your noble motives, it will not be good for you or others for my existence to be proven to you through such an experiment, so I’m going to answer no on this occasion.” Have you joined in with Nick Cave singing, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” a little too soon?

no godYou experiment actually reminds me of Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, who argued for an atheist state (not that I’m saying you’re doing this) by suggesting that if God was real then the first man in space would have seen him: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” (this is often misquoted as something the astronaut, Yuri Gagarin actually said himself). But like you, only a particular type of God was put to rest by this experiment – the type of God that is visible to those who travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. But to throw out God completely by this experiment – or by yours – is sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The first issue I want to address is, are you right to expect that if God exists he will prove his existence to you by an experiment like the “two jars”?

This seems fundamental to the whole experiment and your acceptance of this premise seems to come from a couple of biblical examples of people doing similar “testing prayers”.

In your blog you refer to Kings and Judges, obviously referring to the stories of “Elijah and the prophets of Baal” in 1 Kings 18, and “Gideon and the Fleece” in Judges 6. You flesh these examples out a bit more in your previous blog, “Pray em if you got em”, where you also include a third example from Isaiah 7:10-14, where God actually rebukes King Ahaz for being reluctant to ask for a sign. You write, “In fact the testing prayer is very biblical. In the Old Testament such tests are common.” I’d have to disagree with this. These are three of thousands of examples of prayers throughout the bible and I would have to say that “testing prayers” are actually exceptionally rare. They are never commended as a general way in which we should pray and these three examples are quite unique.

In your “Two Jars” blog you ask the question to the Christian reader, “How can they claim the truth of books like Kings and Judges while predicting from the get go that I would not find the stones moved?” Now, I didn’t predict that the stones wouldn’t be moved, but I will answer why I think these stories from Kings, Judges and Isaiah, should not be used as a template for us to ask similar “testing prayers”.

Elijah’s Testing Prayer

mt carmel elijahFor those who don’t know the story, Elijah is a prophet who sets up a test. There are two bulls. The prophets of Baal can pray to Baal. He’ll pray to Yahweh. Whichever “god” sends down fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice – they are the real God. This is Elijah’s prayer as found in 1 Kings 18:36-37:

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Yahweh, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

The most obvious thing to note from this story is that this whole episode is not about testing God, it is about the people. Elijah is not unsure of who is the real God. He knows Yahweh is God and throughout all the stories of Elijah, including this one, he goes where Yahweh tells him to go, says what Yahweh tells him to say and does what Yahweh tells him to do. That’s what the “prophets” did. He even says in the prayer that the whole two bulls experiment was something he set up at the “command” of Yahweh. This is God’s test, not Elijah’s. It’s something God told Elijah to do because he intended to answer it in the dramatic way he did – not to prove to Elijah that he was real, but to show the people of Israel that he was real. This is much more akin to the story of God turning Aaron’s staff into a snake in Exodus 7:8-12:

Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.

Basically, my point is, God did not tell you to set up the “Two Jars” experiment and so you shouldn’t use 1 Kings 18 as an example of an equivalent “testing prayer”.

 Gideon’s Testing Prayer

Gideons fleeceThe story of Gideon and the fleece from the Book of Judges is much more interesting and seems to be more of what you based your test on (in the fabricated part of your blog, you talk about doing the test twice, each time overnight, and the second time in the opposite direction – just like Gideon).

Unlike Elijah, Gideon’s tests are his own idea and they are specifically set up because of his own personal doubts that God is speaking to him. As he says in Judges 6:17, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.”  Gideon wants to know if God’s Word to him is real and he actually tests God three times (before the fleece tests, he asks to set up an offering which God then causes to be consumed by fire).

Describing it this way, it’s seems a perfect example of your “Jars Test”, but I question whether Gideon’s is a good example of us to follow. All three of Gideon’s tests are done in the context of Gideon being uniquely visited by God and being asked by God to perform a very specific task (“Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” – Judges 6:14). There are may parallels in the commissioning of the reluctant Gideon in Judges 6:1-24 and the commissioning of the reluctant Moses in Exodus 3. If you keep reading Gideon’s story, after the fleece tests God has a couple of tests of his own (see Judges 7:1-7). He whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000, down to only a measly 300 men. Why does he do it? Well, in 7:7 he explains that he want to make sure in this battle it is abundantly clear that God is at work. This seems to be a big theme in the entire Gideon story and it may be why God is so gracious to Gideon to grant his request during “testing prayers”. It is not the Gideon doubts that God exists. Gideon doubts himself: “How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:15). God specifically wanted to show Gideon that God will go with him and God will win the battle that Gideon is being commissioned to lead.

We must also take into consideration the cultural time period this story falls within. It is the time of the Judges. There is no king leading the people in God’s truth. There is no mention of the Old Testament  scriptures being accessible or read publicly or privately. Gideon is in hiding as a foreign enemy threatens his life, and God want to send him out to be the leader of the Jewish people. The parallels between Gideon’s situation and yours are pretty limited. You both doubt God (and maybe yourself). But that’s about it. Just because the “fleece” test is how Gideon responds to his doubt, does not mean that is how God expects you to respond. Just because God responded to Gideon’s test with a miraculous answer, does not mean God has set up a biding precedent in which anyone who ever sets up a similar test should expect to be responded to in the same way. There are many, many, many examples throughout scripture of people who have doubts about God and they respond to those doubts in a variety of ways. Some, like Abraham, take matters into their hands. Some, like the psalmists, cry out to God in confusion. Some, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (though his prayer is more about his anguish than his doubt), pray to God for a way out and receive the answer “No”. The problem, which I see many Christians do as well, is to come across an interaction with God mentioned in the Bible and apply it as prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Prescriptive vs Descriptive

To say an action of God is prescriptive is to say that God is promising to do this thing in the same way every time. An example of a biblical prescriptive text is something like 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” or Acts 2:38 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” and if you want an Old Testament one, you can see Joel 2:32 which is quoted also many times in the New Testament: “Everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved.” These along with many other passages, are God’s promises. They can be relied on and I believe they will never fail.

ColesPromise_02The problem arises when you read a story like Gideon’s fleece and take it to be prescriptive. It is not. It is descriptive. When a passage is descriptive it means that it accurately describes what God truly did at a certain time in a specific circumstance. It shows that God is able to do that thing and so it may reveal something of God’s character, his power, his values, or his agenda. But it makes no promise that God will or should act in the same way, even if the exact same circumstance happens again.

For example, in Genesis 2, Adam needed a partner. So while he was asleep, God took one of his ribs and used it to form Eve. Now, that story is not prescriptive. If you are looking for a wife, you should not read that story and pray, “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please take one of my ribs while I am sleeping and make me a wife.” And if you do decided to do that, you should not conclude that the God mentioned in Genesis does not exist because you wake up and are still single. That may sound like a silly example, but sadly Tony, it is not! I have chatted with some Christians who have become completely disillusioned with God because they have prayed for a marriage partner and God has not provided one. But God does not promise that he will provide everyone with a marriage partner – even though the Bible includes many specific examples of him doing exactly that. This is the vital difference between understanding when a passage is prescriptive and when a passage is descriptive.

So why didn’t God move the stones when you asked him to so that you could have conclusive proof he exists? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. He never promised he would. Maybe he knows it would not have proved anything to you. Maybe he knows it would have developed in you a superstitious faith. Maybe he wants to prepare your heart and your motives before he revealed conclusively his existence to you. You seem to think God could not possibly have any good reason to not move those stones – unless he doesn’t exist or isn’t the sort of God that can move stones – but I would suggest the God of the Bible (if that’s who you were calling out to) is a God who knows all things, can do all things and works all things towards his ultimate goal. As Gandalf the wizard says, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Well, that does apply to us, but it doesn’t apply to God. He sees all ends and he determined that it was best to answer your “testing prayer” with a “no”. That doesn’t seem out of character to me, and I have been walking in relationship with God for nearly two decades now. He has answered many prayers of mine, and he has said “no” to many others – like for example, my prayer for God to prevent my divorce. I had to remind myself that although God’s clear biblical intention is for divorces to never happen, he makes no prescriptive promise anywhere that he will miraculously prevent them, even though I know that he can and does for many Christian couples.

A Wrong Sign

wrong wayThe final suggestion I wanted to make was that God wants to answer “yes” to the first part of your prayer, even if he answered “no” to the whole “moving stones” experiment. It may be that God is saying “Yes, Tony. I am here and real and I will grant your request for a sign.” But God knows what the best sign for us is.

Think about if I said, “Tony, prove you love me by paying off my credit card!” Now, you definitely could pay off my credit card out a motivation of love, and you do want me to really know how much you love me, and you know that if you did what I asked I would feel loved by you… but you still say to me, “Sorry, Simon. I do love you, but I won’t pay off all your credit cards.” In fact you may chose to respond that way out of love – even if I didn’t feel it. Even if I felt hated by that response!

Now, apart from not simply wanting to bail me out of debt when I should work that out myself, one of the reasons why you might not play along with my testing experiment, is because you want me to know that you love me for other reasons. You do want me to be confident of your love, but not because you paid off my credit card, but because of your kind deeds, your thoughtful words and your genuine affection for me as your brother (I’m guessing here, by the way). You don’t want my confidence in your love to be based on the wrong thing – or an arbitrary thing. You don’t want it to be built on the wrong foundation.

Likewise, God may not want your belief in his existence to be based on a “stone moving” miracle. He may want you to be confident that he is real, but he may want the foundation of your faith to be something else. In fact, like the “love” analogy, he may be more content that you don’t believe in him at all, rather than you believe in him based on a sign like the “two jars”. Why? Well, maybe for God, believing in his existence is not really the be all and end all. Sure it’s important – vital even, but atheism doesn’t send people to hell. Think about it… even Satan is a theist. As Jesus’ brother, James wrote, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) God is much more concerned about us being reconciled with him, and maybe moving the stones in the jars would have gotten you only as far as a demon – believing that God is there – but no closer than that.

The Promised Sign

maryThe third passage that you quote from in your blog, “Pray em if ya got em” as an example of “testing prayer” was from Isaiah 7:10-14. Here it is:

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Now here, God wants King Ahaz to ask him for a sign. Why? Well, not because “testing prayers” are something God wants us to experiment with. It’s because he has a sign that he wants to give him: The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. As you know, the apostle Matthew picks up this passage and in Matthew 1:18-24, he says that this sign that God promised to give to King Ahaz is fulfilled in Jesus.

Maybe Jesus isn’t as immediately impressive as stones moving from one jar to another. Maybe from the outside, you can only investigate Jesus through old manuscripts that you have serious doubts about as well, and the experiences and lives of those that already have a relationship with him – which seems pretty shaky ground as well. I concede, the record and the testimony of the gospel seems pretty weak compared to a miracle in your own backyard. But that is what God choses to use and he uses it every day to bring people from being a stranger to God to a friend.

The Sign of Jonah

Jesus himself was confronted with people wanting a miraculous sign that he really was from God. Understandably so, as Jesus made crazy claims like, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). In all four gospels this issue of a “testing prayer” in regard to Jesus is discussed and grappled with. If you want to get your head around what does the God of the Bible say about asking for a sign to prove his reality, then these would definitely be passages you would have to at least factor in. I will include two times in Matthew that Jesus tackles this question:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:38-42)

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (Matthew 16:1-4)

Jesus calls the Pharisees, “wicked and adulterous” for asking for a sign, but clearly he doesn’t do this because God’s not keen on giving signs, as he goes on to say that he plans on giving them a sign – the sign of Jonah. I think their wickedness and especially their adultery points to their “wicked” motivation which is not inspired by a love for God, but a desire to test Jesus to see him fail publicly. Jesus sees through their motives and tells them that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. And what is the sign of Jonah? Well, in Matthew 12:40 he makes it clear that it’s his death and resurrection. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and then emerged, and Jesus will be in the tomb for three days and will then emerge.

thomas_caravaggio

God understands our need for a sign. He understands that we can’t just swallow epic claims without testing them first. As you write, “I think if you are going to claim that ‘Magic happens’ for example then you ought to be able to show it happening.” I think Jesus gets that, but like the analogy of the “proof of love”, not just any sign will do. God has set up one major sign that he wants to be our primary foundation – the resurrection of Jesus. This is supposed to so be the base block of Christianity, that if you take it out the whole thing falls down like a theological game of Jenga. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”

It is the Resurrection that is the sign of God’s existence (as raising the dead is far more impressive than moving stones), but at the same time, on top of that, it also points you to Jesus’ authentication as the one to be followed and worshipped. AsPeter preaches in Acts 2:32 & 36 “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”, and as Paul preaches in Acts 17:30, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

Now I know that the Resurrection of Jesus has never been a very compelling sign (especially as it is not happening today in your backyard, but happened 2,000 years ago in another part of the world). In a comment on my previous blog, “How God Proves His Existence”, you wrote, “I don’t really understand how to respond to the biblical accounts of the resurrection. I put them in pretty much the same category of documentation of witches and werewolves or demonic possession or all sort of eyewitnessed events that just don’t correspond with my reality.” I understand and sympathise with this. I wish I could show you some magic tricks to prove God’s existence. I wish Jesus would dance like a monkey at my command so I could get him to prove himself to you. But he’s not a trained monkey, he’s an untamed lion, and I trust him when he says, “no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah”. So, I will continue to bang on about Jesus and continue to point you to him and to the Resurrection, even if you never find it compelling.

My Prayer for You

I was very moved by your desire to give God an opportunity to prove himself to you. I know you expressed some form of relief and even joy at the fact that your experiment failed – which does lead me to maybe question the sincerity of your motives – but either way, I do think God hears and responds to our prayers, even when they are half-hearted or prayed with mixed motives. I’ve always been confident that what matters is not the strength of your faith, but the strength of the thing that you are putting your faith in.

And so, if there was an element of your prayer that was putting your faith in God to respond to you, God is big and strong enough to hear and answer.

a_sign_from_god

Also, despite everything I’ve just said about the Resurrection being the primary foundational “sign” of God, I do believe God is active in this world here and now. There are several experiences I have had that are, for me, clearly God working miraculously, and there are thousands more that I experience week in and week out, where I see God at work (though in a less miraculous way). God has proved himself to me, fully and completely, which is what makes me so sad that he hasn’t done the same for you.

But like unfairly-named “Doubting” Thomas, God sometimes provides us with a clear, undeniable sign of his existence and work in Christ. I don’t know if that’s what you really need in order to see and respond to the gospel. If it is, then you have my prayerful support.

To be brutally honest, I don’t think you were wise, biblical or fair to set up the “two jars” experiment. But I do believe God has heard the first part of your prayer: “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me a sign.”

I am praying that God will one day either give you a sign, or make the “sign of Jonah” compelling to you. I know you think that God spectacularly failed your “two jars” test and it has allowed you to “put to rest” the idea of a real, personal, interventionist, biblical God. But I am writing this blog to you to encourage you to let God answer your “testing prayer” in his own time and in his own way.

I hope your testimony will be to one day recall your experiment with fondness and that you can share how you prayed a simple prayer that God heard and answered, even if it took longer than one night and was in a way you didn’t expect.

Until then, I will try to remember to pray on your behalf.

Yahweh, I know you are there and real. Please grant Tony a sign, so he can know that too.

I love you, my brother.

 

p.s. If you’re wondering what the image is from at the top of the blog, it comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Enjoy the video below.

 

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January 5 2013

Should we pray for a car park?

 

Consider these scenarios  You’re driving around a busy shopping centre car park on the weekend before Christmas and there is not an empty spot to be found. Or maybe you’re late for an important meeting and you don’t want to have to park miles away. “Come on! Please!!” you mutter with frustration as you search for that elusive space. But then you realise there is a much more spiritual solution. You recall your Creator and turn to him in prayer. “Dear God. Please find me a park!”

If you’re a Christian (or even if you’re not) you’ve probably been in this situation. Praying for a car park is a perfect example of seeking a spiritual solution for a pretty petty “first-world” problem. But is it really a wrong thing to do? Is it ethical? Is it an inappropriate use of prayer? Is it theologically correct? Is it spiritually edifying? Now even spending time thinking about such questions may seem to some people the bigger waste of brain activity, but I think that it raises some interesting issues and it has been the subject of some fun debate among some godly friends of mine, so I thought I’d throw in my thoughts on the topic.

What is Prayer?

Well, I could write a whole blog on this very important question, but I thought I’d explain just briefly that from a biblical perspective, prayer is not something magical. It does not have a power in and of itself. It is not a method of manipulating God or moving or evoking spiritual power for your own ends. It is not a form of New Age positive thinking based on the “law of attraction” where your thoughts tell the Universe what you want (as popularised by such books as “The Secret”).

Prayer is pure and simply, talking to God. It doesn’t need to be long and wordy. It doesn’t need to be in a specific form of words, or in a specific spiritual space, or prayed in a specific body position (hands together, eyes closed, on your knees, etc) It is simply talking to God. It can be a request, or a confession, a word of praise or thankfulness, a declaration of truth, or it can simply be a pouring out of the heart and a sharing of the soul. Jesus himself prayed often to God the Father and, although most of the time he prayed privately (Luke 5:16), we do have a record of some of his prayers (see for example John 17). He also taught us principles about prayer and gave us what is commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer” as an example of a prayer that uses those principles. He taught us, “when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8) So Jesus grapples with (or at least, doesn’t ignore) that question about, “if God knows everything, what’s the point of prayer?” Clearly, for Jesus, God does know everything and yet he still encourages us to pray.

One of the key reasons for this I think is that prayer is an exercise and and expression of what we believe about God. It is a display of our faith. It shows us (and others, if we pray with others present) who we are and who God is. Now, that may seem like a bit of an anti-climactic purpose for prayer, but remember, as people created in the image of God, that is what we are primarily created for – to know, enjoy and display to truth about God. Prayer, along with love of our neighbour, have got to be the two most potent ways in which we bear the image of God and express the truth about him in our life.

Now, if that was all a bit wordy for you, what I’m basically saying is… prayer reveals what we believe about God. The content, frequency and motivation of our prayer says many things. As Jesus points out in that passage above, those that “babble” when they prayer, show that “they think they will be heard because of their many words” and that they don’t really trust that God “knows what you need before you ask him”. Our view of God will inevitably effect how we pray and what we pray for, and so in the reverse, our prayers can be a great indicator of what we truly think about God.

Now, to get back to the topic, if that is true, what does it say for us to pray for a car park? What might it reveal about how we view or treat God?

1. Treating God like your Valet (serving your every convenience)

If you pray for a car park it may reveal that you treat God like your personal valet in the sky. Your prayers are mostly about making sure you don’t have to walk further than you would like, and doesn’t really take in to account the fact that God has the right to answer your prayers with a big fat “No”. Your expectation, is that because God loves you and he is kind and generous, then of course he would want to make sure you got the most convenient spot in the whole parking lot. In your mind,God is your heavenly servant and you expect nothing but health, wealth, blessing, prosperity and that perfect sweet car spot.

If that sounds a bit like you, I’d encourage you to remember that the Jesus that we worship called us to die to ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. And what are we following him into? Well, look at his life. Hardly, an example of a “convenient” life. He was rejected, mocked, tortured and murdered, and he did it all for the good of others. His way is not a path of perfect car spots and “your best life now”. He received persecution and hardship and he promised that anyone who would follow him with integrity would receive the same (See John 15:18-20Matthew 24:9, 2 Timothy 3:12 & 2 Corinthians 4:7-18).

Be wary of forgetting who is the Creator and who is the created. God may have other plans that are slightly more important than saving you a few seconds walking time. In fact, one of those plans might be making you park further away so that you have to walk and get a bit more exercise! In God’s economy, character and Christ-likeness is much more of a priority than convenience. The harder, longer, more complex, more challenging, more painful, less “fulfilling” path may just be the path that God wants to take you on for his glory and your ultimate good. Are you willing to take it? Are you willing to even pray for it?

2. Treating God like your Superhero (solving your every problem)

Maybe you don’t pray all the time expecting God to give you every little convenience. Maybe, you rarely pray to God at all. Only on special occassions. When you’re reeeally in trouble. Like just before a big exam that you haven’t studied for, or when your looking at an increasingly cloudy sky and you’ve organised a BBQ at the park, or when you really, really need to find a car park because your late for your best mate’s wedding. Praying to God in these situations, and these situations alone, is like treating God like your personal Superhero. You ignore him pretty much all of the time, but when things are tough, or you’re in danger, or you really need some divine intervention, you send up the SOS prayer, and like the Bat signal shining up in the clouds, you expect God to swoop down and save the day.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying to God in times of distress or trouble. Jesus modelled this in praying to his Father in the garden of Gethsemene before he faced his arrest and crucifixion. Also, it is true that God is able to save us and has more power than the greatest of Superheroes. The problem is that, when we only pray to God in these situations we are still ultimately treating him like a servant. We chose when we want to engage with him, we relate to him on our terms, and when we are done using his very important services, like a plumber who has fixed the leak in the bathroom, we thank him and show him the door.

The idea that God wants your whole life, seems way too extreme. But that’s what Jesus says. When asked what the single most important thing God wants us to do, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:36-38). Not simply call him to solve all your problems, but love him with all your life. As Kyle idleman, author of the challenging book, “Not a Fan” says, “In the Gospels, Jesus never seemed too interested in fans. Is that how you define your relationship with Him? An ‘enthusiastic admirer’? Close enough to Jesus to get the benefits but not so close to require sacrifice? He was looking for followers. Not just any follower though, but a completely committed follower.”

If you find that you treat God like a Superhero or a plumber – not just in praying for a car park, but in the rest of your life as well – I’d encourage you to get a bigger and deeper picture of God. I completely treated God like this for the first 16 years of my life, partly due to my own pride and apathy, but also partly because I never knew that I could enjoy an intimate, personal, real relationship with my creator. Like Batman, he was more “symbolic” than real. It was only after I discovered that Jesus came to make that real relationship possible, that I gave my whole life to him and turned from being simply a fan, to a follower. So, next time you cry out to the heavens for help – whether it be when you can’t find a car park or your house keys or the meaning to life – use that moment to think about how you’re treating your Creator.

3. Treating God like your Puppet Master (directing your every decision)

You may not treat God like your servant or your Superhero, only calling on him when you really, really need him. You may go in the total other direction and treat God like your Puppet Master. What I mean by this, is that because we know God loves us and knows all things, we can sometimes expect God to guide and direct every single aspect of our lives. You may have a really solid conviction about God’s sovereignty – that God is not limited in his power and ability and so he is ultimately responsible for every action. That is what the Bible teaches. God rules everything. He is sovereign. And so, it may seem perfectly natural for you to ask God to open up a car park for you. He can make drivers move where he wants. If he wanted to, he could even make cars disappear to give you that perfect car spot! He’s God! Why not ask? And on top of that, God wants us to bring everything to him in prayer. As I explained above, Jesus said to love God with EVERYTHING! That means he wants us to surrender ever part of our life to his purposes and his plan. So if all that’s true, doesn’t that also mean God wants us to ask him where we should park our car? Doesn’t God know the very best place for us to park, and if he knows, why would a loving God keep us from such information??

Well, the danger of such a conclusion is that it’s based on really good premises of God’s love and care and sovereignty. The problem is that it develops in Christians an unhealthy immaturity and dependancy on God’s direct and daily guidance. Now, I’m not saying God can’t or doesn’t guide Christians through the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:26-29 is a great example of God doing this), but there is no instruction in Scripture to ask God about every little detail of your life. The Bible has much more to say about developing godly wisdom and making intelligent responsible decisions, whilst holding on to your plans lightly, knowing that God may have other ideas. For example:

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2-3, emphasis mine)

“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

“You ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'” (James 4:15)

Someone who gets this unhealthily wrong is John Eldredge, in his book “Walking with God”. Now, I have actually met John and enjoyed some aspects of his most famous book “Wild at Heart”, but in “Walking with God”, he suggests that Christians should be asking God for guidance about every aspect of our life. Things like, “Should I go to the ranch this weekend?” (pg. 30-32), “What passage should I read in my Bible today?” (pg. 44), “Which chapter in the gospel of John should I read?” (pg. 44), and, “Should I ride the horse today?” (pg. 80).

On that last example, he tells of the story of how he had asked God whether or not he should ride and felt God say “yes”, but along one path his horse got spooked by a pile of wood and bolted, ending in an accident which breaks his nose, one wrist and dislocates the other wrist requiring surgery. His conclusion to this tragedy is not that he heard God wrong, but that after getting a “yes” to going for a horse ride, he should have asked God exactly where he should ride. “That’s a really important part of listening to God, by the way. Ask the next question. So often we get an answer to the first part of a question but fail to ask the second half. . . Don’t just get a first impression and then blast ahead. It might have been good for us to ask, ‘Where should we ride?'” (pg. 81) (For a more in depth critique of “Walking with God”, click here)

This sort of relating does not inspire childlike humility and intimacy with God. Rather, in the end, it simply inspires immature dependancy and fear of maybe missing out on “God’s perfect plan for your life”. I used to be a lot more worried about that. I used to be afraid of stepping outside of God’s will and so missing out on what God might want for my life. I used to think God has a very specific plan for my life that I had to seek out and try to discern.

Then one day, Richard, a godly friend of mine, encouraged me by saying, “Simon! Don’t worry so much! God is your heavenly Father. You’re his child! He loves you no matter which decision you make. Even if he does have a plan and you make a wrong choice, he will use your mistakes. Just try to make the best choice you can and let God look after the rest.” It was sound and comforting advice.

The more I read the Bible, the more I see that God does not have a specific plan for every moment of our lives. He has a broad fence that he wants us to keep within, but within those guidelines he gives us a lot of freedom as to where we will live, who we will marry, what job we should do, what course we should study and even, what car spot we should park in! The question we should be asking isn’t “What is God’s plan for my life?” but, “What is God’s plan. And how can I use my life to be a part of it.” God does have a plan for this world – it’s to build his kingdom, bringing more people into it and growing those people to be more like Christ. Get that plan in your sights and then you may not stress about getting guidance from God about which car spot you should park in!

4. Treating God like your Heavenly Father (providing your every need)

Now, up until now, I may seem to be fairly down on the idea of praying for a car park. Well, I wanted to offer one more possibility of how praying for a car park may actually reflect that you have a godly and healthy relationship with God. It doesn’t need to reveal that you treat God like a Valet, or a Superhero, or a Puppet Master. It may show that you simply treat God as your Heavenly Father.

Some people think that we shouldn’t pray to God about small mundane things like a car park because God must have bigger things on his mind. This is the picture of the distant Father God who is reading the paper and couldn’t possibly have any time to spare or interest in your petty little problems. But that is not the picture the Bible gives.

Although as I pointed out earlier, God has big plans for the Universe, he is also intimately concerned about his children. Consider these wonderful passages:

“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord…  For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:1-4, 13-16)

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7)

“Do not be anxious about anything,but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

“Jesus said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’ Then he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.” Then the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!'” (Luke 11:2-13)

man-with-sonThis last passage especially shows us that if you’re a Christian, then you can call God “Father” and he loves you and is concerned for you like a good father should be. Sure, like any father, he doesn’t want us to abuse the relationship we have with him or take him for granted, but when we are anxious or have a problem, he cares for us and so wants to hear our prayers. He may not take away the circumstances that are giving us anxiety, but as the passage from Philippians says, he will give us peace that will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Also, in the Luke passage, Jesus gives an example of a prayer in which he encourages us to ask God for “our daily bread”. Clearly God is not simply concerned about the big issues in the world with no time for our simple, daily needs.

God loves followers of Jesus as a father loves his children. He cares about what is causing them grief, even when it is petty or small on a cosmic scale. Think about when a child breaks their favourite toy. Does a kind father just say, “Get over it! Don’t you know there’s a war in Chechnya going on??” No, they care for them – maybe helping them see that it’s not the biggest problem in the world, but mainly comforting them and showing that daddy cares. Now, if the child is 45 and chucks a tantrum over breaking a toy, then maybe the father of that person tells them to “build a bridge”, but that’s because we rightly expect more from people as they supposedly grow in wisdom and maturity.

I think God also expects us to not be anxious about petty things and care more about important things as we grow in faith and maturity, but that’s another sign of God’s fatherly care for us – he disciplines us.  As Hebrews 12:7-11 says:

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

So feel free to pray for a car park if you are stressed and want to go to God with your problems. Know that he cares for you and that he has the ability to provide every need that you may have. But also know, he is in the best position to really know what your needs are.

car park

Maybe you need a perfect car spot. More likely, maybe you don’t.

Maybe some elderly man needs it more than you. Or a single mum with three screaming kids.

Maybe, like me, what you really need is to park further away so that you can walk a little bit and get some exercise so you don’t die of a heart attack before you’re 50!

Maybe, God just wants you to use your wisdom and God-given intelligence, to get the best park you can with the circumstances you have and not grumble about how terrible your lot in life is.

So, next time you are driving around madly trying to find a park and you begin to pray, “God, please find me a…” you might remember this blog and pause, wondering how you are treating God.

Maybe that contemplation itself might be the best gift a good Father can give you.

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October 3 2012

Made in the Image of God – Part 1

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Shakespeare wrote the great line, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” But what is our true self? Who are we? What does it mean to be human?

Well, the Bible’s answer to that question is “you are made in the image of God”. The key distinction between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom (and the plant kingdom for that matter) is that, unlike everything else God created human beings in his image. This defining truth of our identity is found right at the beginning of the Bible in the very first chapter. God has made the entire universe and has filled its emptiness with stars and planets and on earth he fills it will plants and animals, and then on the 6th day of the Creation week, the story goes like this…

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:26-31)

Now, if we left it there at “you are made in God’s image”, it could leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but it might not point you in the direction God wants you to go with this sense of identity. The idea the we are made in the image of God has been used for good and evil, for oppression and for humanitarianism, for encouraging humility and for fostering arrogance. So we should look at what God says throughout Scripture about the implications of us being made in his image. What does it say about us, about God and about how we should relate to other people?

Well, there is actually heaps you could say on this topic, but for the sake of time and simplicity, I will explore 6 points over two blogs. This blog (part 1) will cover three things that it DOESN’T mean to be made in God’s image, and then part 2 will cover three things I think it DOES mean.

You may think I shouldn’t start negatively, but I think it is just as important to understand what a biblical concept doesn’t mean as it is to understand what it does. If we are to allow this amazing idea to shape our view of every human on the planet, then we must avoid the temptation to define it however we choose. I’d even say, to have a false idea of what it means to be made in God’s image is probably more dangerous than to not believe it at all. So that’s where we’ll begin…

WHAT IT DOESN’T MEAN

1. Being made in God’s image doesn’t mean you look like God and it doesn’t mean God looks like you.

I thought this one was obvious, but a friend pointed out to me that he knew of many people (most of them from Texas he informs me) that believe this exact thing, and it is true that Mormons teach that “[God] the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (Doctrine & Covenants: Section 130:22). This is not the Bible’s teaching at all.

The picture on the right is from an atheist website that is trying to mock Christianity for exactly this reason. But the picture has got one thing right – God is invisible. This is clearly taught in Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17 & Hebrews 11:27. The Bible also says this another way, by describing God as “Spirit”. This is most clearly taught by Jesus in John 4:24 and Jesus defines what it means to be a spirit as “not having flesh and bones” in Luke 24:39. Isaiah 31:3 makes the same point as well.

Basically the idea is that God is not restricted to a finite physical form. This allows God to be omnipresent and able to manifest his presence in any place he chooses in any way he chooses (burning bush, pillar of fire, Angel of the Lord, presence in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, etc.). God is often described with use of human-like actions like in Luke 1:51, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” but this is clearly metaphorical or analogous, like in Psalm 91:4 that says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” Now we don’t think God looks like a chicken because of descriptive language like this.

So, if God is an invisible, eternal Spirit, with no fleshly physical body, then being made in his image can not mean that we physically look like God and it definitely doesn’t mean that God looks like us. This is wonderful news because it means that no one human looks more like God than another. In Mormonism, because they believe God looks like a man with a physical male body, then women can never really be “made in God’s image”, or at least men are a closer image to God than women. This is not true in Judeo-Christianity. The Bible’s message is ALL people, no matter what you look like, no matter whether you are old or young, fat or skinny, male or female, able-bodied or severely disabled – you are made in God’s image.

2. Being made in God’s image does not mean you are equal to God.

The fact that we are made in the image of God should not give us a sense of superiority or arrogance over the rest of creation. It does not mean we are demi-gods or divine beings that deserve glory and honour and the submission of all animals and plants. In fact, it should inspire in us exactly the opposite feeling. Think about it. What’s the point of an “image”? The image of the Queen on an Australian coin, or the photographic image of your grandma in that photo frame on your wall. Or even the image of yourself in the mirror. The purpose of an “image” is to point to something other than itself. As John Piper says in his sermon entitled ‘Why Did God Create the World?’:

“The point of an image is to image. Images are erected to display the original. Point to the original. Glorify the original. God made humans in his image so that the world would be filled with reflectors of God. Images of God. Six billion statues of God. So that nobody would miss the point of creation. Nobody (unless they were stone blind) could miss the point of humanity, namely… God. Knowing, loving, showing God.”

Being made in the image of God does not make you a God. It does not make you equal to God. It should never inspire arrogance or a sense of privilege or superiority. It should never justify selfishness or self-glorification. It should never be used, as it sadly has been, as an excuse to kill animals however we want, destroy the environment however we want and use the world’s resources however we want. By it’s very definition, to be made in GOD’s image actually tells us that life is not about us. It’s about God. It puts us under God and shows that we are made for God’s glory, not for our own.

In fact, the very first people who were created in the image of God, Adam and Eve, got it wrong in exactly this way. The temptation of eating the forbidden fruit, was the temptation to disregard God’s authority over them and claim independence from God to choose right and wrong for themselves. This is what the “Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil” was all about. As the serpent falsely promises them in Genesis 3:5, “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The great temptation in the Garden of Eden wasn’t to just do something naughty, it was to become like God. They were not satisfied in being made in God’s image, they wanted to be the original. They wanted to be God.

This is the great heart of all sin and the great problem with all humanity. It is especially tragic when the very concept of being made “in God’s image” is so grossly misused to perpetuate the arrogant idea that we are equal to God – when in fact, it means exactly the opposite.

3. Being made in God’s image does not mean you are a child of God.

Now this point might be the hardest one to accept. I’m sure you can see how the first two false ideas of being made “in God’s image” might be used to oppress or harm, but what could be wrong with saying that everyone is a child of God? Doesn’t that also express the unity of all mankind and the intimate relationship we all have with our Creator? Well that sounds all nice, but the issue is that it’s simply not what the Bible teaches. The Bible does teach that every person, no matter what gender, age, race or religion is created in the image of God, and this is a wonderful, awe-inspiring thing (as I will explain in part 2 of this blog series), but the Bible does not teach that every one is a child of God.

The song, “God Help the Outcasts” that the character Esmerelda sings in the Disney cartoon, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” includes the final line, “I thought we all were the children of God”. Well, a lot of people think this. The idea that everyone is one of God’s children has just become part of our modern quasi-spiritual vocabulary and is seen as pretty much the same thing as the idea that everyone is made in God’s image, but the two are very distinct concepts and it is actually vitally important to see the difference.

As mentioned in the previous point, sin is a problem in our lives. Although God is our Creator, we want to be more than simply his image – we want to be God, choosing our own good and bad and wearing the crown in our life rather than letting God rule as he deserves to. This rejection of God, whether it be conscious or not, creates a fracture between us and God. We go from being friends to strangers – or even enemies. This is symbolised in the Adam & Eve story by them having to leave the Garden of Eden. No longer could they commune with God. God became distant and humanity experienced the great consequences of this distance – confusion of identity, inability to conquer sin, fractured human relationships, a fallen creation and in the end, physical death.

This is the world we still live in today. Most people believe that some sort of God exists (that may be due to our being “images of God”), but everyone feels distant from God and endures the pain and confusion of this fallen world. It may even lead people to think that God doesn’t even exist! But the reality is that we are outside of God’s family. We are lost and need to be found. We need to be adopted.

It may sound offensive to suggest that you are not naturally one of God’s “children”, but hopefully it rings true to your experience. If you feel distant from God or maybe you don’t even know if he exists, then don’t try to comfort yourself by warm and fuzzy bumper stickers trying to convince you that you are God’s child and God is your Heavenly Father. Maybe he’s not! Calling God your “Father in Heaven” (as the Lord’s Prayer instructs us to) is a privilege only for those who have been adopted into God’s family. Read the following passages to see where I get this idea from Scripture:

“He [Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent,nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:10-13)

“Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.'” (Luke 20:34-36)

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death…You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ… because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption as sons.And by him we cry, “Abba,Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:1-2, 9, 14-17)

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears,we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2)

To be a “child of God” reflect a unique relationship with God. A child of God is an adopted part of God’s family and as these passages show, this is what Jesus came to do. Jesus’ death on the cross has paid the penalty for the sin that kept us estranged from God. Jesus has made it possible for that relationship to be restored. Through trusting and believing in him, we can find forgiveness and reconciliation with God, making it possible for the Father/child relationship to begin.

It may at first offend you to think that although all people are made in God’s image, only followers of Jesus can be called “children of God”, but this offer of welcome and reconciliation is open to all. No matter how bad you think you are and no matter how distant you feel from God, the offer of adoption is open to you.

The reason it is vitally important that we distinguish between the concepts “made in God’s image” and “one of God’s children”, is because if you are taught that you are in God’s family and God is your Heavenly Father, simply on the basis that you were born, you will never see your need to be born again. Eventually you will become disillusioned with the whole concept of God, as on one hand you are told you are as close to God as a child is to their father, and yet your reality is that you feel very distant.

My hope in clarifying this difference is to point you to the great hope that thanks to Jesus, becoming a “child of God” is possible for you. You do not need to be distant from God. You can know his presence, his forgiveness and his Fatherly love, both now in this life and beyond death.

So there we go. That’s a few things that it DOESN’T mean to be made in God’s image.

It doesn’t mean that we look like God, are equal to God, or that we’re his children. It doesn’t mean that God has a body, is equal to us, or that he’s naturally our Heavenly Father.

So, now that we’ve gotten some of the false ideas out of the way, what exactly does it mean?

Well, if this blog has left you feeling like whatever it means, it can’t be all that good, then stick around. Part 2 will be coming in a week or so.

And in part 2 I will explain what it does mean to be made in God’s image and what a wonderful, life-changing concept it is! Getting your head around it and embracing it will completely shape your sense of the identity, purpose and dignity of the entire human race.

So stay tuned!

If you have any comments, please leve them below,
or if you’d like to ask me anything directly, feel free to email me at
simon@thebackyardbard.com

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June 25 2012

Would You Welcome Cancer?

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Consider this scenario:

God says to you, “My child, I don’t usually do this, but I want to tell you what is going to happen to you over the next two years. You are going to get cancer and will need home care from https://homecareassistance.com/west-chester/. It’s going to be bad and it’s going to be untreatable. I could prevent it and I could cure it, and that would give you many more years with your spouse and your young son, but I am not going to do that. Your family and friends will be praying for a miracle and I will hear their prayers and I will comfort them and you in your pain and grief and loss, but in your situation, I will not grant their request for healing. I have other plans for you.
See, I have used the last two decades of your life since you accepted the gospel and my Spirit has been at work in you, to strengthen your faith and forge your character for such a time as this. I will allow this suffering in your life because, and only because, I know that it will not shipwreck your faith. Many other Christians I protect from going through such an ordeal because I know it would completely crush them. It would not bring them closer to me. But in your case, you will come through and finish the race with your trust in me deepened and your knowledge of my love grown. You will have very dark times of doubt and you will cry out to me in frustration and confusion and wonder where I am in the midst of your suffering, but I will always be there and you will discover me in the darkest of pits.
My ultimate concern is not that you have a long life (at least not in this creation), my ultimate concern is not that you see your son grow up or that you achieve your career potential. My concern isn’t even primarily that you have a happy and pain-free life. All those joys will be for you complete in the new creation. For this life, my ultimate concern is that you know me, and that others know me through you.
This is actually why you will get cancer. Your life, though it will only be for another couple of years, will be a testimony of how a Christian faces suffering. Many will see how you prayed and prayed and came to me and relied on me for comfort and joy and strength and hope. This ordeal will show many how precious I am to you, and how when much of the pleasures of this world is taken away, you still have me and you are still satisfied. That will glorify me so much and encourage so many fellow-believers to continue in their walk with me.
But more than all that, the most profound way that your testimony will be used will be something you will never see in this life. It will be for the sake of your grandchild who you will never meet until the new creation.
Her name will be Talibah. She will be your son’s third child. She will run away from me most of her life and after her second miscarriage she will deny that she even believes I exist, though I will still be seeking her and drawing her to me. When I chose a human soul that I wish to bring into the family of salvation, there is no use in running away from me. The story of Jonah should teach her that, especially after your son will spend so many of her childhood years reading her that and many other Bible stories. But it won’t be the story of Jonah that I will use to reveal myself to her… it will be your story.
At the age of 54, I will bring across her path a record that your sister will write of your last couple of years. Talibah will read of your faithfulness to me through your battle with cancer, of the way you found your joy in me and how I strengthened and comforted you. She will read of how you spoke of your relationship with me as the most valuable thing in your life and how you would not be able to have faced such a battle, without me in your life. She will read your story and I will speak to her through it. I will use your testimony to awaken her soul to the reality of my love for her and to woo her to consider the gospel anew. A year later, she will ask a Christian lady who I will place in the house next door to her, to explain to her how she can be saved and that faithful neighbour, who has never done anything more than make it known that she was a child of mine and show Talibah hospitality, will lead her to put her trust in my sacrifice for her sins.
I will use your story as the catalyst for her coming into the kingdom and in the new creation, you will meet her and she will give you the greatest hug as she thanks you for your story.

This is my plan for your life. My question is, are you willing to accept cancer, knowing that this is how I plan to use it?”

Every Christian I have shared this scenario with, has enthusiastically said that they would be willing to take cancer and have their life be shortened, if it meant their grandchild would meet Jesus through it.
Of course, this is just a theoretical, and who really knows how they will respond to the news of cancer (or any other type of suffering like a separation and divorce in my case)? But I still think, their response is a testimony of how much the Christians that I know cherish their relationship with Jesus and how much they value someone else finding salvation over their own physical comfort, happiness or even physical life.

The reality is though, we do not ever get this in-depth explanation from God. We sometimes see the fruit that our suffering bears and how God uses it for his glory and other people’s good, but often we don’t. Who knows if God’s plans span decades or even hundreds or thousands of years? The stories of Christians over the centuries who have been martyred or have faithfully faced suffering, have inspired many people to consider the gospel.

The reality is: God is good and God is in control.

Those two concepts sometimes feel at odds as we can’t always see the “good” that God will bring out of something and when it just seems bad, we have trouble thinking that God is “in control”.

But those two concepts stand as true and I encourage you to grapple with them, to questions them and to reflect on them… but ultimately, to trust them.

I do wish that God would explain every thing he is doing through every experience of suffering that I see and experience. But in the end, I will trust him and keep seeking him in all circumstances.

I hope and trust by God’s strength, that my story will be one of enduring faithfulness, whether I will see all the good fruit of that story in this life, or the next.

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“When they sit around the campfires of the Kingdom, and they tell your story, what will they say?” – John Eldredge

“I thought my life was going to be like ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and it ended up being more like ‘Lord of the Rings’! But in the end, which is a better movie?” – Simon Camilleri (something I said during the years leading up to my divorce)

“For even the very wise can not see all ends.” – Gandalf (from Lord of the Rings)

(1956)

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October 13 2011

How God proves his existence

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The call to prove God’s existence is a common challenge put to Christians. And fair enough. If you told me there was a world-wide flood going to wipe me away and my only hope for survival was to leave everything I knew and get into this giant boat sitting in the middle of a field, I would probably ask for some proof that you were right, and not just crazy. Especially, if I couldn’t see any growing storm clouds or at least, if I had never experienced a flood. The request for proof is understandable. However, at times, it is still foolish. There may be a flood coming and the fact that you can’t see the clouds and you lack experience of floods, doesn’t change reality. You just may be blind, or inexperienced.

So the question remains. If requiring proof of God’s existence is understandable, then how does God meet that basic need?

IS PROOF RELEVANT?

Some Christians make the point that you can’t really prove anything and so the expectation of proof is unrealistic. If you required scientific 100% proof for every decision, you wouldn’t do anything. You wouldn’t sit on a chair because you couldn’t prove it won’t break, you wouldn’t eat food because you couldn’t prove it wasn’t laced with poisonous iocane powder, etc. Basically, day to day, we live by faith. But it’s not blind uninformed faith. It’s faith in our experience and faith in what people tell us and faith in our understanding of the world. We make decisions based on what we are convinced of. And so, for all intents and purposes, that is what most people mean when they say they want “proof” of God.

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There are some hard-core atheists that expect that Christians should provide scientific proof of God’s existence and acknowledge that even if all the weight of the evidence pointed towards God’s existence, they would still reject the idea of a God, simply because if there is any other possible explanation then that is preferable (I have heard Peter Singer express this view). This sort of blind commitment to atheism is to me a complete rejection of logic, science and common sense and in the end, a lot more “religious” than the most committed fundamentalist there is.

So should we throw out the word “proof” altogether? Well, I don’t think so. It’s such a part of our cultural language. If you want to return clothes you have to provide “proof of purchase”. If you want to buy alcohol you have to show “proof of age”. If you want to get a passport you need “proof of ID”. If you go to court you are innocent until “proven” guilty. Maybe we just have to think about the way we define “proof” and see if we can apply that to the existence of God.

PROOF #1 – JESUS’ RESURRECTION

I started thinking about writing this blog after I remembered how the bible uses the term “proof”. In Acts 1:3 it says, “After his suffering, [Jesus] showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” and then in Acts 17:31 “For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

Both of these passages refer to the resurrection of Jesus as the clearest and most convincing proof of God. The resurrection vindicates all that Jesus taught about himself and about God and is the best evidence for the reality of God and the truth of the gospel. Many philosophers and theologians, both secular and Christian, have realized that the historical truth of the resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity. If it didn’t happen, then Christianity completely falls apart, but the fact that it did happen proves Christianity is true.

Now this is clearly not the sort of proof that a scientist would consider valid. It is not reproducible and therefore can not be tested. It happened once, but if it truly did happen then once is enough. The resurrection is such an unbelievable event that Jesus knew that his disciples needed proof of its reality. He showed himself to them and allowed them to physically touch him and see him interact with physical things (like eating fish) to prove that he was physically and tangibly alive. This was proof to them and the message that Jesus was alive was the driving force behind the explosion of Christianity in the first century. All of the eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus went to their graves (mostly through murder and execution) professing that the resurrection was a true event.

This event happened. The proof that it happened was shown to the disciples by Jesus himself. They in turn wrote down their eyewitness account for us to read and be convinced by. Now this may not sound like a convincing proof to you but it’s like the question, “Can a man walk on the moon?”

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Think about that question. How would you answer it? Most likely you would say “yes”. But if someone asked you to prove it you would point to the fact that man has indeed walked on the moon. Six times in fact. The first time was in 1969 and the last time was in 1972. That’s the proof. It’s happened. The answer to “can man walk on the moon?” is yes.
But why do you believe that it happened? For many (including myself) all six moon landings happened before I was born, and even if they happened when I was born, I didn’t experience it myself. The idea that man could walk on the moon is absolutely crazy and unbelievable, and yet most of us (other than the rare conspiracy theorist) believe that it 100% happened purely on the basis of the reliability on the account. We read the eyewitness accounts of the astronauts, we see the photos, we watch the video, we listen to the famous words, “that’s one small step for man…” and we are convinced. No matter how unbelievable it may seem, we can confidently say that man can walk on the moon and it has been proven.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this example. I think in the same way that we can say man has walked on the moon, we can say that Jesus rose from the dead and therefore his teaching and message about the reality of God and everything else are reliable. We believe that Jesus’ resurrection has been proved by his appearances and interactions with his disciples who then went on to proclaim and record their eyewitness account of that fact. Their account is still available to us in the gospels and in the book of Acts, and it is just as reliable today as it was when they wrote it. Now some may try to argue against the reliability of the gospel accounts, but I recommend you research the topic yourself to see that they weight of evidence greatly points to their reliability (check out “The Christ Files” if you’re interested). Either way, the issue then becomes “are the accounts of the proof of the resurrection reliable”, not “is there any proof of the resurrection”. The proof is there. Like the moon landings, the resurrection happened. You can either disbelieve the accounts or you can accept them for what they are – reliable records of historical events.

Now, although the resurrection is the primary proof of God that there is, there are also two more proofs which we can personally experience that do not rely on a historical record.

PROOF #2 – EXPERIENCING GOD

The first is the experience of the Christian themselves. Now I admit that this proof is not convincing for those who aren’t Christians who are looking for proof of God before they choose Christ or not, but that doesn’t make it any less of a proof. It simply means that it’s a proof for an audience of one, which incidentally, the person asking for proof is an audience of one and often they aren’t asking that you prove God’s existence on a global universal scale. They’re just asking you to prove it to them, and so the subjective, outwardly untestable, personally experienced proof is just as satisfactory.

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It’s like the old saying, “the proof is in the pudding”. This is actually a misquote. The original full saying is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. This makes more sense. It’s saying the reality of the pudding – it’s temperature, taste, whether it’s laced with iocane powder, etc – can only be proven when it is eaten. You could put it through the lab and test it with every scientific instrument, but the best proof of the pudding is in the eating.

This is true for God as well. I can’t speak of other Christians experience, but my experience of God is so real and tangible that it is the greatest reason why I don’t doubt the existence of God. I see and sense God’s daily interaction with me, I experience his guidance, his comfort, his joy and his strength. I notice his leadings as he directs me in life and I know through and through when I am stubbornly working against his Spirit. God’s presence is so real to me, and has been from the very day I gave my life to following and trusting Jesus, I can not deny the reality of my experience. It can be a very hard experience to explain or describe to those who do not have a relationship with Jesus, but those who have responded to the gospel often know exactly what I mean with no need for explanation.

It’s very much like trying to explain colour to a blind person. There is no language that can communicate it and there are no proofs that can convince the blind person that colour exists (other than the proof of a reliable account as mentioned earlier). You can’t prove colour to the blind, but if a blind person receives the gift of sight and looks around then you won’t need to prove colour. Colour will prove itself to the individual.

Is the proof that this person experiences any less valid simply because it can not be tested by blind people? Of course not! In some ways, my experience of God is like that. I wish my non-Christian friends and family members could experience God in the way I do. If they did, it would make believing in God’s existence a given rather than a possible option, and all arguments about which position is more logical completely null and void. As the great evangelist Billy Graham said, “I can tell you that God is alive because I talked to him this morning”.

A clear place where the Bible uses this sort of argument is in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, where Paul says,
“If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

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The terrifying reality if you do not see or experience any “proof” of God, is that you may be blind and perishing in your blindness, and it will take God to shine his light in your heart, remove the “veil” that blinds you and give you “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” If you realize that you are in this position and you are seeking God, but you just can’t see him, then I encourage you to ask him to remove your blindness, like blind Bartemaeus in Mark 10:46-52, call out to Jesus and say, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Maybe Jesus will be merciful and reveal himself to you, giving you every bit of proof that you need.

Now, I realize a problem here. If you don’t see proof that God exists, then how can you call on God to take away your blindness. It seems a convenient argument that anyone could use. Someone could say, “Oh, you would believe in the Mighty Chicken God if you weren’t blind to his glory. Pray and ask the Chicken God to reveal himself.” Now, I’m not going to pray to a giant invisible chicken just on the possibility that he exists and the fear that I might be missing out on something if I don’t pray to him, so I don’t expect anyone else to pray to Jesus if they’re in the same position.

My encouragement is not to the person who can’t see anything, but to the one that God is already working with. God begins to remove the veil and open our eyes, and we start to see things of God and if you are in that position then I encourage you to work with God, rather than against him. Hebrews 3:7 (quoting Psalm 95) says that the Spirit of God is calling to people saying, “If today you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”. If you hear him, then respond. If you do, you will experience the proof of God that only those who know Jesus can experience. Like the kid covered in chocolate pudding, you will be able to know for yourself the words of Psalm 34:8,
“Taste and see that the Lord is good!”

But what if you don’t hear his voice? What if you can’t see the glory of God in the face of Christ? Is there no experiential “proof” for this person? Will God’s existence ever be proved to them?

Well, the reality is, not in this lifetime.

PROOF #3 – DEATH

Scientist are often looking for experiments that are reproducible in order to prove something. Well, when it comes to God, there is one experiment like that. It’s called death. Every person who has died has without fail, come face to face with God, proving in the most real way possible that he exists. It is an experiment that is reproducible and it will work every time. If you want me to prove that God exists, then all I have to do is say, “Sure, no problem. Just die.” You may not be very obliging, but that matters very little seeing as you’re mortal and will one day partake in the experiment whether you like it or not. As Paul writes in Romans 14:10-12,
“We will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: `As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
and in Hebrews 9:27 it says,
“Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”

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Everyone will stand before God, either as his friend or his enemy. Either forgiven or still under judgement. Everyone will see and know that God is real. The proof will be in the pudding for everyone. Of course, like my last point, this “proof” has a problem as well. The problem isn’t that some can experience it and others can’t – everyone will experience this one – the problem is obviously that on this side of death, we can’t access the results of the experiment. What we really need is someone to have died (really died, rather than just had a near-death experience) and then come back to life so that they can set the record straight about life and God and everything else. Of course, they would have to show us convincing proofs that they had actually risen from the dead, and then we would have to have some reliable record of what this person said so that all people for all time could know the proof that God exists as well…

Gee, that would be sweet…

CONCLUSION

In the end, this blog is not written to non-Christians who are looking for proof of God. It is written to Christians, who have for the most part, gotten into the habit of avoided using the word “proof” when it comes to God. Or, on the other hand, Christians focus on all the evidence in nature and science to show proofs of God. As much as I think that all those are wonderful evidences for God, I don’t think they are good enough. They are not proof.

In my life there are only three major proofs of God: The resurrection of Jesus, my own taste of God’s goodness and the experience of meeting your Maker when you die. One is in the past, one is in the present and the last one is in the future.

I hope you see and experience the first two, before you experience the third.

(2590)

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October 5 2011

1 John Chapter 5 – Tricky passage explanation

This is a resource I wrote up for my Bible Study. We have been studying 1 John for the last few weeks and on the summary week (tonight) I took on the task of getting my head around some of the tricky verses that come up in chapter 5. If you don’t know the first letter of John, I highly recommend you read it and the following blog entry might not make much sense until you do.

For the sake of reference, here is 1 John chapter 5:

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

6 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.9 We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

 

There are lots of tricky concepts in chapter 5 of 1 John (and indeed throughout the whole letter) but from this last chapter I want to offer some explanation for two of the most trickiest. 

  1. The testimony of the water, the blood & the Spirit. (5:6-12)
  2. The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

 

 The testimony of the water, the blood and the Spirit. (5:6-12)

 This passage gets us asking a few questions:

  • What is the “water” and the “blood”?
  • Why is it important that Jesus didn’t just come by water?
  • How do the water the blood and the Spirit testify about Jesus?
  • Why is it important that there are three that testify?

 The first and most important thing to say about this passage is that although all this talk about water and blood is interesting, it isn’t actually the point of the passage. It’s easy to get distracted by the part of the passage that is the most confusing (and therefore the most interesting), but the most important thing is to see where John is going in all this. This will not only help us avoid getting distracted by peripheral issues, but it will also give us the context to help us understand why he is using such odd language.

 John states his main point in verse 13:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Whatever his argument is, the purpose of it is to help Christians have confidence in the truth of the fact that they have eternal life. In John 20:31, he writes that his purpose for writing the gospel record is so that people can HAVE life. In this letter, his audience is those who have now responded to the gospel and his purpose is that those that have life can KNOW that they have it. The next verse (v14) goes on to talk about the confidence we should have in prayer as a result of this “knowledge”, and the final verses of the letter (v18-20) are all about what we “know”. It even concludes with the purpose of Jesus coming is so that we may know him who is true (which is possibly why there is a final warning against idols – or “false” gods).

So the point of all these tricky verses is to give us confidence in the truth of who Jesus is and the truth of the life that he gives. Okay. So how does he get to that point?

Well, he sets up a picture of the Testimony of God (v9-10). The false teachers that John is refuting were teaching the idea that Jesus did not come in the flesh (see 1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 1:7). They believed that the flesh and everything physical was evil and so the Son of God could never have taken on a human body. They taught that Jesus only appeared to have a human body, but was really just a spirit. John believes this is completely anti-Christian (that’s why it’s the teaching of the antichrist) and throughout the letter uses lots of different arguments to show that it is false. 

In chapter 5 he sets up a picture of a courtroom, where the Testimony of God is given about the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that life is found in the Son (v9-12). It’s not just John’s opinion, it’s God’s opinion and so we can have full confidence in it. In fact, John says in v10, if you don’t believe this testimony then you’re not calling John a liar, you’re calling God a liar.

So in this imaginary courtroom, John describes three witnesses who stand up and testify about this Testimony of God. The three are: the water, the blood and the Spirit.

Now, there are lots of theories about what the water and the blood mean. Some say it’s referring to the water and blood that spilled from Jesus side at the crucifixion (John 19:24), others say the water is his baptism and the blood is his death, still others try to argue that the water is the sacrament of baptism and the blood is the sacrament of communion (a big stretch if you ask me!).

For me, the best explanation is none of these. I think the best fit is the concept that the water is referring to Jesus’ physical birth and the blood is referring to his physical death.

Water is a common image used of birth and creation (think of the waters that the Spirit hovered over in Genesis 1:2) and in John’s gospel (3:5-6), John uses the concept of being “born of water” as a way of describing being physically born, or “born of the flesh”. In this passage, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he has to experience two births in order to see thekingdomofGod. He has to have a physical birth (born of water) and he has to have a spiritual birth (born of the Spirit).

I think this is what John is meaning when he uses the same language in 1 John 5:6. Here he says that Jesus “came by water”, meaning Jesus had a physical birth. This is exactly the concept that the false teachers were denying, and John pushes the point by talking about “blood” – another fleshy concept that the false teachers would have hated. This is probably referring to Jesus’ physical death, a death that was proven when the blood flowed from his side. Blood is used throughout the New Testament as a reference to Jesus’ death (including in 1 John 1:7), and so we can safely say this is what John is meaning here.

It makes sense too. He is arguing that the Testimony of God is that Jesus came in the flesh and two of the witnesses are the physical birth of Jesus (the water) and the physical death of Jesus (the blood). But it’s not just historical events the witness to Jesus, but God himself proclaims this testimony about Jesus through his Spirit. This is why John says in 1 John 5:6-7 that the Spirit testifies along with the water and the blood. This could be referring to Jesus’ baptism (John 1:32-34) or more likely where Jesus says that he will send the Spirit of truth who will testify about him (John 15:26-27). Either way, John’s courtroom scene is completed with three witnesses – the water, the blood and the Spirit, and these three are in agreement (1 John 5:7).

But why is it important that there are three witnesses? Well for that we need to understand one of the most important Old Testament laws in regard to courtroom justice. In Deuteronomy 19:15 the law states that a truth was not able to be established if there is only one witness. There had to be two or three.

One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

This law is re-enforced by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 when he teaches about how we should respond when a brother sins against us, and Paul uses this principle when talking about proving his ministry (2 Corinthians 13:1-3) and also when bringing a charge against an elder (1 Timothy 5:19).

The idea is that although one witness may be telling the truth, it can only be validated or established as true and reliable when “two or three” witness to it. This is possibly what Jesus is talking about when he says: “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)

In relation to John’s argument, it means that in the imaginary courtroom scene that he is describing “there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” Do you see what he’s arguing? It’s John’s way of saying that the testimony that Jesus is the Son of God is reliable and is an established truth that we can have full confidence in.

And this in the end is his goal remember? He writes all of it, painting this elaborate courtroom scene, so that we can have confidence that God’s testimony about Jesus is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

Like the “water and the blood”, there are a few suggestions as to what John is talking about when he talks of the sin that leads to death. Some say it’s the unforgiveable sin of “blasphemy against the Spirit” Jesus talks about in Matthew 12:31-32 (a tricky passage in itself) or the sin of “lying to the Holy Spirit” that instantly kills Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, or even the sin of taking communion without acknowledging Jesus which seems to have been judged by God with sickness and death in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30.

These are all big stretches to squeeze into the context of 1 John and so the best and simplest way of understanding what John is talking about is to look at the letter itself.

Just before talking about the “sin that leads to death” John writes in v12, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” This is the two distinct groups that he keeps going on about throughout the whole letter. There are two camps. In one camp is the Christ who gives life, and in the other camp there is the antichrist who gives death.

So what is the “sin that leads to death”? It is the sin that leads you away from Christ.

More specifically, it’s the sin that John keeps going on about – The sin of denying that the Son of God came in the flesh. This is the sin that leads people away from the truth of the gospel and so leads them to death.

Before talking about this sin, he encourages us to pray for a fellow believer who has sinned (v16). This fellow believer (or “brother”) believes the Testimony about God, has come to Jesus and has been given eternal life. This is a believer that John describes as being “born of God” (v18) and therefore will not continue sinning. John says that God will keep him safe and the evil one cannot harm him and earlier in the letter, John says that if a believer does sin then Jesus speaks on our defence and he atones for all of our sin by his death (1 John 2:1-2).

This is why, when we see a believer committing a sin, we are right to pray and ask God to give them life. God has promised to forgive them and give them life because all of their sin, past, present and future, has been dealt with by Jesus.

Then John makes a distinction. He refers to this sin that leads to death – this sin of rejecting Jesus consistently and deliberately – and he clarifies that he is not saying we should pray for that sin. Notice, he doesn’t exactly tell us we must not pray for that sin, but rather he clarifies, saying that the sins he is instructing us to pray for are specifically the sins of a believer. These are the sins we can have confidence God will forgive, and again remember, this is what this section of the letter is about – confidence in God.

That’s what John is referring to in the previous verses:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15)

John is saying, when we ask God to forgive the sins of a believer and give them life rather than death, we can have confidence that he will give us what we ask. This is true, not because we are special, but because we are asking “according to his will” (v14). It is God’s will that he gives life to those that believe in Jesus. It is God’s will that anyone born of God will not continue to sin.

This is the sin that we should pray to God about. There is lots of sin that leads to death around us. Everywhere we look we see people rejecting Jesus, and John is saying we can’t have confidence that God will give life to every sinner. Maybe we should pray that God forgives. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should pray that people repent and that God has mercy. This passage actually doesn’t answer that issue. The point of John’s concluding words in 1 John is to encourage us to pray for Christians having full confidence that God will give them life.

The most important thing is to test our hearts and see which camp we are actually in. Are we committing the sin that leads to death by rejecting Jesus, the Son of God who came in the flesh? Or are we in danger of following false teachers who preach a false gospel about a false God?

We need to always be diligent to keep ourselves from these paths that lead away from eternal life and lead straight to eternal death. This is probably why John finishes this letter in with such an encouragement and a warning:

 “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21)

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