Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Christian Discipleship

What would you change in your relationship with God, with Christians and with other people in your life? A lot of people would want to:

Pray more faithfully

Hear more clearly

Live more confidently

All true disciples of Jesus would want these things. What we tend to think about, however, is how bad we are at these things. We look at what Jesus requires of us and feel daunted because a disciple is supposed to:

Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself (Lk.10:27)

Love other Christians (Jn.15:17

Go and make disciples - more people to challenge your capacity to love unconditionally (Mt.28:18-20)

Lets face it, we become Christians, perhaps do a course or two, but then what on earth do we do? Most of us simply get lost in the general melee of church life (melee, from the French, meaning a confused crowd. It can seem like that sometimes can't it?) What is a disciple and what is a disciple meant to look like?


Discipleship was commonplace in the ancient world. Philip Vogel calls us apprentices in his excellent book Go and Make Apprentices, still available at Amazon. Some notable biblical apprentices are, Joshua who was apprenticed to Moses; Elisha who learned his craft from Elijah; Timothy who learned everything he knew from Paul. Then, of course, there were the disciples of John the Baptist. Disciples are not confined to the Bible. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had their followers.

Disciples chose who they would follow so if you were drawn to a materialist philosophy you might follow an Epicurean teacher. If you were searching for a philosophy that taught clear judgement and inner calm you might seek out a Stoic teacher. In this respect what made Jesus stand out was his statement:

You did not chose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit...” (Jn.15:16)

The fruit that will last is grounded in love. Love for God, love for our neighbour, love for Christians and a determination to share that love with others – make disciples. But how do we do that? What does it look like when we are doing it? Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, gives us a start when he writes:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts in things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col.3:1-4)

Having died to ourselves and been raised with Christ, we are now citizens of another kingdom altogether, the kingdom of God. Our hearts and minds, then, should be set on the progress, the service of that kingdom and, if they are, they become capable of loving with all our hearts, souls, mind and strength, because they are heavenly hearts, heavenly minds.

The Master

What do we see when we set our hearts and minds on things above? We see Christ sitting on the right hand of God. We see the One to whom we are apprenticed:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col.1:15-19)

Take a breath for a moment, take another look at that powerful description of Jesus and consider this: you did not chose him, he chose you. Astonishing, isn't it? So now we have our eyes on him we need never, dare not take them off him again because, you see, he is the way (Jn.14:16) and he is the light (Jn.1:1-4) Jesus is the truth lived out and demonstrated for the world to see.

The Disciple

The original disciples spent a lot of time with Jesus and eventually were sent to live out the truth among the people the way Jesus did. So the way to be a disciple is to have our eyes on Jesus and follow him, like an apprentice following and copying the master strokes of the craftsman. Paul describes this way of learning by copying in this passage:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (1 Thess.1:5-7)

Did you get that? You know you have been chosen by God when your faith is worked out in power and conviction and the indwelling Spirit. If you are a disciple you will imitate the mature lives of others and of the Lord and you will become an example to others. Furthermore, this life of fixing our eyes on Jesus, imitating him and the good examples of others brings us peace (Philip.4:9)

Disciples of Jesus spend time with Jesus and encourage one another in the things of the kingdom (Acts 2:42-47) Discipleship is not a solitary enterprise but is practised in community. That is why we need to learn to love one another. We are going to spend eternity together and we will spend it in the kingdom of God so we had better learn to love and the sooner we set our hearts and minds there the better prepared we will be for his coming and for that time when nothing will ever again get in the way of our knowing and worshipping him.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

What Does Your Christian Résumé Look Like? Philippians 3


Paul here has two “finallys” in his letter, the second in Philip.4:8. These demonstrate for me the dynamic and authentic nature of the letter. He writes what he means to write and what occurs to him as he is writing, as the Spirit breaths life into words that express the pressing burden of Paul's heart.

He is repeating something he has shared with Philippian believers before, “It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.” (v.1) Perhaps he shared this in person, perhaps in a previous letter we don't now have. But we learn there is security in turning to the Scripture regularly and being reminded of these great truths.

Paul warns of putting our trust and confidence in “the flesh,” in what we are able to do, in good works and religious ritual, using a vivid illustration from a real threat of the day, the idea that circumcision was necessary to become Christians.

He also reminds us that we are called to a heavenly citizenship, that we leave our past behind us and “press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] in Christ Jesus.” (v14) He gives his own testimony as an example of how we should think of these things. How serious is this message Paul needs to reinforce? Look at the language he uses.

Circumcision, or Mutilation?

Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ, and who put no confidence in the flesh...” (Philip.3:2-3)

This can be a difficult passage for the modern reader used to politically correct speech. But Paul knows no such pleasantries, and neither should we when the body of Christ is threatened by what Paul in another letter calls a false gospel. Dogs, in that culture, even today, are kept outside, excluded because considered unclean. This is how Jews sometimes spoke of Gentiles but, controversially, this is now how Paul refers to these Judaizers who were teaching that to be a Christian you first had to be a Jew, be circumcised. It is well to remember that if you make a friend of Jesus the world will make an enemy of you.

He uses two different words here for circumcision; katatome' and peritome'.. When he refers to those who taught circumcision he uses katatome' (katatomay) which means not circumcision but mutilation. It is an insult and conveys the strength of Paul's feeling.

In Leviticus we read that “Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards or cut their bodies.” (Lev.21:5) This is a reference to the pagan practice of lacerating one's body to signify mourning or to secure the attention of a deity. You will have seen this in the media as Shiite Muslims mark Ashura, a time when they self-harm to remember the martyrdom of the prophet's grandson Imam Hussein.

Paul is saying that what was once an acceptable religious observance, circumcision, had become nothing more than what is done by pagans, mutilation.

Even in the Old Testament circumcision as an outward sign was not sufficient. In Deuteronomy we read, “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Deut.30:6) God requires a heart devotion of his people and outward show doesn't produce that.

Paul uses peritome', the correct word for circumcision, when he refers to Christians who are now the real circumcision, circumcised, as God promised, in their hearts. The message couldn't be clearer: this is so important I am going to repeat it and in the strongest terms.

Our challenge today is not circumcision but circumstances. We put our trust in our qualifications, our profession, our church attendance, our Bible reading, our prayers. These are all good things but they cannot make us acceptable to God. Paul knew this more than anyone.

7 Things

Paul writes of seven things which once led him to believe he could have confidence in the flesh:

  1. Ritualistic: Paul tells us he was circumcised on the eighth day according to the law “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical” (Ro.2:28) Today, people will still sometimes come to a church to get their children “done,” meaning Christened. But we are not saved by ritual, even Christian ritual, if there is no living faith. We believe in believers' baptism, the baptism of those who believe knowingly and intelligently. As has often been said, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart and it is the heart that trusts in God that is received by God.

  2. Birthright: Born of the people of Israel; he was not a convert, or a “God fearer” but was born a Jew. “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'” (Ro.10:12-13) Our good friend John would say in response to this that he was born in a pub but this doesn't make him a pint of beer. Being born in a Christian country doesn't make you a Christian.

  3. Genealogical. He could trace his lineage to the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe that gave Israel their first king. His credentials ran deep. Paul in his first letter to Timothy and in his letter to Titus refers to vain genealogies because he knew that being born to a Christian family doesn't make you a Christian; God doesn't have any grandchildren. In the new life in Christ you cannot live on borrowed light.

  4. Language and lifestyle. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews, meaning his whole life, language and attitude reflected his Jewish roots. He even spoke Aramaic. But Christianity isn't a culture but new life in Christ where, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal.3:28)

  5. Connections. Paul was a Pharisee, a group that paid special attention to legalistic and ritual righteousness. Some people still think they have a special place in God's heart, perhaps recognising others are “Christians as well” but believing, for one reason or another, “we're his favourites” because we carry the right Bible, pray in Jacobean English, speak in tongues, meet in homes, recognise this or that model of church government. But the gospel is for whoever believes John 3:16

  6. Zealous. In pursuit of righteous ends he persecuted the church. “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way” (Pro.19:2) Paul writes of the Jews, “I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Ro.10:2) What a shock for this most zealous and educated of Jews to realise his zeal was born of ignorance!

  7. Legally and outwardly faultless. In all appearance he seemed scrupulous in keeping the law but he later wrote “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my members.” (Ro.7:18-24) Paul discovered, to his horror, that he was a hopeless sinner. It is no wonder he cries, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Paul's credentials are impeccable. This was Paul's CV, his résumé. For many of us this is a picture we have of the ideal Christian life; upright, respectable, well born, well connected. Paul was ready to present this CV to God when God asked, “Why should I accept you?” but something changed his mind. Paul now regards these things as “rubbish.” The word he uses here is skoobala and literally means excrement. Again, extreme language to underline a vital message. What has he seen that he didn't see before?

He saw Jesus!

He saw Jesus' righteousness, understood what God required, and came to the devastating realisation that he didn't qualify at all. Now, when God asks Paul, “Why should I accept you?” and he presents his CV, his résumé has one word written on it – JESUS!

Paul repented of his sins but also of his own righteousness. We need to repent of our own works righteousness too. Because it leads to one of three things:

  1. We can become self-righteous and look down on people

  2. We can become self-loathing as we realise how inadequate we are before God

  3. We can believe we hold God to ransom because I have done this and now God owes me

Good deeds are vital (from vita meaning life, i.e. works define the Christian life) and are urged on us in the Bible but they do not, as Paul discovered, win us entry into God's favour; Christ alone does that. As the old hymn has it:

My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

Where is Your Righteousness?

John Bunyan who, like Paul, suffered much for his faith, tells of walking through the fields when a phrase came into his head. “Your righteousness is in heaven.” He saw a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God and realised that God could not ask, “Where is your righteousness?” because Jesus, his righteousness was always before God.

He realised it was not his good frame of heart that made his righteousness better, nor his bad frame of heart that made it worse. As Paul wrote,

...not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – a righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philip.3:9)

It is by that faith we may know the power of Christ's resurrection working in our own lives as we live for him, by this we may know that heavenly citizenship to which he calls us. May that be true of us today. May we be found among those who press on towards the goal for which God has called us heavenward, in the knowledge that if we trust in Jesus our righteousness is in heaven and our security in him (Philippians 3:12-14)