Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Strangers in the World

Fellow CitizensFollowing on from my last two posts, God’s Plan for your Life, I thought it good to republish this from March 2015. God may not have a plan for your life but we do have duties and responsibilities as cotizens of his kingdom. Do we know who we are in Christ, what are the implications of our kingdom citizenship? Lets talk about being God’s elect in the world.

The apostle Peter’s first letter is addressed, ‘To God’s elect, strangers in the world.’ Does it feel like that to you? If you are a Christian do you find yourself out of step with the world? The world, of course, is familiar to us. We know how it operates, we engage with it, and we negotiate our way through it in our every-day lives but, ultimately, Peter seems to be saying it is alien to us. In his second letter to Christians in Corinth the apostle Paul insisted, ‘we regard no-one from a worldly point of view,’ and goes on to describe Christians as, ‘Christ’s ambassadors.’ (2 Corinthians 5:16&20)

As ambassadors, we may be adept in the arts of tact and conciliation, speaking the truth with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15) yet we never lose sight of where our duties lie, of who has first call on our loyalties. As Paul makes clear, we don’t look at things by the standards and values of the world, but by those of the one we now represent. We are to represent his interests in the world, ‘God making his appeal through us.’ (2 Corinthians 5:20)

Going back to the beginning, we see that it was in a fallen world that Abel brought a better offering. It was ‘at that time people began to call on the name of the LORD.’ (Gen.5:26) In a sinful world Enoch walked with God and ‘when the wickedness of men was great in the earth,’ Noah found favour with God (Gen.6:5-8) Discipleship is not popular. It follows a different path.

Sometimes it can feel as though we are overwhelmed by the world, and we find it easier to ‘go with the flow.’ Perhaps that is why Peter writes as he does to ‘God’s elect…throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,’ in other words scattered among the nations and in danger of being overwhelmed. That is one of the pitfalls of representing one country, or one business from one country, to another; going native. Sometimes called ‘clientism,’ or ‘localitis,’ it is when a representative comes to regard the people and officials of the host country as ‘clients,’ when he or she defends the interests of these ‘clients’ as though they are the employers.

Of course, in many respects, this can make life, at least in the short term, easier. The people with whom you have to do every day seem somehow easier to get along with once you see things from their point of view, while the people you represent seem distant and out of touch with the way things are, ‘on the ground.’ Ultimately, however, as Peter reminds us, we are, ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ (1 Peter 2:9)

We do things God’s way, see things God’s way, and we describe things as God’s ambassadors, however diplomatic we feel we need to be. Peter reminds us that we are ‘chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and the sprinkling of his blood.’ (1 Peter 1:2) It is no accident that we find ourselves ‘strangers in the word,’ for God the Father has chosen to make us citizens of a heavenly kingdom. He has done this by a work of the Spirit that sanctifies us, prepared us for that citizenship and calling, and he has given us the work of obedience to Jesus Christ. Our ways now are as alien to the world as are the world’s ways to us.

This means that only other Christian believers properly know and understand what it is to be chosen, an ambassador for Christ, sanctified, and striving to obey that call. Only other Christians fully appreciate what it means when we obey Jesus and reject the world’s self-centred-ness. Such a course is alien to the world and ever has been. Just like those early Christians, first in Jerusalem, then scattered across Asia Minor and ultimately the world, we finally have each other in this world because the rest simply don’t ‘get it.’  Paul writes in his first Corinthian letter:

‘This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things  that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgements about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgement: For who can know the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 2:13-16)

Think of it! We even have a different ‘language’ we speak, ‘expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words,’ a language the world considers unintelligible, foolishness. We have the mind of Christ with which to discern and make sound judgements concerning the affairs of his kingdom, and a language in which we express that kingdom business. But remember that, ‘it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:21) Our speaking, acting, and doing are not futile, for those who believe may come to know that language, to have that mind, to be ambassadors of the one who chose them, just as once we did. The question is, are we speaking the language of the God who chose us, uttering spiritual truths as we go about kingdom business? Or have we fallen victim to clientism, speaking the language of the world that is so familiar to us?

The world doesn’t speak our language, doesn’t know or accept Christ, and is proving increasingly hostile to his kingdom and rule. It is surely up to us, we who have the mind of Christ, who speak the language of spiritual things, to stand together in advancing the work of the kingdom entrusted to our care in this generation, and for the benefit of the next.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

God’s Plan for your Life 2: That you may Test and Discern

We have looked at Jeremiah 29:11 and its misuse in understanding God’s plan for your life. Countless Christians hang on to this verse as a personal promise from God but we discovered this is misguided. You can read more here. So what is God’s plan for your life? How do a saved people live, what does God expect of us, what has God promised? Sinai Covenant

Remember God had miraculously brought Abraham's descendants out of the house of slavery and commanded them 'now live like this,' giving them the Law through Moses. The Law didn't bring people to God, God brought people to himself then gave them the Law - Exodus 19:3-6. The Law describes how a saved people live. Why give a saved people a code to live by if they are already saved? The Proverb tells us:

'Where there is no revelation [prophetic vision ESV] the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law' (Prov. 29:18)

To an unsaved people the law prescribes and proscribes. To a saved people the law describes how a saved people live in the light of God’s love, how we are blessed and a blessing, and how we need never again cast off restraint and incur God’s displeasure. A code to live by describes God’s purpose in us as saved people. The prayer of every believer is:

‘Two things I ask of you, O LORD...Keep falsehood and lies from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.' (Prov.30:7-9)

The code by which God would have us live is not constraining but liberating, freeing us to live such that we don't forget or dishonour the God who saved us. That is the Old Covenant but what of New Covenant people, what is the Kingdom code for Christians?


The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes are the basic values the world is meant to, but doesn't, live by. Paul writes:

'And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.' Eph.1:22-23

The rule of God extends over all but finds special focus in his concern for his own, the church. Not all keep his law but kingdom people live according to the values the world despises, but which God holds dear. Those who live kingdom lives are blessed.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…’



Ashrey is the word used in the Old Testament to talk about blessing. The psalmist writes of blessings that will come to those who delight in the law of the LORD (Psalm 1:1-2) This is a promise of future reward in material goods.

Makarios is the New Testament word and the emphasis is our present state. Adopt these values and know God's presence in your life. There is some confusion about these beatitudes, what role they play in God’s plan, whether they are practical in a fallen world.

Some teach that the beatitudes are a salvation message – live this way to get right with God. This doesn’t account for the problem of sin, the fact that Jesus calls us to repent, not to do better. Others have thought it a kingdom truth - One day, in God's kingdom, we will live this way. The problem with this view is it excuses us when we fall short. Others still think it a message that is exclusive to the church But Jesus he is king over all, even those who reject him, although he has special concern for those who are his own.Cristo_e_gli_apostoli by Sergio Bramante

I suggest the sermon is a description. The sermon describes the way in which we are freed to live when we commit fully to the kingship of Jesus. When Jesus is near we are free to obey. Matthew begins his account of the Sermon on the mount:

'He went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them...' (Matt.5:1)

The Sermon on the Mount is for people who have chosen to be Jesus' disciples and have freely committed themselves to the King.



When we think of kingdom we think of a place. When we think of God's kingdom we tend to think eschatologically, of that day when Christ will rule unchallenged on the earth. But Jesus said, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near' (Mt.4:17)

How is God's kingdom near? It is not a place, or a promise, but an action. It is God breaking into our universe and moulding times, places, people, and events for his purpose. The clearest expression of this is Jesus' life and ministry. The expression of that action today is the people of God, Christians, the church.

  1. The kingdom is near in the person of Jesus.
  2. The kingdom is here in the fact that God's people, indwelt by God's Spirit, are here.

The sermon on the Mount is Jesus' values for his people. It implicitly rejects the values of the world. It is difficult to live among people who reject God's values and not be influenced by the airbrushed lives of the 'beautiful people.' We appreciate, value, and are drawn by others' lives and can too easily fall into line with them. They are appealing because we tend to associate them with fulfilment.

Jesus shatters this illusion and sets up an alternative set of values that he assures will truly fulfil us. Jesus' values are not in pleasure but in longing, not in satisfaction but in hunger, not in popularity but in commitment to an unpopular cause, not in competition but in helping others to find peace with God and each other.

"Only those who throw the full weight of their confidence on God as a King who acts in and for them now can ever locate the courage to live the startling lifestyle Jesus lays out for his disciples. (Mt.5:1) The Sermon on the Mount is for people who have chosen to be Jesus' disciples and freely submitted themselves to the King. In it Jesus explains to his disciples of every age what living as a citizen of heaven's kingdom involves. Abandoning the ways of the world to adopt a diametrically different set of values and commitments." (Lawrence O Richards, Small Group Members Commentary)

How are we to live in this new, born-again, kingdom society? How are we to negotiate this fallen world as citizens of that kingdom, followers of King Jesus? What is God’s plan for my life? Paul helps us in his letter to Christians in first century Rome:

‘Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of of worship. 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 [discern] what God’s will is-his good and pleasing will.’ (Romans 12:1-2)

In an ongoing process our minds are renewed. The plan of God for your life is that you should be equipped with a new mind, able to test and discern what is the will of God, what pleases him, make kingdom choices in every day life. Someone has said that if you want to hear from God take the Bible and read it aloud. Here in the Beatitudes we find God’s plan, we begin to understand the code of the kingdom. Now we must choose to live it.

Of course sometimes, in the midst of our kingdom living, God has a specific call for us. When the call comes it is encouraging to remember Jeremiah was a timid man (1:4-6) He was not the prophet 'type' and felt much as we do when we consider what God is calling us to. What made him a prophet was not his own character but God's provision (1:17-19) God always provides grace for the day, whether it is a routine day that tests our discernment and choices, or a stand out day when God meets us with a particular calling to serve. Either way, Christ frees us to serve.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

God’s Plan for your Life 1: Do You Know It?

God the ArchitectAre you one of those many Christians who has asked what exactly is God’s plan for my life? What do you think of when you hear those words, 'God's plan for your life?' Maybe you think everyone else has got this sorted but you have missed out. Where does this idea of God having a plan for your life come from?

''I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'' (Jeremiah 29:11)

Our local Christian bookshop manager – who does understand this verse – assured me she can sell about anything in the shop if it carries this text, they just fly off the shelf. Near the bookshop is one of those generic stalls that sells New Age trinkets and junk, from a lucky cat, through fairies and angels, to Buddha in repose. Its the sort of thing people have in their home to feed their wishful thinking. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a life as serene, magical, lucky.

Life is never as serene as Buddha sitting under a Bodhi tree, angels and fairies don’t sit on your shoulder to grant wishes, and cats are – cats. Jeremiah 29:11 is to many Christians what the lucky cat is to the wishful thinkers, comforting to contemplate but of no practical use. This is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied texts in the Bible and Christians could save themselves a lot of trouble and troubled introspection if they understood it..



Jeremiah 29:1-2 tells us the context is the exile of Judah, including Daniel and his companions. The verse comes in the text of a letter sent by Jeremiah from Jerusalem to exiled Judah. The 'you' of verse 11 is plural, the promise of v.11 is very specific in those to whom it is being made, the exiles. If it is for us at all it is plural and for the church, not for the individual. Heaven preserve us from post-modern individualism - Context people.

Further, if you want Jeremiah 29:11 to be a promise to you, you must also have the previous 28 chapters, because they lead up to and contextualise the verse. They are full of warnings and exhortations, accusations, threat of drought, condemnation, and judgement. It isn't pretty. One example is 16:1-4. Look it up and ask yourself if you still want to enjoy the promises of God through Jeremiah – Context people.

Jeremiah 29:11 is not about God's perfect plan for your life but about restoration of a rebellious people after 70 years in exile. Context again.

God had miraculously brought Abraham's descendants out of the house of slavery and commanded them 'now live like this,' giving them the Law through Moses. The Law didn't bring people to God, God brought people to himself then gave them the Law - Exodus 19:3-6. The Law describes how a saved people live. I say again Context.

Leviticus 26:14-15, 31-33 describes what God will do if his people reject his Laws and violate the covenant. Terror, disease, fever, hunger and defeat at the hands of enemies, terror, ruin, waste, scattering and exile. Context teaches us.

Leviticus 26: 39-42 describes how God will, nevertheless, keep his promises and restore his people, 'Then I will remember you...For I know the plans I have for you...' Lev.26:42; Jer.29:11) God's plans are never thwarted. Context is understanding.

Even though we might take comfort from the general understanding that we are in God's hands and care - In all things God works for the good of those that love him' Ro.8:28 - we cannot reasonably apply Jeremiah 29:11 to us. It is an example of what has come to be known as narcisegesis, the unbiblical habit of making all Scripture revolve around me.

If God doesn't have a plan specific to my life what does he have? Is there a plan at all?


God’s Plan and Purpose

In his letter to the church in Ephesus Paul tells how God, through Christ, has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing (1:3); chosen us to be holy and blameless (1:4); predestined us to be adopted as sons (1:5); redeemed us through the blood of Christ (1:7); lavished on us grace, wisdom and understanding (1:8). We are not meant to be mere creatures but sons. Sons who understand and, in understanding, exercise wisdom. No surprise since we were made originally in the image and likeness of God, to have dominion (Genesis 1:26) to understand and steward the world in which we live. All this, Paul insists, is, ‘to the praise of [God’s] glorious grace’ (1:6)

Paul explains explicitly the purposes of God, revealed to all who trust in Christ:

‘And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment-to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)

The thought here is that everything that fails to make sense in this world will be summed up and given perfect meaning in Christ. Its not about me, its about Christ! Everything about us, our being chosen and predestined, serves God’s purpose and plan in Christ, ‘for the praise of his glory.’ (1:11-12) Do yourself a favour and read Ephesians 1:3-14 and count the number of times ‘in Christ’ or a variant thereof appears. It is all about Jesus, and once you realise this your doctrinal understanding will be revolutionised.

God may yet have a specific purpose for particular individuals, at particular times, in church service, mission, etc. For some it is a lifetime call. But what does a purposeful Christian life look like when there isn't a specific 'plan for my life?' We will look at that next time.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Jesus Wasn’t ‘Nice’

Every generation, every culture, shapes Christianity to reflect that culture's concerns. In Europe in the second millennium, it seemed to be very political as kings and popes, people and priests fought over power, property, and the question of who governs. In South-East Asia today we see Christianity being about enduring under the yoke of persecution and oppression. In South America since the 1960s it has been about Liberation Theology as the church, once again, becomes politicised as a social movement.

In the United Kingdom it seems this tendency expresses itself in niceness. Whatever the cause, however engaged with the issues we might be, however we might disagree, lets not be unpleasant, lets be nice about it. The referendum that has just passed has people in its grip and they are engaged with politics in numbers not seen in my lifetime. We fall into three categories. Those delighted with the result, those disappointed with the result, and those confused by what just happened.

While feelings are running high, many are insisting there is virtue in being a good loser, as though this is a game of table-top football. They 'regret' the unbridled language used in claims and counter-claims, insisting the right response is niceness, especially if you are a Christian. 'Lets not allow things to get out of hand,' they insist. 'We don't want any unpleasantness.' Then they reach for the kettle, break open a fresh pack of rich tea biscuits and, 'tea anyone?'

Niceness is not, however, a fruit of the Spirit. There is, 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' (Galatians 5:22) but I don't see niceness in there. I can have love, experience joy, show kindness, pursue goodness and faithfulness, be gentle and self-controlled and still be forthright and outspoken in pursuit of what I regard as right, just, and good, still challenge what is wrong, unjust, and evil.

New Testament figures were many things but nice wasn't one of them.

'John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? produce fruit in keeping with repentance.' (Luke 3:7-8) I don't think John was 'nice' and nor do I believe he would have been impressed with the response, 'OK John, we will try to be nicer.'

Confronted with the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus said, 'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness...You snakes! You brood of vipers!' (Matthew 23:27-33) I don't imagine the disciples saying, 'That's so rude Jesus! Why can't you be nice?'

In refuting the Jewish Christians who wanted to circumcise Gentile Christians the apostle Paul wrote, 'Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you if you let yourselves be circumcised Christ will be of no value to you at all...I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!' (Galatians 5:2&12) I don't hear anyone saying, 'Really, I don't see surgery as the answer Paul. Can't we sit and talk about this over a cup of tea?'

When Simon the Sorcerer offered to buy from Peter and John the power to endow spiritual gifts, the apostles didn't say, 'You know, there's been a misunderstanding here. Put the kettle on and we'll talk about a preaching series in the Autumn.' No! 'Peter answered, 'May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God. Repent..!'' (Acts 8:18-22)

In writing to the church in Sardis, Jesus says, 'I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!' (Revelation 3:1-2) John on Patmos, who wrote and delivered these messages, didn't say, 'That's a bit harsh Jesus. Can't we talk about this over coffee and cake?'

Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see, and the deaf hear, raised the dead, loved children, stood with the disaffected, returned dignity to ordinary people, preached hope and the need to pursue virtue and goodness. He also challenged the rich and the powerful, fought against injustice, shamed hypocrisy, spoke out, stood out, called out and confronted all that is evil in this world. Nice people don't do that. But then, Jesus wasn't nice.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

A Week On The M4

It occurs to me that making progress through the typical week is rather like a journey on the M4 motorway. I traveled from Swansea to London recently, along the M4, and contemplated this thought as I journeyed.

Image result for Swansea

Monday is like leaving Swansea after a restful weekend, like setting out on your journey. Duty and adventure call and, although you look back longingly at home and a warm bed, you travel with purpose and perhaps some degree of reconciliation. This simply has to be done.

Image result for Newport

Tuesday is rather like Newport. You feel as though you have already come such a long way but there is yet so much further to go. A sense of resignation sets in as you accept there is no turning back.

Image result for severn bridge

Wednesday is like arriving at the Severn Bridge. Surely this is a major stage on your journey, signalling real progress made. Of course, the other side of the bridge is England but, as my mother used to say, you can't have everything and, while the road actually rises from the bridge, you feel as if the hardest part is behind you and you are on the downward ride to your destination.

Image result for Swindon

Thursday is like Swindon. Here is where reality kicks in and reminds you that, despite your effort and perseverance, there is yet some distance to travel. Like someone popping into the pub Thursday evening for a drink and to find consolation with fellow travelers, you pull into the Leigh Delamare service area for a much needed break.

Image result for Reading Service area M4

Friday is like the Reading service area. There is a real sense of an end in sight. Soon you will see the familiar signs for Heathrow Airport and you eagerly count down the last few junction numbers. But this part of the motorway proves much busier than at your starting point. People are driving faster, more erratically at times. It is just like a Friday afternoon when the weekend is in sight yet there is still much to before you can to walk away from work and enjoy your destination in peace.
Image result for London

The weekend is like London, your destination and, just like visiting any big city, there are highs and lows, bright lights and dark corners. The weekend, like the city, has its attractions and distractions, fulfillment and disappointment, but seldom lives up to its reputation. The weekend is, in anticipation, more than it is in its in realization. It brings rest, recuperation, and hopefully a fresh resolve to make better of things but, come Monday morning...