Thursday, 5 July 2007

No such word as 'can't'

Last Sunday's sermon at St Andrew's was on Acts 4:1-21, one of my favourite passages in the Bible. Most of the talk was based on v12 - 'Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved,' a verse which reminds us that the way God has provided for us to get to heaven is the name of his Son, knowing Jesus and trusting only in him. And there's 'no other name', no other way.

That's not a very popular message these days; it wasn't a popular message when Peter and John told the religious leaders in Acts 4 either. They arrested these two Christians, they threatened them, they 'commanded them not to speak or teach at all to anyone in this name.' But Peter and John won't stop telling people about Jesus; v20 - 'We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.'

That's the challenge, isn't it? If we believe v12 in our hearts, that there's no way to heaven except through trusting in Jesus, then we must also say v20 with our lips - 'We cannot help speaking about what we know to be true about Jesus.' When people get cross because we tell them Jesus is the only way, when people ask us firmly to shut up about Jesus, they just don't want to listen, the challenge is to respond as Peter and John did; 'I must keep telling people. I can't help speaking about it.'

It's easy to think 'I can't do that. It's too hard. I don't know many answers. Talking about Jesus to people is best left up to professionals like Peter and John back then, and to vicars and people like that today.' Well, take a look at v13 - the religious leaders 'realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus'.

Peter and John didn't wear dog collars; they hadn't been to university; they were ordinary, untrained guys. And yet here they stood up in front of the most intelligent, intimidating men in the country and said 'Jesus is the only way you can be saved. You need to trust in him.' They knew they were untrained; they knew most people would reject their message; but they knew v12 was true and so they spoke out anyway. They couldn't help it.

What an encouragement for us! If Peter and John can do it, so can we. Acts 4 leaves us no opportunity to say 'I can't do it. I don't know enough/can't speak well enough/am not a vicar..' Acts 4 says you can do it - you can tell someone about Jesus today; and if you remember v12, that Jesus is the only way the people we know can be saved, then you will tell someone about Jesus, you too won't be able to help speaking the truth about Jesus.

When it comes to talking about Jesus, there's no such word as 'can't'.

Verse of the week

'We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts' 1 Thessalonians 2:4

It's very rare to meet someone who doesn't often dress/speak/act in order to win praise or friendship from others. Most of us worry what others think of us; most of us long to be popular. Even people who deliberately kick out against the prevailing fashion are still defining themselves in terms of what men think and expect. And actually as we seek to gain praise from others, we become slaves to that search.
That's why the Christian life is so liberating. The Christian no longer needs to think 'What will they think of me?' or 'How can I become, or stay, popular?' Because the Christian, lik Paul in this verse, is no longer desperately striving to please men; no, the Christian is striving to please God, the God who tests our hearts, who is pleased by inner rather than outer beauty, by motivation more than fashion, by our hearts more than our clothes. How wonderful to be freed from finding our assurance and confidence in what society says, and to be able to know that we can please not just our schoolfriends or our work colleagues or our footballing friends but the Creator God himself!
And that's also why the Christian life is so challenging. Paul writes this verse shortly after being kicked out of Thessaloniki because he refused to say what pleased people; instead he said the message of the gospel, and spoke of Jesus Christ and his death in our place. His words displeased people so much they rioted; the few Christians in the city were now being persecuted.
It often seems so much easier to please people rather than God; to keep quiet rather than speaking out, to do what the crowd wants rather than what you know God wants. Paul didn't care what the crowd wanted him to do, he cared only for what God wanted him to do. The challenge for us as Christians is to remind ourselves every day that as God's people we need be and should be no longer trying to please men, but to please God, the God who knows not just what we choose to show to others, but what is in our hearts.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Verse of the week

'Now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you...?' 1 Thessalonians 3:8-9

What happens when someone becomes a Christian? Their eternal destiny changes. They pass from death to life, from alienation from God to friendship with God. And every day they keep going as a Christian, so they get closer to that wonderful eternal destiny.
As Christians, then, when we see someone else become a Christian, we have seen something more significant than anything else we'll ever see. And when that person keeps going, continues to stand firm in the Lord, we are seeing someone moving towards a perfect eternal life with Christ. Just looking at a Christian friend in that way should give us more joy than anything else - to look at them and think 'Once you were facing the eternal death of separation from God, but now, because of Jesus, I will see you in the New Creation when we live there with Christ.'
Paul had not seen these Thessalonian Christians for some time, and he was concerned whether they were keeping going in the face of persecution from those around them. Then one day he heard that these young Christians were keeping going, were doing well, were standing firm in the Lord. And what joy that brought him - 'now we really live'!
And his joy in seeing others keeping going in the Christian faith leads him to give thanks to God. In fact, Paul is so aware of how wonderful it is that these Thessalonians have become Christians and kept going as Christians that he knows he can never thank God enough. However long he spends on his knees in thanksgiving, he'll never have said enough.
We all have Christian friends who we can look at and see keeping going with Christ. Many of us will have Christian friends who we once lived amongst but now are parted from. What joy it ought to bring us when we hear, by email or phone or letter, that they are standing firm in the Lord! And how much ought we to fall on our knees and give great thanks to God for those lives, lives he has saved and is sustaining until heaven.
So often the state of our bank balance, or our wardrobe, or our football team, is of more importance to us than the state of our Christian friends - might it be that we would 'really live' when we find out about Christians who are keeping going, might it be that we would thank God properly for what he has done for those friends of ours.

Friday, 22 June 2007

'Salvation issues'

Just thinking about the previous post, it's probably worth reminding ourselves that there's a difference between not understanding or disagreeing over different issues about Christianity.

Some people disagree over what are termed 'salvation issues'; things which, if you don't believe, you can't be saved. So for instance if you don't believe God made the world, or if you don't believe you have rejected God, or if you don't believe Jesus took the punishment for your sins, or if you don't believe he will return in judgement and glory, then the whole gospel falls apart. So if someone says 'Jesus won't return' that's a salvation issue, and so obviously them not believing that matters very much.

There are also what we can call 'secondary issues'; things which, if you don't believe, you may be wrong but it doesn't mean you're not saved. Here are a couple of examples; some Christians think you should baptise babies, others that you should only baptise adults who are professing faith. Clearly one is right and one is wrong, and it matters in that we want to follow God's truth; but getting that wrong won't mean you can't be saved. Or again, some Christians think you shouldn't work on a Sunday, others that you must take a day of rest each week but not necessarily Sunday, others that you don't have to take a day off at all. One of those positions is right, but if I've got it wrong when I get to heaven I won't be thrown out!

It's quite helpful, when someone says something that we think 'I've never heard that before', or 'I don't understand that' or even 'I don't think that's right', to ask ourselves whether this is a salvation issue or a secondary issue. If it's a salvation issue, in other words something that will directly effect how we understand the cross and resurrection and return of Jesus Christ, it's something you need to think about, pray about and take very seriously.
But if it isn't - then don't worry too much! It's not like if you get that wrong God's going to be angry, or if you don't understand it then you're not saved anymore. It's still worth thinking about - we want to know God as well as possible - but it's not something that should make you suddenly worry you're not a Christian anymore.

For what it's worth, unless someone says 'Humans are robots' or 'God is not in control in any way', I think the debate in the post below is a secondary issue. By all means think about it, discuss it, and pray about it; but as you do so, just keep remembering 'I know Jesus is God, that he died for my sins, that he rose again and will return one day to take me to his recreated world'. Knowing that is what saves us; nothing more and nothing less.

God's control and our free will...

(If you haven't read the previous post, it's probably helpful to do so before you read this)

(This is a long post, but it's a complicated subject!)

Here's a question which countless Bible-believing Christians have struggled with for centuries; what does it mean for God to be in control of (or sovereign over) his creation, and therefore over humanity? If God is in control, how much free choice do humans have, and if none then how can they be responsible for what they do?

Essentially, it's helpful to think about this issue by imagining a horizontal line, and at one end is God's sovereignty and at the other is human free choice. At one end, you have God's sovereignty but no free choice; that would mean that we were basically robots, but you would maintain a view of God being fully in control. At the other end, you have complete human free choice, but you would have lost any idea of a God who was in any sense in control of anything (this 'God' would just have to wait around, hoping that things went OK in the world, but unable/unwilling to do anything about it).

In the middle area of that line, you have a blending of God's sovereignty and human free will, and biblical Christians sit all along that line, disagreeing on how exactly God's sovereignty and human choice fit together. In other words, mature Christians disagree on this issue. And I think the reason for that is that the Bible doesn't make it clear exactly how God is in control and humans have free choice.

For an example, look at Matthew 11:27-29...
V27 – 'No-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him' – so the only way any of us can know God is if Jesus chooses to reveal him to us. God the Father, Son and Spirit is in charge of whether we know God or not.
V28-29 – 'Come to me...Take my yoke' – Jesus invites people to choose whether to come to him, to accept the 'rest' (eternal life) he offers, or not.
In other words, in these verses God is telling us two truths. Firstly, he is in control. Secondly, humans have to make a choice. Those are two truths in God's Word, so whatever we decide about this issue we mustn't end up denying either of those.

All through Scripture are verses which seem to suggest that God is in control in a way which means that humans don't have free choice (even if we think we do); then there are other verses which point to humans having control over how they respond to God. There are some verses which suggest that God has the whole plan mapped out and that everything happens happens because he decided it would happen exactly that way; then there are other verses in which, for instance, God changes his mind about something. In other words, all through the Bible both truths; God is in control, humans have to choose; are affirmed.

It seems to me that in trying to fit them together we are very close to where the iceberg goes into the sea (see previous post). And that means that we may not be able to find a complete answer, simply because God has not chosen to reveal that answer to us. But that's fine; we just accept the truths he has told us, and know that even if they don't make total sense to us, that's because we don't know everything about God and how his creation works. No-one has yet from the Bible come up with a 'system' which brings God's sovereignty and human free choice together in a way into which every verse of the Bible fits.

Three final points:
First - because the Bible affirms both truths, if we come up with a 'system' it mustn't get rid of either. Some people say that humans have no such thing as free choice; I think that's difficult to maintain from the whole witness of the Bible. Other people are so determined to defend human free choice that they make God into some powerless, separate divinity, incapable of influencing or helping us; that is clearly not what the Bible says either (and would mean there was not point to praying).

Second – there are many verses in the Bible which can be used to push God's sovereignty over everything, but also can be read in a way which says humans have free choice. Take 1 Peter 2:7-8, for example. 'They stumble because they disobey the message (about Jesus) – which is what they were destined for.' Now, we could say that these particular people were destined by God to 'stumble', ie be judged and punished by Jesus; and other people were destined by God to accept Jesus. God has 'predestined' everyone's ultimate destination; humans do not have free choice, it just seems as though they do.
Or, we read the verse differently. Who is it who stumbles? Those who disobey the message calling everyone to repent and bow down to Jesus. And God has destined that people who choose disobey that message will stumble, ie be judged and punished by Jesus. People choose what they will do with Jesus, accept or reject his message; and God, in his sovereignty, has chosen/destined that anyone who rejects the message will face judgement.
Only one of those readings is right – I don't know which! But the point is, it's unwise to point to a verse like that and say 'Aha! See, humans do choose' or 'There! God is in control and humans don't have free choice'. Much better to come to a verse like that and say 'I know that the Bible tells me that God is in control, and humans choose how they'll respond to Jesus. I don't know how they fit together, so I can't take this verse too far; but what this verse does remind me is that people who reject Jesus will be judged and punished by him.'

Third – Just because I don't understand how those two truths fit together, doesn't mean others don't understand more (I don't think anyone can understand fully). Sometimes it's right to say 'I don't know'; but that doesn't mean we shouldn't listen to people who do seem to know more, and doesn't mean that we shouldn't look in our Bibles to try to find out more of what God has decided to reveal to us. If other people have fitted the truths together in a biblical way that I don't get, then listen to them! But most of all, we must listen to God, to God who reveals himself through his Son in his Word, who has saved sinners like us, and who calls us to tell others the good news of the eternal life that he offers.

God's Iceberg

How can we know God, and what do we know about him? In many ways, that is the most fundamental question we can ever ask, even more so than 'Why are we here?' The answer to the first question is that God is revealed to us through his Son – in him and through him we can know God, the Father, Son and Spirit (John 14:9-11, Colossians 1:19). Today, we can know the Son, Jesus, through the word of God, the Bible (Colossians 1:25-26).

What do we know about God when we look at Jesus in the Bible? Here's the bit which we often forget – we know all that God tells us, and nothing more. And God has not told us everything, but only what we need to know to enable us to know how to be saved and to know how to live God's way (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

As the sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin put it quite helpfully, we don't know all of God, we only know God 'as he is to us'; in other words we know only what God has chosen to reveal of himself through his Son. And the Bible tells us that that wasn't everything; for instance, while on earth Jesus didn't know when he would return (Mark 13:32). There is much of God that we do not know, and since we're human and he is the divine Creator, it is wise not to guess too much, and if we must guess then it is essential not to insist that our guess is the right one. If we didn't have God's Word, everything we thought we knew about God would be a guess; because we have his Word, we can know what it tells us and only what it tells us is definitely true. So for example God's favourite colour may or may not be blue; but since Scripture doesn't tell us, I can only guess and I could never tell you you were wrong for thinking God preferred red.

A picture I find fairly useful (and always remember that any picture has its limits and weaknesses) is an iceberg. Icebergs look huge above the surface, intricate and beautiful yet also somewhat scary; yet 7/8 of an iceberg is below the surface, unseen. So it is with God. We can see so much of him, enough for us to know that he is holy, he is loving, he is a perfect judge, and that in his love he saves people from his judgement. What we know of him in His Word to us is like the top of that iceberg; it's all interlinked, and it's huge, and you can spend a lifetime learning more about it and how wonderful God is.

But there are things that we are not to know, at least this side of the New Creation. And that means that there will always be things we cannot understand about God. Imagine a crag coming up from the iceberg at an unlikely angle, an angle that doesn't fit with the rest of the iceberg we can see. Why that crag is as it is can only be explained by what lies beneath the surface, and we can't see that. We don't decide the crag isn't really there, we just accept that we can't fit it with the rest of the iceberg that we can see.

So it is with God. We can never know anything about him without his Word; but we can never know everything about him from his Word.

Sometimes he tells us in Scripture a truth about himself, or a truth about how he deals with us, which we can't fit in with everything else we know about God from His Word. We say 'That doesn't seem to make sense.' But that doesn't mean it's not true, it's just that we can't work out how it's true. And it's at that point that we have to remember that God is God, and we aren't. We can never know everything. But we can know enough to be saved and to know how to live Christlike lives, and we should be eternally grateful to God that he has revealed that to us.

Verse of the week

'Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.' Hebrews 10:25

God does not bring people to follow Christ singly, but together; he does not save individuals but rather a people. If you are a Christian, you are part of God's family; and families (should!) meet together, look out for one another, encourage one another. The Christian life is hard enough as it is; if we neglect the help God offers us through the church, through other Christians, then it will be harder still.
And so the writer to the Hebrews urges his readers, and us today, not to give up meeting together, not to give up gathering together as Christians. Some people, he says, have stopped bothering with church - don't follow them. Back in chapter 6 we're told of Christians who fell away, who stopped trusting in Christ; it's most likely that these were the same people as had given up meeting with other Christians. The Bible consistently urges us not to think we can get by without other Christians.
Why? Because we need encouragement. That's part of what meeting Christians is for. Sometimes we're finding following Christ really hard, and need encouraging. Sometimes we have seen God work in our lives, and that's an encouragement for others. We are all to encourage, and to expect to be encouraged, by our Christian family.
What should we say to encourage people? 'You see the Day approaching'. Every day that passes is a day closer to the Day when Jesus returns, saves his people from judgement and brings us into his perfect recreated world. That is a Day worth looking forward to; that is a Day which encourages us as we look forward to it. And so that is the Day we should remind our Christian friends of, because if we keep looking forward to that Day then we will keep going on as Christians on this day.
So, when was the last time you encouraged a fellow Christian? Are you the kind of person who makes church and meetings midweek a priority as much as you can, and goes to church or youth group or whatever thinking 'I want to encourage someone this evening. I want to look out for who's struggling a bit. I want to remind them that one day Jesus will return and they'll see him and live with him forever.' Wouldn't it be great if we all encouraged each other in that way, as this verse teaches us to do?