Sunday, 29 December 2013

God Invades Humanity

The Christmas story is staggering in all respects, a virgin, angels, a star... but the most staggering aspect must be that God invades the realm which he had created and takes on the dirt of the earth that he had taken and fashioned and given his own breath to - flesh! God himself becomes a human; yes, real flesh and blood, without ever stopping being God.
That is the staggering nature of the Gospel, the Good News - God has come, he has invaded 'our space'!
We were on the run, we were hiding, and God came to find us and put things right.
He couldn't do it from 'out there', he had to come here.
He couldn't send someone else, he had to come himself.
  • Our salvation necessitated it.
  • Our restoration required it.
  • Creation's renewal demanded it.
He had to be both God and man, not one or the other. He must represent, and be both sides.
He alone could bridge the gap, the distance brought about by the Fall.
He alone could save and heal. As the early church Father Gregory said "the unassumed is the unredeemed." God must assume the very likeness of our broken sinful flesh in order to redeem and heal it.
How? By the Holy Spirit - that's all the Bible tells us; or in the words of the hymn writer - "God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man" (Charles Wesley). Mystery. But that doesn't mean it's not true.
The first few verses of Wesley's Hark the Herald Angels Sing express it well:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Then there are two verses that rarely ever get sung, and they are gospel loaded, a prayer applying the truth of the incarnation to one and all who will believe:
Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King!
Loaded verses indeed! Full of Gospel truth.  He has invaded 'our space,' taken it on, healed, redeemed and reconciled it in order to reinstate us in his love.
We were made by God for God, and God's invasion of 'our space' is a declaration that God is for us.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

What if Jesus hadn't come?

I found myself wondering the other day what would the world be like if Jesus had never been born, and the more I thought about it the more I began to realise it would be a vastly different place to what we know now and certainly not a better one.

Unfortunately the liberal West loves to blame Christianity for many of the world's ills and keep people ignorant of the positive and profound impact Jesus, and consequently, those who have believed in, and followed him, have had upon the world.

Let me list a few...

The coming of Jesus has transformed lives, relationships and communities.

It has brought liberty and justice, education, medicine and health care to the masses.

It has brought deliverance from false and futile religion and dark satanic practices.

It has provided relief to the poor, lifted the downtrodden and broken the yoke of the oppressed.

It has impacted politics and law and given dignity and rights, freedom of speech.

It has been a stimulator and contributor to the whole arena of science.

It has given dignity to work and the rights of employees.

It has contributed enormously to music, literature and the arts.

It has provided the biggest season of goodwill the world has ever known.

And so we could go on....

Which reminds me, not so long ago I read a report that had come out of atheistic China that said that all that is good (note that) about the West derives from Christianity and therefore from Jesus. That is some statement!

Yes, if Jesus had not come into the world it would have been a far worse and poorer place.

Praise God, Jesus did come!

Friday, 20 December 2013

God Couldn't Just Turn Up - Israel's Role in the Incarnation

The incarnation didn't just happen, as we observed in the previous post God took a long time preparing for that first Christmas, and for very good reason.
There was indeed much to be done, God couldn't just turn up. For God to come in Christ as he did, he needed to prepare the way, to prepare peoples hearts and minds that they might truly know him, his ways, and how they could relate to him.
That's where God's calling and dealings with Israel come in. To that end the story of Israel is one of the revealing of God to those whom he had created - the breaking in of God upon the hearts and minds of humanity, a humanity broken, distanced and separated by sin.
For that reason he chose Abraham, a man from a  pagan background, and no special individual. He gave him a family, and from that family chose and brought forth the people and nation of Israel, a people who were no more special than any other nation on earth, the least of all people's, and as it turned out, a stubborn, rebellious people at that.
Over a period of time God made himself known to them in different and varied ways, ways that would distinguish him from the non gods of the surrounding nations as the only true and living God, a God worthy of their praise and devotion.
Part of that was a variety of rules and religious rituals, rules and rituals that may seem strange to us today and somewhat of a palaver, but they were all a necessary part of how he revealed himself to them and how he educated them in their knowledge of and relationship to him.  They enabled them to understand exactly who he was, the difference and distance between them and God, and how they should relate to him.
It would tell of his undeserved covenant love and faithfulness, his unending mercy and grace, the nature and depths of sin, the way of redemption, forgiveness, atonement, salvation. It would tell of prophet, priest and king, and the promise of Messiah which would ultimately lead to the womb of a young virgin girl and the incarnation of the Saviour God.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

God Prepares for Christmas

Preparation is a must – ask any decorator. It’s vitally important to the finished job.
The same applies to Christmas. In the run up to Christmas people prepare in many different ways and over different lengths of time, nevertheless preparation there must be, otherwise it just wouldn’t happen.
What most people fail to realise is that God took a long time preparing for Christmas, a lot of time and a lot of effort, it didn’t just happen spontaneously one idyllic night.
From the beginning, before the foundation of the earth, God had a plan to display his love, but to do so he needed to prepare a people, and bring everything together at the right time and in the right place. The plan was conceived and formulated in the blessed fellowship of that holy community, the Trinity, and there it was set in motion.
He started by calling Abraham, giving him a family, making them a nation, raising prophets, priests and kings, taking that nation on a journey so that they would get to know him, understand his ways, and be a witness to him among the other people’s and nations of the earth.
It was a long and eventful journey, but eventually we arrive at the crucial point in human history, and God finds the right person to conceive and bring forth his Son Jesus, his co-equal and co-eternal partner with himself and Holy Spirit.
The womb of the incarnation had been a long time in forming, through a family, a nation, an individual, but one day it was ready, and the time was right, that point in human history, that juncture of nations involving political, cultural and religious development.
Yes it took God a long time to prepare for Christmas.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Christmas is coming - has come!

It suddenly dawned on me last week that we are in the run up to Christmas! No, it’s not like I didn’t know, after all at church we’ve been preparing for weeks, but rather in the busyness of life I hadn’t realised it was that close – I mean, that close!
I wonder whether it was a bit like that that first Christmas, everyone was going about their daily routines as one day followed another, even as one year followed another. Of course it hadn’t happened yet, so it wasn’t on the annual calendar, nevertheless they had the prophetic promise, a promise that had been passed on from one generation to another, the promise of a Saviour. And O, how they longed and prayed for that day when he would come. But hey, life goes on, living and hoping, hoping and living, and you can get lost in it and not realise where you’ve got to, or what’s going on.
Now I’m guessing that they really didn’t have that much idea either on what that would look like as they had no previous experience, so when the promise finally came to pass they were just going about the usual business of the day, and then….. when he does turn up he looks like the rest of us, a vulnerable little baby, dependent in every way on his mother and father.
I mean, in many ways it was so ordinary, too ordinary – could this be God? In fact it was so ordinary it needed angels to announce the fact that this was not just another child just like every other one, but the Child, the promised One, the prayed for and longed for Saviour. Life didn’t pause or wait for everyone to get all spiritual, feel right good and ready, no, suddenly in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Eastern life he made his appearance, he was born – fact. Not in a synagogue, or at the Temple, or some other religious setting, not even the comfort of a home, but a simple stable. I mean what a way to wrap a present!
I wonder how many today are going about this Christmas, not realising where they are at, and missing the fact that he has come – not as superman or some powerful macho all conquering hero, but as a vulnerable little baby who cried (Yes, I don’t think ‘Away in a Manger’ is correct on this point!), and was as dependent as we were on those around him when we first entered this world. Nevertheless he is none other than the Promised One, the longed for Saviour and we don’t need to wait for another. He has come, and he came ‘veiled in flesh.’

Monday, 2 December 2013

Strange Fire and Prophecy

The recent Strange Fire conference (and book) has attempted to restate an old argument of cessationists re the gift of prophecy, that there was only ever one type, and that it was inerrant and totally authoritative and the basis of the Word itself, and therefore all other prophecy is false and such prophecy and people should be rejected.
The problem with this view is that it totally ignores the fact that there was prophetic activity of what might be called a secondary nature in the Old Testament. Such prophecies didn’t find there way into Scripture (apart from the mere reference to it’s activity), and they weren’t considered inerrant and totally authoritative, i.e. the Spirit coming on the 70 in Numbers 11: 24–27 with the result that they prophesied, plus the two who weren’t in the right place (Moses response interestingly was that he wished that all of the Lord’s people were prophets); the schools of the prophets mentioned in Samuel and Kings, and Saul’s particular experience, and then we have Joel’s prophesy (inerrant and authoritative and part of scripture) that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and they would prophesy.
Turning to the New Testament we find second level prophecy as a very real and necessary part of church life. It’s there in the book of Acts, and in the letters we find Paul writing to the church in Corinth and strongly encouraging them in it, and again in his writing to the Thessalonians he tells them not to despise it.
Though it is to be encouraged and not despised nevertheless Paul makes it clear that all prophecy is to be weighed, meaning that it may not all be of the Lord, but in doing so, in no way does he suggest that if turns out not to be of the Lord and therefore not to be accepted should the person giving it be rejected or stoned. And even if it were accepted as from the Lord, the individual still had the choice as to their response, i.e. Paul’s response to the word not to go up to Jerusalem, but he went.
Even so the fact that it is ‘second level’ doesn’t mean that when it occurs it is any less ‘of God.’ This is truly an activity inspired of the Spirit and is to be treated as such, and for this reason Paul writes, “Don’t stifle the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies,…”
In my own personal experience I have been blessed, encouraged, helped and guided by the prophetic word, churches that I have been involved with likewise, and I can’t imagine a Christian and Church life without it. Hearing God is vitally important. Taking heed to the prophetic word is as well. Too many churches are living in the past because they are not willing to hear God today.
If you are someone who has been thrown off course on the things of the Spirit due to Strange Fire (the conference or the book) I would encourage you to go back to the Word to see whether these things are so, and also to find out and talk to those who are experienced and have integrity in these things. Please don’t allow the enemy to rob you of the gift(s) that the Father gives through his Spirit for the benefit of his people.
Have you ever been blessed by the gift of prophecy?
Have you ever prophesied?
How seriously do you take prophecy?
When was the last time you responded to such a word?

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Speaking in Tongues Today

A Controversial Gift
As exhibited in the recent Strange Fire Conference in the States, the subject of speaking in tongues is probably one of the most controversial of Christian subjects and elicits all sorts of reactions, from the genuine and beneficial, to gibberish and unhelpful, all the way through to being demonic and dangerous, and as such it’s probably the most widely discussed phenomena in Christian experience and has resulted in many messages and books both for and against.
For those who don’t speak in tongues it can often sound mysterious or even frightening, though on closer inspection maybe it shouldn’t.
Tongues have been viewed as:
  • Gibberish or baby language.
  • Purely psychological – a form of primal speech; the result of some kind of emotional deficit.
  • Angelic speech.
  • Human languages that have been unconsciously picked up.
  • The miracle of Pentecost was simply that they were speaking praises to God in the common language, as opposed to the religious language of the temple which was Hebrew.
  • Demonic, some would even go so far as to say it’s ‘the language of hell.’
  • Still others would say, how can you possibly know whether the tongues people speak in today are the same as in the Bible – the problem with that is you could say that about any experience related to the Bible.
The first thing we should note is that speech and language are the gift of God, Genesis and the story of Babel makes that clear, and I don’t think for one moment that cessationists would call what happened at Babel gibberish or of the devil.
The second thing is that there are an estimated 7000+ languages in the world of which 90% are used by less than 100, 000 people, and over 1,000,000 share 150 – 200 languages between them, and 46 languages have one particular people group (figures from the BBC). That is an amazing number of languages!
These kinds of figures tell us something about the amazing nature and complexity of language, with their varying sounds and articulation. So, when people judge the gift of tongues as simply gibberish, I wonder whether they have ever taken the time to listen to some of the languages around the world, where it can be far less easy to hear a distinction in tones and phrase when compared to say the English language.
The first thing we should note about the gift of tongues is that it is a New Covenant phenomenon, the Old Testament knows nothing of them even though some have tried to find them in Hannah’s prayer in Samuel. The promise of Jesus was and is, “these signs will follow those who believe … they will speak with NEW tongues” In other words they would be tongues they hadn’t heard of before, didn’t know, and hadn’t learned them, either consciously or sub-consciously.
Secondly, the subject of speaking in tongues occupies quite a few verses in the New Testament, far more than some other topics, so maybe we should sit up and take note! One might ask if God had not intended them to be for today, why would he have inspired the writer to give that amount of time to them and allow those particular manuscripts to be preserved for us today – documents which give no hint of their ceasing at the end of the apostolic era.
Since the early 1900’s there has been a resurgence of speaking in tongues initially through the Pentecostal movement which resulted in a major evangelistic thrust into the nations, and later the Charismatic movements as people in the historic denominations, of which many were struggling and in decline, began to have fresh encounters with God and an abundance of new life began to break out.
The Greek noun glossa (“tongue”) along with the verb laleo (“to speak”) combine to makes“glossolalia,” which means to “speak with tongues.” Translations of this vary considerably. The ESV translates it literally as “speaks in a tongue,” whereas some now use the word “language/s.” Sometimes they also add various interpretative adjectives to help us understand what is meant, i.e. “unknown” (1 Cor 14:2,4 KJV), “ecstatic” (1 Cor 14:5 NEB), and even “strange” (1 Cor 14:21 NIV, NAS, ASV, ESV), and by doing so the translators emphasise something of the supernatural and unusual nature of the gift, and the difficulty in describing it!
The Bible simply says that their origin is in and through the Holy Spirit, not a state of mind or emotion. On the day of Pentecost they spoke in tongues as the “Spirit gave them utterance” or “enabled them,” (Acts 2:4). On each subsequent occasion they occurred because the Spirit was at work (Acts 8, 10, 19 also 9 with 1 Cor 14). They are says Paul a “gift of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4, 10, 11), and should not be despised, and though some turn to 1 Corinthians to find reasons not to speak in tongues, no-where in 1 Corinthians does Paul forbid it, or suggest that tongues/other languages are demonic. Paul understands them as meaning-ful utterances and not useless babbling.
They operate then in the spiritual dimension, and are not reliant upon the mind.  The problem for those who are part of the materialistic West is that we are more accustomed to operating in the intellectual and material realm. But God is Spirit, and speaking in tongues are a gift of the Spirit that operates through the human spirit – they flow out of the spirit, by the Spirit, bypassing the usual faculty of the mind whether known or known (1 Cor. 14:14, 15).
Their Nature
Some see a difference between the tongues in Acts and those in 1 Corinthians – At Pentecost they were particular known languages, in Corinthians they appear to be unknown, or even non-human languages. Many studies of tongues focus on the Pentecost experience and deduce certain things from it, i.e. that they were recognised therefore all tongues should be recognised.
In Acts 2 we read that, “They spoke with other tongues … they all heard them, each in his own language/dialect.” From this two options face us:
  • They spoke a variety of human languages, and the people recognised them.
  • They spoke in an unknown/spiritual language and there was a miracle of hearingwhereby they each heard them all speaking in their own language.
Now we must allow the text to do the work, and the problem with the second is that there is no suggestion in the text that the Spirit came on those who heard them and performed such a miracle of hearing, the text tells us that the Spirit came upon the speakers and the miracle was in the speaking! The languages they spoke were recognisable and identifiable.
Now when you turn to the other occurrences in Acts there is no doubt that these are spontaneous, unlearned languages/tongues, again no miracle of hearing but miracles of speaking, but it is not so easy to ascertain that they were recognisable languages, that has to be read into the text – not a good thing to do.
Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, or multi-cultural, and therefore a place of many languages. As William Baxter Godbey describes it, “It was really a mammoth mongrel of all nationalities.” In such a context it would seem very unlikely that someone entering the church at Corinth would have had any problem with people speaking in different languages/tongues, and they certainly would not have thought that they were out of their minds, and it would not have caused the type of chaos that Paul was dealing with. The Tongues in Corinth to all intents and purposes do not appear to have been recognised human languages from their known world. Paul even refers to the possibility of speaking in the tongues of angels.
Taking Scripture as a whole it seems that tongues could be human, angelic, or other/spiritual tongues all miraculously enabled by the Spirit. For this reason the translators use phrases like ‘unknown’ or ‘strange.’ Paul himself also refers to the ‘tongues of angels.’
Their Purpose
Some have held (particularly cessationsists) that the gift of tongues was for the purpose of evangelism, but there is no clear evidence that this is the case, either from Scripture or church history – this was no short cut to learning new languages. On the day of Pentecost, they were not preaching but magnifying or praising God, and when it came to the preaching it says that Peter stood up and preached the gospel, explaining the dynamic of what was taking place out of the Old Testament prophecy of Joel.
Some have noted Paul’s comments that they should seek the greater or higher gifts as meaning that tongues were at the bottom of the pile. I don’t think for one moment that was Paul’s intention rather that in the gathered community they should seek that which is beneficial to all.
1. They are a witness of the Spirit’s presence. They are frequently experienced after the reception of the Spirit. Pentecost being the prime example. In Acts 10:45, 46 it is the speaking in tongues that is a witness that the Spirit has come to the Gentiles.
2. They are for personal edification. They are full of meaning-ful content. For Paul this was the main benefit of the gift. “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself,” (1 Cor 14:4,14-17,28), he utters “mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor 14:2). Paul himself says, “I thank God that I speak in (other) languages/tongues more than you all,” (1 Cor 14:18). Note, he does not say “I speak in more languages.” He certainly gave time to speaking in tongues even though as the next verse shows he did not understand what he was saying. When did he do it? At home, privately.
3. They are for the edification of others. 1 Cor 14:26 speaks of bringing “a tongue” to the corporate gathering of the church. There are some differences among pentecostals and charismatics as to how this works out. 1. Some would say that ‘tongues’ is no more than thanksgiving or praise to God, “If you bless (praise/thank) in the Spirit only, how will the person who is ungifted be able to say Amen to your giving of thanks, since they do not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough.” (1 Cor. 14 16). Taking this approach the corresponding gift of interpretation is always interpreted as that individual’s response in praise or thanks to God. 2. Others take a much broader view.  ‘Mysteries’ (14:2) it is pointed out are more than giving thanks or praise to God, they are about God and his glorious purposes, and calling upon 1 Cor 14:3-5,6,13-17 view tongues when interpreted on a par with prophecy, which means that they can be a means of edification and encouragement – they can express revelation, blessing, giving thanks, prayer, praise and the prophetic.
4. They may be used to worship God. Luke refers to the speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost as proclaiming “the wonderful/magnificent works of God,” and in Acts 10:46 he describes them as “speaking in tongues and extolling God.” The context of 1 Cor 14:15 “I will sing praise with my spirit,” would seem to suggest singing praises in tongues, and some would also see such praise in the spiritual songs of Eph. 5:18 “Be filled with the Spirit speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs …”. Speaking in tongues is very often connected to exuberant praise.
5. They are a sign to unbelievers. Un-interpreted tongues can also function as a form of judgment to the unbelieving since they will not be able to understand what’s going on (1 Cor 14: 21-23). The reference here is to the Assyrian army who invade Israel speaking another language, but Israel didn’t recognise what God was saying/doing. The context here has to do with clarity, with understanding.
6. They are useful in praying. What some would refer to as their ‘prayer language.’ Paul speaks of ‘praying with the spirit’ (1 Cor 14:14, 15; poss. Rom 8:26), which taken in context can only mean praying in tongues, a means whereby we may go beyond the rational intellectual approach to prayer and enter a mode of prayer directed and enabled entirely by the Spirit. Many testify that they are more spiritually aware when praying in tongues; more aware of God’s presence.
The ‘Mechanics’ of Speaking in Tongues
1. Who may? – Paul says, “I want you all to speak in tongues …” (1 Cor 14:5 ESV). This wasn’t a wish, it was a strong desire. Every Christian may.
2. It is spiritual not natural. In normal speech the mind working through the understanding enables the tongue, but when someone speaks in tongues the words are not from the speakers understanding but the Holy Spirit. They flow from the human spirit as opposed to the mind.
3. How? Some people fear that if they speak in tongues they will lose control, but 1. “They spoke as the Spirit enabled them.” So it wasn’t made up, coerced, forced or psychological, but by the Spirit. 2. Paul says , “I will pray with the spirit … I will sing with the spirit.” Our will is involved, not neutralised.
So tongues are a part of the New Covenant blessing of God, they are miraculous, varied, and extremely beneficial when used according to Scripture.
Why not seek God for the gift?
Maybe you have the gift, and you’ve not used it in awhile, then be encouraged to stir it up.
What place does it have in your life?
What place does it have in your church?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Christianity is Supernatural

The recent debate over Strange Fire has made me think again about what it means to be a Christian, and for the church to be truly Christian.
One of the dangers of the debate over Strange Fire, and a danger for those who call themselves Reformed (I don’t particularly like labels as you are not always sure as to what they mean to others, but if you are wondering I guess I’m reformed with a small ‘r’), is the reducing of Christianity to that which is cerebral, solely of the mind, an intellectual exercise, something which we have power and control over.
But, one thing that stands out with just a cursory reading of the Bible is that being a Christian is far more than assenting to the truth (though there is and must be that), it is supernatural, there’s no two ways about it, and you can’t be one without it!
  • To be a Christian involves a supernatural new birth.
  • To be a Christian involves the supernatural baptism and continual filling of the Holy Spirit.
  • To live as a Christian requires daily dependence upon God, a life lived in the Spirit.
  • To be a Christian is to be resourced by the Spirit with all his wonderful gifts.
  • To be a Christian involves mortifying the flesh, the old passions, by the Spirit (not strength of mind or will).
  • Our praying is to be in the Spirit.
  • Our worship is to be in the Spirit.
  • Our meetings are to be led and enabled by the Spirit.
  • Our witness is to be empowered by the Spirit.
  • Etc.!
Christianity is then an experience, a powerful supernatural experience, and without it we end up with sterile form – cold, disciplined religion. For Paul it wasn’t simply a case of giving mental assent to the truth, it was what do you know of the Spirit’s presence. In Reformed circles it has been traditional to speak of justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, as the foundational truth of the church – lose it and you have no church, and there is a measure of truth to that. The problem is it’s not the whole truth, and on it’s own it’s like a plane with only one wing. Paul’s great challenge to those who professed belief at Ephesus was ‘did you receive the Spirit when you believed?’ According to Paul then there is another fundamental and foundational truth to the church – the reception of and experience of the Spirit.
My question is do you know Him? Have you truly encountered the Saviour? What do you know of the Spirit’s presence? You can’t have One without the Other. If you don’t then you don’t have to wait to go to church, you can meet him now. Recognise your sin and need of a Saviour, turn from your sin and helplessness to Christ, believe in Him and receive the gift of his Spirit.
And if you do know him, what place does the Spirit have in your life? Do you know what it is to be filled? Do you know his Presence and Power? If not, why wait, open up your heart afresh to him, seek his renewal and filling….
What place are we giving in our churches to the Spirit?
What place are we giving in our churches are we giving to the Word?
We need both Word and Spirit, without them we are in trouble, but with them, wow! who knows!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Strange Fire and Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues is a big issue for John MacArthur and Co. and it was also for the apostle Paul, except that their take on it is completely different.
Part of MacArthur’s problem, a major part, is one of hermeneutic, how you interpret the Scriptures. MacArthur works within a moderate dispensational framework, a framework which tends to divide human history into particular periods of God’s activity, so within this framework the baptism and gifts of the Spirit were for the founding of the church, after which they were withdrawn as they were no longer needed.
The problem with such an approach is that you have nowhere to place any demonstrations of the Spirit today, so you are left with no other course of action than to describe them as false, gibberish and at worse demonic. Sadly this was seen at the Strange Fire Conference, yet perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised as it can be seen in John MacArthur’s Study Bible (a huge amount of which is very good) where in regard to tongues in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians MacArthur appears to be at a complete loss in how to deal with them and in order to win his point must argue that Paul is actually dealing with counterfeit tongues and not the real thing.
MacArthur says in commentating on chapter 4:2 he who speaks in a tongue. This is singular, indicating that it refers to the false gibberish of the counterfeit pagan ecstatic speech. The singular is used because gibberish can’t be plural; there are not various kinds of non-language”, and again in chapter 14 v. 14-17, “Paul continued to speak sarcastically (cf. v. 16; 4:8-10) about counterfeit tongues, so he used the singular “tongue”…, which refers to the fake gift. He was speaking hypothetically to illustrate the foolishness and pointlessness of speaking in ecstatic gibberish.”Again in 14:26 MacArthur says “each of you has… a tongue. In the singular, this refers to the counterfeit.” Now nowhere in the context is there any suggestion that Paul thinks they are uttering false tongues or speaking in gibberish! Absolutely nowhere. That is simply being read into the text.
The first thing to note is that MacArthur trys to make a difference between a ‘tongue’ and ‘tongues,’ the “singular ‘tongue’” he says “refers to the fake”, the latter plural “tongues” the genuine. Again this is being read into the text, and it should be noted that you can only speak in one tongue at a time, so Paul’s terminology, his Greek, is quite correct. Paul is not saying the gift is false, and he is certainly not saying they should stop it, rather he is saying, look, this is one of the gifts of the Spirit and it is of great benefit, but only if it is interpreted.
Secondly, Paul’s problem then is with their use and abuse of the gift, and his great concern is not in stopping it but getting them to exercise it in the right way.  In chapter 14:13 he says“Let him who speaks in a tongue (note the singular) pray that he may interpret.” Not for one moment does he say, “stop, it’s gibberish, don’t you know, it’s of the devil,” rather, what he says is that unless an interpretation is given what they say will not benefit those who are listening, so pray for the interpretation.
Thirdly, as Paul goes on there is no way that he is being sarcastic, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding.” This is not sarcasm, that is being read into the text by MacArthur to suit his own belief and experience, something that we all need to be aware of – reading the text from where we are.  Rather Paul says when I pray in a tongue my spirit is praying, not my mind, and so I don’t understand what I’m saying, so I will do both, pray in a tongue and pray with my intellect/understanding – the argument is for one of balance and edification.
Paul said that he himself welcomed the gift and spoke in tongues more than all of them (14:18). What about you?

Monday, 28 October 2013

Strange Fire and the Corinthians

Reflecting on the Strange Fire Conference and Scripture one can’t help but wonder how John MacArthur would have written to the church at Corinth.
Here was a church where things were out of order – here was charismatic chaos! And what is Paul’s answer, what you are doing is of the devil? Or/and, I don’t think any of you are saved? No, his answer is to recognise the Spirit’s activity among them, and their responsibility in it.
And so he speaks to them about the fact that you can only confess that Christ is Lord by the Spirit, of being members of a body and everything being done for the benefit of the body – not selfish edification or enjoyment. About God being a God of peace and not of disorder, and of the spirit of the prophets being subject to the prophets – that even though they are moved upon by the Spirit they are responsible for the when and how – but one thing he just doesn’t say is that it’s not the Spirit and that they are not saved.
Rather he goes on to stir them up for more, not to hold back, or stop it, just make sure you do it well, in a way that honours God, and blesses all, and is not a stumbling block to the lost.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Strange Fire - Further Thoughts

Well the Strange Fire Conference has certainly stirred something up, let’s pray that all sides benefit from the continuing conversation.
Having been brought up a cessationist I have been for many years a scripturally and experientially convinced continuationist, though I must confess I did have a spell where because of the abuse of spiritual gifts I was tempted to go back to cessationism – it would be safer, easier and less painful.  I questioned their authenticity, and whether we could really know what was of God or not (interestingly this is a question raised at this conference, how can we know that tongues are the same today as in New Testament days, yet we could also ask how do I know or you know that our born-again experience is exactly the same as in the New Testament?!). But then I began to realise that if I were to do that I would have to deny scripture, and I couldn’t do it. I realised that abuse mustn’t lead us to non-use, or even the the denial of gifts, that’s exactly what the enemy wants, but rather we needed to learn how to use and manage them correctly.
That journey has opened my own heart and life and ministry more directly to the dynamic of God’s presence and the hearing of his voice, and there is no way I could go back on it. Yes there are those round the edges who discredit the movement through excess and bad teaching, but lets not cast the baby out with the bathwater, or throw all our money away simply because of a few forgeries – Paul didn’t write off the faith and experiences of the Corinthian church because of what was going on, rather he wrote to establish a proper understanding and order to the exercise of the gifts!
If there’s something that I’ve observed having been in pentecostal and charismatic churches, old church and new church, it is that we are not pentecostal/charismatic enough!  Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said many years ago to those who were cessationist, “Got it all? Well, if you have ‘got it all’, I simply ask in the Name of God, why are you as you are? If you have ‘got it all’, why are you so unlike the Apostles, why are you so unlike the New Testament Christians?” The same could be said of some pentecostals and charismatics today, only they know the doctrine, but not enough of the experience.  There is indeed the very real danger of following generations arising who do not know the experiences their forefathers had – something that history documents in other movements/denominations, where over time form and the way things are done take over, professionalism becomes the order of the day, cold orthodoxy sets in and seats empty, until a generation arises that asks afresh, where is God? Where is he in all of this?
In the same way that we need to keep preaching the gospel and calling people to Christ or we end with a church full of religious people, so also we need to be making sure that they receive the gift of the Spirit, and encouraging them in the gifts, otherwise we’ll have a generation in pentecostal and charismatic churches with none of the life and power of their forefathers.
The fact that Paul has to write and encourage the believers to earnestly desire and stir up the gifts that God has given implies that they don’t automatically perpetuate themselves, rather we have a responsibility to keep them alive among us. More is what we need, not less. Doing it right is what we need, not quenching the Spirit for fear of getting it wrong. Paul’s strong desire was that all would speak in tongues, and even more that they prophesied.
What about you?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Strange Fire

This week has seen the Strange Fire Conference in the United States hosted by John MacArthur, a conference accusing those in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement of being in error, of wrongly dividing Scripture and encouraging experiences and ministries that are false and so leading the church of God astray.
The big questions being asked and answered are, should people be experiencing the baptism in the Spirit today? Should they prophesy and speak in tongues today? Should we lay hands on the sick and expect healing today? All answered in the negative, because it is argued Scripture says so, and they want those who believe otherwise to know and be corrected.
The fact is, it doesn’t, you have to draw lines where there are non, read things into rather than out of Scripture. Yes they may call Calvin to their defense, but please Calvin’s word doesn’t have the same authority as Scripture. And yes they may call the lack of such experiences at some periods in church history as evidence, but that is not to argue from Scripture, but experience or the lack of it.
I was brought up a cessationist, I know the arguments, I encountered Pentecostals, was impacted by their life and witness. They spoke in tongues and believed God heals today. I wrestled with the Scriptures. Was encouraged to believe that it was of the devil. But I had never seen such devotion and passion for Jesus, such a desire to know him and witness to him, such passion in worship and prayer, and no they weren’t speaking in tongues all the time and neither were they swinging from the chandeliers!
Yes, frequently the stories and objections were based on hearsay, frequently generalisations – yes there are some that do the movement no good, but please that applies across the whole church. Such arguments are false and misleading and sadly this seems to be the approach of this conference.
Praise God I came to see that I was reading Scripture through the lens of my own tradition, and my, how tradition can be blinding. Praise God for the witness of those I encountered. And oh, I wanted God, not just words. I wanted reality, not just form. Praise God I met him, I was powerfully baptised in the Spirit and suddenly my Christian life took on a whole new dynamic, a dynamic that was rooted in Scripture itself.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

There's no one Like our God!

Sunday I had the privilege of introducing our new series on The Trinity at Gateway, Why Our God is Unique among the gods, and once again I was inspired, awed, and excited by the doctrine of the Trinity, or more particularly, knowing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One church member remarked beforehand that he couldn’t remember ever hearing any teaching on the Trinity, and he’s been around evangelical churches all his life. The sad fact is that we may acknowledge, confess in creeds and songs that we believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but in reality are practicing unitarians – the belief that God is solely and singularly One, with no dynamic of loving persons.
Such a belief impoverishes our worship, cripples our life and undermines our witness.
To make God known we need to know him as he is.
Yes the Trinity takes some thought, some hard brain work, but it’s worth every ounce of effort, as this big, vast, vision of God dawns on our souls.
The reality is that every true Christian already knows something of this Trinitarian God through his work in their lives, 1, as the Holy Spirit convicts of sin  and 2, points them to Jesus Christ as their Saviour and then having confessed their faith in him, 3, the awareness that they are now sons and daughters of the living God and able to call him Father.
Sadly for many that’s where it stalls.
What about you?
Yes, the word ‘trinity’ is not in the Bible, but the Reality is.
Yes, it doesn’t immediately step out at us, but there are hints and movements that indicate that God who is time and again confessed as One God is in fact a trinity of persons. In contrast to a world that was full of gods – gods to cover every sphere of life – Israel confessed that God was One and he sovereignly ruled over all, yet over and over in it’s story there are hints that the God they confessed and saw and encountered in action was somehow more.
When you get to the New Testament, suddenly it hits you, this Jesus, whom the gospels are all about, is none other than God’s Son living in flesh just like ours, yet he says ‘before Abraham was I am’! And John introducing his gospel reaches back beyond time and says, ‘The Word was with God and the word was God’- always.  God face to face with himself. The same but distinct from. He is God here, but he prays to God who is there! As John unpacks the gospel he recounts Jesus talking in very personal and intimate ways about his relationship to the Father, that people who have seen him have seen the Father, that the Father is in him and he is in the Father! He says, ‘Believe in God, believe also in me.’
There’s more.
It’s not Two, but Three! Jesus says that when he goes away he is going to send One just like Himself, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit with whom and through whom both he and the Father enjoy fellowship. Wow! Suddenly we are getting little insights into the interior relationship of God. God is One, but he’s Three. There are three distinct personalities in the One God.
Suddenly our picture of God dramatically changes, ‘there is’ as the previous pope said, ‘a ‘We’ in God.’
God was not and is not some solitary, self absorbed, power consumed individual doing his ‘own’ arbitrary thing, but rather a community of distinct loving Persons, delighting in and serving  one another from all eternity.
God was not and is not some benign policeman, protecting you on the one hand but looking out for your misdemeanours and penalising you on the other. Neither is he some Hitler, consumed with power and authority, making rash judgement calls all in the name of the advancement of his purposes.
No, in the Trinity we discover as the Godfrey Birthill song puts it, a “wonderful, wonderful God….”
Do you know Him?

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Gay Agenda and the Bible

In the light of the reported comments regarding what the Archbishop of Canterbury has said regarding the Church of England and Gay marriage, and the Presses seeming delight in reporting that this is from someone from the evangelical wing, it behoves us to stop and ask what does the Bible say, or how  is it now being interpreted.

Roy Clements (a former evangelical Baptist minister who ‘came out’) has written:
“I believe there are at least three reasons why evangelicals must think again about homosexuality:
  1. Because Christian hostility towards homophile relationships rests on an interpretation of the Bible which is in many respects open to question.
  2. Because there is a diversity of opinion among Christians about the issue which will cause division within the churches unless an attitude of greater tolerance and mutual respect prevails.
  3. Because current pastoral practice is damaging homosexual Christians and so alienating the gay community generally that evangelism is impossible.”
The big issue today is how we read the text. An anonymous minister writing on the website Fulcrum said, “But I cannot pretend to be straight when I read the Bible, and that means I read the text through a lens which is subtly different to the lens through which a straight man, or a woman, will read the Bible. That diversity is not a problem: it is a gift to the Church, and it helps us to see what the author is really saying.”  But that could be stated of many things and leaves us with a text that is utterly powerless to speak to us let alone change our lives.

This issue says Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "will expose a great divide over the authority of the Bible among many Christian churches and denominations — perhaps in a way exceeding any other issue."

21st Century Sexuality
When examined it would appear that a major part of the problem seems to be the overemphasis in the 21st century on ‘being sexually active as the way to be most fully alive,’ and correspondingly any denial of that ‘right’ is seen as an infringement on personal freedom.

A Forgotten and Unspoken Truth: Homosexual behaviour is one of the most harmful and destructive of behaviours.
  • Mostly compulsive promiscuity.
  • 75% of homosexual men have more than 100 sexual partners during their lifetime.
  • More than half of these partners are strangers.
  • Only 8% of homosexual men and 7% of homosexual women ever have relationships lasting more than three years.
  • Widespread drug use by homosexuals to heighten their sexual experiences.
  • Homosexuals in general are three times as likely to be problem drinkers as the general population.
  • Studies show that 47% of male homosexuals have a history of alcohol abuse and 51% have a history of drug abuse.
  • 40% of homosexual men have a history of major depression. That compares with only 3% for men in general.
  • Similarly 37% of female homosexuals have a history of depression. This leads in turn to heightened suicide rates.
  • Studies show that homosexuals are much more likely to be paedophiles than heterosexual men.
  • Homosexual activity is very destructive, resulting eventually in such problems as prostate damage, ulcers and ruptures, and chronic incontinence and diarrhea.[1]
Traditional Evangelical/Biblical Reasoning and Response:
Up until recently the traditional and accepted approach could be outlined as:
  1. We are all obligated to do God’s will.
  2. God’s will is expressed in the Bible.
  3. The Bible forbids homosexual behaviour.
  4. Therefore, homosexual behaviour is against God’s will, or is wrong.
In other words there was no doubt about what the Bible said, and as one theologian put it, "I have long insisted that the issue is one of hermeneutics, and that efforts to twist the text to mean what it clearly does not say are deplorable. Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behaviour, and there is no getting around it." And that "Paul wouldn't accept [a loving homosexual] relationship for a minute."  Walter Wink, To Hell With Gays (though one could certainly take issue with the title of his book, his comments are worth noting).

Not so any more.

The Problem we Face - There are now differing approaches to God and his Word:
  1. God has authoritatively spoken in his Word in for all time.
  2. God speaks in the world and we need to catch up with what God is doing in the world.
  3. A complete redefinition of scripture - The Bible is no longer viewed as the literal word of God – a text with a fixed meaning – but a historical document that is a witness to God’s message, but we are told we need to remember that it was written by humans and therefore flawed. To that extent man needs to reinterpret it as he improves. As society changes so to must the Church’s teachings. We are all on a journey.  To quote Kate Blanchard, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College,“Those folks, those human beings, were ahead of their time in many ways, and we can be deeply grateful that they pooled the best of their wisdom together for the benefit of posterity. But like it or not, even the most inspired human authors are still only human; not only did our intellectual and spiritual ancestors get some stuff dead wrong, but they also never thought of many of the questions that we have to deal with. When such questions arise, we must courageously stand in our own time, trusting that inspiration and wisdom are renewable resources (that "God is still speaking," as one church puts it, even if some of us do have longstanding tradition on our side).”
And so Rob Bell is able to say, “I’ve seen....” and Steve Chalke speaks about being guided by his pastoral concerns, all of which leads a reappraisal of scripture, and the idea that there is a 'conversation between God and man that is still in progress, and as time goes by we are learning what’s right and wrong for our generation, adapting and changing as our understanding progresses.'

This is not what Christians and churches have believed down through the centuries. For the majority the Bible has been the God breathed, authoritative word, totally sufficient for faith and conduct, something that we submit our minds to, rather than stand over it in judgement.

A Quick overview of Some of the New Twists/Manipulations of Scripture:
  • Gen. 2:18 “It’s not good for man to be alone” – the focus here is placed on the ‘aloneness’ of Adam, and the argument is made that God provided a suitable partner for Adam and that’s OK for Adam and perhaps most men, but for gay men it’s different, so if a woman doesn’t suit you it’s OK to be with and marry a man – correspondingly a woman, a woman, and the evangelical is now being accused of misusing scripture. To quote, “1. Eve was not created as purely a sex partner, or child bearer. Eve was created as a ‘helpmate’ a companion. This is certainly the basis of love in all relationships, hetero and homosexual. 2. Adam and Eve certainly seem to be God’s idea, but there is no reason to believe they were God’s ONLY idea. A God who can make 300 types of mushroom, can certainly make more than 2 types of people. 3. To conclude that Adam and Eve are the model for who we should be leaves us with more questions than answers. If this one couple populated the earth without God creating others  then we are all the product of incest. Surely that is not the biblical message. Who was Mrs. Cain? An ‘other’ created by God, just as we all are. 4. The logic that we should all be exactly like the first couple is specious at best. What if Adam had brown eyes? Should all men have brown eyes?”  The Bible and Homosexuality, Scholarship and Diversity Study.
  • The multiplication mandate. God’s purpose at the beginning was humanities multiplication, now things have moved on, therefore it doesn’t matter who we connect with.
  • Gen 19, the story of Sodom – 1, this is no longer considered to be about God’s judgment on homosexuality but judgment for failure to be hospitable – something of great importance in that culture, or 2, if it’s acknowledged that homosexuality is involved it’s not because it’s wrong but because rape/violence is used. Note though Jude 7 – Sodom and surrounding cities.
  • Lev. 18:22 “You are not to lie with a man as with a woman” – this is taken to mean that as the woman in that culture was deemed to be of lower status, to lie with a man in such a way is to demean or dishonour him, but if you lie with a man as an equal that is OK.
  • In Lev 18 and 20 it's said the practices are condemned because they are done in association with idolatry“If the practices in Leviticus 18 and 20 are condemned because of their association with idolatry, then it logically follows that they would be permissible if they were committed apart from idolatry. That would mean incest, adultery, bestiality, and child sacrifice (all of which are listed in these chapters) are only condemned when associated with idolatry; otherwise, they are allowable. No responsible reader of these passages would agree with such a premise.(12)” Probe
  • David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and John – here there is a lot of reading back from our present cultural understanding/distortions, where  love is nearly always sexualised and therefore seen as a sexual activity; we see this occurring in a lot of historical revisionism, i.e. Nelson. Not so in the OT and NT. Likewise there are many other cultures where love was thought of quite differently.
  • Jesus never mentioned it. True, but he did state categorically the context for all sexual relations – a husband and wife.
  • Rom. 1: 26, 27; 1 Cor. 6:9. The homosexuality Paul talks about was different, i.e  homosexual prostitution or pedophilia or Cultic. This argument cannot be sustained.
  • Rom. 1:26, 27; “Contrary to nature.”  It’s argued that this is about heterosexuals indulging in homosexual practice, in other words, something that is not natural to them (!) therefore wrong. This is read into the text, which is about the ‘unnaturalness’ of men going after men and women with women.
  • The Bible is only against non-consexual acts, i.e. rape, prostitution, idolatrous. Sex in the Bible is a marital activity, all sex outside of it is condemned (adultery, fornication, prostitution, bestiality, incest.....).  In the Bible (OT & NT) it is the two sexes that become one flesh.
  • Queen James Bible. This is ‘gay’ interpretation of the Bible, that slants it in their direction.
A misuse of some other Texts, History and Guilt to Move us in Another Direction.
  • “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit” – homosexuals say that’s what it’s done for me, it’s rejected and hurt me, therefore the doctrine, and churches/Christians who practice it must be wrong!
  • “Judge not so that you are not judged” – You can’t/shouldn’t judge me, it’s wrong - Josh McDowell says this is becoming the most well known verse in the Bible.
  • “It’s the same as slavery, the church once thought that was OK but came to believe differently”  – actually the church thought slavery was wrong way back, and the comparison is unjustified.  You’ll find in OT there were certain laws regarding the treatment of slaves.
  • “It’s racist” – the fact is race and gender are 100% inherited, sexuality isn’t.
  • “Use of guilt” – it’s argued that homosexuals commit suicide because of the churches teaching and attitude - that's overstated.
  • “We are not under law” – if there is an admittance that the text does refer to homosexuality, then it’s very often said we are not under law and so it no longer applies.
What does the Bible say?
  • Jesus fulfilled the Law, declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), touched lepers, dead bodies.
  • Jesus paid the price for our sin.
The Result:
  • OT ceremonial laws were done away (see Hebrews).
  • OT moral law still stands re stealing, killing, sexual relations, etc..
  • All the sex ethics of the OT were restated in the NT.  Sex in the Bible is a marital activity, all sex outside of it is condemned (adultery, fornication, prostitution, .....).  In the Bible (OT & NT) it is the two sexes that become one flesh.
  • Sin of any kind continues to be sin and still needs to be repented of. Paul says “such were some of you.”
A further argument: But what about the judgements relating to particular sins in OT, should they still be in force?
  • In the OT Israel was a nation state called and governed by God for a purpose and as such there were civil penalties to be paid.
  • In the NT the church is not a nation state, but it can be found in many nations and sin is dealt with by exhortation and exclusion.
James R. White and Jeffrey D. Niell in their book The Unthinkable has become Thinkable, contend that : “The net effect of this revisionist approach is a novel and destructive twisting of Scripture...The Bible is being reinterpreted according to urges that are "against nature" and then said to support the homosexual agenda...Despite the revisionists' protests to the contrary, their position is in actuality based upon human desire rather than upon biblical authority and interpretation.”

What about the nature of homosexuality?
  • Homosexuality needs to be seen like any other wrong behaviour as a consequence of the Fall, and therefore our brokenness, which manifests itself in different ways in different individuals – we need to maintain a robust doctrine of sin.
  • Just because we feel something doesn’t make it right. If we all followed the logic of ‘that’s the way I’m made’ we’d have chaos – sin has corrupted our feelings. People can be tempted by all kinds of wrong feelings.
  • The answer is in the gospel – Paul says and ‘such were some of you’ 1 Cor 6:11.
  • And again he says, "I have crucified the affections and lusts," a forgotten and neglected truth.
Richard Lovelace represents the past evangelical consensus when he argues: "If we can reinterpret the Scripture to endorse homosexual acts among Christians, we can make it endorse anything else we want to do or believe."

[1] Dr. Thomas Schmidt, Straight and Narrow?