Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Community Of Truth & Love: Growing Together In The Gospel



Ephesians 4: 11 – 16

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
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Today, there are lots of discussions on how we can grow the church. Some say you gotta know your market segment and meet their felt needs. Others say the key is to have a network of cell groups where real community happens. Some say forget about church, just meet at Starbucks and have spiritual conversations. Others say lets bring back ancient religious symbols to give people a sacred experience. Still others say: If it brings people to church, does it matter how you do it as long as it’s ethical?

I’m not saying all of them are wrong. In fact, we can learn lots from them. For example, we have a children’s library because we discern that people in Puchong have young families and there is a need we can meet. And we do have covenant groups where close bonding and relationships are formed, sometimes over Starbucks or Coffee Bean. During Good Friday/Easter, we do appreciate time-honored tradition of The Stations of the Cross filled with sacred symbolism.

But having said that, it would be silly to start construction on a building without first knowing what kind of structure we plan to build. An apartment is different from a bungalow. They all have different blueprints, different materials, uses and shapes. The process of building will depend on what you want to build.

The same goes for building a church. Because a church is not a profit making entity. It’s not a multi-level marketing company. It is not a social club. It’s not a Rotary Club where people come together to provide social services. In fact, a healthy church is unlike any other human organization because it’s not devised by men. 

The church is God’s idea. It is a central theme in the biblical salvation story – the church is a new humanity created by God the Father, she is the Bride loved and redeemed by God the Son and she is the new temple in whom God the Holy Spirit dwells.

So it only makes sense to see what God’s word has to say about how He wants to grow His church. We should look to God’s instruction manual to build His church since it’s His design. Otherwise, looking back in 10 years’ time, we may end up building in vain. So that’s what we will look at together as we consider church membership today.

1) How does the church grow?

The Greek word for church is ekklesia, a gathering or a congregation of people for displaying God’s glory and sharing His gospel in the world. And the Scriptures use various metaphors to describe her: We are branches of the same vine, sheep of the same flock, brothers and sisters in the same family, stones built in the same building and, from the passage we read just now, we are members together of the same body.

It means all of us are connected to the Body of Christ though we have different functions, abilities and roles. And the entire body grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (v16). If any member is cut off from the body, it will shrivel and die. Every member is joined and held together by every supporting ligament. We are all needy people. And we are needed. Our lives are inter-dependent. We rely on each other to grow. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you”. And we receive instruction and nutrition from Christ himself, who is the head.

Now, how does the body grow? How do we grow into Christ-likeness? Paul tells us in verse 11: Christ himself gave us leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) to equip his people for works of service, so that the body may be built up. Verse 15 says: “speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Christ”. Speaking the truth in love is HOW we build the body up.

But what does “speak the truth in love” mean? Is it like when your wife asked: “Do I look fat?” you will tell it as it is, but gently: “Well, dear, let’s just say you are horizontally endowed. Don’t worry, there’s more of you to love.” You tell the hard facts, but do it in love. That’s partly true, yes. But crucial to spiritual growth of the church is we need to speak biblical truth to each other. We need to feed each other with truth about God. Spiritual truth of His promises. Encouragements from what Christ has done on the cross. Confront sinful patterns with the truth in love.

You can tell by looking at the context: In verse 11 all the leaders that Christ has given to equip us are all truth agents: apostles and prophets are the authoritative, foundational witnesses to the truth (their teachings are now preserved for us in the Bible), the evangelists (who do the work of evangelism with the truth of the gospel), the pastors and teachers (who take the truth and use it to feed and protect the flock of God). Every one of them equips us with God’s truth. They are truth agents who equip us for ministry.
We can also see in verse 14: “speaking the truth in love” is put in contrast with childish thinking, being easily deceived and swayed by every wind of false teaching. As we speaking God’s truth in love, it transforms us, strengthens us, comforts us and gives us a stable anchor and unity in sound doctrine. That’s how we grow.
Another way to put it: The core business of the church is to grow people into mature, disciple-making disciples of Christ by teaching them to obey everything that He commanded. We are talking about people growth and gospel growth. God’s word is like seeds that we sow. It’s like rain that nourishes us and makes us bear fruit.

If this is not happening, it doesn’t matter how much programs, how many members, how big is the budget and how grand a building we have – there is no spiritual growth.

How do we help each other grow into the measure of the fullness of Christ? Answer: by speaking truth about God and about Christ in love. Both are crucial: Truth and love. Truth without love is judgmental and puffs up in pride. But love without truth is confused and compromising. We need to learn the art of listening well in order to understand, not judge and feel what others feel. We also need to learn the courage to speak a word of truth in love even when it may get uncomfortable. God’s truth comforts and assures us. It can also challenge and call us to change.
This can happen in many wonderful ways in CDPC Puchong:
1)      It can happen in small groups when we gather for covenant groups, youth groups, Sunday school, ministry meetings and one-to-one Bible study.
2)      It can happen when we read prayers and the Bible with our children and spouse. Or in daily conversations as we eat and drive to school.
3)      It can happen during water cooler conversations at the work place with colleagues.
4)      When people prayerfully speak God’s truth in love from the pulpit, in class rooms and training workshops. When worship leaders lead us in worship grounded in Scripture. When pastors, teachers and evangelists model how to faithfully read and apply the Scriptures, we are equipped to serve others.
5)      Or when we follow up with new comers at the children’s library over lunch or invite guests on Sundays to our homes. Perhaps just over Kopitiam, when we discuss what we learnt during sermon and invite God into our conversations.

There are endless possibilities but what happens is the same: God’s people prayerfully speaking God’s word in love to someone else… That’s what the Holy Spirit would use to cause people to grow and bear fruit. That’s our core business. Everything else supports it.

Who will do the works of ministry?

If a guest walks in here and asks you: “Who is the minister around here?” How would you reply? What’s the correct answer: Rev Wong? Pastor David? But the biblical answer to “Who is the minister around here?” is: “All of us are. All of us do the works of ministry. All of us speak the truth in love”.

Yes, God has given some members of the church with the gift and responsibility to lead and equip God’s people. But look at verse 11: Equip them to do what? For works of ministry… For works of service… So who are the ministers? Only the pastor or teachers who do the equipping? Nope, a minister is a servant so all of us serve by doing ministry.

There is a die-hard belief that only full time, paid people have a ministry or only what happens on the pulpit on Sundays count as ministry or only “specially-called, specially-trained” people have a ministry. The main function for the rest of God’s people is to assist a few who can do “real ministry”. We support with our time, energy, prayer and finances so that full time, ordained pastors-teachers can do the really important thing.

But that’s not the model given in God’s word. Leaders equip God’s people to minister. God’s people do the ‘real ministry’ of speaking the truth in love to each other. Of encouraging and comforting each other. Of challenging and correcting each other. As members of the Body of Christ, we all have various spiritual gifts and roles that would enrich and are needed by others. The hand cannot say to the foot, “You don’t need me anyway so I can sit back, relax and enjoy the show”. The apostle Peter says: You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people so you could show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. We all are called and have ministry as prophets, kings and priests in the world.

For example, let’s imagine a discussion about the Children’s Library. Some people would look at it and say: “I’ve been around for four years. It’s wonderful to see so many families come to read and borrow books. But how do we reach them with the gospel? It’s just not happening yet.” Others look at it and say: “You know what we need first of all. We need to encourage and mobilize more people to support the work. Strategically, we need more librarians, story tellers and befrienders.”  Still other say: “But you know what’s even more important: Have we thought about children who cannot read or come from poorer families or with special needs? How can we serve them too?”

If we are not careful, we may misunderstand each other: “That fella is always thinking about evangelism, what about serving the poor?” or “That fella is always thinking about social justice, but who’s going to do the work?” But in truth, each one has a unique perspective because the first person has a prophetic ministry (how can we evangelize?), the second person has a kingly ministry (how can we get organized strategically?) and the third person has a priestly ministry (how can we sacrificially serve others?) And we need all of three contributing to the same Children Library so it can be more effective in serving others and evangelize. And we need each other to make the best decision (blind spots). That’s why as part of the church membership class next month, Tom will discuss about how we can serve and use our spiritual gifts to build up each other.

If prayerfully speaking God’s word in love is what brings spiritual life and all of us are ministers called and gifted by God, how would that change the way we think about church growth?

Here are important mind shifts: It means our priority is in equipping people for evangelism and to make disciples, rather than running events, attending committee meetings, managing property or organizing programs. Yes, we do need to be responsible stewards of our resources and finances. But we cannot be so caught up in running programs and committees that we lose sight of our core business in making disciples. Rather than to start with gaps in our ministries and programs and see how people can fit into them, our priority is to start with people and where they are at; and then consider how we can help them grow in spiritual maturity and what gifts and ministries look like for them.

A newcomer (let's say, Wendy): She is a solid Christian, a teacher and has a passion for evangelism in her network of colleagues and students: “David - how can I serve?” Do we look around and see a gap in the worship/music ministry: “OK, you can plug the gap here?” Or do we see her gifts and encourage her to pursue evangelism? That’s the test. (Ministry Mind shift ppt

Lastly what is the goal of our ministry in CDPC Puchong?

Every process has an end product. So what is the result from our process of speaking the truth in love with each other? What is the goal of our ministry?

The first goal of our ministry is the building up of the body of Christ. Verse 12: Christ gives leaders to the church "for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ."  It means we are in the business of raising up mature Christians - equipping disciples who do interpersonal ministry wherever they are. The fruitfulness we are after is that people are trained and sent out to make disciples, plant new churches and make an impact in the work place. In this hectic and mobile world, people don’t remain in the same place for very long… There will always be people who come and go for work, for studies, for relocation. And that’s ok… The priority is not that this church will grow in size and budget. That’s secondary. The priority is that we want to produce and export mature disciples who speak the truth in love wherever they are – to Australia, Vietnam, Norwich and beyond. The church should function like a body where every member serves in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The second goal of our ministry is the unity of faith and the unity of the knowledge of the Son of God. Verse 13: "until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God." That’s why in November (as part of church membership) we will have conversations on “Basic Beliefs”. There are lots of things that Christians can agree to disagree about (small or big government, GST or no GST, different opinions about rap music, organic food, football teams etc). But at the same time, there are historic doctrines of the Christian faith shared by believers across the ages – we need to have unity of faith, unity in knowledge of Christ and what he has done for us in the gospel.

Why is such a unity and foundation important? Look at v14: So that we will no longer be infants. We should be humble and be child-like in faith. But we should never be childish in our thinking. We should not be tossed back and forth by winds of popular opinion or cultural fads: “It’s not cool to preach about sin and judgment in this day and age. Relax and forget about it”. The opposite of having unity in faith and knowledge is to be naïve and easily conned by craftiness of people in deceitful scheming. I do consider myself a ‘charismatic’ Christian – I believe God works miracles, heals and delivers people from bondage today. But I don’t think it’s spiritually healthy for us to chase after signs and wonders, to be obsessed with the latest phenomenon that comes to town like holy laughter, holy bark, holy roar, gold teeth/gold dust. Some of these movement leaders were exposed with marital and financial scandals. Don’t be naïve. Be centered on the gospel.

The final goal of our ministry is that the church becomes mature like Christ. Verse 13: Build up the body "until we all attain… to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ." A common feeling among Christians is that they only get prayed for and visited by when they’re sick or in trouble. Of course, we are all people in need of help, friendship and prayer. It takes courage to be open to share needs and find help. But we shouldn’t have a culture where people pray only when reacting to crisis. The goal of ministry is also about pro-actively encouraging people to move forward in holy living and spiritual maturity whether they have problems or not. We want to be comfortable teaching and praying for one another even when things are going well that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)


We aim for the body of Christ to grow into the full grown stature of Christ, the mature man. We are not yet there. It’s work in progress. We want unity in faith, we want to equip the saints for ministry so that the church reflects in our character, our spiritual life, our service, our relationship the fullness of our Lord Himself. We want to the world to see Christ magnified and lifted up through us. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?



A comparison of the portraits of Jesus as described in the Koran and in the New Testament. The audio download file may be found here

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Scripture Forum 1: Its Dependability

Today we had a lively and engaging forum on Scripture's infallibility and trustworthiness. It reflects our church's values of learning together as a community, being open to hard questions and faith seeking understanding.   

Lots of interesting questions were raised. Understandably it is impossible to do justice to all of them in less than 15-20 minutes. Feel free to approach any of the leaders if you like to continue these conversations. 

Here are some blog posts that I have dug up from the Agora blog which may hopefully help us step back and get some background into the discussions:

1) We talk about an infallible, inerrant original manuscript which is no longer with us. So how do we know what was in that original manuscript (autograph) written by the biblical authors? And what about various translations of the Bible? (KJV, NIV, ESV etc) 

Check out this article published in Kairos magazine: (also available on the book table)

With that background, we can appreciate why some ancient texts/manuscripts i.e. Alexandrian, Byzantine, are considered technically more reliable or not. 

2) Belief that “the Bible contains no error” (inerrant) is not an inductive conclusion arrived at after examining all the passages of the bible or years of studying textual criticism. It springs deductively (top-down reasoning) from the “first principle” that Scripture has been inspired by God who does not make mistakes. 

And that theological belief needs to be informed by what we actually read and find in Scripture itself. And that’s where questions arise where Christians continually try to match this top down conviction with their discoveries from an inductive, bottoms-up close reading of the Bible itself. 

Without that top-down conviction, we may fall into the trap of not seeing the Bible as a coherent, trustworthy whole with a single purpose of revealing Christ. Without a bottoms-up approach, we may fall into the trap of ignoring evidences of how God chooses to actually inspire very human authors with very human languages to deliver that message. 

We need both systematic theology AND biblical theology. Not either-or. 

3) Here is a great question from Alvin: How do you even define 'error'? What about ‘discrepancies’ we find in the Bible?

Being clear on what “inerrancy” means and does not mean would help. Here is a definition (italics mine):
“The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time of writing, in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.”

For example, if the Bible never affirms that the “Good Samaritan” is historical, then it is not a problem if we realize that it is a not a historical story. A story does not have to be historical to give us a true, radically life-changing message. Or if the Bible never affirms that Moses wrote every single word in the Torah, why should we be troubled if we found out that scribes in later generations faithfully updated these books?
When approaching ‘discrepancies’ ask these questions: What is the intention of the author? As Phil pointed out, we need to interpret the text not with our own standards of scientific accuracy but with the purpose of the author. 

Is the list of numbers of chariots and horsemen supposed to have exact, scientific precision? 83,712 horses?

Or did the author mean to give us an idea of how big is the army i.e. in approximations? 80,000 horses?
Giving approximations is a common practice even in our own culture. If I earn $2712.33 a month (after deducting tax), it would be correct to round it up to $2700 if my purpose is just to give someone an idea of how much it is. 

But if the purpose is to report it Jabatan Hasil Dalam Negeri, I'd have to be more exact!

Another question to consider: Is this to be interpreted metaphorically or literally?
Some numbers are symbolic like the number 14 in Matthew's genealogy. 


Sometimes we speak of things as we see it. Like the sun will rise at 8 am. Now we know that actually the earth moves. But even scientists talk about sunrise regularly, they do not take it literally but as how they see it. It is not a scientific “error”.
These references are phenomenal, as they appear to human eye, approximations yet they are correct. 
Lastly, sometimes, the bible reports statements made by ungodly persons. For example, the fool who says there is no God. It doesn’t mean these statements are true, inerrancy only guarantees that they are correctly reported.
4) I also made a similar observation as that of Suren’s question on Messianic prophecy here (Isaiah’s prophecy on the cross/resurrection) and here (other OT prophecies). But often times, biblical prophecies that are ‘fulfilled’ in the Gospels are not always predictive in nature.

For example, Matthew records that Jesus escaped from Herod and sojourned in Egypt before He returned to Israel. That is in fulfillment of prophet Hosea said: “Out of Egypt I call my son”. When you flip back to Hosea, the ‘son’ was the nation Israel delivered out of Egypt rather than a Messianic prediction. Matthew sees a pattern: God brings Israel out of Egypt is a type of Him bringing His Son (Christ) out of Egypt. The new exodus has begun.

That means when the biblical authors use the word ‘fulfillment’, it is much broader than what we normally associate as future predictions. They operate an understanding that God works in history (i.e. raise up a king, deliver his people in Exodus, return from exile, setup a priesthood), and that historical person/institution/event serves as a pattern or typology for how He works in the future. When that pattern gets repeated in future events/persons, it is considered as ‘fulfilled’.

Some plausible treatment of Judas Iscariot’s death and its’ fulfillment here:

Please note that we have two more Q&A sessions 
- 21 Sept (The Canon of Scripture)
- 28 Sept (Jesus in the Bible and Koran) 

Bring your friends (skeptics, seekers, curious) and your questions! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Announcing upcoming ACT Online course on spiritual theology - act ministry.org

Academy for Christian Thought
Belief with Integrity

The Eight Deadly Thoughts - Spiritual Discipleship of the Mind

Learning objective: To practice the medieval spiritual discipline of meditating upon the Lord.

Scope: We begin with a brief history of spiritual theology, followed by a discussion of Evagrius’ eight deadly thoughts, and conclude with the practical application of assessing the kind of person you are and think about the kind of person you ought to be.

Key terms: Spiritual discipline, habit-formation, nolition (the intentional opposition to our wills), compassion, generosity and God’s habitual presence.
Spiritual discipline refers to the proactive decision to exercise metaphysical self-control over physical emotions, passions and temptations of the mind. In each instance, we will consider how science, technology and medicine has transformed the way we think and live. Our goal is to understand the power of nolition by spiritual habit-formation, to override the default volitions of out in-built competitive survival instincts.

Obstacles: Today, much of academic thinking suffers from a theological amnesia about the purpose of theology – to nourish our spirit beyond just wishing it so. Worship without theological integrity can result in ritualistic slavery and theology without the goal of worship can result in dry religious philosophy. Responsible spiritual theology combines a desire for devotional experience alongside rigorous assessment of every truth claim about God. The works of major spiritual theologians: Evagrius of Pontus, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor of Constantinople (all from modern Turkey) have been sidelined, not by secular voices but by Church teachings themselves. Those of us of the Reformed Tradition inherit a strong censorship of writings and thoughts that became victims of the 16th century European religious wars, which were more economic and political than theological.

Conflict: The battleground was the role of nature in learning about God. Ancient prescientific theologians had always understood nature as God’s creation and an important source of God’s revelation, i.e., natural revelation, one that modern science can explore and celebrate even more. But the sola scriptura movement claimed that only the supernatural revelation as presented in the Bible is trustworthy. Nature, and by association, modern science, was a temptation to be resisted. Past theologians taught that the created order we call the universe reflected God’s wisdom and majesty, but by the 20th century, nature and the scientific investigations came to be seen as threats to the closely-guarded magical status accorded to the gate-keepers of spiritual knowledge. As it turned out, science did become a threat. Along with technological innovations and medical advances, science became a serious threat not to faith or belief in God but to the perception that God can only be known and cherished through the words of the Bible. This gagging of God and limiting God to human words of testimonies betrays both the wonder of nature and the beauty of the Bible as written testaments of divine encounters by ancient God-fearers.

Practical actions: Live every moment of your life with an awareness of God, even if God seems remote in you daily life. As we grow in wisdom and experience of life, we tend to desire something more than what seems to be our lot in life. Desire God’s habitual presence. How? By shifting our attention from merely being vaguely aware of God’s presence, we can intentionally seek to be in the presence of God. At any moment in our lives, we pay attention to things that we care about – priority determines ranking. But we are free to make the desire for God’s habitual presence our center of attention even as we do the mundane things in our daily lives. The key to success is habit-formation, the formation spiritual habits that is. In this seminar, we will consider how we might form communities among trusted fellow pilgrims of faith, to celebrate the gift of life to the fullest while delighting in God’s grace by practicing the discipline of compassionate generosity.


In this seminar: We shall consider the eight deadly thoughts as starting points to help us navigate the theological cobwebs that plague the Church with increasingly longer lists of do’s and don’ts. We shall examine medieval insights into the nature of the human mind alongside modern neuroscientific understanding of how the brain works. Then we will be better equipped to assess the competing truth-claims of religious and scientific voices, some of which are helpful but many of which distract us from knowing God and learning to harness the most powerful gift of being the imago Dei – the capacity and persistence of love.

The 8 Deadly Thoughts

1. Gluttony: Attempts to get satisfaction from things rather than from God. Examples include over-indulgences in the three basic wants of the human mind; food, shelter, and love (significance).

2. Lust: Attempts to get satisfaction from the sexual use of bodies rather than love of people. This is not a critique of sexual instinct, which is part of God’s creation. Rather, it is a warning that desires for the bodies rather than the persons themselves depersonalize and objectify the persons.

3. Avarice: A defensive greed for self-provision that kills generosity by filling us with anxiety and insecurity, e.g., "I can’t be generous because I have to think of my own future”. The quest for security keeps us from generosity.

4. Sadness: A form of self-pity and disappointment that rejects what God has made in you. It arises from comparison with the material achievements or inheritances of others. Thoughts of “if only I were a different gender or race, then...; If only God had made me different...”

5. Anger: The unrestrained, cumulative anger that ultimately destroys. An example is the anger that God might bless your enemy – think of Jonah.

6. Sloth:  It does not refer to laziness but rather, indifference to the presence of God in our lives that leads to despair. I call it spiritual paralysis. The Greek word Accidia is to "not care." It may arise from discouragement over the apparent lack of spiritual progress in our lives. We blame church politics, fallen leaders, unfriendly, unloving or hypocritical Christians, gossip, etc,

7. Vainglory: A desire for attention that you want everybody to know of your success in life. It is the vain desire to fill the minds of others with yourself, as Doctor Johnson said.

8. Pride: The decision to take full credit for our achievements and progress in life. "God is not my helper." This results in a deep sense of superiority that hinders any spirit of generosity and compassion for others.

The outcome of each deadly thought is a reduced capacity to love your neighbor with compassion and generosity. They are called thoughts rather than sins because in themselves, they do no harm. It is only when these thoughts are nurtured and executed upon that they can created situations that stop you from fulfilling your potential as a person created by and loved by God.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What Prophets Foretold and Angels Long To See...

 
Get into groups of two or three. Assignment: Say hi to your friends. Guess what picture this is and have some fun discussing your answer in your group.

Before we go to the answer, let us turn our attention to God’s word.
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (I Peter 1:10-12).

This picture is one of the oldest depictions of the cross (200-300 AD), and it is not a flattering one. It is actually an ancient drawing on a wall found in a Roman guardhouse. Yes, graffiti existed ever since walls were invented. In fact, it is an anti-Christian mockery depicting someone worshiping with his hands raised before a cross. Beneath are the words, “Alexamenos worships his God.” On that cross is crucified a man with the head of a donkey (a symbol of stupidity at that time). Even today, the preaching of the cross is described by some of the world’s intellectual elite as vicious, offensive and “barking mad” (Dawkins). So this picture offers us historical insight into how the crucifixion of Christ was seen as something shameful, weak and plain silly by Roman guards who may have imprisoned this unknown Christian named Alexamenos. To them, the preaching of the cross seemed utterly foolish.

And that is the historical background that Peter addresses in the letter that we read a moment ago…a church going through trials, persecution and ridicule from the broader culture. We are in the third installment in our sermon series on 1 Peter (website).

Persecution doesn’t usually happen overnight. It starts with disinformation: lies, ridicules, rumors, conspiracy theories against minority groups. (“Christians conspire to set up a Christian Prime Minister”) And the state just keeps quiet or worse, actively uses its powerful news agencies to spread them. Then it leads to discrimination where the rights and freedom of the minority to practice their faith i.e. seizing of Bibles by state agencies or restrictions by government policies, laws and regulations. Then the ground is made ready for passive persecution. That happens when individuals/mobs harm people or destroy properties while the state turns a blind eye to it. When it hits rock bottom, the state uses its power to actively destroy property, arrest or execute people because of their faith. I will leave you to discern how far down the spiral Malaysia has come as a nation.

But whether it is violent persecution or passive discrimination, the Christian community in Peter’s time faces increasing pressure to give up their commitment to Jesus. The question they are asking every day: “Is this worth it? What am I giving up for? Is the faith I hold on to worth all these troubles and sacrifices? Isn’t it easier to just give in?”

That’s why the apostle Peter reminds us how precious this faith that we have embraced is. He wants to encourage us: Realize how valuable this good news of grace that we now have with Christ. It’s far more precious than anything the world has to offer.  

How does he do that? Firstly, Peter tells us that this is the salvation that prophets have predicted all along.

Look at verse 10-11: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.

We learn something here about the inspiration of biblical writings. These prophecies were written by men who searched carefully and enquired diligently about the promised salvation. On rare occasions, God dictated to the prophet Jeremiah (26:2): “Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word.” But they were not just passive, almost unconscious type writers in God’s hands. The prophets were actively seeking, trying to find out how and when this promised King will come. And at the same time, in and through this whole process, in the midst of their searching, the Spirit of Christ within them is speaking to them and through them… the Holy Spirit is revealing things to them, the Holy Spirit is pointing them to Christ, to say and write things that they could never have come up with on their own.

Why is this important? If you misunderstand this, you will get into problems. Well, I have spoken to friends who started to take their Bible studies seriously. Maybe they took up some seminary classes or read journal articles to analyze the texts and its forms. And a few of them are really troubled when they suddenly realized that the Gospels or the letters of Paul were written by human beings. “David! Oh no! Do you know what I found out today? These books were written by people, in a particular context, for a specific purpose, with introductions and conclusions and everything in between. That makes me doubt everything. How can they be actual revelations from God?”

And I want to say: “Hello? Of course they were written by human beings-lar. Do you expect it to drop down from heaven?” It’s only a problem if you think that if it is divine, it cannot be human. And if it’s human, it cannot be divine. But the Bible never made such claims. When we say that all Scripture is inspired, what we mean is that the Holy Spirit guides the human writers and reveals in such a way that the original written words of Scripture were also the very words of God. The Holy Spirit is superintending that entire process that the result is the Word of God in the words of men. 2 Peter 1:21: “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” They are both human and divine.

Now the goal of the Spirit’s revelation is to show Christ. To point to His suffering and the glories that would follow.

Just a few months ago, we looked at how the death and resurrection of Christ had been clearly foretold centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah (53). And we can see how detailed, lengthy and specific these biblical prophecies were compared to vague and generic so-called predictions of John F Kennedy’s assassination, for example. The amazing thing is: Isaiah is not the only prophet to do so.  

There’s prophet Micah (5:2) who predicted that the Christ will come from the town of Bethlehem, from among the clans of Judah:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

The prophet Zechariah even predicted that this chosen King would enter Jerusalemrighteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (9:9). It’s like bits and pieces of this jigsaw puzzle were disclosed over hundreds of years to give us hints and clues about this Messiah. And all of them fit nicely in the person of Jesus.

In Psalm 22, King David foretold the sufferings of Christ as he hung on the cross - to be abandoned by God the Father, to be mocked and insulted by people, to have his hands and feet pierced, and to have his garments divided by the casting of lots. Jesus quoted part of this Psalm and applied it directly to Himself just before He died.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
    “let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
    since he delights in him.”

Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.”

Not only the sufferings of Christ, Psalm 110 also predicted the glorious exaltation of the Messiah when He shall reign and be seated at God’s right hand to be a priest forever:

The Lord says to my lord (that is, Jesus):
“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”
The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
    “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
Your troops will be willing
    on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
    your young men will come to you
    like dew from the morning’s womb
The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord is at your right hand;
    he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.

The crucified Messiah is also the triumphant King who will put everything to right. He has ascended to His throne at the right hand of the Father and reigns in the midst of His enemies. In light of all these prophecies, our resurrected Lord said to his disciples on the road to Emmaus: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” The cross must come before the crown. Why? Because that’s what has been prophesied. And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

2) This is the salvation that the church now proclaims. 

Look at verse 12: It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.

The goal of all Scripture is to point us to Christ. This is why the Bible is divided into two parts: Old Testament is written before the coming of Jesus and New Testament written after His life, death and resurrection. He is the main theme of all Scriptures.

The Old Testament prepares and promises the coming of this perfect King. It gives people clues, hints and symbols about who He is, where and how He will come, what He will do and so on. The New Testament records eyewitness accounts of those who have seen and heard him. It unpacks the good news of grace and explains to us the meaning of what Jesus taught and did 2000 years ago. So Christ is prophesied in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament. He is the main character in the story.  

For Christians, this unity in such diverse writings over thousands of years and fulfilled prophecies are not by random accident. It is evidence that the Bible is inspired.

We can see this more clearly after Christ has appeared, after His suffering and glory, and then when we go back to the Old Testament, we can begin to make sense of how Christ fulfilled everything in it. (Sixth Sense)

But how would a prophet like Isaiah or Micah understand fully all that they had written? If you were to ask Isaiah: Who is this child born of a virgin? Or who is this suffering servant pierced for our transgressions? If you were to ask Micah: “Who is this future king from Bethlehem whose origins are from ancient times?”

They would probably answer: “I’ve been trying to figure out myself how that will come to pass. But I don’t fully understand what that means. Part of that prophecy must be for someone else. It must be fulfilled not for me, but for some future generations”. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you… The prophetic ministry they exercised was for our benefit not theirs, because they were fulfilled not in their days, but ours. They could only point to the future but unable to enter in themselves.

Friends, think about this – What the prophets predicted but could not understand for centuries, we can experience and proclaim today. This is the grace that has come to us. This is the good news that we received. This is the amazing grace that we are now privileged to share with others. What a privilege!

If we don’t find this grace amazing this morning, maybe for some of us, it’s ordinary grace… same, old, predictable “I’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times” grace. What have I missed? What keeps grace from being amazing? Maybe it’s because we do not understand who we are at all. We have a self perception problem. We like to think of ourselves as basically good and nice people. If we’re not that bad, then God’s grace is not that great. If we have committed only a little crime, then God’s mercy is little. But maybe you don’t have to be a criminal to be a sinner. Our hearts long for things that we shouldn’t desire. Our affections are full of idols. Maybe it’s our careers, financial security, even families, or just a life of pleasure, ease and comfort. These idols mini-gods that we bow down to and worship control and destroy us. We do not long for and pursue God as we should. We are a lot more sinful than we realize. We need to correct our self perception problem. 

If we don’t find this news good this morning, it’s because we have a distorted understanding of who God is: “Of course, if God exists, He is quite relaxed about sin. It’s not a big deal. He’d not bothered by holiness or concerned about His moral laws. God loves me, wants me to be happy and forgives me. It’s his job to forgive anyway. It’s unfair of Him to be angry at good people like me.” Make no mistake about it: God is more holy that we realize. He has zero tolerance for sin. The wages of sin is death.
When you come to think about it, real forgiveness, any forgiveness is costly suffering. Recently my tenants damaged my apartment door and owed me one month’s rent and RM 800 electricity bills, I can either ask them to pay all or we can share the costs (50%) or I have to absorb the full cost of this myself. Someone has to bear the payment. Forgiveness is a form of suffering.

Since forgiveness means absorbing the payment of sin yourself instead of making the guilty pay for it, should it surprise us that when God forgives us, He went to the Cross and die there? He is the Judge Himself receiving the punishment. It is nothing like primitive gods that demand human blood for their wrath to be appeased but God became human to offer his own blood so that he can destroy all evil without destroying us. 

The essence of sin is we human beings substitute ourselves for God while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. 

Church: Our message is not “good advice” on how to improve moral behaviors or build healthy self esteem. It is not “good laws” a set of dos and don’ts that govern everything you wear and eat. Our message is “good news” of salvation from sin and death… That Christ must suffer and die to take upon Himself the guilt and punishment that is ours. He absorbed our sin, our curse, our brokenness so that we could be free. That He is raised to life again and reigns in glory so that we may have new life, a transformed life to glorify and enjoy Him forever.

True preaching is Christ-centered and gospel-saturated. Church: That is the message that the people in Puchong needs to hear. That is what every sermon on this pulpit aspire to proclaim every Sunday. That’s why I am excited to know that Rev Wong is keen to bring in the Alpha Course, an opportunity to share the good news with our friends in context of meals and community. Would you pray with the leaders of this church that we become more effective in our evangelism, in our outreach, in our gospel growth?

3) This is the salvation that angels long to watch and comprehend. Last sentence in v12: “Even angels long to look into these things”.

Books have always been a friend in my spiritual journey. That’s why I set up a book table at the back so that people can freely borrow one home to be their spiritual companion too. You’d find books on spiritual disciplines, engaging culture, movie review, evangelism, faith and work, biography and creation care. But my library has not always been like that.

In my younger days, I was obsessed with books about angels and demons. Not the Dan Brown novel, mind you. How I long to have eyes opened to see the invisible spiritual realms! Christians can be very fascinated with dreams, visions and Hollywood shows like Supernatural or Constantine that give us juicy insider information into how angels look like, how they operate and even how to command angels to do our bidding. Wouldn’t it be nice to gaze into the ‘other side’ to find out more about warrior angels, messenger angels, arch angels, fallen angels, guardian angels and how to be touched by an angel?
But the Bible never tells us to peek into the other side, much less to order angels around. In fact, verse 12 tells us that the angels long to look at and understand our salvation. Here’s the funny thing: we are so fascinated by them but the angels themselves are more fascinated to see the amazing grace that is ours. They are standing on tiptoe, as it were, like someone at the back of a crowd trying to watch a parade. They are so eager to understand God’s grace that they stoop down from heaven to gaze at what’s happening on earth.

Ray Pritchard says this: “During the Renaissance, a painter named Tintoretto painted a version of the Last Supper. We see Jesus and his disciples gathered around the table. Perhaps Jesus has just said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” There is a sense of drama and tension as the disciples struggle to understand. Above the table, an oil lamp gives off clouds of smoke and angels were painted in the smoke, watching from above, their faces strangely curious, as they too wonder at what the Son of God is about to do. That’s exactly the idea Peter is driving at…

Why would the angels marvel at our salvation? The answer is simple. There are no “saved” angels because salvation is not for them, but for us. Jesus died to redeem fallen men and women, not the angels. There are good angels and bad angels; there are obedient and disobedient angels, but there are no “saved” angels. Only humans can be saved. Only we can be redeemed. We alone of all the creatures in the universe can experience the wonders of God’s saving grace. This fascinates the angels, and causes them to study and ponder the mysteries of a salvation they do not share.”

Here is the gist of Peter’s message: God loves you so much, the angels are amazed. They are curious about grace and mercy and forgiveness. They’ve never experienced new life, the second birth, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, or the wonder of deliverance from sin. That which we have experienced in Jesus Christ, the angels never knew and will never know. We are far more privileged than they. 

Do we realize this privilege that is ours? What the angels wonder at but never experience …We understand and experience every single day. We have privileges even the angels don’t have. Do we realize that we are privileged beyond our dreams? What the prophets have long predicted but never understood, we now enjoy and share in Christ. We live in the reality of their prophetic fulfillment."

So don’t take it for granted. Don’t give it up so easily. Don’t be distracted from it. Treasure and guard it well. Go deeper into it. Share it. It’s far more precious than anything the world has to offer.

There’s a famous 19th century Scottish missionary, doctor and explorer of Africa named David Livingstone. He was disappointed to see Christians concentrated in one city because he believes that after a local church has been founded, the native leaders should be trained and move on to new un-reached areas. And so he went and gave his life to the people in the interiors of Africa. When people asked about him leaving the benefits of England, he replied:

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.

Yes, there are sacrifices to be made if you want to attempt great things for God. It could mean worries, exhaustion, suffering even danger. Yes there is such a thing as sacrifice. If we could only see the privilege that is ours in Christ, if we realize the privilege that is ours in the gospel, in the cross, in the grace of Christ, all these are counted as nothing. I never made a sacrifice. If we only knew the privilege that is ours, we’d be unstoppable.

And do you remember our friend Alexamenos (the guy who was ridiculed because of his faith in the cross of Christ)? There’s something else that you need to know. In the next chamber, not far away, there is another scribbling on the wall written in a different hand writing. It is probably a response by an unknown person in his defense. And it just says this: “Alexamenos is faithful” or “Alexamenos the faithful”. Despite the ridicule and imprisonment and perhaps even martyrdom, he has remained faithful till the end. He knew that His Savior is worth it. Because here’s the thing: We now know the good news the prophets never knew, and we now experience the grace that the angels wish they knew. It’s worth everything that we may be called to give. It’s worth it.