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

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

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.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Be Shepherds of God's Flock: Nurturing Servant-Leaders

To the Elders and the Flock: Growing Leaders (1 Peter 5:1-4)

 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Do you remember at the Beijing Olympics, the United States had high hopes of winning the gold medal in the men’s and women’s 4x100-meter relay teams? They were talented, driven, ambitious and fast individuals. They had trained hard for many years. They came with blazing feet but the problem is not with their feet. The problem is with their hands. Both teams failed to win any medal. In fact, they were disqualified because they dropped their batons. On the surface, passing a baton does not seem very hard but it is heart breaking to hear it drop on the floor and to look back and find years of hope and hard work tumbling down the track.

The Christian life is like running a race… It is also a relay race – there’s no use being the fastest individual runner if we fail to pass the baton safely to the next runner. The apostle Paul told his young disciple Timothy: What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust it, pass it on to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2) Here are at least four generations of faithful hands passing the gospel baton entrusted to them: Paul, Timothy, faithful men, others. This is the standard operating procedure, their church planting strategy. They would preach the gospel in a city, made disciples, gather them in community and they would appoint elders for them in every church. They knew that without trained leaders, trustworthy shepherds to care for these new believers, they would have no chance… they would be left to the mercy of predators and false teachers.

That’s why one of our CDPC Puchong priorities this year is to encourage, to grow, and to develop servant-leaders in the church. Without a team of godly leaders grounded in the word, the health and ministry of the church suffers. The spiritual maturity of a church rarely goes higher that the quality of its leadership. If we don’t intentionally ensure that the gospel is entrusted into a new generation of faithful leaders who will in turn pass it on, the church is always just one generation away from extinction.  

The passage of Scripture today is taken from a letter written by another apostle, Peter. And it has for us some important lessons about Christian leadership. What sort of people should be leading our churches in these challenging times? How should Christian leadership be exercised in our community? It is applicable for all sorts of Christian service. If you are a worship leader and musician, you are shepherding God’s people to adore and praise God. The songs you choose and play can have the effect of feeding and comforting people with truth. If you are a covenant group leader or Sunday school teacher, you are pastor-ing the hearts of those under your care.

Here we see that Peter is specifically talking to the elders/leaders in the church as a fellow elder. He’s saying: “I’m not appealing to you as someone outside from you or on top of you. I am a fellow elder like you. We are in this together. Not only have I witnessed the suffering of Christ on the cross, I also bear witness to His sufferings in the midst of our present trials and difficulties. With you, I will also share in the glory to be revealed when He returns.” Peter speaks as someone who shares in their responsibilities, challenges and future hope.

And he is calling them to watch over God’s sheep… He is giving to them the same task that our Lord Jesus had given him. Do you remember how Jesus commissioned Peter to be a pastor in John 21:15-17? Peter must have felt so undeserving and unworthy for denying Jesus not once but 3 times. He deserted Jesus at his greatest moment of need. So he went back fishing and caught nothing. But the resurrected Christ restored him by asking him 3 times: “Simon Peter, do you love me?” You know Lord that I love you. Jesus answers: “Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep”. The fruit of love, the outcome of loving Christ is the privilege to be a shepherd to care for God’s flock. In the same way, Peter now passes the baton to others: “Elders, be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them”…

So who are our elders/shepherds today? Pastor Wong, surely. Pastor Chia Wen. Pastor Meng. Elder Phil Dehart. Elder Kee Huat. Today’s message is especially relevant for us. But that does not mean that today’s text is only limited to 3-5 people. Whether you realize it or not, you are already exercising spiritual leadership as a parent, as a Sunday school teacher, as a ministry leader, as a covenant group leader or simply as a more experienced believer who has influence on a younger believer. So today’s message is loud and clear not only all of us because it shows us what Christian maturity looks like.

A shepherd’s heart grows out of love for Jesus. When you love Jesus, you will care for what the Chief Shepherd cares about. You will yearn to seek and save lost sheep. You will look out for people who have yet to commit to Christ and hope to guide them a step nearer to faith. Or you wonder: Who are the newcomers in church that need follow-up? You carry a burden: How is the spiritual growth of our people? Are they being grounded and growing in the Word? You care for them and look out for them. In some ways, all of us need to be pastoral caregivers. Our Lord asks us this morning: Do you love me? If you do, feed my sheep. Do you love me? Take care of my people.

And as a church (as God’s flock), we need to seriously look out for and identify servant-leaders. They don’t pop up out of nowhere. We need to affirm/recognize them, pray for them, support them, challenge and equip them. Surely we can elect them to be an elder at the next AGM meeting. Do you know to be an elder; a candidate needs to secure 2/3 of the members’ votes? So every vote counts. Conversations about finding a pastor in Puchong…

As you may know, the letter P is CDPC means that we are a Presbyterian church. Our church is structured in a way that we are not a one-man show. And we don’t decide everything by a congregational vote. It means that each local congregation is governed by a team of elders elected by its members. This team of elders is usually called the Session. Groups of local churches are governed by a higher assembly of elders known as the presbytery (ESP) and presbyteries can be grouped into a synod (the highest decision making body). Unfortunately, to be very frank, not many people want to be an elder in the local church. We are too busy with career and family priorities. Or we think that an elder must be elderly so we don’t qualify. Or we may believe that we are not good enough to meet the biblical requirements for an elder. The expectations we set may be too high. Whatever the reason, we do not have a Session of (at least two) elders. So this is a timely message for us to look into God’s word and consider what biblical leadership looks like.

So who are these elders? We can look at it in terms of their roles and their characters. In the NT, the words translated as elders are presbuterious/presbyterians or overseers/bishops (episkopous) are interchangeable. They refer to people who do the work of pastoring (shepherding God’s flock). To be an elder is to be someone who provides spiritual care and manages the church’s affairs. What do they do? They feed God’s people on the green pastures of God’s Word. They make sure there are both milk for the newborn believers (1 Peter 2:2) and solid meat for the mature (Hebrew 5:11-14). Week in week out, they clarify the gospel for both believers and unbelievers.

Sheep need to be led, not just fed. That means the shepherds must be out in front so that the sheep can see and follow them. They need to model what discipleship looks like and guide and equip believers for spiritual growth and service to others.

A faithful shepherd is always on guard, always on the watch against wolves and put himself on the line for the sake of the flock. These wolves can come in the form of false teachers who twist the truth for selfish gains. That’s why one of the criteria for being an elder is someone who “can encourage others in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it”.

Ok to feed, to lead and to protect are the roles of an elder… but his relational character is also crucial. The Bible sets the bar high so that the witness of the church in holiness and in doctrine is preserved. Texts: 1Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9: “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children are faithful and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

We don’t have time to go in detail here, but you get the sense that the primary characteristic of the elder/bishop/pastor/overseer is that his life constantly reflects biblical values and integrity. Most of these virtues - to be faithful to your wife, not violent or lose temper easily, to be self controlled and holy – are expected of all Christians. It’s nothing special, in one sense. You have to walk the talk, basically. You may listen to these requirements and despair. If we take them to extreme, none of us would qualify except Jesus. Who among us is blameless and above reproach? But that’s not what it means. None of us is perfect so we should not expect our leaders to walk on water. There will always be room for growth and times when he may fall short. It just means that we can observe these qualities in the elder to such a degree that they stand out as prominent and consistent patterns of his life. It means that the elder’s lifestyle is such that, generally speaking, no one can rightfully accuse him of conduct that is unbefitting a mature believer.  

So in a nutshell, an elder is walking the talk, self-controlled and gentle in character yet firm and rooted in doctrine and lifestyle to feed, lead and protect God’s flock. Whoa, no joke man being an elder/pastor. Let’s be frank here. By now, some of us may start to wonder, “OK. Who in their right mind will want this job? Why would I want to take this responsibility upon my shoulders when I have the option to just sit back, relax and mind my own business? No amount of pay or pleading can force me to take on this role.” No wonder it’s hard to find a few good men to be an elder.

Which brings us back to our Scripture passage today… Look at verse 2: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them— not because you must, not because you are forced to or grudgingly but voluntarily, gladly, out of your own choice, because you are willing. Why? Because that is what God wants you to be. That’s point no 1. Shepherd God’s flock not grudgingly but joyfully. It is not God’s will that we should be sluggish, feet dragging or unconcerned about the well being of His people. This is not to say we cannot take a break from ministry or prioritize our schedule. We can feel comfortable to say no, when there is good reason to do so. But there is also a kind of reluctant “Aiya… please don’t ask me. Ask someone else to do it!” attitude towards ministry that reflects badly on the One we are serving. If we do it out of coercion, as if being forced or pestered to do it, it is really a denial that serving God and His people is a joy. That the Lord we love should now invite us to be part of what He is doing in people’s lives. It is a privilege that we don’t deserve. That’s why it’s not God’s will that we drag our feet as if serving Him is the worst possible job in the world. Peter is warning us against tidak-apathy… he is challenging our obsession with comfort, ease and leisure when it comes to the Kingdom. Not everyone is called to be an elder but all of us can be a spiritual care giver. And honestly, some of us here are gifted and qualified to be an elder. This word is for you too this morning: Take the initiative, come off the bench, step up and be in the game not because you have to, but because you want to. Be willing.
Point No.2: Look at verse 2b “Be shepherds of God’s flock not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.” Peter warns the elders/the servant-leaders/all of us: Don’t do ministry out of greed. Don’t serve the King motivated by lust for money. There was a movie called Leap of Faith in which Steve Martin played the role of a fake faith healer who claimed to receive divine revelation about who is having what kind of diseases during a healing rally. But it’s actually all a trick. His colleagues would talk to the audience in advance, gather personal details, ask about their health and then feed him the information through a radio transmitter.  The tragedy though is this: The movie is actually based on a real case of fraud exposed with the help of a radio scanner. They were caught communicating over the radio: “Way over to the other side of the other balcony is Josephine Parino.” Then the so-called healer asks the worshippers: “Who’s Josephine?” “Parino”. Then the lady identifies herself. “She’s got cancer of the stomach”. It’s like a game show.
Sad but true, ‘godliness’ can often be turned into a means of shameful profit. When Christians are fooled into supporting self-proclaimed TV prophets anointed and appointed to make us healthy and wealthy, the only people getting millions of dollars to buy mansions and drive private jets are the conmen themselves. There’s a word for this: It’s called fleecing the sheep. Instead of caring for the sheep, they are taking advantage of God’s flock for selfish gains. Peter says: Don’t do ministry motivated by money, rather do it with enthusiasm. Love what you do in ministry. Be eager to see God’s name lifted up. Do you find joy in your work/ministry in seeing lives transformed by the gospel? Can you honestly say it is more blessed to give than to receive? I thank God for all the leaders we have in CDPC. They may not be the slick and flashy ones or the smooth talking ones. But in their sincere, unassuming and quiet ways, they are eager to serve God’s flock.  

Don Carson once said: “The worst situation in the local church occurs when the church adopts the attitude, "Lord, you keep (the pastor) humble and we’ll keep him poor," and the minister adopts the attitude, "I’m going to get every cent I can out of this selfish congregation; they have no idea how much I do for them." The best situation occurs where the congregation sees itself in the privileged position of supporting someone in the ministry generously so that he is free to get on with the work of the ministry, and the minister for his part doesn’t give a rip – in a sense, he is above all that.” Point 2: Don’t do ministry out of greed, but out of eagerness to serve”.

Third point is this: Don’t lead out of pride, lead by example. Look at verse 3:Shepherd God’s flocknot lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” Peter warns the elders against the love for power and prestige. Don’t be a petty tyrant, craving for command and control. Don’t boss around: “Do as I say not as I do. Don’t ask questions. Listen, listen, listen. When I talk, you listen. How dare you touch the Lord’s anointed?” For some of us, leadership gives us a high when we call the shots and show our authority. We like to feel needed. We crave the praise, admiration and the dependence of others. This craving for power may be expressed with domineering “My way of the highway”. Or more subtly, we may manipulate others with disguised pain of a wounded hero. Pride means we rely on our strength and feel the world stops spinning when we are not around.
What’s the antidote for pride? First and foremost, you lead by example. Whether you are an elder or not modeling godliness for others is central to your discipleship as a Christian. Like it or not, we will set a good example or a bad example. People will look at their leaders’ example and that shapes their idea of what spiritual maturity looks like. What will CDPC be known for in our community ten years from now? Do we model holiness in lifestyle, gentleness in speech, selflessness in relationship, soundness in doctrine? Will our young people and our children be encouraged to imitate and think of godliness in this way? Or do we model greed, quarrelsome speech or selfishness? If so, should we be surprised when they turn out exactly like that one day?
Don’t exalt yourself: “Do as I say, not as I do”. Rather, lead by example: Follow me as I follow Christ. How we live will make a much bigger, more lasting impact than anything we might say. 
That’s a lot to handle, I know. It’s a challenge for all of us. Where do we find help to serve God’s people willingly, joyfully and humbly? We need hope. We need motivation.
This is what Peter gives us in verse 4: "And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory." Ministry is not an end in itself. We do ministry to prepare the whole people of God for Christ’s return. We are not in this church business to get praise for ourselves, but to bring praise, glory and pleasure to God. One day, Jesus the chief shepherd shall return to reward all who serve Him and His people.
The choices we make today depend on what we believe about the future. Who invests more money: the person who believes that share prices will go up or the person who doesn’t care if it does? Who changes the world: the person who believes what he/she does in life will echo through eternity or the person who thinks “you only go around once, so why not enjoy it”? C. S. Lewis wrote: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” Mere Christianity

If you think leadership is too burdensome, think of the day when our Chief Shepherd will crown us with His love. If you think giving pastoral care to others is hard, think of the day when our Great Pastor will return and lead us home. The wealth we gather in this world will fade but not the glory that we will receive from our Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have loved me and cared for those whom I love.” Only one life that soon will pass, only what’s done for Christ will last. Therefore we long for His return. The proper reward for faithfulness and fruitfulness in service is that He grants us ability and authority to serve him in greater ways, in unimaginable ways in His kingdom.

Being a spiritual care giver is a high calling. It’s not easy. The only reason we do it is because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not be in want. We lay down our pride because Jesus is our Chief Shepherd. We are just under shepherds. We do it willingly because out of love, He risked his own life to seek us, His lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:4-7). We care for others because our Lord is moved with compassion for the people for they were like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36). We lay down our greed in the things that will perish because His reward will never fade away. Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10). Because we have such a great Shepherd, we could shepherd others. And He is calling us this morning: Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Take care of my lambs.