Friday 25 February 2011

The end of history (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:1-4

The bible is a historical book. To love the bible is to love history.

I wonder if you have ever thought of it that way. The gospels record for us real events from the life of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion really happened. His resurrection was attested to by eye-witnesses. These facts are verifiable through archeology and contemporary historical accounts. The bible presents itself as documented factual evidence to be examined and investigated. These things happened.

This is all to say that Christianity is not a series of ideas brought together by some well-meaning individuals. Christianity does not make sense if the events recorded for us in the bible did not happen; if the claims made by Jesus in the bible are not true.

The bible is a historical book. To love the bible is to love history. This is the point the apostle Paul makes in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 10.


Paul is not talking to non-Christians. He writes to Christian believers in the city of Corinth.

And Paul isn’t simply saying the bible is history. He says this is our history. These are “our forefathers” (Verse 1). These things were written down “for us” (Verse 11).

Our fathers

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.
1 Corinthians 10:1

At Rock Fellowship, we have been studying the book of Exodus. “Exodus” simply means “Way Out” or “Exit”. You sit in the cinema and all the lights go out as the movie begins; all except one – The green “Exit” sign with the familiar cartoon of a man sprinting out the door. Of course, it’s irritating; you wish there weren’t any distractions from the show. You wish the flight would just take off sooner without having the stewardesses do the usual show and tell – Everyone knows where the exits are.

But when there is an emergency. When there’s a fire. These exit signs save lives. Everyone’s looking for the way out.

So for the past few months, we have seen in the book of Exodus, God rescuing Israel and making a way out for his people. He saves them from slavery in Egypt. And here in verses 1 and 2, Paul recounts the highlights of that rescue – The crossing of the red sea; the pillar of cloud and fire, symbolising the presence and protection of God.

But notice that Paul calls these Israelites our “forefathers”. Some versions have “ancestors”.

If Paul were talking about a small village in Fuchien, China – then maybe I’d pay attention. Those were my ancestors. They were my forefathers. But not these slaves in Egypt. If I were a Jew, then yes. If I was born in Israel, sure. But Paul can’t possibly be thinking of me – a Chinaman living here in Cambridge, two thousand years later – can he?

Yes, he can.

Paul is not drawing a connection between the Jew and the ancient Israelite. He is talking about the Old Testament people of God, foreshadowing the New Testament believer in Jesus Christ. If you call yourself a Christian, he is speaking to you. We see this connection in verse 3 onwards.

They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:3-4

What we share is Christ. They ate the same spiritual food; the same spiritual drink. What sustained them was the same spiritual source. It was Christ. (Click here for my expanded thoughts on this and Exodus 17)

But verse 2 makes the further point that we share the same beginnings in Christ. “They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Yes, God was making a “way out” of slavery for the Israelites. But here, Paul is saying, God also made a way in. They were entering into a relationship with God. The crossing of the Red Sea symbolised a new beginning in their relationship as the people of God. They were all, says Paul, baptised.

Which is why, once you have made that powerful connection between us as Christians today, and these Old Testament Israelites then – through our shared identification with Christ, our shared salvation in Christ and our common blessings through Christ – once you have made that connection; then you begin to see the impact of verse 5.

Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them;
their bodies were scattered over the desert.

1 Corinthians 10:5

Our forefathers perished. They faced God’s anger and punishment. Their bodies were scattered in the desert. And the question is: What happened?

Our hearts

What happened was idolatry. Here the bible is warning us as Christians: Do not be an idolater.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
1 Corinthians 10:6-10

A couple of weeks ago, we studied Chapter 8 which had to do with the issue of food sacrificed to idols. It was an issue that connected with many of our own experiences growing up back in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia where there were temples all around us, and even altars in our living rooms. I got a lot of questions that week about friends and loved ones who continue to practice idol worship today. What were they doing? What were the effects? What did the bible say? We were rightly concerned out of love for our family members and acquaintances, and out of our regard for the warnings in the bible.

However, I am equally – if not more – concerned for you as a Christian, that you do not fall into idolatry. Here, Paul says idolatry has little to do with a carved, wooden statue. Instead, it has everything to do with our hearts.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.
1 Corinthians 10:6

The 16th Century reformer, John Calvin calls the heart an idol factory. We worship what we adore. Epithumetas can mean craving or desire. It is an inner longing for an external fulfilment.

“The heart wants what it wants,” says Woody Allen in the 1992 article in Time Magazine. In that famous interview, he justifies the relationship he has with the daughter of his lover. Woody goes on to say, “There is no logic to those things.”

Idolatry justifies our heart’s desire at the expense of conscience, truth and even logic. The heart wants what it wants. Paul says these things are examples so that we don’t set our hearts on evil things as they did.

Paul isn’t talking about Woody Allen. No, he points to the people of God. They were all baptised. There were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea. They all ate the spiritual food. They all drank the spiritual drink.

They were all one in experience, one in salvation – the one people of God. But idolatry presents itself as one evil in many forms. So when John Calvin calls the heart an “idol factory”, what he meant was, we are constantly producing various kinds of idols; various forms of worship.

For some it was food, drink and party (Verse 7). Now you might say: What’s wrong with that? The quote is taken directly from Exodus 32 verse 6, “Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” This was the famous incident of the golden calf. The Israelites told Aaron, “Come, make us gods”. So Aaron fashioned this idol, a figure made out of their gold jewellery and the nation bowed down and worshipped this golden calf.

The ironic thing is Aaron, the brother of Moses, actually tells the people, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” The eating and drinking and partying were part of a “festival to the LORD.” They actually justified their idolatry in God’s name. And all this while, Moses is up on the mountain of God receiving the Ten Commandments!

Or for others, it’s sexual misconduct (Verse 8). Again, it’s not just talking about sexual sin (there passive verbal form of porneia is used – a blanket term that includes just about all forms of sexual perversion), but the lure of sexual sin. The account in Numbers Chapter 25 begins with the men of Israel who “begin to indulge” in sexual immorality with Moabite women who “invited them to the sacrifices of their gods”.

Similarly, the testing in verse 9 refers to Numbers Chapter 21 where the Israelites complained about food and water. God fed them manna from heaven. They called it “miserable food” (Numbers 21:5). Their stomachs motivated their sin. They longed for nicer food, better-tasting food – but their longing prompted their actions in rebelling against God. Numbers 21:4 reads, “The people grew impatient along the way.” That is telling. They had every indication God was leading them towards the Promised Land; the land flowing with milk and honey. But God was taking too long. They wanted it all; they wanted it now.

Now the version I have in the NIV has verse 9 as follows: “We should not test the Lord”. If you check the latest translation of the NIV, it actually says, “We should not test Christ”, which my commentary says is much more likely the case (Also reflected in the ESV). Now, this is quite remarkable. So far, we have encountered two clear references to Jesus here in the Exodus. The first was back in verse 4, where Christ is both the presence that follows the Israelites through the wilderness and the Rock from which they are sustained through spiritual food and drink. And here in verse 9, where the people of God test Christ through their grumbling and idolatry.

Why is this important for us?

We have already seen that idolatry takes multiple forms. Sex, money, success – these are not necessarily bad things. New York pastor and author, Tim Keller defines idolatry as loving good things – good, wonderful, even godly things like education, money, respect; but making these ultimate things at the expense of loving God.

How did these Israelites sin? Yes, they rebelled. Yes, they sinned. But how did they sin? Did the Israelites say, “I don’t want God anymore”? “I hate him. I can’t stand God.” No. They said, “I’ve found this thing, which I love more than God. This is going to be my God.” So, they made the golden calf – it was a god they were familiar with. It was a god they could see and touch. It was a god, that for them, was real.

Yet, we read two weeks ago in Chapter 8: Idols are not real (1 Corinthians 8:4). They are a nothing at all, Paul says. Just a piece of wood. Like the table I’m using now is a piece of wood. But that doesn’t mean idols aren’t dangerous. We will see next week in Chapter 10 verse 20, that to participate in a sacrifice to idols is to participate in the worship of demons. And even then, Paul says, the danger is not in the demons that ensnare us. No, the real danger is in incurring the wrath of God.

And that’s the point of these verses. God is real in salvation; and God is real in judgement. The Israelites only understood the first point. They ate the bread, drank from the rock, crossed the sea. They were saved, hurray! They knew a God who saves and rescues – that God was real.

But they took for granted the God who judges. Verse 8 – twenty-three thousand die. Verse 9 – venomous snakes are sent among the camps. Verse 10 – God sends the Destroyer.

You would have thought they’d learn their lesson? Yet again, and again, they tested God. Again and again, they set their hearts on evil things. Till the bodies of an entire generation of Israelites were scattered in the desert. Only two made it to the Promised Land – Joshua and Caleb. Two! Everyone who made it out of Egypt, Moses included, fell into sin and fell under judgement. Every single one of them.

But Paul isn’t talking to them, is he?

Do not be idolaters. (Verse 7)
We should not commit sexual immorality. (Verse 8)
We should not test the Lord. (Verse 9)
Do not grumble. (Verse 10)

Paul is talking to us. These things occurred to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things (verse 6). And he is saying: As Christians we see the reality of God’s salvation and judgement, in a way that is much, much clearer than our forefathers ever did. We see it in Jesus.

For though they received the same promises, the same rescue and the same blessings from the same God, we have received something infinitely more glorious. We have Christ – the fulfilment of all the blessings and promises of God; or as verse 11 puts it – the fulfilment of the ages.

Our God

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment* of the ages has come.
1 Corinthians 10:11
* (tele/telos; means end, finishing or purpose – one of my favourite words in the bible)

You may know that the Christian and the Jew share the same Old Testament scriptures. The five books of Moses, the Psalms and prophets, the historical books of the kings and nation of Israel. Same books. Same writings. Same God.

Different purpose. Different end.

Paul is saying the Hebrew bible is the Christian’s bible. It was written down for us. This means: When God instructed Moses to write down the account of the Exodus thousands and thousands of years ago, he had you in mind. Yes you – the pathetic Chinaman living in Cambridge in the 21st Century, who can’t even read the original Hebrew language it was written in. If you are a Christian – the Hebrew Scriptures are your Scriptures. They were written down for you!

Why? Because the fulfilment of the ages has come in the person of Jesus Christ and his work on the cross. We can even go so far as to say, this fulfilment has come upon us. Which is why it is so important that we pay special attention to what Paul says next. The blessings are real, but so are the temptations.

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
1 Corinthians 10:12

The NIV “So, if you think you are standing firm” sounds like Paul is warning us against presumptuousness. Don’t think too highly of yourself. Yet actually, he has some specific people in mind.

The NASB gets closer to the mark, “Therefore let him who thinks (dokon) he stands”. Paul is referring to the same group of Christians we met back in Chapter 8. “The man who thinks (dokon) he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know”. This is the stronger brother who knows there is no God but one (8:4; Deuteronomy 6:4). He is absolutely right in his theology. Yet he is so wrong in his humility. He challenges the weaker brother struggling with idols to act against his conscience by eating the food sacrificed to idols. The stronger brother prides himself in knowing (gnosis) so much, yet selfishly ignores the good of his weaker brother. Paul begins Chapter 10 by addressing him, “I don’t want you to be ignorant (agnoein)” – the ones who know, but don’t yet know as they ought to know.

Paul warns the stronger, more knowledgeable brother, “Be careful (Blepete, Watch out), however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9). So here, Paul warns the stronger brother yet again – but this time, turning the tables – saying, “Be careful (Blepeto) that you don’t fall!”

The irony is: the stronger brother rightly sees the weakness of the weak. He sees the idols in the temple and knows in his head – they are nothing. But he is blind to the idols in his heart. And Paul warns him: Do not set your heart on evil things. He warns us about temptation.

And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
1 Corinthians 10:13

Peirasmos can either mean temptation or trial. So Paul could either be referring to desire or danger – to pleasure or to pain. God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear; he will not let you be tested beyond what you can withstand.

There are, of course, overtones of both temptation and trial. The Israelites were tempted in their passions. They were tested by hunger. What ultimately matters most is not our resolve, but God’s faithfulness. He knows our limits and he provides our relief. He is faithful.

Yet verse 13 is not the concluding statement. Verse 14 is: “Therefore, flee idolatry.” Earlier on in 6:18 Pauls says, “Flee from sexual immorality.” 1 Timothy 6:11 – speaking of the love of money and the desire and eagerness for wealth, he says, “Flee from all this.”

Yes, God will faithfully preserve the believer. And yes, he will not allow us to be tempted beyond our limits. He will guard our steps but we must guard our hearts. We need to watch what we watch, to guard what we gaze; to discriminate what we desire.

We learn this as we trust in Christ. We learn to do this in our personal walk with Christ. But Paul gives us one additional resource: We learn from the lives and the triumphs and even the mistakes of these Israelites thousands of years ago, written not simply for our example, but to point towards our fulfilment. That’s the purpose of the Old Testament Scriptures. They were written down for us to keep our gaze firmly focussed on Christ.

Our history

The Polish town of Oswiecim was invaded by Germans in September of 1939. We know it by a different name, “Auschwitz”. It was a network of concentration camps, dubbed by Heinrich Himmler, the Minister of Interior, “the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe”. From the spring of 1942 to the fall of 1944, Jews from all over Nazi-occupied Europe were transported by train to this one location. An estimated 1.1 million prisoners died in those camps, many exterminated in gas chambers. Those not killed by the gas chamber died of starvation, forced labour, disease, individual executions and medical experiments.
(Adapted from Wikipedia)

At the entrance to one of these camps stands a plaque with these words:
The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.

We ignore history to our detriment. It is true of world history – the world as seen great triumphs and great tragedies. It is true of the bible – humanity has received great grace yet committed great evil. We ignore the bible to our shame and our destruction.

1 Corinthians 10 reminds the Christian – the bible is our history. It is the history of God creating the world and sustaining it by his grace. It is the history of humanity’s rebellion against his maker and God’s response in judgement and death. It is the history of God become man, bearing the sin of the world, and raised as Lord of Heaven and Earth – Jesus Christ – the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Christ is the Lord over History.

And it is written down for us – on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.

The end of the ages – or you could even say – the end of history is not an event. It is a person. His name is Jesus. And he was written down for us.

Love Christ. Love His Word.

Thursday 24 February 2011


If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:15-16

It seems rather odd to think Almighty God
Of you and me –
Who, inching onwards, keep glancing backward,
To where we used to be.

Yet, it’s those who set their sights,
Their hearts delight,
In Heaven, the city above.
God is their God, Of them He is called
Unashamed –
For such are a people he loves.

Remember me

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke 23:42-43

Two criminals sentenced to their deaths
Both hanging on the cross
Gasping their last breaths.

One turns to Christ
Beholding his shame
Hurls insults on Jesus
Pours contempt on his name -
“Aren’t you the ‘Saviour’?
The promised Messiah?
Come down from that cross;
And show us your power!”

But the other rebukes him, “Don’t you fear God?”
“We’re guilty of our crimes;
He clearly is not!”
Then, in one moment of crystal clarity
The thief turns to Jesus
Pleads, “Lord, remember me.”

Two criminals hung sentenced to their deaths
One remained in his sin
One found eternal rest.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Is it OK to date a non-Christian?

Question: How would you reply to someone if a Christian tells you that they think it’s alright to date a non-Christian and their reason being - there are plenty of good guys who aren't Christians and you could bring them to God?

I think I would want to answer lovingly from the bible.

I can understand the situation your friend is in. And I am just going to begin by assuming the very best of her – that she loves Jesus; that she is in a community of believers walking in faithfulness to Jesus; and that she is in a growing relationship with God as her heavenly Father, through prayer and regular reflection upon his Word.

I would also want to affirm the challenging situation she is facing. It is hard to get guys interested in church. It gets harder and harder as they start work and progress through their careers.

And then finally I would want to look at Ephesians 5 and hear what the bible has to say. Firstly, from verses 22 onwards, directed towards wives:

1. Submission

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Ephesians 5:22-24

Submission is hard. Yet not once, but twice, Paul says to wives: submit to your husbands. That’s hard. And here Paul is assuming the husband is a believer. That’s why he says: look at the church. As you see Christians submit to Christ, in the same way, learn to submit to your husbands.

I would ask your friend: Can you see yourself submitting to this man as your husband? “In everything” say Paul at the end of verse 24 – this is serious. Would you trust him with your life? With the lives of your children? With your faith in God?

This is not to say that Christian guys are perfect models of trustworthiness. Then again, all Christians – guys and girls – grow in their submission to Jesus as they walk with Jesus. Which is why Paul first addresses the church as a whole before speaking to the wives in particular, saying:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

Meaning: submission is not a personality trait. It is a response of worship to Jesus.

2. Love

Then, I would move on to the instructions Paul gives to the husbands, in verses 25 onwards.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:25-27

Let’s imagine that this non-Christian prospective boyfriend is in the same room, and that we are all reading these words together. I would ask him this question: Do you believe this?

Now, don’t mishear me. I am not asking: Will you do this? I am not asking him: will you love this girl, treat her well, care for her, respect her. (To which any guy would respond: Of course!)

No, my question is: Do you believe these wordsThe reasons why you should love her. Paul is saying to husbands – love your wives the way Jesus loved the church - sacrificially. Furthermore, the way you are to love her is by making her holy – through the cleansing of water through the word. It’s talking about the bible. It is saying to husbands: Men, you must remind your wives about Jesus by speaking and living out the bible every day of your marriage.

On top of all this: Verse 27 says one day, Jesus will return. So, your job then, Men, is to present your wives holy and blameless before the Lord of the universe.

Do you believe this?

I think, if the non-Christian boy were honest, he would say No. And I would commend him for his honesty.

And to be fair to him: if your future husband does not know the Word – how can you expect him to love you through the cleansing of the word of God. If he does not believe in the death, burial, resurrection and second coming of Jesus Christ – what motivation does he have to do any of this? It is unfair to him as a non-believer and it is unrealistic of you as a Christian to have these expectations from the bible meant for both a believing wife and husband.

3. Faithfulness

Finally, in responding to the notion that these non-Christian guys could be brought to Christ...

It is commendable that your friend is thinking about their salvation in Jesus. But it should not be at the expense of her own obedience to Jesus.

The bible is clear. Single Christians are free to marry anyone as long as they are (1) single, (2) of the opposite sex; and (3) belong to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:39 – the same expression is used in 7:22 to clearly refer to a Christian).

It is worth meditating on 1 Corinthians 7:25-38. Paul speaks directly to singles and the main thrust there is faithfulness in your present situation. He recognises the eagerness and pressure to be in a relationship and to get married. But don’t wait for that change in circumstance. Learn faithfulness now. Serve God now. For you, this means in your singleness.

Starting a relationship with a non-Christian and using evangelism as an excuse is – at best – unwise. You send the wrong signal that the relationship with one another is more important than with Jesus. Rather than helping him, you are standing in the way of him coming to know God.

If you haven’t yet begun a relationship, please don’t start one. If you are already seeing him you will need to break it off. I know I have no right to say this to you and this really needs to come from your pastor, or a Christian friend you know and trust. It isn’t easy, it is definitely hard (again please read 1 Corinthians 7), but one thing the bible is, on this matter, is clear.

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Church discipline: why it is difficult and why it is loving (1 Corinthians 5)

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 5:4-5

These verses are hard to accept and even harder to apply. These are verses about church discipline.

It is one thing to warn of sinful behaviour. But to enforce punishment? Is it the place of a church – or anyone, for the matter – to act like the moral police?

These are hard words. But they are often misunderstood words. For here the bible is giving us practical counsel. Here, the apostle Paul is writing out of concern for the church and love for the individual.

A shared responsibility

Firstly, church discipline is the responsibility of the entire church. “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus,” Paul says. Meaning: it’s not just the pastor. In fact, it’s not even your entire board of elders. The whole local gathering of believers is called to take action.

Which is why you find Paul condemning not simply the individual who has sinned, but the church as a whole who have not responded to this sin. To be sure, the individual’s sin is serious. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate.” (Verse 1) Even the non-Christians are shocked that such a thing could happen. Yet, the Christian believers in Corinth respond not with grief, but with pride.

And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?
1 Corinthians 5:2

According to Paul, the problem is pride. Pride is the reason the church has withheld discipline. Now, that sounds strange. Today, you would expect the reason to be indifference. “Oh, it’s really not that serious. I’m sure he can sort himself out. Who is to say what is right or wrong?” Indifference says: sin doesn’t really matter. In that sense, indifference sounds rather humble. “Aren’t we all equally sinful? Discipline – that’s just being holier than thou.”

Tolerating sin is not humble. It is proud. Paul says in verse 6, “Your boasting is not good.” It is a perverse form of pride that justifies the sin. That says: Actually, there a good reason for that sin. That says: I am free to commit that sin.

It is this pride that keeps the church from recognising sin as sinful. And it is pride that is condemned by the apostle Paul; over and above the horrendous sin of the individual. To be sure, Paul does not let the individual off the hook. “I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing,” he says. Yet when it comes to taking action on this brother, Paul – an apostle personally commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ; the founding pastor of the church in Corinth – does not see his position above that of the church. He casts his vote (I have already pronounced judgement), but calls on the whole assembly of believers to do the same.

Why? Because church discipline is the responsibility of the entire church.

Just as an aside. Are you member of your local church? Yes, I know, I know – you come every week and you sit in the pews. You help out in the children’s ministry and occasionally play the guitar. But, are you a member? It is a formality – but I tell you, it is more than a formality. There are responsibilities given you as a member of the people of God. I know that approving the budget doesn’t sound exciting, nor sitting on some committee to plan the yearly church picnic (groan!). But when it comes to something serious – like church discipline, in this case – are you making it harder for the entire body of Christ to act on what is already a very hard situation? My question to you is this: Is it pride that is keeping you from taking that step? Washing your hands of sticky situations – which the bible says is part of our shared responsibility in the body of Christ? Is it pride?

Church discipline is the responsibility of the whole church.

In and out

Secondly, church discipline is a response to sinful behaviour in a professing Christian believer. The church in Corinth had got this dangerously mixed up. They stood in judgement over the world, but tolerated the sin that was within.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.
1 Corinthians 5:9-10

It is partly an encouragement; and partly a sobering reminder to me, that even the apostle Paul had to clarify what he said. He had written to these Christians in the past – warning believers of sexual sin – yet, even Paul was misunderstood. The Corinthians thought he meant: stay away from all sinful people. Condemn the world around you.

But Paul says: if that were true, you’d all have to be monks!

No, Paul says stay away from the brother or sister who calls himself a Christian but refuses to repent of his sin to Christ.

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
1 Corinthians 5:11

Because I go to the Chinese Church, but don’t speak Chinese, I find it a constant challenge to remember Chinese names. It is so embarrassing when I forget - or worse, mispronounce - someone’s name (I often have to scribble it down quickly after each Sunday meeting!). Still, one trick that lets me get away with it here in the Chinese Church is by calling out, “Hello brother! Hello sister!” (Or if it’s back in Malaysia and they’re older – Hello uncle! Hello auntie!)

Here in verse 11, Paul says stay away from the sinful unrepentant man, who “bears the name of brother”. He is talking about the Christian. He is describing someone who wants to be in friendship with other Christians – he a “brother”. But he is talking about someone who takes for granted the privilege of being in the family of Christ.

He “bears the name of brother”. Paul could either be reminding us of the status we have as believers in Christ – that is, we become a family of brothers and sisters by virtue of an external privilege. Just as we bear the name of Christ (we are “Christians”); so we bear the name of “brothers” and “sisters” (we are one family in Christ).

Alternatively, Paul could be describing the unrepentant attitude of this Christian. He is in sin yet he wants to be known as a Christian. He calls himself a brother. He wants to be in the loving friendship and fellowship of other believers. But he still wants to continue in actions that destroys himself and endanger the Christians around him.

Paul reminds all of us as Christians – be done with sin.

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
1 Corinthians 5:6-7

Leaven or yeast is what you use in baking bread. Just a wee bit will do. Leave it in there and it grows, permeates and spreads through the entire dough. Just a wee bit will do.

Paul is saying: sin is like yeast. Just a bit is enough to affect the entire church given time and opportunity. The church is to be unleavened dough – bread without yeast.

But notice: Paul doesn’t say – get rid of the yeast in order to be unleavened. No, he says get rid of yeast, because you really are unleavened. This is a very important point. Christian don’t fight sin in order to be sin-free. Christians fight sin because Christ has freed us from sin. Paul is calling us as Christians to be who we are. Christ, our Passover lamb (the Passover is a reference to Exodus 12), has been sacrificed. He has taken our sin. On the cross, Jesus bore the punishment for our sin.

Paul is saying to Christians: be who you are. Sin-free and sin-fighters. Be who you are in Christ Jesus, who took our sin upon himself to give us freedom from sin and death.

In love

To recap: (1) Church discipline is a responsibility shared by the whole church. (2) Church discipline is a specific response towards sin in a specific Christian brother or sister.

Finally, church discipline is an act of love motivated by the good of the brother and the grace of God. Perhaps you read these verses and think: Loving? How can discipline be loving?

Notice that the discipline Paul calls for is not some kind of physical punishment. The unrepentant brother is not being stoned, jailed, abused verbally or psychologically. Instead, he is to be removed from fellowship.

Don’t come to our Sunday gatherings. Don’t even turn up at our mid-week bible studies. “Do not even eat with such people,” Paul says in verse 10. “Let him be removed from among you.” – Verse 2. Do “not associate” with this brother – Verse 11. No social gatherings. No lunches. No emails.

Meaning: it isn’t simply striking someone off the membership list. Taking his email off the weekly prayer bulletin. The whole church is to stay away from this individual.

Today, this is virtually impossible to do. You kick a brother out of a church here in Cambridge – he has ten others to choose from. It is impossible to get this message across. And it is serious, not so much for the church family itself – the individual leaves. But it is detrimental for the brother still in sin. He doesn’t get it! The purpose of this act of discipline is not allowed to take its full course. And the subsequent gathering of believers is unknowingly left susceptible to the same dangers as the first church. 1 Corinthians 5 is a very, very hard passage to put into effect.

And yet, God is sovereign and these are words given us for both prayerful contemplation and practical application. You see, church discipline isn’t simply an action taken by Christians in obedience to the gospel. It is the application of the power of God in the salvation of Christ.

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 5:4-5

Notice that Paul does not leave any room for any action or thought, without clear, repeated references to Jesus. He is Lord. We assemble in the name of the Lord Jesus. We deliver this man in the power of our Lord Jesus. We do all this in expectation of the saving work displayed on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, I must admit I find these words very hard to swallow. You are delivering this man to Satan. Literally, you “hand this man”(paradounai) over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (sarx can mean flesh; often the NIV translates it as the sinful nature; or even the physical body). These verses are hard not because they are unclear. Quite the opposite – they are hard because they clear instruct us to deliver this brother over the Satan, whom God can even use for the cleansing of sin and the salvation of his spirit.

The same phrase is found in two other passages in the bible – one in the New Testament and the other in the Old. In 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul hands Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme”. The context there is false teaching and the denial of the gospel.

However, it is in the book of Job that we get a fuller picture of both the sovereign authority of God and the destruction caused by Satan. In Job 2:6, God says to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands (paradidomi, LXX).” Satan strikes Job with painful sores from head to toe. Was God sovereign? Yes. Satan has to ask permission from the LORD before he can lay a finger on Job. Did Satan destroy his body? More than that. His sons and daughters were killed. He loses his fortune. He entire body is afflicted with sores. But not without the sanction of God.

But was Job saved?

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.
Job 42:5-6

Job encounters the living God and turns to him in repentance and contrition.

These verses tell us: what you are doing in disciplining the unrepentant brother is not simply ignoring him and deleting his text messages. You are praying for his very salvation. “With the power (dunamei) of the Lord Jesus,” Paul says. The same power Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 1:18 – “The word of the cross... is the power (dunamis) of God” for us who are being saved. You are praying that God would save this brother by the power of the cross.

That last phrase “saved on the day of the Lord” reminds us of the certainty of a Day when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead, and that whatever judgement we may encounter this side of eternity pales in comparison with the judgement to come. To ignore the reality of hell is not only foolishness; if you are a Christian – ignoring the reality of God’s real and impending judgement in the light of your brother’s sin is profoundly unloving.

The reason we ignore discipline – church discipline, or any form of discipline for the matter – is the same reason we deny judgement. We are afraid. We fear the consequences of our sins. Even though everything in our own personal experiences and our deepest conscience tells us – it is foolishness. We are running from reality.

But the amazing truth of the bible is: God reveals the depths of his love and power of his saving grace through the judgement poured out on his Son.

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. He has taken our judgement for sin. There is no more condemnation in Christ. There is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of Christ. But only if we trust in him as our sacrifice for sin – in Christ our Passover Lamb.

And for Christians we look forward to that Day – not as a day of judgement – but as the final day of salvation.

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Hebrews 9:27-28

You've been served! (Matthew 20:20-28)

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Matthew 20:25-26

This passage has long been used to support a kind of biblical model for leadership. Church leaders are often reminded they must first be servants – servants of Christ and of God’s people, the church. Even the word “ministry” means “service”. (So, the Prime Minister is literally the “First Servant”.) It radically changes our perception of what constitutes the role and the privileges of a leader. He must be – according to verse 26 – a servant; someone whose job is to meet the needs of another. Or as the English Standard Version rightly has it, he must be a “slave”; someone who does not stand on his or her own rights (a slave had none) but was placed under the authority of another.

In the immediate setting, taken from Matthew’s gospel, two of the disciples – James and John – have requested places of honour. Well actually, the passage says their mum approached Jesus. It reminds me of a friend in Singapore who once told his dad he wanted to be a pastor (He now is). “Dad, I think I want to be a minister,” he said. His father paused for a while, before answering. “Good. Maybe you could be Minister of Finance.”

Similarly, this mother wanted to secure high-ranking positions for her two sons. Perhaps they could be Ministers of Education and Defence. She says to Jesus, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Verse 21)

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them.
Matthew 20:22

Notice that Jesus responds to them – that is, not just dear old Mum. James and John are equally mistaken in what it means to follow Jesus. It soon becomes clear, that all twelve disciples are just as clueless. They find out what James and John did and became “indignant with the two brothers” (verse 24) – which is why Jesus has to call everyone together (verse 25) to clarify what true greatness entails.

Essentially, Jesus is talking about greatness. In place of “high officials” in the NIV, the ESV has the more literal “great ones”, translating megaloi. This in turn, echoes Jesus summary of what greatness means – Whoever wants to be great (megas) among you must be your servant.

Additionally, this clues us in on the fact that Jesus is responding to a much earlier situation involving greatness. As far back as Chapter 18, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus points to a young child and says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Now notice what Jesus has just done. They wanted to know who would be great. Jesus tells them who would be saved. This issue of greatness isn’t just about privilege and position. It concerns entry into the Kingdom of Heaven itself. Not position but salvation. Furthermore, God does not choose based on merit or ability. He chooses the humble. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)

Yet Jesus doesn’t end there. He begins with the world (The rulers and great ones exercise their authority and privileges). And he contrasts the disciples (Not so with you). But he ends by pointing to himself – the Son of Man.

“Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:28

The point that Jesus is making, is not so much – You must serve. Still less – You must lead. Indeed, if all we see here is a model of leadership (the Servant-hearted leader) – as useful an example that might be in our churches and governments – we sorely miss the point. Jesus is not simply talking about position. He is giving a picture of salvation.

In a way, Jesus is asking you a very important question. The question is not whether you have served God. Rather the question is: Have you been served by God?

We do not serve God. Indeed, we cannot; unless God first serves us. The Son of Man gives his life in our place. That is what a ransom is – it is payment in place of another. Jesus pays his life for ours. Through his death on the cross, Jesus gives his life as a ransom for many.

The good news of the bible is God coming as a man – humbling himself as a servant – to serve us on the cross. He takes our punishment for sin and we receive his reward of righteousness. In Jesus we see God as a great Saviour through his Son as our great Servant King.

So, question at the end of the day is:
Have you been served by the Son of Man? Has Jesus given his life for yours?

Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Rebooting Earth (Genesis 1-6)

Really looking forward to a workshop I have been invited to lead at this year's South England Easter Conference (SEEC 2011), based on an overview of Genesis Chapters 1 to 6. Here is a blurb I sent to the organisers:

Rebooting Earth
In the final installment of the Matrix trilogy, Neo seeks out the Oracle for advice on an impending war with the machines. She replies with these words, “Everything that has a beginning has an end.”

As we look to the beginning of the bible – to the very first chapters of the book of Genesis – we will be investigating the creation of the earth, the purpose of mankind and the identity of God. Yet at the same time, we will discover God’s final plan of salvation – an end to all evil and sin, the destruction of death and the promise of the Son, Jesus Christ.

Friday 11 February 2011

That rock was Christ (Exodus 17)

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:1-4

Paul says something here that just blows me away every time I read it. He is summarising the entire Exodus experience of the Israelites. God rescues his people from slavery. He performs miracle after miracle and displays his power to Pharaoh, King of Egypt.

And then Paul caps it all off by saying that rock was Christ. He’s saying: You look back at the Exodus and you should see Jesus.

What I find amazing is, out of all the stuff Paul could have pointed to and said, “There’s Jesus!”; like he could have said, “Remember the manna? Well, Jesus is the true bread from heaven.” And Jesus did say that, didn’t he, in John 6:35? Or Paul could have said, “Jesus gives us the true living water that wells up to eternal life” – what Jesus told the Samaritan woman in John 4.

Or the pillars of cloud and fire – that’s where you see the presence of Almighty God! Following them and guiding them through the desert. But no, Paul doesn’t do any of that.

Instead, Paul says, Look at the rock. That’s Jesus.

The background to this statement is Exodus Chapter 17. The Israelites have been travelling in the desert for some weeks since they left Egypt. And as they set up camp here, in a place called Rephidim, this is the last pit stop before they reach their destination, Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. That’s Disneyland. That’s the whole purpose of God rescuing these slaves from Egypt, that he would gather his people around his presence to worship him. Mount Sinai is where Moses receives the 10 Commandments, the Law of God.

But here in Rephidim, things get tough.

All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarrelled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
Exodus 17:1-4

The biggest headlines in every newspaper, for the past two weeks, and certainly this morning, have been the protests in Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of people gathering in Tahrir square demanding the resignation of President Mubarak. The sheer frustration and intense anger of an entire nation focussed on one man.

Let me be clear: Mubarak is no Moses! That’s not my point (at all!)

But the dissatisfaction of the people of Israel have reached fever pitch, as they quarrelled with Moses (verse 2) and even threatened to stone him (verse 4). And what we need to see is that the problem was real and serious. There was “no water for the people to drink” (verse 1). They were thirsty, their kids were thirsty, their livestock were at risk; the whole nation was facing a crisis. Without water in the desert, they were going to die!

Moses’ answer to them was: You’re not quarrelling with me. You are testing God.

It is not that their concerns weren’t legitimate; that the danger wasn’t serious. But the people of Israel are forgetting how God had, time and time again, rescued them from mortal danger, from hunger, and yes, even from thirst. Just two chapters earlier, Exodus 15, the people complain about water at a place called Marah. The water there was bitter (Marah is Hebrew for bitter) – it was undrinkeable, yuck! The word could imply that water was even poisonous. But God showed Moses a log, he threw it in and the passage says, “the water became sweet”. A few verses later, we read, God brings them to Elim where there are twelve springs of water. Water in abundance!

God responds again and again with grace and mercy. He provides his people with what they need and he does so abundantly!

But the Israelites forget this lesson. So here they complain against God, yet again. So serious was their disobedience, that Moses names that place Massah and Meribah (which mean quarrel and test) “because of the quarrelling of the people of Israel and because they tested the Lord” (Exodus 17:7). For centuries, this event is immortalised in the words of Psalm 95 warning successive generations of Israelites not to test God. “Today, if only you would hear his voice, ‘Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me” (Psalm 95:7-9). The same passage is quote in the letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 3, where the author warns Christians not to harden their hearts when they hear God’s voice in the gospel “Today”.

So the Israelites complain to Moses. Moses, in turn, complains to God. “What shall I do with this people?” (verse 4)

And God responds clearly and graciously to Moses. God tells him to do three things. First, walk through all the crowds. “Pass on before the people.” They need to see you doing this, Moses. Walk up to the massive onslaught of protesters; face the angry mob. You are still their leader. You face them and they need to face you.

Secondly, gather the leaders. Take with you “some of the elders of Israel”. They are coming with you, these elders. They are the representatives of the people. Men that they know and respect. Previously if you remember, when Moses first approached the people still in slavery in Egypt, first thing he did was talk to the elders and tell them what God was about to do. The same thing is happening here. It’s not just Moses, but God using Moses, to communicate his plan to his people through their leaders.

And God wants these leaders to come with Moses, because he wants them to be witnesses. He is going to show them something spectacular. God isn’t just going to do something about this crisis. He will show how he is going to deal with the problem.

And the third and final thing God tells Moses to do: take the staff; that same staff you used to strike the Nile – that staff. Take the staff and strike the rock.

Behold, I will stand before you there on (literally, on the face of) the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
Exodus 17:6

Look closely again at these words. God says to Moses, “You shall strike the rock.” But just before that, what does God say? “Behold, I will stand before you there. On the rock at Horeb.”

God is saying: when you strike that rock, Moses, you are striking God.

With that same staff that brought judgement to the Egyptians? Turning the Nile to blood? Parting the Red Sea which swallowed up the soldiers and chariots? That same staff, you will use to strike me.

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:1-4

Here in 1 Corinthians, Paul recounts the events of Exodus 12 to 17, step by step. Along the way, he spells out for us the blessings God gave in rescuing his people. God gives them his presence (“our fathers were all under the cloud”), rescues them from death and destruction (they “all passed through the sea”) and sustained them physically and spiritually (they “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink”). These are God’s blessings in salvation.

But then Paul sums up all these blessings by pointing to the ultimate source of their salvation. “For,” he says; meaning this is the purpose; this is the source – “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”

Paul is reminding us of that rock – the rock that was struck by Moses’ staff. And he says, that rock was Christ. On the cross, Christ took the punishment for our sin. He was stricken – struck for our disobedience of turning against God. But it is through that judgement laid upon Jesus that Christians receive life, forgiveness and all the fullness of the blessings of salvation.

For the Israelites in the desert, grumbling and complaining against God, Moses was showing them the full extent of their rebellion.

I’m not sure what will happen to all those protesters in Egypt. I know I do fear for their safety. World leaders are cautioning Mubarak and the people to restrain themselves from reacting in violence.

Here in Exodus 17, God responds to this rebellion, not by crushing it, but by being crushed. He doesn’t strike them down, he tells Moses to strike the rock. And on the cross, we see that God takes the punishment we deserve for our rebellion against him, our deserved judgement for all those times we continue to defy him and question his authority; ignore his goodness and doubt his love – God takes his wrath and anger towards us and pours it out on Jesus.

Isaiah prophecies of Christ with these words that speak of his affliction and his wounds.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
Isaiah 53:3-5

He was wounded. Jesus was crushed. But through his death we receive life. By his stripes we are healed.

Paul says: We drink of that spiritual Rock. And that Rock was Christ.

Preparing the next, next generation (2 Timothy 2:2)

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2:2

I think it was almost ten years ago when a good friend sat me down and said, “Calvin, there are just so many good people this year. Maybe, next year.” He was talking about an internship for ministry at my church back home. It was a good church and a vibrant church. A mark of that vibrancy was a keen interest amongst its members to preach the gospel. And many pursued the opportunity to do this full-time. Praise God!

Ten years later, it is encouraging to see the same interest and opportunity reflected in the churches here in Cambridge – perhaps, even more so. Many students take a year out upon graduating from university, to join the staff of one of the local churches. It gives them a chance to explore the joys and hardships of ministry under the guidance and care of experienced Christian leaders. Perhaps the biggest advantage Cambridge uniquely offers is the training. The very best bible teaching is made available to interns through programmes like TEAM (Training in East Anglia Ministry) designed to teach its students how to handle the scriptures with care and to preach the gospel with clarity.

Yet spending the past five years in a Chinese Church has, I think, given me an added perspective on what it takes to raise and train leaders. What I mean is this: Here in the UK, ministry training is focussed on the individual. Courses like Christianity Explored and Alpha speak to the individual person – how he or she understands the world, God, sin, death, life – in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. Of course, following Jesus is a personal relationship with him as Saviour and Lord. But as a result, leaders are trained in the context of communicating the gospel to persons and individuals – One-to-one bible studies; Personal evangelism in the workplace and at dorms.

In contrast, Chinese Churches are community-based churches. They often begin as bible study groups among migrant families meeting in homes. Every meeting starts with a meal – every meeting (and it always must be Chinese food!) Eating is what you do in everyday life. Eating is what you do with your family. Here in the English-speaking congregation, I think I have met almost everyone’s dad or mum (or even their grandparents, aunts and uncles!). I’m not just talking about the young kids who grow up in church. Even the working adults bring their parents and relatives when they’re over for a visit. The Chinese Church is where you meet your son’s buddies; your daughters close friends.

So when it comes to the issue of leaders, people in the Chinese Church don’t just think, “How do we reach the next generation?” They’re asking “What about the next, next generation?” Meaning: they’re thinking about their kids. Not just their colleagues, their friends, the people in their community, other Chinese people – No, they’re thinking, “If I have a family and my children grow up here, what kind of church do I want this to be?” Not just the next generation. The next, next generation.

In this verse taken from 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul gives us insight into his strategy to reach and prepare the next, next generation. This is Paul’s last letter to Timothy; his last words of encouragement and advice to his good friend, partner in the gospel – his son in the faith. He tells Timothy, Be strong. Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1). Keeping trusting in his grace, Tim. Jesus will keep you going. He will keep you faithful.

But here, Paul says to Timothy in verse 2, You need to do one more thing. Raise up leaders – or more specifically, raise up teachers. Leaders in the church lead through the authority of the word of God. They teach the scriptures. That is what you need to do, Timothy. That is what you need to teach these leaders to do well; so that they can teach others also.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2:2

These leaders have to be two things: faithful and able to teach – both men of character and capability. There has been some debate as to whether Paul meant just men exclusively – male leaders – or are women included in this assessment? I noticed that the recent NIV revision has “reliable people” in place of “reliable men”, and I think I agree (though, I’m still thinking about it) that at least here, Paul is using anthropois in such a way it could refer either to men or women. However, because of the recurring phrase “able to teach” found here and in 1 Timothy 3, where it is used specifically of male elders (it qualification is missing from requirements of deacons in the same passage; compare also Titus 1:9), I think Paul has a special eye on men who will take up positions of leadership in the church. The bible is clear that responsible and capable men are tasked with eldership and the public teaching of the scriptures.

The practical challenge is in identifying such men. Do exceptional gifts make the exceptional leader? Gifts are often easier to notice than character. If you are in a big church where many individuals are in active ministry and many are seeking opportunities of leadership – is it not easier to measure their qualification based on fruitfulness rather than faithfulness? Fruitfulness you can see – people, skills, success, results, response. Faithfulness takes time and discernment – patience, steadfastness, reliability, responsibility.

Obviously, we all want the guy who has both character and capability. Helpfully, Paul is specific about the form and faithfulness he is looking out for. It’s the gospel. It is the ability to handle and communicate the gospel effectively.

Meaning: Paul is not talking about the guy whom everyone says is really, really nice, good with kids, and always turns up early for prayer meetings. “Faithfulness” here has to do with the bible. He is entrusted with the very words of God. Will he be faithful in speaking the message of the bible; not his opinions, thoughts or musings. Will he preach that full gospel – not leaving out the hard bits. Will he put in the hard work of prayer and preparation. Is he faithful?

(As an aside, when Paul says “faithful”, he is obviously talking about a believer. It’s an obvious point, so obvious that we might foolishly take it for granted. Please make sure your leader is a Christian! A person needs to know the gospel in order to be faithful to the gospel!)

And Paul is also not talking about the scholar who can parse the Greek text and recite Deuteronomy from memory. “Able to teach” is a qualification we look for in Sunday School teachers. Can he tell us about Jesus in such a way that even kids understand him – and not have to bribe them every 5 minutes with Haribo.

You know, if I had to choose between two good potential leaders – both capable and both reliable – but one was slightly more loving and patient, while the other was slightly more experienced in bible-study – at the risk of being misunderstood – I would choose the bible-study leader. In the Chinese Church, I know the tendency is to go with the nice, reliable guy. That’s because we think, That’s the harder quality to come by. And I agree. It takes more time and love to shape a person’s character. But I would still go with the one with bible skills. Because the final criteria in choosing a leader is not the leader, but the gospel.

You see, the qualification that Paul outlines here in 2 Timothy, is not really in and of the candidate himself. Rather, it is an external qualification – the gospel. And his whole motivation of passing on this important instruction to Timothy to appoint leaders is not so much to ensure that the church will still be carrying on for another generation, or that Timothy won’t be going at it alone without adequate help and assistance. His single purpose is in making sure the gospel is preached.

Notice that Paul had already begun the process of preparing these leaders long before he wrote this letter. He says to Timothy, “Remember what you have heard me teach,” and then he adds the qualification, “in front of many witnesses”. This could either be a reference to a specific event where Paul preached in front of a crowd that can testify to his message. Or more likely I think, Paul is referring to his entire ministry of preaching, where he has proclaimed the same message about Jesus, again and again. And because he has preached this same message everywhere he went, many people can say, Yup, that was what Paul said about Jesus. He preached the cross. That’s Paul’s message.

And Paul is saying to Timothy, you too, heard this message of the gospel from my lips. Now, pass it on, he says. “Entrust” it to reliable men.

This means: while it is good to have structured classroom-based lectures, that go through the bible systematically verse by verse, topic by topic; and while it is an absolutely good idea to send pastors off to seminary in order for them to do this - Paul’s idea of training leaders is simply to preach the bible. He does this in a public setting (“in the presence of many witnesses”), meaning in the assembly of believers, as in a church gathering. But this must also include his preaching before unbelievers – which is mostly what Paul did in his ministry. He preached the gospel to those who had never heard of Jesus before.

And all this while, Paul brought Timothy along with him on his journeys to help him with his mission; but also to be a witness to his ministry. So that, Paul could one day say to Timothy, Remember. Remember this pattern of preaching the message of the cross, what I said, when I said it, how I communicated it – and pass it on to these leaders. If you are an existing leader, this means your first priority in raising leaders does not involve setting up a committee or getting someone to organise an evangelistic event. The most effect thing you could do is preach the gospel. When you open the scriptures and proclaim Christ clearly and powerfully, God will call men and women to do the same. You prepare new leaders in your church by preaching the gospel to your church.

One more thing: I said that this is Paul’s strategy for training not simply the next generation (Timothy), but the next, next generation (men who will teach others). So, Paul reminds Timothy of everything he has learnt. But then, he also tells Timothy, You have to pass this message on – in other words, you have to teach the gospel to others. But on top of this, Paul does one more thing. He says to Timothy, Teach this to others, in such a way, that they too are able to teach the gospel.

How do you do this? We have already seen that Paul leaves Timothy a pattern to follow – his own life and ministry centred round the message of Jesus Christ. In part, it means: we are always preaching the gospel to one another. Not just the pastor up front during the sermon, but even during the songs, for example. Everyone is singing about Christ, his redemption on the cross, God’s love displayed through his sacrifice (if we have chosen our songs wisely) – and we sing this to God, but also to one another. The people of God are perpetually “gospelling” to one another. This is one good, godly, biblical way of learning how to speak the gospel to one another.

But the focus in this verse is much, much more pointed. Paul uses the word “entrust” to describe the appointment of the leader. And what he is doing is making absolutely, crystal clear to the new leader what God is “entrusting” the leader with. It is the “good deposit” (1:14), the thing Timothy has heard Paul say in front of many witnesses (2:2) – it is the gospel (1:11-12). God is entrusting the leader with the weighty responsibility of preaching, teaching, speaking the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If your church were to advertise for a pastor, what would the job description say? When you interviewed the candidates, what would the one thing be that you are looking out for? And when you install and ordain a new vicar or elder – what is the one thing you would prayerfully ask God to empower this new leader to do for glory of his name?

Paul makes it clear to Timothy: impress upon them and remind them that their job is to do one thing, supremely above all other things: They must preach Christ! What are they entrusted with? The gospel. What is their chief responsibility? To proclaim the gospel! Why does he need to be reliable and able and trustworthy and godly? So that he will faithful in teaching the full message of the scriptures which point to the fulfilment of all God’s blessing in the one salvation that comes through Jesus Christ on the cross. They are entrusted with preaching the gospel!

And that, says Paul, is how you reach the next, next generation.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Is gambling a sin?

A question I got from my good buddy in Christ this weekend on Facebook:

“What does the bible say with regards to gambling?
Is there a specific verse which advises us not to gamble?”

Good question!

Aha! I noticed you are not asking “Is gambling a sin?” but in effect, “Does the bible say gambling is good/bad?”

No. There is no explicit verse in the bible prohibiting Christians from gambling or denouncing gambling as sinful. Or at least none that come to mind.

Instead, the bible talks a lot of about money and our love for money.

A heart issue

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
1 Timothy 6:9-10

Here, Paul warns Timothy of the dangers of (1) wanting to get rich/be wealthy, (2) loving money and (3) the eagerness (for money; the ESV has “this craving“). What all three have in common is the desire for wealth. This is a very helpful diagnosis of the problems and dangers of gambling. It’s not the money nor the problems of money. It’s a problem with the heart.

That is: gambling is more than just a social problem. A few years ago, the Singapore government approved the building of a casino, after years of opposition. In fact, the previous administrations simply never entertained the idea of having one. Even when they finally changed the policy, what I found really interesting, was how the government acknowledged the social evils that would be associated with the introduction of the casino. Social service organizations were consulted and received additional funds long before the doors opened. Rules were spelled out prohibiting locals from frequenting the premises – years before the foundations were even laid. Conclusion: Even non-Christians know that gambling is a problem not just for the individual (addiction, recklessness, debt) but for society as a whole (family breakdown, prostitution, crime eg. money laundering).

What is unique about 1 Tim 6 is how the bible does recognize the social problem (ruin and destruction) but also the deeper cause. Verse 9 describes it as a “temptation”, “a trap” and as “foolish desires”.

Gambling isn’t just about wasting money. The older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) condemns his brother for “squandering” his father’s wealth (15:29). Yet, even the older brother in all his outward obedience and shrewd accountability (he never ‘celebrated with his friends’ – 15:29) suffers from the same problem as his younger brother. He too, loved money. He didn’t gamble or waste his fortune. Yet, both had the same problem of loving their father’s money more than they loved their father.

Also, gambling isn’t wrong simply because it involves risk and odds. The servant with the one talent did the “safest” thing with his investment/talent (Matthew 25:25). He buried it. The text says he was afraid of his master – presumably fearful as well of the consequences of losing the money entrusted to him. Yet the master condemns him. Actually Christians are called to great risks – even with their lives – for the sake of advancing the gospel and God’s kingdom.

The issue is love. Loving God or loving the things from God. Serving God or money. Gambling enslaves us because we are easily enslaved by what we love, especially money. Gambling pierces us because money – though a good servant – is a poor master.

But one other reason why I think the bible is clearer in identifying our love of money as idolatry and not the merely gambling as sin, is this: as Christians we need to exercise wisdom and care when it comes to money for our sakes as well as others – non-believers, those struggling with addiction to gambling, and fellow Christians who have issues of “weak” consciences to do with gambling (1 Cor 8).

For example: can you play poker? Why not? It’s just cards. But for some it isn’t just cards, is it? What about the lottery?

Or how about a lucky draw or the office raffle? Every day I get emails promising me the chance to win a cash prize, holiday, free dinner – all at a click of a button. You don’t need to be at a slot machine to have your heart enticed by money or wealth. Deciding whether or not to participate in these things is a challenge we face daily involving the application of wisdom and love. And yet the real solution the bible points us to isn’t actually something we have to do...

The solution: the gospel

How to do we overcome this?

On the surface, many would naturally point to the very next verse:

Flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.
1 Tim 6:11

In other words, Get away from the evils of the love of money, Timothy! Keep pursuing God! There is a lot of wisdom in this. And yet....

And yet, the clue to the problem of our love of money is not the verse after, but the verses before. You see, in verse 3, Timothy is warned of false teaching that opposes the gospel. But verse 4 ends with the motivation for this false teaching – they imagine that “godliness is a means of gain”. So, the love of money in verses 9 and 10 is linked with the motivation of the false teaching in this way: they are actually using God for their own gain. It is again, a heart issue. It is loving the things of God, rather than God.

Timothy is therefore warned not simply of the problem of a sin, but a teaching that is motivated by this sin. So while Timothy is to flee temptation, he is face opposition head-on, with the gospel.

This is why Timothy is urged to teach and insist on the gospel (6:2) – refuting all false teaching; to keep it pure until Jesus returns (6:14) and to guard it as a good deposit (6:20). The gospel is the main theme in this chapter, and the entire letter.

So, if ever the bible were used in such a way as to somehow promote or endorse gambling – then 1 Tim 6 clearly warns us as Christians, it is motivated by a desire to use God for self-gain. It is false teaching and a false gospel. It does warn us as Christians to flee this temptation. But it also charges us to preach the gospel. Not simply condemn the sin but to preach the cross which free us from the punishment of and slavery to sin.

Good (and really tough) question! Thanks bro.