Saturday 26 March 2011

Different but same

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
1 Corinthians 12:4-6

Different but same
All trust in one name
Through Jesus our Lord
We’re one in accord.

Many but one
Redeemed through the Son
Each member, each soul
Form one body, one whole.

These gifts we receive
Through the Spirit, perceive
In our hearts we now see
I need you; and
You need me.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Not the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34)

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:26

Some call it the Eucharist, from the Greek word eucharisteo, meaning to give thanks. Jesus gave thanks for the bread, in verse 24. The Catholic Church celebrates Mass, from the Latin missa meaning dismissed – which the priests would say at the end of the meeting to dismiss the congregation, similar to what your head master would say at the end of morning assembly. At the Chinese Church, all three congregations gather once a month for Holy Communion.

The apostle Paul calls it the Lord’s Supper (verse 20).

Also, different church traditions use slightly different forms: Some have just one loaf of bread and a single cup. For us, it is thin crunchy wafers and many tiny little plastic cups. Some churches use red wine or expensive port. The last time I checked our cupboard stores, for us it’s Robinson’s blackcurrant cordial.

But what does it mean?

What does it mean for churches all over the world for the last two-thousand years to observe this practice of sharing the bread and the cup? What does it symbolise? Does it have any benefit for the Christian who takes part in this tradition?

Today we come to our study of 1 Corinthians 11 which tells us what the Lord’s Supper means; but also, what it does not mean. It tells us what Christians should do. But it also warns us what we should not do with regards to the Lord’s Supper. You see, Paul is writing about a problem with the way this church was celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

Now, this shouldn’t surprise us, if you have been with us the past year studying from 1 Corinthians. This is a church with problem, after problem, after problem. Divisions in Chapter 1; jealousy in Chapter 3, arrogance in Chapter 4, and sexual sin in Chapter 5. The theme of our series has been, “We are messed up but God does not give up”. God is faithful in saving us through Jesus Christ and God is faithful in changing us to be like Jesus Christ.

So, Paul is writing to Christians – Christians who still meet every Sunday. And Christians who still celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Yet, he begins by saying:

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.
1 Corinthians 11:17

“You guys are doing more harm than good by meeting together as the church!” he seems to be saying. Now, some people feel really guilty when they don’t come to church. They feel really bad for skipping Rock Fellowship because they want to stay home and watch TV instead. I know I feel that way every now and then.

But Paul isn’t talking about Christians who skip church. He is talking to the guys who actually turn up. And he says to them, “You might as well have stayed at home. You are making things worse by coming!”

What the reason he says this? Divisions. There are divisions inside the church.

In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.
1 Corinthians 11:18

This phrase, “when you come together” is a very important phrase that occurs five times in the text.

Your meetings (your coming together) do more harm than good.
1 Corinthians 11:17

When you come together as a church...
1 Corinthians 11:18

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.
1 Corinthians 11:20

When you come together to eat, wait for each other.
1 Corinthians 11:33

So that when you meet (come) together it may not result in judgment.
1 Corinthians 11:34

So when he says that these Christians were “coming together as the church”, in verse 20, Paul is defining the church as a people. That is, the church is not a building. It is not made up of four walls, stained glass, long pews, a pipe organ and a large cross up front. The church is the gathering of Christians – Men and women who come together in response to God’s call, the gospel. We learned that when we studied Chapter 1 (1 Corinthians 1:2).

In fact, the very word “church” or ekklesia in the New Testament simply means a gathering of people. When William Tyndale first translated the bible into English, he didn’t use the word “church”. Instead he used “congregation” – a gathering of Christians. So, Matthew 16:18 records Jesus as saying “On this rock I will build my congregation.” Sounds weird, right? Half a century later, the translators of the King James bible were given strict guidelines to replace all occurrences of “congregation” with the word “church”, and its use has persisted since (You can see this document on display at the University Library). This was to reflect the central authority of the Church of England. But it never meant that. The church is a gathering of Christians.

It is not for nothing that I mention this because the bible repeatedly emphasises that it is Christians who gather together for worship in response to the gospel, who constitute God’s true church. It is not a building. It does not depend on a king or a governing authority. Now, Hebrews 12 does talk of the heavenly church – how we when we gather here on earth, we join with angels in heaven in praise of God (Hebrews 12:22). However, everywhere else in the New Testament, Paul will address the local church – small discrete gatherings of believers. He writes to the church in Corinth; to the church in Colosse; to the church in Galatia. In the same way we are the church in Cambridge – we, who gather in this hall every Sunday, or in the church centre for bible study on Wednesdays. The church is the gathering of the people of God.

This is why a church splits are so serious. Paul says that he hears of divisions in the church at Corinth. Word has reached him, and he says that “to some extent” he believes it. Meaning: everything looks calm on the surface, but things are stirring underneath. People are talking, however. Someone mentions the tense situation to Paul, who is away from Corinth at this time. And Paul, upon hearing the news, says, “You know what? I’m not surprised.”

What is surprising is what Paul says next.

No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.
1 Corinthians 11:19

The church is the gathering of God’s people. But in the midst of this gathering are those who are true and others who are false. Turning up on a Sunday doesn’t make you a Christian. God knows those who are his. In the end, it is God’s approval that matters, because he gather his people as his church.

And Paul is saying that sometimes, God uses difficult situations like these to reveal those who truly belong to him. This is why Paul isn’t surprised by news of church tensions. The word for “divisions” in verse 18 is where we get the English word, “heresies”. It isn’t just a difference in opinion that is dividing the Corinthians Christians. It is a division in their very understanding of the truth.

In other words, this is not argument over drums in worship. This is not a clash between contrasting personality types – “I like this, but you prefer that”. No. Small cracks have appeared on the surface, but underneath, they run deep and threaten to split the church apart.

What is the cause of this division? Pauls tells us in verse 20. It is the Lord’s Supper.

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.
1 Corinthians 11:20-21

Think back a month ago, to Chinese New Year. Every year, hundreds of people flock to the Chinese Church for our annual Lunar New Year celebration. We have performances, music, skits in the main hall. And right after, we have food! Laid out in the back hall are rows of and rows of amazing, delicious Chinese food – roast duck, curry chicken, pak cham kai – yumm!!

Now imagine that as the service ended, the hundreds of church members and guests enter the back hall for dinner. But what they see is the English Congregation eating up the food! We’re tucking into the curry chicken. We are devouring the roast duck. And we say to them, “We just couldn’t wait any longer for you guys. You were taking too long and we were so hungry!” And not only did we start eating first, we ate it all up! Not as impossible a scenario as you might think, if you’ve ever visited Rock Fellowship during dinner.

Paul says, “As you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else.” One guy is starving while another is burping the benediction. It is a picture of impatience and inconsideration. Now, I must stress this is merely an illustration. Thank you everyone from the English Congregation for not only waiting patiently for the main Chinese New Year celebration to end, but also arranging the tables and chairs beforehand and serving the food to the guests during dinner itself. Well done, brothers and sisters!

Still, this situation was happening in Corinth. We get more details in the following verses:

Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!
1 Corinthians 11:22

Here we get a clearer picture of what went on. Paul clearly identifies two groups within the church – the wealthy (those who have homes) and the poor (those who have nothing).

Acts 3:46 reminds us that the early church met in homes. They didn’t own a church building. Instead they met in the homes of the rich Christians. It is like Bill Gates opening his home to the guy who sells the Big Issue outside Sainsbury’s. There was a big contrast between the rich and the poor in this same church.

Also, we need to clear up our use of the word “supper”. It’s a very English way of simply saying dinner. For Chinese supper is dinner... part two!

Either way, supper or dinner, was a proper meal. If you were a labourer or slave, you would be tired and hungry by the end of the day, and you would have looked forward to dinner. It’s like Sundays after badminton. Everyone heads for Hong Kong Fusion. You’ll order the usual Claypot Rice or Braised Beef Noodles and after that, have dessert – sago in coconut condensed milk. You’re looking forward to that meal.

So here were the rich and poor gathered in the same church, but also coming together for dinner. What basically happened was, the rich Christians said, “Right, I’m not waiting for those labourers any more. It’s my house and I paid for this food, so I’m just going to start first.” So the ate up all the food, without leaving behind much for their brothers and sisters.

Verse 21 says, “each of you goes ahead without waiting for anyone else”. Some translations read, you have your “own supper”. That is, the rich guys had their own special meal. This was the good stuff – salmon sashimi, M&S Taste the Difference puddings. It was just for them.

Now all this unloving behaviour would have been bad enough to deserve condemnation. Except, they weren’t simply having dinner together. These Christians were also remembering the Lord’s Supper. And Paul says, their behaviour was tantamount to “despising the church of God”. The wealthier Christians were “humiliating those who have nothing.”

In order to correct the situation, Paul reminds the Corinthians of true meaning of the Lord’s Supper. He reminds us of Jesus’ words at his last supper.

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

These words should be very familiar. We read them out loud every month before communion is served.

Matthew, Mark and Luke record for us Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – his last supper before going to the cross (John’s gospel inclusive, without the instructions for the bread and the cup). It was the Passover meal, a yearly celebration of God’s rescue of the people of Israel from slavery recorded in the book of Exodus. So again, it was a proper dinner. There was lamb, wine, sauces to dip bread in together with spices. But this meal was extra special. Jesus said to his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15)

Notice, Paul wants us to remember not simply the meal, but the events surrounding the meal. Details like “on the night (Jesus) was betrayed” – when he was arrested and put to trial; and words like “after supper he took the cup”; all remind us that this was a recorded historical event. Jesus used this meal to explain the reason for the cross.

Jesus took bread; he broke it, gave thanks for it and said, “This is my body”. In the same way, he took the cup, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” He was explaining his death. His body would be broken. He would suffer. It would be a gruesome death.

The cup reminds us of the cup of God’s anger in Isaiah 51. We studied this a few weeks ago. Jesus would be taking God’s anger and punishment for the sins of the world. At the same time, Jesus says, the cup symbolised God’s new covenant in his blood. It was an agreement finalised through his death.

This week at Rock Fellowship, we studied Exodus 19 – the mountain of God. It was a scary mountain! Smoke and thunder and fire covered the mountain. God’s voice thundered as he spoke to Moses and to the people, such that everyone was terrified. There God said, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

But Hebrews 12 reminds us as Christians, this is not the mountain we, as Christians, have come to.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Hebrews 12:22, 23b, 24

Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant. A covenant is God’s agreement with his people. It is his promise to save them. “Covenant” is the exact same word as “testament”. Our bibles are divided into the “Old Testament” and “New Testament”. Here we have the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Jesus has come to fulfil all the requirements of the Old Covenant – the sacrifice, the temple, the offerings, the priestly duties. Through his death, he became the mediator of a new agreement – a new covenant.

So what Jesus is doing is explaining how he takes God’s judgement on the cross, and accomplishes our salvation through his sacrifice. He uses the bread and the cup to point to his body and his blood.

Twice he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

He doesn’t say, “Remember me.” But, “Do this in remembrance of me.” That is: Remember what I did on the cross – what happened and what it means.

This is why Paul says it is important for us to also “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” in verse 26. Some churches think, understandably, that we proclaim by having communion. That is, you don’t need to say anything because communion speaks for itself. I seriously disagree. I think communion is meant to spur us, not simply to point out the significance of the bread and the cup and the wine, but also to preach the gospel. In part, this is why Paul retells the events of the last supper. He is saying, These things happened!

But the strongest reason I can give as to why Paul isn’t simply saying that carrying out the Lord’s supper is enough – and this is the most damning reason I can see in the text – is this: That was precisely what the Corinthians did. They celebrated communion. They followed the tradition. But Paul says in verse 20, “It is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.”

The bible is warning us as Christians against empty tradition. It is saying that empty tradition is frankly useless.

But Paul will go on to show us that empty tradition is also downright dangerous. Mindlessly bowing to empty tradition can result in the judgement of God.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.
1 Corinthians 11:27-28

Notice how we never read these verses out loud at communion.

What does Paul mean when he says we ought to examine ourselves before taking the bread and the cup? Perhaps he means for us to search our hearts for unconfessed sin. Perhaps this is that short moment of reflection we have at the beginning of the Lord’s prayer, when everyone bows their heads in prayer.

For centuries many have struggled with these words. Some Christians ask, “Am I worthy to take communion?” They know their hearts are sinful and they recognise that God is holy. So, they despair.

The great evangelical preacher, Charles Simeon coming up to his first year at King’s College, Cambridge was quite shaken at the prospect of taking communion for the very first time in his life. He wasn’t a Christian but he vaguely knew that communion was a somewhat serious affair. He reflected on his own life and felt so unworthy as he considered the weight of his sins that he wrote, “I frequently looked upon the dogs with envy”.

So, he picked up a book, which was on, of all things, the Jewish sacrifices in the Old Testament (eg. Leviticus). But for the first time in his life, he understood the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross; how Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the sacrificial system in the Old Covenant. He actually became a Christian – from reading a booklet about Leviticus.

If the Lord’s Supper causes you to reflect on your sins before God’s holiness, and opens our eyes to behold his love in Jesus’ sacrifice, then that kind of fear isn’t a bad thing. Having said that, I don’t think that is what verse 27 is necessarily referring to.

The King James Bible translates verse 27 as “whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily” – that is, it highlights the unworthiness of the person taking communion. Yet, the NIV and most modern translations have it right in rendering the phrase as “in an unworthy manner”. It is not the person who is unworthy to approach God. Because the truth is, all of us are unworthy sinners. None of us can approach a holy God. None of us deserve the sacrifice of the Son of God. Yet God gave his Son up on the cross, in love and in his grace. He did this graciously, freely and generously.

No, what Paul is talking about is an unworthy manner. There was such a way these Corinthian Christians were observing communion that was dishonouring the meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. He tells us how in verse 29:

For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself.
1 Corinthians 11:29

Paul describes a person who takes communion without “recognising the body of the Lord”. What does that mean? It could mean that he does not acknowledge Jesus’ sacrifice. The bread and cup are meaningless signs to him, because Jesus’ death makes no difference to his life. If so, Paul’s instruction for us to examine ourselves is the call to reflect on the events of the cross; to think – Did Jesus take my sins on the cross? What did it mean for him to die my death?

However, there might be another layer of meaning to that phrase – one that fits better with the context of their gatherings. Notice how Paul mentions the “body of the Lord” without mentioning the blood? We were introduced to this phrase a couple of weeks ago in Chapter 10.

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Here in Chapter 10, Paul begins by speaking about Jesus’ blood and body. But his emphasis then turns from Jesus to us – on our participation in his sacrifice. We, who are many, share in his one sacrifice. Therefore, we, though many, are one body. The church is the one body of the Lord.

Therefore, recognising the body of the Lord means recognising our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is the person sitting next to you. It is the guy you said Hi to (or perhaps ignored) during the break before the sermon.

The call to examine yourself is not inward, but outward. Communion isn’t about you taking the cup and the bread. Communion is about you sharing the cup with your brother, sharing the loaf with your sister. God takes this so seriously, that he judges the Corinthian church for not “recognising the body of the Lord”.

That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.
1 Corinthians 11:30-31

The next verses talk about judgement and discipline. Teaching judgement is hard. But I find teaching discipline, even harder. First, let’s start with judgement. It is God’s judgement over the Corinthian church.

God has judged this Christians – through sickness; even through death. When he says, “a number of you have fallen asleep,” it isn’t a reflection on how boring the sermon was that Sunday. It means they died. It means God killed them.

I am being straight with you because the bible is being straight with you. Verse 31 says, “if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgement.” The most common verse I hear quoted on TV is “Judge not, lest ye be judged”. Jesus says that in Matthew 7, warning against being judgemental. Yet, this verse is often used against Christians. No one should judge anyone, the argument goes.

Well, here is the bible saying (1) God does judge and (2) He judges his church. But also (3) we must judge ourselves. That is, we need to be discerning, especially when it comes to our own sinfulness and behaviour in light of the gospel. Paul puts it plainly. If the Corinthians had judged themselves, God would not have had to judge them.

Yet even harder than judgement is what this passage teaches us about discipline.

When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.
1 Corinthians 11:32

Hebrews 12 reminds Christians that God disciplines those he loves. He disciplines those he calls his sons.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:7, 11

Understand this: God was judging the Corinthian church, not in order to condemn them, but rather, to discipline them. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say the reason he judges them is so that they will not be condemned with the world. His judgement in this world was keeping them from facing his final judgement and eternal condemnation in Hell.

I can understand if you find the bible’s teaching on judgement and discipline hard. Paul does say, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time.” It is silly to suggest that Christians should love suffering and pain. That is an utterly ridiculous notion.

Yet, what these verses do for us is equip Christians with the purpose of suffering in their lives. God is always in control – in our times of blessing and in times of difficulty. So much so, that he even uses situations of great pain and suffering in the Christian’s life for his good.

In speaking about condemnation, we must always keep in mind Romans 8, verse 1.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Romans 8:1

What this means is: A Christian may undergo immense suffering. He might be lying in a hospital bed with a serious disease. He may have just been in a bad accident. It means that when I visit him and he asks me, “Calvin, is God punishing me? Have I done something wrong to deserve this?” I can look him in the eye and say, “No”.

Romans 8:1 tells us there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. None whatsoever. If you are in Christ, Jesus took all the punishment for your sins on himself at the cross.

Or supposing a Christian did something terribly wrong and sinful. Peter does warns us not to suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal (1 Peter 4:15) – perhaps this Christian committed a crime, got caught and was thrown into prison. Perhaps he is even awaiting the death penalty. And he asks the same question, “Is God punishing me?”

If this is a true brother in Christ, I can give him the exact same answer – No. God isn’t punishing you. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for your sins – either on yourself or on others. This is a world broken by sin and selfishness.

Yet if you are in Christ – and I must stress this, I can only say this for someone who is in Christ – then Jesus took all the punishment for your sins on the cross. Nothing can separate you from God’s love. Not even death.

However, today’s passage teaches us that God uses situations of our own sinfulness to discipline us. It doesn’t mean he hates us. Quite the opposite, Hebrews says God only disciplines those he loves. That is a sign of a good and loving Father – One who does not allow his sons to continue on in sin.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever failed an exam before. I have. Big time! Flunked and had to stay back over the holidays to retake my finals. It was embarrassing and it was painful. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to do this again. I want to learn from this.” When it comes to the painful lessons in life, I would say to you, learn from them. You don’t want retakes in suffering!

What was the lesson God was teaching the Corinthians? It was a lesson in love. They needed to love one another as the body of Christ.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.
1 Corinthians 11:33-34

Pauls says, “Wait for each other.” I’m tempted to say to Paul, “Was that all they needed to do? Just wait? Is that what got them into so much trouble?”

But it is such practical advice isn’t it? There’s the food, there’s the Lord’s Supper – I know you guys are hungry – but you know what? You need to wait. In fact, the whole purpose of coming together as the church is to wait. Verse 34 is equally practical: If you can’t wait and you know you’ll be hungry – then grab a bite before church. Eat at home.

It is practical advice for how to love one another practically. Just wait. And yet, there is more to this advice than simply being patient.

Last Saturday I went with the guys for a walk to Grantchester (not a very macho thing for guys to do, I know – going for walks in the orchard!). It was a sunny day, so the place was packed. We wanted to get some tea and snacks, so D and I sat at the table, while W and J went to get the food.

D and I waited. We waited for the food. We waited for W and J. That was one kind of waiting. We didn’t do it impatiently (I hope). We waited expectantly.

But you see, W and J also waited. There was a long queue and they had to get in line for the tea. So there, they waited. They waited for us.

Two kinds of waiting. We were waiting to eat. They were waiting to serve us.

Paul says “when you come together to eat, wait for each other”. The 2010 NIV has, “you should all eat together”. I like that way of putting it. In Cantonese it’s like saying Yat Chai Sek Fan. Let’s eat together.

Paul is saying, “You have come together to eat. So, eat together!” It’s just common sense. That is the whole purpose of the church. To build one another up. I come not for myself. I have come here for you. You too, have come here for me. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. We have our meals together. We come before God in worship together.

Because: the bible says, when we come together as Christians, we come together as the church. We come together as the body of Christ.

One last thing...

It really is worth revisiting the context of the split in this church. If you remember, Paul was rebuking the rich Christians in particular, for their behaviour which was embarrassing the poor and “despising the church of God”. Notice this: here is Paul condemning the wealthier Christians, but nowhere does he tell them to do anything with their money. He doesn’t say give your money to the poor. Neither does he says, with regards to the food, share that expensive Tesco Finest (hmm, not sure that’s altogether very fancy) meal with everyone.

Paul also does not forbid the rich from enjoying their rich, private meals. What does he say at the end (verse 34)? Eat at home. He is saying: The church is not the setting for you to be flaunting your wealth. I’m sure the reason the rich Christians were doing this in the first place was because, they felt they had a right to it. It was their money. Perhaps they had worked hard for it, or they knew it was a blessing from God and received it with thanks. And yet, their actions were proving insensitive to their poorer brothers and sisters in the congregation.

This is one of the main reasons the Lord’s Supper is distilled to its simple form today. We have just the bread and the cup, and not as part of a meal. This is, of course, in keeping with the symbolism of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. We remember his death. We proclaim the cross.

But it is also an act of wisdom. If we did have the Lord’s Supper as part of a main meal, I shudder to think, would we act in the same way as the Corinthians? Our hunger might cause many of us to act just as unloving towards our brothers and sisters. We might even justify our actions citing cultural differences. Perhaps, like Corinthians, we might even say, “I brought this dish, so I’ll have more!”

The Corinthians problem is very much our problem here at the Chinese Church. Not simply because we love food. But because much of our Chinese culture prides wealth and status, such that these values are reflected in the way we eat our food, and the types of food we love to eat. The application of today’s verses extends far beyond the first week of the month when we meet for communion. It speaks to all our fellowships where we share meals together before Rock, Paul and Joshua Fellowships. It speaks to the way we relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

In particular, today’s passage takes into consideration the weaker brothers in the midst of the larger gathering. Do you know the parable Jesus told about the sheep and the goats? Like today’s passage, it is a passage that speaks about judgement, division, food and loving the brother who has nothing.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:31-40

The sheep are surprised. They ask Jesus “When did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we give you something to drink?” Jesus’ answered, as the Judge and the King, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

You see, when Paul says, we have to consider the other brothers in our midst – that we have to love the body of Christ, the church – some of us might think that we have to know everyone’s names (not a bad thing), be everyone’s best pal (also not a bad thing), and treat everyone to duck rice at J-Restaurant (if you can afford it, why not?). But that’s not what he means.

Paul is reminding us to look out for the weaker brother. That’s what Jesus says, doesn’t he? Whatever you did for one (just one!) of the least of these brothers...

When you come to church, don’t just look out for the pastor and the leaders – the so-called important people; or even those who are just like you – your friends, another Chinese face, someone around your same age.

No, look for the one in need. “Hey, you look like you could use a cup of tea. Wanna talk? Could I pray for you?” Look out for one of the least of the brothers. That’s not hard, is it? It’s the new guy standing in the corner by himself. It’s the sister who hasn’t been around for some time. It’s the old grandma. It’s the young kid looking really bored. Look out for the least.

Because Jesus says, what you do for them, you do for me.

Love Jesus. Love his church.

And so with thankfulness and faith
We rise to respond: and to remember
Our call to follow in the steps of Christ
As His body here on earth.

As we share in His suffering
We proclaim: Christ will come again!
And we'll join in the feast of heaven
Around the table of the King.

Saturday 19 March 2011


In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27

Lord, you know what’s in our hearts
You hear our inwards cries
The storms that tear our souls apart
The tears that fill our eyes

We know not what we ought to say
How best we could express
This groaning offered up in prayer
This weakness we confess

Yet in this way your Spirit leads
Your saints before your throne
With wordless groans he intercedes
For sons you’ve called your own

Thursday 17 March 2011

I just can't stop loving you (Hebrews 13)

Keep on loving each other as brothers.
Hebrews 13:1

When Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, stands up and gives a presentation – when he gives his spiel – everyone is expecting something revolutionary – something that will change the world. Yet, every Apple fan knows, Steve saves the best for last.

That is when he says, “Oh... and one more thing!”

He did this with the iPod Touch. One more thing. The MacBook Air. Everyone knows that when Steve Jobs says, “one more thing,” he is talking about the main thing. The big thing.

Hebrews 13 is not like that “one more thing”.

It is the last chapter of this long letter. But Hebrews 13 is more like your mum nagging you on the phone, “One more thing: remember to eat your vegetables!” And you go, “I know, mummy. I’m a big boy!”

So you’ll find a lot of things in Hebrews 13 that you already know. They are not new. We’ve met them before the in the previous twelve chapters.

But like your mum, the author is reminding us of the things we know – that we need to know – but we often forget.

Verse 1: Keep on loving
Verse 2: Do not forget
Verse 3: Remember

It’s not cool. It’s not new. But it is very, very important.

I just can’t stop loving you

Keep on loving each other as brothers.
Hebrews 13:1

I like the latest NIV update which says to love your “brothers and sisters”, because the word is philadelphia (phileo = love; adelphos = brother). It is brotherly love and sisterly love. Yet he is saying more than just to love your brother and sister in Christ, which is good. Rather, he is reminding us to keep on loving your brother and sister in Christ.

In fact, you could translate verse 1, “The loving must go on”. The lovin’ must keep burnin’. Or as Celine Dion put it, “My heart must go on and on”.

Keep on loving one another. Jia you (Add oil!). Keep on doing this.

Do not forget to entertain strangers
Hebrews 13:2

But don’t just love your brothers. Also love the stranger. Philoxenia which means “loving the stranger” (phileo = love; xenos = stranger; which is by the way where we get Xena: Warrior Princess!), is a reminder not to limit our love. Love your brother, but also love the stranger.

You do this by entertaining them (definitely not by screening Xena: Warrior Princess) – by welcoming them into your lives. The example he gives is Father Abraham in Genesis 18 who “entertained angels without knowing it”. We read in Genesis how Abraham was chilling out in his tent watching Top Gear re-runs, when he saw three travellers nearby. He quickly urged them to come in, got his wife Sarah to put the kettle on and serve up the Jammie Dodgers; and ordered his servant to prepare the most expensive dish on the menu – roast duck! That is: Abraham didn’t spare any expense. He didn’t hesitate. He welcomed the strangers into his home, showed them hospitality and these strangers turned out to be angels; in fact one of them was God himself. And there in his tent, God gave Abraham the promise of a son. Because of Abraham’s generosity, God blessed Abraham abundantly!

Love your brother. Love the stranger. But thirdly, love those who are suffering.

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners,
and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Hebrews 13:3

Now when he says “as if” - as if you were in prison; as if you were suffering – he doesn’t mean Use your imagination. “Oh, what a poor thing! Let me pray for you.” Nope, he is reminding the Hebrew Christians of Chapter 10 verse 32 onwards.

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
Hebrews 10:32-34

These Christians didn’t have to go to the local prison to start a ministry to hardened criminals. They already knew brothers who had been thrown into prison – Timothy for example, in verse 23. He is saying, “you can’t have forgotten Timothy already, have you?” And they didn’t have to search the Internet for news of persecuted Christians around the world – though this is not in itself a bad thing – their own brothers and sisters were suffering and being mistreated.

He is saying: there are people in your midst who need help and comfort and love. They are in pain, don’t thing they aren’t there. They are in your church. Don’t let them fall through the cracks.

Yet at the same time, Hebrews 10 recalls “earlier days” when there were times of great suffering. Which implies that now, things are more stable. It’s not as bad as it used to be. Yet Chapter 12 speaks of those who are presently in prison, who are presently persecuted. In which case, he is saying: don’t take this time of peace for granted. Do pray for the people in Japan. Give you money and send help to those in need. Help rebuild the church in Haiti. Your present comfort is not an excuse to forget their present suffering.

Love your brother. Love the stranger. Love those who are suffering.

Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
Hebrews 11:4

What is interesting here is the author is talking about marriage, but he isn’t talking just to married people. Elsewhere in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 or 1 Peter 3, the bible will speak about marriage to the husbands and wives – Husbands love your wives; Wives submit to your husbands.

But here the author is speaking to everyone. Marriage should be honoured by all. The marriage bed should be kept pure for – and notice the reason why he says this – God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

Now, it makes sense when talking about marriage that God will judge those who break up a marriage – the adulterers. But why does the author include the sexually immoral?

I think that here the bible is teaching us that the way we deal with sexual immorality and sexual temptation in the church is by teaching marriage. It is by teaching God’s high view of marriage. When you teach marriage, you teach God’s design for men and women. When you teach marriage you teach men and women to value their purity – by valuing the marriage commitment and promise. The purpose of sex is for marriage.

Which means if you are dating as a Christian couple, do sign up for the marriage preparation course in your church. It doesn’t mean you are getting married tomorrow. It does mean you don’t want to ignore the topic of marriage. Also if this sounds scary to you – especially the guys – it maybe isn’t entirely a bad fear to have. It means you are taking your relationship seriously by taking God seriously. If your church doesn’t have such a course, then get a book – a very good one is “God, Sex and Marriage” by The Good Book Company. Or download sermons on 1 Corinthians 7 where the bible speaks to both married couple as well as singles – Eden Baptist just ran series on this last year. I highly recommend them.

Marriage should be honoured by all.

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
Hebrews 13:5

The author rounds off this section on love by warning us not to love. Do not love money. We had philadelphia - loving your brothers, philoxenia – loving the stranger; and here we have philarguria – loving money.

Notice he also says something practical. He isn’t saying, don’t make money or don’t have money. Neither does just say Don’t love money. But he says Keep your lives – literally your conduct or character (NASB) – free from the love of money.

You can tell from a person’s conduct whether he loves money. It is something you can see from the way he behaves. It is obvious from the way he spends his money.

So while it isn’t a sin to buy an iPad 2 – if you camp outside the Apple store all night in the rain to get your iPad 2 – if your brother says, “Whoa, cool! Let me have a go,” and you say, “No! It’s mine!” clutching it close to your chest; I am going to snatch that silly toy from you, pick my nose and play Angry Birds on it all day!

No. That’s not what I’m going to do (probably). Instead, I am going to remind you that you have something more precious and more permanent. You have God. Verse 5:

Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.

You are not alone

At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves how Chapter 12 ended. If you read the previous chapter, you will know that Chapter 12 ended on a rather serious note.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:28

You are worshipping a holy and awesome God. Chapter 12 reminds us of the Israelites in Exodus 19 approaching God at Mount Sinai “burning with fire” (Hebrews 12:18). It was such a terrifying sight that even Moses said, “I am trembling with fear” (Hebrews 12:21).

However, the author stresses this is not the mountain we as Christians have come to – burning with fire and covered in smoke. Rather we come to Zion, the city of the living God. When you gather as the church, you join the heavenly gathering of angels in praise of God. Zion is the mountain of joy!

Having said that: God is still the same majestic awesome God, the judge of all men (Hebrews 12:22-23). The difference is we approach this same holy God through Jesus Christ, the mediator – or middleman – who makes us holy through his blood. But we still approach God “with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.” (Verse 28)

What flows in Chapter 13 therefore is the worship of this awesome God. What does it mean to serve him acceptably, with reverence and with awe? It means love. Love your brother and the stranger. Identify with the suffering. Hold marriage in high regard. Keep your lives free from the love of money.

But the motivation for your love is the love of God. It is his presence amidst your worship. He will never leave you. God will never abandon you.

And verse 6 goes on to address the initial fearful prospect of serving such an awesome God that we saw back in Chapter 12. Verse 6 reads:

So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:6

This awesome fearful God is your helper! He stands with you and equips you with everything good for doing his will. He leaves his Spirit in you. So instead of fear, your response ought to be confidence – So we say with confidence (verse 6).

In Christ, we can approach God with confidence and not fear. In Chapter 4, he is our high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses. Therefore:

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:16

In Chapter 10, Jesus opens the way into the very presence of God through his sacrificial death.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.
Hebrews 10:19

Losing my religion

The right context of Chapter 13 is therefore, worship – acceptable worship before a holy and awesome God – or another way of putting it, true worship. Because most of us go to contemporary church services on Sundays where we call the first bit of the meeting worship – with the worship leader standing up front, leading the worship team in “Blessed Be Your Name” and calling everyone to offer up their lives as a fragrant offering – our understanding of worship is coloured by music, atmosphere, participation, culture, raised hands and Don Moen (whom I love, by the way – God is good!).

For the readers of Hebrews 13, mention the word “worship” and their thoughts would have gone straight to the temple, the priest and the sacrifice.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.
Hebrews 13:9-10

The ceremonial food, altar, tabernacle are all references to their Old Testament Jewish religion. For these Hebrew Christians, this was their religion. They grew up going to temple. They celebrated the Feasts of Unleavened Bread and remembered the Exodus. The learned the purpose of the sacrifice given once year, how only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place once year, and once a year the blood would be sprinkled to cleanse the sins of the people. This was their heritage. This was their religion. This was worship.

Verse 9 says these are strange.

Not because they are new. Not because they weren’t familiar. Because Jesus Christ has come as the perfect sacrifice. He is the temple – the meeting place between God and man. He is the High Priest who sits at the right hand of God. He enters the true tabernacle – Heaven itself – making true peace through his blood.

Or another way of putting it is this: Jesus Christ came to offer the only true worship acceptable to God.

Notice that religion is said to be of “no value” (verse 9). The ceremonial foods – referring not simply to the meal, but the system of offering and consuming these holy feasts (literally it says: the food in which you walk) – have no effect. These religious ceremonies do not good. They have “no value”. Religion is empty.

Seriously still, empty religion disqualifies you from true worship. We have an altar – the cross of Jesus Christ – where those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat (verse 10). Religion, though empty, is harmful when it draws you away from Jesus.

Now what does this have to do with us? We’re not Jewish. We didn’t grow up going to temple and offering sacrifices.

And yet the question is: What is true worship? How do you worship God acceptably? Do you have to go a special place – Henry Martyn Hall or New Word Alive? It is serving on the committee in your fellowship, playing in the music team, or raising your hands when you sing?

What we see in the next couple of verses is this: True worship is not something you do; true worship is first and foremost what Jesus did on the cross. He paid the price for our sin.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.
Hebrews 13:11-12

We need to understand that what hinders us from coming to God is not simply his holiness and loftiness. It is our sin. Our sinfulness means we can only ever enter into God’s judgement, not his presence nor his service. We cannot worship God with sinful hearts and sinful hands.

The picture of sin in these verses is rejection. That’s why the bodies are burned outside the camp (verse 11). This is a reference again to the Exodus, the account of God rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt, leading them through the Red Sea, then into the desert to finally worship him on Mount Sinai. And there the Israelites set up camp – they lived in tents. However, as soon as they get there the Israelites commit idolatry in the famous incident involving the golden calf. What happens next is Moses takes the Tent of Meeting and pitches it outside the camp (Exodus 33:7), a sign of the people’s rejection of God and also God’s rejection of the people. Why? Because of their sin.

Sin means rejecting God. And God’s judgement over sin is his rejection of sinful human beings.

So when Jesus came, he was rejected, he was despised, “he suffered outside the city gate” (Verse 12). What he did was take our punishment for sin. On the cross, Jesus was rejected by his people and he was forsaken by God – He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) The suffering he bore was not simply from the nails driven through his hands and feet. It was the judgement of God over the rejection of sinful man.

Friends, this is the picture the bible gives us for worship. It is what is acceptable before God; it is what makes us acceptable before God. Jesus suffered to make us “holy through his own blood”. His death makes us holy.

True worship is offered by Jesus Christ on the cross. But the next verses show us how we can offer up true worship. It is through Jesus Christ.

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Hebrews 13:13-14

What does he mean when the author calls us to “go to him outside the camp”? You could make all kinds of connections with this verse. Maybe he is calling us to leave our present circumstances, go out of our comfort zones and serve Jesus. Perhaps he is saying: leave the old religious sacrificial system that is ineffective and incomplete. I think that’s certainly possible and compelling.

I think the simplest answer is: We must identify with Christ. The author calls us as Christians to follow in Jesus’ footsteps “bearing the disgrace he bore” (verse 13). It means there really isn’t such a thing as a popular Christian. Not if you really stand with Jesus. Not if people really knew what Jesus stands for. To be a Christian is to confess that we are sinners (the Book of Common Prayer has ”miserable sinners”). To be a Christian is to confess Jesus who died a shameful death for our sins. It isn’t something that appeals to pride. The cross is foolish to the wise. Jesus looks weak to the powerful.

But to us he is our Saviour, Lord and King. And that confession is the basis of our worship, according to the next few verses.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Hebrews 13:15-16

This is our offering and this is our sacrifice – our confession of his name. The angel tells Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). But to confess his name is to call him my Saviour. He died for my sins. This is how we praise God – for sending his Son to die for us. This is how we worship God – by giving glory and praise to Jesus Christ as our Lord.

The bit in our Sunday services where a little bag is passed down the aisle, and people put money into it – that is not the offering. We are always continually offering to God by living for Christ, and more importantly, by speaking for Christ. It is the fruit of lips that confess his name.

It doesn’t mean singing isn’t worship. It doesn’t mean you cannot worship just as well in your office as you do in church. In fact, what this means is that worship is 24/7. What makes worship true worship is the cross. Jesus paid for this through his blood. I am doing my homework for Jesus Christ. I am working at my desk in service to God.

Notice the next verse, “And do not forget to do good and share with others”. Verse 16 is recalling the good we are called to do right at the beginning of the chapter – by loving one another, loving the stranger, showing compassion to the suffering, holding marriage in the highest regard and keeping our lives from the love of money. But what he is doing here is putting all that good work, which are pleasing sacrifices before God, under the umbrella of the true worship of Christ. We do these good works in the name of Christ. We love because first he loved us.

This is rather important. You can help the poor – I urge you to do so. You can be loving and sacrificial – and that would be a wonderful thing. By all means, use your talents to serve the church. But what makes our efforts acceptable is not our sincerity, goodness or effort. Only Jesus Christ offers true worship through the cross.

It is very possible to do a great amount of good and shrink from confessing Christ. As we have seen, identifying with Christ is disgraceful. The only popular Christians are dead Christians. The world will accept your goodness; it will reject your God. You will always be tempted to keep the two separate, but in doing so you deny the rightful place of Jesus as Lord and the worth of his sacrifice.

Jesus Christ is the true worshipper. He offers the only acceptable worship before God. And we join him in worshipping the true God by identifying with Jesus at the cross and confessing Jesus to be our Lord. True worship is not something we do, but what God has done in sending his Son to die for our sins on the cross.

Stand by me

Finally, this passage gets us to think about our leaders in the church. First he reminds us of our past leaders.

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
Hebrews 13:7

It is interesting that the word he uses for leaders here in verse 7 (and later in verses 17 and 24) is not elder or deacon or pastor. Instead, hegoumenoi is used in Acts 14 to refer to Barsabbas and Silas, leaders chosen by the elders – meaning they themselves may not have been elders. Which means the author may have in mind a broad definition of the Christian leader to include your bible study leader and your Sunday school teacher. These are leaders who “spoke the word of God to you”; meaning they told you about Jesus. They taught you the bible. They preached the gospel to you. These are the people, he says, whose lives you ought to consider and whose faith you should imitate – these leaders who led you to Christ!

That is the broad definition of the leaders. Yet, verse 7 may actually be referring to a specific group of individuals. For one, they may be past as in dead. The word “remember” is in the past tense, and the author calls us to consider the “outcome” of their lives – the end result of their lives.

Furthermore, these leaders are likely to be the very first ones who preached the gospel to these Christians and planted the church. We find them mentioned back in Hebrews 2:

This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.
Hebrews 2:3

These Christians were second-generation Christians. They weren’t first-hand eye-witnesses of Jesus when he was on earth. They didn’t see him perform miracles of healing the sick, or hear him preach the Sermon on the Mount. They weren’t there when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples in the upper room.

But these leaders were. They were among “those who heard him” (Hebrews 2:3).

And friends, I hope you realise, we too, are second-generation Christians. We never met Jesus in the flesh. But we heard the gospel through the bible. These pages and these words spoke the truth of God sending his Son in the form of a man who walked the earth, lived a perfect life, preached the coming Kingdom of God, and died on the cross to take our sins and fulfil all the requirements of the Law. “Those who heard him” – people like Paul, Peter, James and John – are now long dead. But they recorded their testimony for us today through the gospels and New Testament letters. In doing so, they confirmed to us this salvation, first announced by our Lord Jesus.

Which is why it is so important to read the next verse 8 in this context:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Hebrews 13:8

This one verse has been taught to mean all kinds of things. You find it in greeting cards, bumper stickers and huge posters outside churches. We say that his love is the same – yesterday, today and forever. His character is the same. Does that mean he has the same haircut? Will we all be eating broiled fish when he returns in glory – since Jesus ate broiled fish after the resurrection?

Linked with the previous verse 7, this powerful statement is meant to be an assurance of the reliability of the bible’s witness to Jesus. Remember, the first century eye-witness who confirmed the salvation announced by the Lord, are long gone. You weren’t there to witness the crucifixion or the resurrection. But the Jesus that you read about in the New Testament; the Jesus that you meet in these pages is the same Jesus they knew. And he is the same Jesus who will return in the second coming in glory. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. This is a statement of assurance for your faith based on the bible. You are not missing out. You can trust in the reliability, truthfulness and fullness of the bible.

Going back to verse 7 therefore, the call to “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” is the call to take seriously claims of the bible. It isn’t talking about your founding pastor. He is talking about people like the apostle Paul who said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Who writes in Philippians 2:8, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.” It is a call to trust in and live out the demands of the bible for the sake of Christ.

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Hebrews 13:17

Here we meet the present leaders who keep watch over us (literally “go sleepless” – a phrase which means to stay attentive; and is not a licence to post Facebook updates at 3am). The ESV says they are “keeping watch over your souls”. Leadership in a Christian community is a weighty responsibility. They are accountable ultimately not to you, though you may have elected them or pay their salary. They must give account to God. One day God will ask the leaders he has set over his church, “What about him? What about her? Have you loved them? Have you preached Christ? Have you told them the gospel?” Leadership is a weighty responsibility.

And he is basically saying, Don’t make it harder than it needs to be – “so that their work will be a joy, not a burden”. The word is actually “groaning” – so that it won’t be a groaning. “Aiyo! These fellas are such a headache!” Leadership in a church is hard, he has already made that fact crystal clear. His word to us is: Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.

What can you do for your leaders? Love them. Obey them. Submit to them.

But if nothing else, pray for them.

Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honourably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.
Hebrews 13:18-19

What we have here is the basic qualification for the Christian leader. What makes a good Christian leader? Is it giftedness or experience or character? Verse 18 tells us the most basic yet vitally essential requirement of the Christian leader is that he is Christian.

This ought to be common sense. Yet, I’m surprised how this isn’t always as clear as it ought to be. The Christian leader needs to be Christian.

“We are sure that we have a clear conscience,” the author says, which doesn’t mean he’s trying really, really hard, feels good about himself or has sincere motives. Back in Chapter 8, the author has already written extensively on the “conscience of the worshipper” (Hebrews 9:9); how it can never be cleared through religion or sacrifices. Only “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse(s) our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Hebrews 9 is talking about salvation. And what the author is expressing is his confidence in his salvation through Jesus Christ.

Also, he desires to “live honourably in every way”. The word anestrepho is the same one used in verse 7, to describe the “way of live” of the past leaders. Previously he urged us to imitate the lives of these leaders. This present leader is simply doing the same. He is taking seriously the lives of the New Testament witness in proclaiming Christ and living for Christ.

In other words, this present Christian leader is expressing his assurance in Christ and his commitment to Christ. Isn’t this what all Christians ought to do?

The questions we should ask of our leaders are the same questions we ask of all who profess to be Christians. Have you been saved through the death of Jesus on the cross? Are you done with sin? Will you give you life in service to Christ in proclaiming the gospel?

The Christian leader must first and foremost be a Christian.

Finally, we see our true and ultimate leader in verse 20:

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Hebrews 13:20-21

Shepherd is where we get the word “pastor”. Jesus is the true Pastor. We are his flock. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). We are led by and cared for by Jesus himself.

Yet these verses also describe Jesus, not simply as our pastor, but as our true worship pastor. God works in us what is pleasing to him, though Jesus Christ. That word pleasing, is the same word we saw in 12:28, rendered “acceptable” – Let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, was the call at the end of Chapter 12. Here at the end of Chapter 13, God enables us to do just that. We give God our true worship, through our true worship leader, Jesus Christ. We do this by giving all glory to Jesus Christ. To him be glory for ever and ever.

True worship is offered up to God by Christ, through Christ and to Christ.

Do you remember the time?

Nothing here is new. You know all this, from having read Chapters 1 to 12. But Chapter 13 is here to remind you, Keep on trusting. Keep on keeping on in Jesus Christ!

Cambridge is a place that never changes. The people change. But this place never seems to change.

Many of my friends come back for precisely that reason. They left many years ago, after completing their degrees, but they always come back. To relive the good old days. To go punting down River Cam. To sip tea at Auntie’s Tea Shop.

It is an amazing experience to have studied and lived here in this city. I hope you treasure these years. For me, this is where I heard the gospel. Here in Cambridge I gave my life to Jesus. Many of my friends did the same.

I sometimes ask them, “When did you last meet God? When did you last hear his voice?”

It breaks my heart when I hear some of them say, “Ten years ago. Here in Cambridge. Here in this dusty hall called Henry Martyn Hall.” Ten years ago?

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Isn’t he?

The God you heard yesterday still speaks today. He speaks through his gospel. He speaks of his Son.

For some of you, this is your last year in Cambridge. If I see you in ten years time, I pray that we can say of each other, “Look how far he has brought us. God was good then. Jesus is just as good today.” You know, often it doesn’t mean recounting the big bangs and flashy highlights, as much as it is thanking God for signs of his faithfulness and his grace.

Keep on loving. Keep on trusting. Keep on keeping on in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Friday 11 March 2011

Headship and hairstyles (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 11:3

Once a month, all three congregations at the Chinese Church – the Mandarin, Cantonese and English groups – meet as one in the main hall. It was our turn last Sunday to chair the meeting and lead songs. So I thought: Why not get the whole music team up on stage? – The keyboardist, drummer, bassist and backup singers – get everyone together up front, instead of it just being me and the interpreter on stage.

So there was our reliable AV guy – one of the teenagers – hooking up the projector, when I pulled up a chair for him to sit on. He was helping me work the slides during the meeting. But when he saw me take one of the chairs from the stage, he was quite shocked. “Isn’t this just for the priests?” he asked me.

To which I pointed to our drummer (in T-shirt and jeans) who had already made himself comfortable on one of these ornate wooden chairs, happily pounding away at the electric drums propped up on yet another one of these antiques!

Now depending on what kind of church background you come from, you could hear this story and think it is either very funny or it is very, very disrespectful.

You might think it is silly that a piece of furniture should be thought of as holy or reserved for certain holy men (It is even funnier if you know who our drummer is). But then again, you wouldn’t stroll into your boss’ office and use his PC to download the latest Wong Fu video. Or you wouldn’t take a nap in the teachers’ lounge whenever you felt like it. Shouldn’t a church gathering be respectful to its leaders? Shouldn’t worship before a holy God be reverent?

Or perhaps for you, modern church culture is just flippant. These disrespectful youth – who turn up in church without their bibles, in their Batman t-shirts and torn jeans, always yapping about the latest Korean drama serial and passing Haribo sweets down the aisles during the sermon. Yet they sing their hearts out to Jesus, pay attention to the message and use their IPods to follow the bible passage; even comparing the different translations and taking notes. Shouldn’t an encounter with the living God be active and engaging? Isn’t it wonderful to see Christians eager to catch up with one another and generously share their lives – even their Haribo?


Tradition and culture are not simply rules and regulations. They carry meaning and value. And the practice of a tradition is the expression of that meaning and a display of its value. Yet it is when tradition is practiced without meaning that misunderstanding and conflict arises.

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings (or traditions), just as I passed them on to you.
1 Corinthians 11:2

Today’s passage is about church tradition. It is a specific tradition that was practiced 2000 years ago when Paul wrote this letter – so it’s very, very old. And yet the principle behind this tradition is very, very relevant today. The practice is old but the principle is timeless.

And Paul begins by praising this church in Corinth for holding to the teachings, just as he passed them on to the church (Verse 2). And if you look at the footnotes in your bibles, the word for “teachings” could also be translated “traditions”.

So he is saying: When you guys meet up on Sundays, and you keep these traditions, which have been handed down to you, from me – that’s a very good thing. So, tradition isn’t all bad. In fact, Paul seems to be saying, keeping certain traditional practices in the church is good, and is in fact, praiseworthy. I praise you for holding on to these traditions.

And yet, Paul is going to talk about one tradition that is very, very important – but none of us keep here in the Chinese Church. In fact, I don’t think churches like StAG or Eden keep this tradition either. But Paul says: this is a pretty serious tradition. He says in verse 16: If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God. What tradition is this? The tradition of head coverings:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.
1 Corinthians 11:4-5

The context is a church meeting. Every man who “prays or prophesies”; Every woman who “prays or prophecies”. This is when men and women come together as the people of God to worship around God’s word – both praying and prophesying involve speaking God’s word. So, Paul is talking about Sundays when we gather as the Chinese Church. But he is also referring to any Christian gathering. You may remember that whenever the word “church” occurs in the New Testament, it is talking about a “gathering” (Greek: ekklesia); a coming together of God’s people in response to God’s call to be in fellowship with Jesus, God’s Son (1 Corinthians 1:2). So, this applies to all our gatherings – to Rock Fellowship, to Timothy and Joshua Fellowships as well.

And Paul is saying: in your gatherings as Christians, there needs to be a distinction. There needs to be a difference between the men and the women. He says in verse 4: the men should not cover their heads. Then he says to the women in verse 5: you girls should cover your heads.

Whoa, that’s bonkers! What kind of an archaic, irrelevant, masochistic, moronic church would enforce such a rule? Seriously!

And yet many churches do. Out of reverence to God’s will and in obedience to this very passage in God’s word. Today, (according to good old Wikipedia) Eastern Orthodox Churches in Greece and Finland still require women to cover their heads. Traditional Catholics observe this practice, but also evangelical churches like the Plymouth Brethren. I am told that even some churches in China currently practice head covering in their corporate meetings.

And instead of criticizing these churches for following this tradition, now that we find it here in 1 Corinthians 11, the question really should be: why aren’t we? What good reason do we have for not passing on this tradition? Is it because we don’t like it? Do we obey only the bits of God’s word we like? Or maybe because we think it is irrelevant? If so, how can you tell?

The teaching behind the tradition

Our problem is we have looked at the practice but missed the principle. Unless we understand the teaching, we will either misapply or misunderstand the tradition.

And the principle behind this practice is verse 3.

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 11:3

The issue is headship. Every man is under the headship of Christ. Even man is under the authority of Christ. No problems there. The big problem is the next statement Paul makes: the head of the woman is man.

Girls: Please don’t be offended. In fact, you shouldn’t be (but I fully understand if you are). This is a startling claim – That men, by virtue of their gender, are placed by God in a position of authority over women.

This does not denigrate the value of women. Women are equal in worth and value to men. But women were created different from men. And you might say, “Of course you would say that! You’re a guy!”

No, I say that because of the next statement Paul makes. Because at the end of verse 3, Paul says The head of Christ is God. Christ is equal to God. God the Son is fully God. But Jesus is fully submissive to his Father in obedience and in love. The head of Christ is God.

I want you to notice: Paul is talking to the girls as he says this. You can tell, because of the unusual order of the statements. If all he wanted to do was establish a hierarchy – an order of authority, if you like – of who is in charge; who is more important; he would have started with “The head of Christ is God, the head of man is Christ, and the head of woman is man.” But no. He says, “The head of the woman is man” and then he says, “But look, in the same way, Christ submits himself to authority. The head of Christ is God”.

This is not new. Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives submit to your husbands.” 1 Peter 3:1: “Wives in the same way be submissive to your husbands.” The controversy with 1 Corinthians 11 is this: is Paul talking just to wives or women? The Greek word gune could refer to either. In the other letters (Ephesians and 1 Peter) there is the qualifying word “your” – Submit to your husbands; meaning it is clear at least in the two other contexts, that the bible is speaking to married women. But here in 1 Corinthians, is Paul addressing all women in general?

I think he is talking to all women, for two reasons.

The first reason is the context of the church. Paul isn’t addressing individual families but the church family as a whole – Men and women as they come together in worship before God. It is as they “pray and prophecy” (verses 2 and 3), and specifically as the woman “prays to God” (verse 13) that this practice is deemed “proper”.

The second reason is creation. Notice again in verse 3 that while Paul begins by saying the head of every man is Christ, he goes on to say the head of the woman is man – and not as you would expect – the head of every woman. “The woman” here refers to Eve, the first woman created from Adam, the first man. Paul is appealing to the biblical account of the creation of man in Genesis. Hence verse 7 picks up on this theme.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.
1 Corinthians 11:7-9

Genesis 1:27 reminds us that God created man “in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The created of humanity was, at the same time, the creation of two separate and distinct genders – male and female.

Genesis Chapter 2 is the account of the first man Adam, created to serve God in the garden and given authority over all living things. But God sees that “it is not good for man to be alone,” and decides to make a “helper suitable for him.”

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
Genesis 2:21-22

So in verses 8 onwards Paul says:

For man did not come from woman, but woman from (out of) man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
1 Corinthians 11:8-9

There is a big debate among scholars surrounding verses 8 and 9. Because Paul says that the woman came “from man” or “out of man”, some will say that the whole issue in 1 Corinthians 11 is not about authority but that of source. That is, Paul is not describing the headship of men over women, as their authority over women. Instead, “headship” is just Paul’s terminology to denote the source or origin of women. At first glance, there is merit to this view, especially when you consider verses 11 to 12.

In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
1 Corinthians 11:11-12

However, once you start to consider the rest of the passage, this “source” view starts to run into serious problems. Firstly, you have to do some impressive theological acrobatics to explain the “sign of authority” on the woman’s head, in verse 10. Secondly, we have seen that Paul is quoting from Genesis 1 and 2, where God created Eve not only from Adam, but for Adam, as his helper – and that the whole chapter accounts the mediation of authority from God to Adam to creation. But finally, if headship denotes “source”, then you will run into a serious problem explaining the principle of verse 3: the head of Christ is God. Unless you are a Mormon and you believe that Christ was a created being, interpreting head as “source” in verse 3 is tantamount to heresy!

Submission is hard

I suspect what lies behind the source/headship interpretation is a sincere and right motivation to affirm women in churches, especially their role in public worship. I understand if people fear that men will undermine women in their worth and contribution in the body of Christ.

Furthermore, submission is hard. Both men and women want to dominate – It is the result of the fall (Genesis 3:16). Yet in Christ, we are called to submit to Christ and submit to one another. Our rebellion against submission is rooted in our rebellion against God.

And we must not miss how Paul describes this submission as not simply good but glorious.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
1 Corinthians 11:7-10

Again, notice that Paul seems to be addressing the women in particular. Perhaps the issue lay somewhat with women in the church who were rebelling against this very teaching (as I wonder, some of you possibly are). Or because, he wants to encourage them to see how God’s will in creation is not designed to oppress them, but to display their true worth and dignity.

So in verse 7, Paul now replaces the analogy of “headship” with “glory”. He says the woman is the glory of man. By this, he is saying: there is something glorious, almost beautiful and compelling, in a woman’s submission. But maybe even more than that: There is something very powerful in that submission.

What do I mean by powerful?

Well, verse 10 is a strange verse that seems to sum up the argument – Paul says, “For this reason” – This is the motivation for your submission. “For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.” What on earth does that mean – because of the angels?

One view is that the angels are offended. Job 38:7 says that the angels were present at creation; and passages like Revelation 2 to 4 describe angels present in church gatherings; also Hebrews 12:22 describes how we participate with the heavenly “church” – with the angels in joyful assembly. So these heavenly beings would be offended if they saw men and women participating in worship of God in the church, yet ignoring God’s order in creation.

The second view says that this “sign of authority” is not that of men over women; but is in fact the authority that men and women will have over angels in the coming age. Back in Chapter 6 we read Paul’s statement in verse 3, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”

This brings us back to the nature of authority of God and the nature of authority of his church. It is a mediated authority. It is an authority or power that is passed down. It is received in submission and obedience; and in recognition of the highest authority, namely God. Because God has given all authority to the Son, so in Christ, we receive authority and power over the earth (that is, through the gospel to bring men and women into the kingdom). It was true in creation. It will be so in the new creation.

What is the principle? It is verse 3: The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Jesus Christ submitted himself to his Father’s will and received all authority in heaven and on earth. That is why he is able to save. Through Christ’s submission to his Father’s will.

The problem of the practice

But then, what is the practice? Does this mean from next week onwards, our elders will have to stand at the door handing our scarves to all the girls as they enter the church building? And how big does the scarf have to be – should it cover the entire head or will a small tea towel do?

In this entire passage, the word for scarf or veil (peribolaiou) only occurs once in verse 15 where Paul writes, “For long hair is given to her as a covering (peribolaiou).” But there, Paul isn’t talking about scarves or veils. He is saying that her long hair is given her as her veil.

So then, is Paul just talking about hair? Makes some sense, I guess, if you look at verses 5 and 6, where he says it would be disgraceful for the women to have “her hair cut or shaved off”. But even if Paul was talking about hair there is the problem of how much hair? Is he then advising men to go bald and shave off all their hair in verse 4 – since having “his head covered dishonours his head”? So in some churches that do take this view – that Paul is talking about hair – you will see the women tying up their hair up like a bun (or a tower like Marge Simpson).

Again, the problem lies is applying the practice without the principle and establishing a tradition without proper teaching. The principle is simply this: there must be a distinction. That men and women, created equal by God, were created distinct under God. Men are men, and ought to look and be discernable as men. Women are women, and ought to look and be discernable as women.

I find it interesting that Paul appeals repeatedly to the believers’ sense of propriety and shame.

If it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.
1 Corinthians 11:3

Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
1 Corinthians 11:13

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him.
1 Corinthians 11:14

There was therefore something improper, unnatural and even shameful of the manner in which these men and women presented themselves when they come together as the church. For the men, it had to do with long hair. For the women, it had to do either with the length of their hair, or the covering over their hair.

Together this seems to imply that the Corinthian men and women were presenting themselves in such a way, so as to blur the lines between their gender differences. In particular, the women may be doing so in rebellion against the authority of men. And the manner of their dressing, or hairstyle, or whatever it was they did, was designed to make a statement that they would not submit. Not to the men in the church. Not to the husbands in their families. And Paul is saying to these women, your display of dissatisfaction and displeasure was not simply an act of defiance against a social structure but against the created order instituted by God and mediated through Christ.

I know I shouldn’t just pick on the women, I know. Men today are a mess. They need to hear what Paul is saying in this passage. You are the image and glory of God (verse 7). You live in submission to Christ as your head (verse 3). There is such awesome responsibility in these verses. And yet ours is a generation of unambitious slackers, whiney adolescents and irresponsible brutes. We, men need to take initiative in relationships, display spiritual leadership in the home and exercise compassion and maturity in the church. Christ will call you to account. For your wives and children. For his body, the church. Men, be men.

But submission – it’s a real problem for girls. And it is a huge problem for women. Yes, the irresponsible men don’t make it any easier. But that isn’t ultimately the reason why you ought to submit, is it? God calls you to submission – in creation, in his church, in Christ. And the passage we have read today is ambiguous precisely because you can rebel against that submission in so many ways, even in subtle ways.

You see, I don’t think this passage has anything to do with being inappropriately dressed or being distracting in your looks. Paul does appeal to our sense of shame and disgrace, but it is shame before God (verse 13). And the covering isn’t a dress or a shawl over a woman’s body. It is over the head – as a sign of authority (verse 10).

Is there a distinction in your church meetings? Are the men, men and are the women, women. In their appearance? But also in their roles of authority and in their visible roles of leadership?

An ignored tradition

In 2 Thessalonian 2, Paul writes:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings (or traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15

It is the same expression used in 1 Corinthians 11:2, where Paul praises the Corinthians for holding to the teachings/traditions. My point is you pass on a tradition by teaching the tradition. You pass on a practice by teaching the principle of the practice. The Thessalonians discern the truth of these traditions – by the apostles’ spoken and written word.

Some traditions we carry on simply for nostalgia sake. Those were the good old days! We’ve always done it that way! Our founding pastor said so! From the type of songs to the arrangement of chairs - Anything can become a tradition given enough time and fuelled by enough nostalgia. But such traditions, as well-meaning they may be, can become symbols of empty pride, or worse, false gospels contrary to the teachings of the bible.

Often we will say: practice what you preach! Here is God’s word asking: Are you preaching what you practice? Do we understand why we meet as the church? What does it mean to worship God? Why did Jesus die for our sins? Why do Christians give of their time and money? What is the purpose of the bread and the cup in communion? Should I get baptised?

For a church like ours, steeped in traditions and customs, we must be very careful. It is so easy to give the illusion we are obeying the bible through our piety and outward respectability. As good Chinese boys and girls, we fool others; we might even fool ourselves. Jesus says, in the Great Commission we should not only obey everything he commanded, but to teach disciples in order to obey. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians, we hold on to the teaching in order to hold on to the traditions.

But some traditions we do not hold on to because we do not hold to their teachings. I think today’s passage is one clear example. Head coverings? Why, that’s just irrelevant and archaic. The danger is we will look at this passage on head coverings and say: This portion of the bible is irrelevant and archaic. What we lose is something very precious. It is God’s clear word on the authority of Christ mediated to his church. What we lose is the glory of Jesus displayed in men. What we lose is the beauty of submission displayed in women.

Some churches will not touch a passage like 1 Corinthians 11. Not because it talks about head coverings, but because it clearly teaches on headship. We will preach on the prodigal son four times a year; Jesus will feed the multitude again and again; and Daniel visits the lions so often he has taught them to do circus tricks. But we are afraid to tell men: Be men. Be loving. Be responsible. Be like Christ. And we dare not tell women: be submissive.

The challenge is this: Could the apostle Paul say these words of us and our church?

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.
1 Corinthians 11:2