Friday 22 July 2011

Solid Rock Tees

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Tuesday 19 July 2011

Good enough for God (Matthew 19:16-30)

To be rich and young: That is the dream: To have the money; to have the opportunity to spend that money. Not wait till I’m old and jaded. Now. When I still have so many things to do; so many places to be. I want to be rich and successful. Now.

That’s this guy. He is the rich young man.

But notice... It’s only until verse 22 that we find out he is rich. Matthew doesn’t tell us that he is young until verse 20.

Because the first thing the bible wants us to see; the most important thing the gospel writer, Matthew, wants us to see about this man, is that he is good.

A good man

“Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”Matthew 19:16

This guy gets straight to the point. How do I get to Heaven?  He doesn’t turn up at Rock Fellowship one day to ask questions on evolution, predestination, “How can I know God really exists?” No, he says to Jesus, “I want to go to Heaven. What must I do?”

It is an amazing question. Jesus gives him an amazing answer.

“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good.”Matthew 19:17

It’s not the kind of answer we would give. We would say, “Read John 3:16 – God so loved the world.” We would draw a stick man figure and explain Two Ways to Live.

Jesus says, “There can only be One,” (which sounds like a line from Highlander. Hmm, Jesus wielding a sword speaking in a Scottish accent. Cool!)

What Jesus is saying is this: Getting into heaven is not about doing good things. It is trusting in a good God.

You don’t do good things and along the way collect enough Tesco points to get a free entry ticket to Heaven. It’s not about something you do. It is about what God has done. Still many – including this young man – don’t see it that way. He thinks it is about doing enough, being sincere enough and trying your best. And Jesus knows that he isn’t getting through to this young man. Which is why Jesus goes on to say to him, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” Everything you want to know about what God said about getting into heaven; it’s right here; It’s in the bible.

But the man replies – with the exact same reply just about everyone gives me whenever I point them to the bible: Where in the bible? “Which commands? There are so many – in Genesis, in Exodus, in Leviticus. Where do I begin? Or, perhaps what I think he means is, Which commands are the greatest?  Which one is the most important? Which one – if I kept fully and obeyed to the letter – would get me into heaven?

It is worth pointing out that this question comes up fairly frequently in Jesus’ ministry. Just round the corner, in Matthew 22, Jesus gets asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And the Jesus answers (1) Love God; (2) Love your neighbour. Both are quotes from the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6:5 “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Now what is so interesting about this encounter we are seeing here is: Jesus gets asked the same question, but he gives a different answer. He gives only the second half of the answer. Love your neighbour. Furthermore, he expands on this second half by quoting half of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do give false testimony. Honour your father and your mother. The half of the Ten Commandments which you do.

The young man replies to Jesus, “I have covered them. Every single one, I’ve done them all.” Notice that there’s nothing particularly religious about this list of commands. A Muslim could say, “I’ve done them all.” An atheist could say, “I’ve kept them all.”

The young man asks Jesus “What can I do?” Jesus says, “Do this, this, this, this and this.” To which the man replies, “I’ve done them all, Jesus”.

The conversation should have ended right there.

But this man knows it’s not enough. Something in him goes, “Hang on! That can’t be it.” He knows it isn’t enough: to have done all these moral things; to have all these material possessions; to have tried his best. Something is still missing.

He says to Jesus, “What do I still lack” (verse 20).

The perfect score

Now some of you would have been shrewd enough to note that Jesus has said something about these very commands in the past.Back in Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapters 5 to 7, you would recall that Jesus said stuff like, hating your brother and cursing your brother is tantamount to breaking the commandment, “Do not murder.” You might also have recalled that according to Jesus, looking lustfully at another man’s wife is already breaking the commandment, “Do not commit adultery.” In effect, the Sermon on the Mount teaches us that it is very possible to obey all the rules on the outside; and still nurture hatred, anger, sin and lust in our hearts.

Even so, let’s suppose this man is really sincere. I think he is and I really like him. Here is a rich guy and a nice guy who loves his dad and mum, who is nice to the people around him and is genuinely concerned about getting to heaven. He says to Jesus, “What else need do I need to do to be a hundred per cent sure I will get to heaven?”

And Jesus gives yet another surprising answer. It is an answer so unexpected and so radical it got the whole gang riled up this week as we read these words of Jesus at Rock Fellowship:

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Matthew 19:21

Some of us said, “Jesus is God. He owns everything. He has every right to ask for all that he has given us in the first place.”

But the rest of us simply went, “NOOOOOOOoooooooOOOOO!!!”

And if we’re honest that’s what all of us say inside our hearts. Give up my university degree? Give up my job? It is just too much, Jesus. Too much to ask.

The bigger they are...

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Matthew 19:22

Is Jesus asking too much? What would be that one thing – that most valuable thing – that if Jesus said to you, “You need to give that up,” you just wouldn’t be able to. Like the young man, it would cause you to be really sad. Like the young man it would cause you to walk away from Jesus.

Look again at verse 21. Jesus doesn’t say, Give up everything. He says, give it up in order to gain more - much, much more - In order to gain treasure in heaven. This man just wanted to know how to get in. Jesus says, This is how you get God. The man had lots of wealth and possessions. Jesus says there is a more permanent form of wealth. Treasure in heaven. This is not loss. Jesus is talking about tremendous gain!

But secondly and more importantly, Jesus says to the young man, “Follow me.” For the first time in this passage dealing with heaven, God, salvation, treasure and love – we get to the heart of what it means to gain eternal life. It means following Jesus.

The reason this young man is sad is because he is still thinking about what he has to do and what he has to give up. He does not get it. It’s about what God has done for him. And as we see next, even the disciples of Jesus don’t get this.

Eye of the needle

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. ”
Matthew 19:23

Is Jesus being anti-rich? Is that why he turns away the rich young man? Or is Jesus saying that if you are rich, you have to give away all your wealth before you can become a Christian?

Zacchaeus was rich. He was a tax collector. In fact, Luke 19 tells us he was the chief tax collector. His job was all about money and he had lots of it. He says to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor” (Luke 19:8). But half means he still has 50%. Bill Gates is trying to give away 99% of his wealth. He is still Bill Gates.

Or later on in Matthew’s gospel we are introduced to Joseph of Arimathea, whom the bible calls “a rich man”. He uses his status and connections to get a hearing with Pilate in order to take Jesus’ body from the cross and bury it in his own newly-built tomb.

There were lots of rich people who followed Jesus, who were Christians in the New Testament, who were believers in the bible. Jesus constantly referred to Abraham who was tremendously rich and considered to be so because of God’s blessing over his life.

And yet Jesus does say that it is hard for a rich man to enter heaven. In fact, the point that Jesus is trying to make is, it is downright impossible.

Mission impossible

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Matthew 19:24

I don’t know how many times I have heard the story told of this wall in Jerusalem where there is a hole called “the eye of the needle”. It is supposed to be this passageway that a camel can just about squeeze through, only if you unload all of its baggage. So, the moral of the story is: rich people need to let go of their wealth in order to squeeze their way into heaven.

It is a load of nonsense. There is no such place. It doesn’t exist. I can understand why people still tell that story (heard it again a couple of months ago). It’s a good story. But it isn’t true. And more seriously, it misses the point that Jesus is making. The point is not that it’s hard. The point is that it is impossible.

The camel was the biggest animal in the Middle East. The eye of the needle was the smallest entry point. No matter how hard you tried - tucking its head in and folding back its legs - that camel is not getting through. It is meant to be ridiculous picture of an utterly impossible situation.

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Matthew 19:25

In our Chinese culture we value hard work, intelligence, achievement, respectability, sincerity and status. And here in the Chinese Church, I have met some of the most amazing people I have ever had the privilege of calling a brother or sister in Christ - believers who have served God wholeheartedly with their lives, sacrificially given of their time and resources, in devotion to Jesus and out of love for the people of God.

And yet, we need to be reminded, it is not our goodness that saves us. Often times, our perceived goodness can keep us from recognising that we need to be saved.

My great fear is this: a Cambridge student can walk into the church, join us every Sunday, and for three years straight hear only of how good he is for getting a scholarship, honouring his parents, playing in the music group and helping out in the church picnic. My fear is that the rich young men and women in our church don’t hear the truth. They are sinners before a holy God. That they need to be forgiven through the death and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

The disciples don’t get it. They are surprised that Jesus turned the rich young man away. “What are you doing, Jesus? He could have been such a valuable asset for the Kingdom of God. His experience, his skills, his connections - he could help fund a new ministry!”

And Jesus sees that the disciples don’t get it. In fact, right before this encounter with the young man, we find little kids coming up to Jesus - little, smelly, annoying, troublesome, noisy kids. And the disciples tell them to get lost! “Don’t you see Jesus has better things to do?” the disciples thought. But Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

The disciples think some people deserve to be in heaven more than others. They are still thinking of salvation from a human perspective. Not from God’s.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”Matthew 19:26

It is impossible. As long as we are thinking just from our perspective and our efforts and goodness, salvation is impossible.

As a church in Cambridge, people often say to me, “You guys at the Chinese Church should reach the students.” They’re right. 20,000 students in Cambridge, many of whom are Chinese - we should not ignore the fact that they are here and they need to hear the gospel. But sometimes what people say to me is, “We need to get the smart people, the talented people into our church. We need to evangelise the scholars and young professionals”. Why? Because we think church is like an episode of the Apprentice. We look for the best and brightest. That is still thinking from our own limited - and selfish - perspective; not God’s.

Let me make a brief comment about International Ministry. Reaching internationals seems to be the “in” thing now among churches in the UK. But sometimes I get the impression the reason why it is so tempting to jump on the bandwagon is because we think that international ministry means “easy” ministry. We water down the gospel. We leave out the hard bits - especially anything to do with sacrifice or hell. We focus on starting up cafes and only ever do bible studies on the prodigal son.

It is one thing to think strategically and lovingly when reaching internationals - using clearer English, starting from scratch with the bible and making an effort to understand different cultures and languages. It is quite another thing to be condescending: to think that foreigners don’t need to know what sin is. To think that the reason why so many people from China are coming to Christ is because it is easier for God to reach them compared to the ‘hardened’ locals; comparing Asian students to “low-hanging fruit”. We insult God when we think of salvation as something we do through our own efforts in ministry.

Friends, the reason - and the only reason - why anyone turns to Jesus is because God has done the impossible: He has forgiven a sinner.

Going all in

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
Matthew 19:29-30

Most of us were there at S and Z’s wedding on Saturday. What was the highlight for you? Was it the bride walking in dressed radiantly in white? It certainly was a stunning sight! (Though how she got into the car with that long train I have no clue - perhaps she could squeeze the camel into a needle!) Or maybe it was when S and Z exchanged vows - promising to love and care for one another for the rest of their lives - I noticed a few trying to hold back the tears at this touching scene.
For me, it was near the end when our brother, S took the microphone and declared his love for Z. Those of us who are friends of S, know he is shy and introverted. But out of overflowing love for his bride, S stood up in front of the whole crowd and said to Z, “Everything I have is yours.”

S, - who has worked all his life to get to Cambridge; he holds a PhD, he is doing well in his career - he essentially said, none of those possessions compared to how valuable Z was in his eyes. Everything he had he willingly gave up all for her.

In a relationship, we often look for the kind of guy; the kind of girl who has everything - looks, youth, energy, personality, chemistry. But you know as well as I do: Often times, the person with everything, finds it hard to give up anything.

As you go through life - collecting your degrees; climbing the corporate ladder, adding letters to the back of your name - is it going to get easier or harder for you to one day say to someone else; someone you truly love, “Everything I have is yours.”

Jesus says that to us. He left heaven, came as a man, took our sin and died on the cross. On the cross he takes our punishment of death and he transfers unto us his righteousness. It is an unfair exchange. The 16th Century reformer, Martin Luther, calls it the great exchange.

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21

Furthermore, each sacrifice you make in Jesus’ name, he promises you will receive one hundred times more in return. Ten thousand per cent interest gain! God is no one’s debtor. He is much more generous than you could ever be.

But the point is not that we will get more money and more wealth - though heaven will hold more treasure and blessing we could ever imagine. The point is anyone who comes to Jesus offers their life willingly. Becoming a Christian is hard but it is tremendously worthwhile. You may have to sacrifice your job, your health, your relationships, your very life. But we do it for Jesus sake, out of love for him. And he rewards us out of his great love for us.

A loving demand

There is a verse from Mark's gospel I can't help by turn to just to make this point crystal clear. This encounter with the young man is recorded in all three synoptic gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it's in Mark's gospel that we find this intriguing comment, just before Jesus tells the young man to sell all he has. Mark writes, "Jesus looked at him and loved him." (Mark 10:21)

How on earth can it be loving to tell someone to sacrifice everything he owns? It says right there, Jesus loved him. That's why he told him to give all his money away.

Now I want you to consider this because we don't tell people to do this. We are embarrassed and hesitant and afraid to read passages like to this in front of our non-Christian friends for fear of offending them. But what the bible is saying is: one of the most loving things we could do for our friends is to present them with this sacrificial demand of Jesus. The question is: in what way is this demand about love?

Friends, it has everything to do with love. Jesus loved this man enough to expose what this young rich successful moral man truly valued in his life. As much as the man wanted to go to heaven, he loved his life on earth more than heaven. And if he carried on with this present course in life, there would come an inevitable point in time when the rich man would lose both his wealth and his life.

Like the world, this young man wants to be rich today. And he only wants salvation tomorrow.

Jesus offers us salvation today. The cross means we can receive the offer of eternal life right here and right now. Altogether with the certain promise of infinite reward in the age to come when Jesus returns.

What is the greatest command? To love God and to love our neighbour. That's the answer Jesus gives to everyone else. To the Pharisees, to the theologians.

But to this young man, Jesus loves him enough to make the answer even clearer, than quoting a couple of verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus points to this man's earthly wealth and tells this him, "It is about loving me. More than your wealth. More than your life."

Eternal life is knowing and loving Jesus.

Monday 18 July 2011

Tying the knot

Last weekend at the Chinese Church, we gathered to celebrate the wedding of S and Z. Marriage is one of the biggest deals there is in the bible. It is rooted in God’s blessing in creation. It points forward  to the fulfilment of God’s promises in the new creation. Yet it finds its fullest expression in the relationship between Jesus and his church.

Many people of many cultures and different faiths get married every day. What is distinctive about a Christian marriage? What does the bible say?

1. The blessing of God
The creation of the first man and woman is simultaneously the account of the first marriage. God saw that it was not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Thus God created the woman and brought her to Adam to be his helper and his wife.

Genesis also teaches us that sex is God’s gift to be enjoyed in marriage between a man and a woman. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Within marriage the husband and wife give themselves to one another fully and without shame (Genesis 2:25).

2. The faithfulness of God
God takes marriage seriously. In Malachi Chapter 2, God stands as a witness to the vows made between a husband and his wife. “Has not the Lord made them one?” (Malachi 2:15) Here we find marriage described as a “covenant” - a contract made between a man and a woman. God himself holds them to their promises.

In the same passage, we learn that a godly marriage is meant to produce godly children. Fruitfulness is closely linked to faithfulness. Children learn obedience to God in an environment of faithfulness to God in marriage and in the home.

3. The love of God
The most glorious picture of marriage we find in the bible is described in terms of Jesus’ relationship with the church. Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25) “and gave himself up for her”. Interestingly, it is the husband - not the wife - who is given the command to love. Love in the bible is not a touchy-feelly emotion. Love is an act of supreme self-sacrifice for the good of another.

Wives are called to submission (Ephesians 5:24). As the church submits to Christ and as Christ submits to the will of his Father, even unto death on the cross; so wives are to submit to their husbands. This inner beauty is described in the bible as unfading and of great worth in God’s sight (1 Peter 3:4-5).

Thursday 14 July 2011

Upside down!

Who can be saved?
Sunday, 17 July : Matthew 19:16-30

Who will be first?
Sunday, 24 July : Matthew 20:1-16

Who will be served?
Sunday, 31 July : Matthew 20:17-34

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Do everything in love (1 Corinthians 16:12-24)


Reading today’s passage is like watching the movie credits. The movie has ended; people are getting up. Everyone is going home. No one stays back for the movie credits. Well, maybe if it’s a Jackie Chan movie and there are those cool shots of Jackie doing crazy stunts that went wrong. Even so, you are not looking at the credits; not at those names scrolling up in the background. Who wants to read a list of names that goes on and on?

Today’s passage is like that. Who would read this? It is just a list of names that goes on and on.

But the credits remind us that a lot work happens behind the scenes. This week, our brother Sid is getting married. And he can tell you: The work that goes on behind the scenes; it is hard work. It is important work: Months of planning, lots of preparation and lots of good friends that go into making that one wedding day possible.

Today Paul wants to draw our attention to the people who make church possible. You don’t always notice them. But there are lots of them. And they work tirelessly, faithfully in the background. Paul introduces us to three of these ministries today. (1) There is the academic (verse 12); (2) the band of brothers (verses 17-18); and (3) an encouraging couple (verse 19). Three ministries that help make church possible; that help make mission effective; that help make worship worthwhile.

The all-star academic

Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity.
1 Corinthians 16:12

What is wrong this guy? Just reading verse 12: Apollos sounds like someone who doesn’t want to come to church. Paul wants him to come, his friends keep sending him messages on Facebook, but he doesn’t keeps giving excuses. Actually, that’s not the whole story. For the real story on Apollos, we need to turn to the book of Acts. Because there we see a different Apollos. There we see Apollos, the all-star academic.

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue.
Acts 18:24-25

Here is a guy who graduated from the top bible college with top marks in Hebrew and Old Testament Theology. This guy was smart! “He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.” But more than that, this guy had guts! Verse 25 says that Apollos preached in the synagogue. Today, that would be equivalent to going to a mosque, on a Friday afternoon after the prayers, in the middle of Baghdad; opening up your bible and going, “Let me tell you about Jesus.”

Apollos was looking for trouble. He was fearless. In the synagogue he was taking on theologians, rabbis and scholars. And he was arguing from their scriptures – from their Old Testament – to prove that Jesus really was the Christ.

Now if Apollos is this maverick; he is this hot shot evangelist... so why does verse 12 imply that he wasn’t really all that fearless. In fact, verse 12 literally says Apollos did not want to go to Corinth “at all” (“pantos”). He resolutely refused to step foot into Corinth.

This is all the more surprising considering Corinth was pretty much like Cambridge two thousand years ago. It a city was full of thinkers, debaters and philosophers. In Corinth, a guy Apollos would be respected. In Corinth, a guy like Apollos would be revered for his intelligence, his wit and his boldness.

Paul wanted him to go. And we know from Chapter 1, the church wanted him to go. In fact, there is every indication that the church wanted someone like Apollos to be their pastor. But Apollos said No.

The perfect pastor

Let me put it another way: Many of you know we are looking for a pastor to serve at the Chinese Church. People want a pastor who can preach. People want a pastor who is good with kids; who has a degree; who has experience.

Now imagine we found the perfect pastor – someone smart, loving, experienced, humble. Imagine he was the perfect guy – the Cantonese congregation loves him; the Mandarin congregation respects him; the English congregation thinks this guy is cool!

Imagine this perfect candidate wrote back saying, “No. I don’t want to be your pastor. I don’t want to be anywhere near your church.” If that happened, some of us would say, “How rude!” Yong soi!” And that may very well be the case. But at some point, some of us may ask, “What is wrong with us? What is the reason why this perfect pastor doesn’t want to serve in our church?”

Apollos was the perfect pastor for the CCCC  – the Corinthian City Christian Church. And the reason why he refused to serve there was because of their pride.

You see, the Corinthian Church is possibly the most gifted and the most spiritual church in all of the New Testament. But it is also the most sinful. Again and again, Paul deals with horrible situations in this gifted yet proud church. They were proud because of their gifts. They were sinful yet boastful about their sins. They were rich and looked down on the poor.

And this church in Corinth wanted a pastor like Apollos - not that there is anything wrong with wanting a good pastor, or even a gifted pastor – but they wanted a pastor like Apollos because they were saying of themselves, “We are smart, we are gifted; so we deserve a pastor who is as smart and as gifted as us.”

What kind of pastor are we looking for here in the Chinese Church? The bible is warning us to check our motives. Because what we want from our leaders; what we demand from our pastors – sometimes says more about us, than about our leaders.

The bible tells us what God requires of his servants. They must be faithful. They must love Jesus. They must preach this book. If you are curious, the two passages that spell this out are 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. There is nothing in there about university degrees or charismatic personalities. The bible is clear that elders and pastors (the two are one and the same) are to be faithful men, leading faithful lives, preaching the bible faithfully.

The thing we need to see about Apollos is that he wasn’t just smart. He was faithful. We see this in Acts where it says that Apollos “taught about Jesus accurately”. What does accurately mean? It means everything he said about Jesus 100% correct. That’s accurate. He scored 100% in his Theology paper.

But in the very next verse we read:

When Priscilla and Aquila heard his, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
Acts 18:26

Where it says “adequately” – they explained to Apollos adequately – the word is actually the exact same word as before in verse 25. It is “accurately”. They explained Jesus more accurately to Apollos.

Hold on! How to get more accurate, than accurate? How do you score higher that 100%?

We get a clue at the end of verse 25, “(Apollos) knew only the baptism of John”. John’s baptism is the turning away from sin in order to repent, or turn, to God. John recognised that Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom. That meant judgement on sin was round the corner. All this was true. All this was accurate.

But all this was not complete. Jesus came to take our sin upon himself. Jesus took God’s punishment that we deserved for our sins, upon himself when he died on the cross. Apollos did not know that. He did not know about the cross. Everything he said up to this point was correct. It just wasn’t complete. Without the cross, we will not get a complete picture of who Jesus is and what he came to do. Without the cross, the bible can be read accurately, it can be taught academically, but it won’t be preached faithfully. Not without the cross.

Being academic does not mean long bible studies and big words. It just means you leave out the cross. You haven’t understood the point of God’s message. The whole point of Rock Fellowship each week, when we meet to read the bible and hear God’s word, whether it is Old Testament or New Testament; whether it is Exodus or 1 Corinthians is to answer this question: How does this help me understand why Jesus died on the cross?

The cross changed Apollos from an all-star academic to a faithful preacher of the gospel. Together with Paul, he planted the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Together with Paul, he recognised the church in Corinth needed not another big personality as their pastor. They needed the gospel. They need to hear about the cross of Jesus Christ.

The band of brothers

You know the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in their work, and labours at it. I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaiacus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you. For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.
1 Corinthians 16:15-18

Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus are Heng Tai. They are the bros. When you need help, they are there. When you need a lift to Rock, they’ll pick you up in their sports cars. When you are down, they come over with pizza and watch football with you. These are the guys your count on. They are reliable, dependable and faithful.

And Paul says twice - in verses 16 and 18 – these guys deserve respect. Such men deserve recognition. Why? Because often we don’t respect them. Often they don’t get recognised. They work tirelessly in the background. They keep serving without any expectation of reward. They are the Backstreet Boys – or, as I like to call them, the Backside Boys.

They are taken for granted. And Paul says they deserve more than that.

Do you know when I wrote this sermon? 11pm last night in a pub. (Was I drunk? Yes, on a can of Coke.)

I was in the pub with WM, D, J and Sid on his night out with the guys, the week before his big wedding day. Sid was out with his Heng Tai. (What do Christian guys do on stag nights? They drink coke, eat Monster Munch snacks and talk about the sermon.) Let me ask you: When it’s your turn to get married, who is going to take you out on your guys/girl’s night out? Do you have brothers or sisters like these – with whom you can share your happiest moments in life? With whom, you can share your struggles and tough times? You might have 200 friends on Facebook (some of us have more), but who are your real friends? These guys – Stephanas, Fortunatus and Archaicus – Paul mentions just these few; these three made a big difference in his life and ministry. They were dependable friends. They were trustworthy friends. They were his brothers in Christ.

Now there is a special reason why Paul writes about these three brothers. And it isn’t because he hangs out with them every weekend to play Soul Calibre 3 on Playstation. These three brothers were responsible for the letter of 1 Corinthians.

Back in Chapter 1, Paul who is away in Ephesus, hears about the situation in the church in Corinth through these brothers. They bring him the news about the problems and conflict going on back home. And now in Chapter 16, we see that Paul has written this letter of 1 Corinthians as a response and it is the brothers who are entrusted with carrying this letter all the way back to the church. The reason for this is very clear in verse 18, “For they refreshed my spirit and yours also.” Paul is saying: these men have made an impact on my life and yours. And even though, some of you have a big problem with me; some of you have a big problem with what I am saying in this letter; these brothers – Stephanas, Fortunatus and Archaicus – are there to bridge the gap. You know them and love them. I know them and I love them.

Here is an important reason why such brothers are so valuable in the church. It isn’t just because they are the ones who set up the chairs every week. It is because they display the integrity of the gospel. Even those who are offended by what they stand for cannot deny their love and service in Jesus.

Men: Don’t try to be Jerks for Jesus. In the name of passionate service for God it is easy for us guys to get carried away. Instead of being more like Jesus, we act more like jerks. We start bossing people around. We tell people off. We act tough. But all in the name of ministry. That isn’t ministry. And these aren’t these guys.

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love.
1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Verse 13, where it says “be men of courage”; it literally says, “Act like men.” And many men hear verse 13 like a call to war. Yeah, I be on my guard! Yeah, I’ll stand my ground! I will be a man – courageous and strong! That’s me all right.

They don’t hear verse 14. Do everything in love. Stephanas, Fortunatus and Archaicus are men – real men, who stand up for Paul and live out the gospel. But they have “devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (Verse 15). Meaning: they live to serve others.

Are you like these guys? Do you “refresh the spirits” of the people around you? Meaning: in your service, is it in love? Or do you just rub people the wrong way – all in the name of serving Jesus?

Every week, after Rock Fellowship, I get back and watch the Apprentice. It is very engaging. Some of the most talented, business-savvy individuals in competition with one another for a once-in-a-lifetime business deal with Lord Sugar. And each time I watch it, I am reminded how tempting it is to serve Jesus the way these young executives try to serve Lord Sugar. On the Apprentice, you don’t have friends. On the Apprentice, you use your friends to get ahead.

It reminds me of what Jesus said to his disciples:

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, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—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 20:25-28

Jesus came not to be served. He came to serve us. That is how we see his greatness. God became a servant in humility and submission. The Son of Man gave his life. In the same way, those who serve Jesus – the word service (diakonia) is where we get the word, ministry – will serve their brothers and sisters in love and commitment.

And Paul says in this passage, these brothers and sisters – these servants – deserve recognition and respect.

The enterprising couple

The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings, Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets in their house.
1 Corinthians 16:19

Aquila and Priscilla are, I think, the most godliest, exemplary, mission-minded married couple in the New Testament. They are mentioned 7 times in the bible; in Acts, Romans, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians and 2 Timothy.

Who are they? They weren’t missionaries. They weren’t preachers. They were not employed by the church. Instead, they ran a business making tents. It was a very successful business because they were able to afford houses in big cities like Rome, Ephesus and Corinth. That’s like having a condo in Hong Kong, a house in London and a villa in France. If you have three houses in three big cities, you are loaded!

And here in verse 19, we see what they used these houses for. Bible study. “The church that meets in their house,” Paul says, they say Hi. In each of these homes (there may be more, but these three at least we know of in the bible) Aquila and Priscilla said to the church, “Use this house as a place of fellowship, worship and ministry.” In other words, they had Rock Fellowship there every week. Or when J comes back on holiday from seminary, M will open her house to host a barbeque. Or when Q is leaving for HK, W invites all the youth to bake cakes and has a big farewell celebration.

My point is: all this is ministry. This is mission. Opening your homes and inviting people to come into your lives.

Now what’s the big deal? Look with me back at Acts 18. Do you remember Apollos, the academic? Well it says there in verse 26 that Aquila and Priscilla heard Apollos preaching. It must have been impressive – like listening to Mark Driscoll; full of passion and energy. Loads of scripture. But it was obvious also to them, that Apollos, as impressive as he was, didn’t yet know of the cross (Acts 18:25).

So what did they do? Did they rebuke him publicly? “You think you’re such a hot shot? Well, you don’t really know the full story about Jesus do you? You only know the baptism of John!” No. They didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead, we read:

When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
Acts 18:26

They invited Apollos home. They said to him, “Come over for tea and some jammie dodgers, and we would like to tell you more about what happened to Jesus when he died and rose again.” They used their home as a place of ministry. They didn’t bring Apollos to a church to hear a sermon (in fact, they were in the synagogue already). Instead, they invited Apollos to their house and witnessed to him there. And the result? The ancient equivalent of Billy Graham. Apollos continued to be a powerful witness for Jesus. Except now he was able to preach the gospel more faithfully and powerfully. Thanks to this married couple and their commitment to the gospel, and their generosity to others.

Could you use your home to serve Jesus? It is wonderful when you invite your friends over on Sunday to join us at the Chinese Church. But how about having them over to watch Wimbledon? How about hosting a VISA course in your apartment?

Hebrews 13 reminds us as Christians: “Do not forget to entertain strangers for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:12). The point is not that angels will turn up on your doorstep one day (though the author was thinking of Abraham when he welcomed God himself without knowing it at first). The point is: You don’t know. You don’t know how God will use that simple act of love and generosity to bring about a great deal of good and blessing. You could be witnessing to the next Apollos. He might be the next John Piper. She might be the next Helen Roseveare.

Aquila and Priscilla didn’t have to leave their jobs. They didn’t have to leave home. Instead, they used their jobs and they used their homes to serve Jesus. Paul says this is what ministry looks like.

No other name

Paul is giving credit where credit is due. He isn’t alone in ministry. Together with Apollos; together with Stephanas, Fortunatus and Archaicus (Or Steffi, Tuna and Archie); and together with Aquila and Priscilla – they all serve one Lord and one God: Jesus. As far as they are concerned, Jesus is the only name that matters in the end.

If anyone does not love the Lord—a curse be on him. Come, O Lord!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.
1 Corinthians 16:22-24

It is all about Jesus. If you don’t love Jesus, then it doesn’t matter how big a success you are: You are an enemy of God and his judgement still stands against you. But if you love Jesus, you will serve him and want to see his name glorified and praised.

Help me to do everything in love.
In love for Jesus, who loved me
In love for my brothers and sisters,
the church for whom Jesus gave his life.

That in all things, Jesus will be glorified and made much of.
In His wonderful name I pray,

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Going on when you feel like giving up

When are you most likely, or most tempted, to give up?

Maybe it is tiredness. When you can’t take even a step further. You have given it your all. You have come this far. But you can’t carry on.

Maybe it is pain. You were hurt by a bad experience or a bad relationship. You are broken. And the pain is unbearable.

When are you most likely to call it quits? I suggest to you that the answer is: disappointment. When you have been let down.

Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:58

The apostle Paul says give it your all. Keep going. Don’t fall back. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord. Never stop investing your lives in Jesus.

Why? Because you know that nothing is wasted in Jesus. Your labour in the Lord is not in vain.

We are most likely to give up, when we look at a project or a job or a relationship and say, “This has been a waste of time. Nothing I can ever do will change this situation one single bit. It doesn’t make a difference whether keep going or just give up.”

The problem is not tiredness, or even pain. It is hopelessness and disappointment.

The bible is saying, when you feel that way about God, know this: Nothing - absolutely, nothing - is wasted in Jesus. You can trust in him fully. He will never let you down. Always give it your all in Jesus.

It means that even if you can only take one more step; that counts. Even if all you manage is one more day, Jesus makes that day worthwhile. Keep going. Keep trusting. Always give it your all in Jesus.

Heavenly Father,
Thank you that Jesus makes this life worthwhile.

On the cross,
He defeated my sin, took my punishment and bore my death.
And I receive his righteousness, his life and his reward.

Help me to live this life to the fullest
In Jesus, my victorious Saviour
And my God.

Furniture for God (Exodus 25)

Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.
Exodus 25:8

Chapter 25 begins a new and significant section in the book of Exodus. God gives instructions for the construction of a place of worship, called the Tabernacle. Now “tabernacle” is not a word we commonly use in English, so don’t worry if you have never heard of that word before. It is just a fancy word for tent. God says to Moses, “Build me a tent.”

Of course, we need to remember that at the time, all the other Israelites were also living in tents. They were on a long journey through the desert, setting up camp one day, and moving on elsewhere the next. The modern equivalent would be the caravan. It isn’t fancy. It wasn’t permanent. Because if you look closely at verse 8, God does not say, Build me this sanctuary so that I can live in it. He says build it for me “and I will dwell among them.” God did not want a dwelling to live in. He wanted to live with his people. In a tent.

Yet as soon as God says that, he doesn’t give the instructions for the tent. That happens in the next chapter. Instead, here in Chapter 25, God outlines the instruction for assembling the furniture.

The ark

“Have them make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you.
Exodus 25:10-16

The ark was a box. It was 1.1 meters long and 68 centimeters wide and high (according my NIV bible footnotes), so about the size of your average coffee table. (In the past I would have made a passing reference to Indiana Jones and movie “Raiders the Lost Ark”; except teenagers today have only ever seen the latest one which featured aliens and that kid from Transformers. Yikes!)

Anyways, it was a big box all covered in gold, with rings round the side that you could slot in poles in order to carry it. The ark stored the tablets of the law - referring to the Ten Commandments. There were two of them, not because there were five on one and five on the other. The tablets represented two copies of one agreement made between God and his people. Israel would obey God’s law. God would bless and protect his people.

Now, the important bit about the ark, was not the ark itself, but the cover that was on top of the ark, called the atonement cover.

“Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you.
Exodus 25:17-21

Cherubim are angels. Think of them like commando angels. Their first appearance is in the beginning of the bible. In Genesis 3:24, they are the guardians at the entrance of Eden holding a lightsaber; “a flaming sword flashing back and forth,” it reads. Their job is to protect and to stand guard.

Moses is instructed to make two of these angelic cherubim out of pure gold, facing each other, with their wings “overshadowing the cover”. They are standing watch and their wings signify that they are protecting something very important; or rather, someone very important. As it turns out, the cherubim are guardians of God.

There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Exodus 25:22

The atonement cover symbolised God’s throne room surrounded by angels. The tent was a picture of the whole created order, and the inner section of the tent where the ark was kept, called the Most Holy Place, was a picture of heaven itself.

The reason why the ark is so important in the construction of this place of worship, was because it reminded the Israelites that God had opened the way to heaven. Man could now come into the presence of a holy God.

The question is how?

The answer lies in the word “atonement”. Once a year, the high priest would sprinkle the atonement cover with blood of a sacrificial animal. He did this to atone for the sins of the whole nation of Israel. Atonement is the act by which God’s anger over our sin is paid for through the death and sacrifice of another. In this case, it was the death of an animal. Its sacrifice was a substitute for the punishment of the people of Israel.

Now the fascinating thing is, the word that appears here in Exodus 25 as “atonement cover” (some translations have “mercy seat”), also occurs in the New Testament to describe Jesus. The greek word hilasmos/hilasterion, appears in passages like 1 John 2:2 where Jesus Christ is called the “atoning sacrifice”. On the cross, Jesus became the substitute for us, taking our punishment for sin on our behalf.

In fact, the book of Hebrews goes of to draw a direct connection between these events in  Old Testament and Jesus in the New; between the blood sprinkled on the ark; and Jesus entering heaven itself to appear before God, through his sacrifice on the cross.

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.
Hebrews 9:23-24

God says the atonement cover was where he would meet with them. It was God’s throne. At the same time, it was God’s sacrifice. In the same way, the cross symbolises both the sacrifice and the supremacy of Jesus. His death opens the way for us to enter confidently into God’s presence.

The table

“Make a table of acacia wood—two cubits long, a cubit wide and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold and make a gold moulding around it. Also make around it a rim a handbreadth wide and put a gold moulding on the rim. Make four gold rings for the table and fasten them to the four corners, where the four legs are. The rings are to be close to the rim to hold the poles used in carrying the table. Make the poles of acacia wood, overlay them with gold and carry the table with them. And make its plates and dishes of pure gold, as well as its pitchers and bowls for the pouring out of offerings. Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times.
Exodus 25:24-30

The instructions for the table come with detailed descriptions for the manufacture of plates and crockery for this table. In short, this is a dining area. It is extravagant - everything is made of gold. It is portable - there are the familiar fixtures of rings and poles to help with transporting the table. Yet the meal consists of one main dish. Bread.

Specifically, it is called the “bread of the presence”; as the table is placed just outside the Most Holy Place, in the presence of God. Leviticus 24 gives us a few more details. There are twelve loaves of bread, arranged in two rows of six, placed on the table as part of the offerings of the Israelites; twelve loaves for twelve tribes. The bread should also reminds us of manna. God fed the Israelites with bread from heaven, providing for their every day needs and feeding their hunger.

Most likely however, the table was not simply a place for offering but a means of fellowship. In verse 30, God says there must always be bread on this table. It must never be empty. God is extending an open invitation to Israel to dine with him in fellowship. Additionally, this meal points forward to heaven itself, as heaven  is repeatedly pictured in the bible as a banquet with abundant food laid out for its guests. We find this referred to in many of Jesus’ parables (Matthew 8:22 and 22:2 for example).

Also when Jesus had his last meal with his disciples, he points to the bread - not the lamb, but the bread - as a sign of his body (which is why it is possible for vegetarians to take communion. Just a joke!). So even today, as part of the Lord’s supper - the bread that we share symbolises both the body of Jesus sacrificed on the cross (1 Corinthians 11:24); but also the church as the one body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17).

The lampstand

“Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms. One bud shall be under the first pair of branches extending from the lampstand, a second bud under the second pair, and a third bud under the third pair—six branches in all. The buds and branches shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold.

“Then make its seven lamps and set them up on it so that they light the space in front of it. Its wick trimmers and trays are to be of pure gold. A talent of pure gold is to be used for the lampstand and all these accessories.
Exodus 25:31-39

The final piece of furniture is the lampstand and most of the description is given to its features and form. It has branches and cups shaped like flowers, with buds and blossoms. It is pretty obvious what it is supposed to look like: a tree.

Bible experts say this represents the tree of life in the garden of Eden. I really like that one, considering the elements of creation we have seen so far in Exodus. In Revelation Chapter 1, the lampstand is symbolic of the church, and that is another strong possibility.

To be honest, I am not sure about this one. I think in part it reflects both - pointing backwards to the creation account in Genesis, and forward to the new creation in Revelation. The tree of life is a reminder that the promise of eternal life still stands under the gracious plan of God’s salvation.

Follow the instructions

Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.
Exodus 25:9

See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.
Exodus 25:40

Why was God so particular about the instructions for the furniture? He tells Moses, twice, make them exactly like this. Exactly like what? Like this pattern.

God is saying that the ark, the table and the lampstand are copies. They have to be made exactly according to these instructions because they point to something else. Something more significant. Something more permanent. They point to Jesus.

They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
Hebrews 8:5-6

These are just copies of the real thing. They are exact copies, but in the way a laser printout of a five pound note is a copy of the original. It might look similar, but only the real deal has any real value.

The reality is Jesus. The tabernacle was a copy that prepared the way for the Israelites to recognise Jesus as the true presence of God. In fact, John writes of Jesus, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling - (literally, he tabernacled) -  among us.” In Jesus, God became flesh and lived with man.