Sunday 29 April 2012

Jacket off, jacket on

In the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, Jackie Chan plays ageing handyman, Mr Han, who teaches Chinese kung fu to a 12-year old black kid from Detroit, played by Jaden Smith (son of actor Will Smith, who incidentally produced the movie). I liked it, despite protests from my friends saying, “It’s not Karate, it’s Kung Fu!” I still thought it was cool that this version of Mr Miyagi could actually throw a punch. The scene I was looking forward to was the “jacket off, jacket on” moment, where Jackie trains his student to defend himself by making him take his jacket off only to put it right back on, repeating this action again and again, for hours on end. When his student gets frustrated with what he thinks is a pointless exercise and threatens to leave, Jackie reveals that he has been teaching him “real” kung fu moves all this while. Suddenly the skinny black kid from Detroit is able to deflect blows from his shifu by utilising his well-practiced art of blocking - the “jacket off, jacket on” technique. Sounds lame when I put it that way, but it’s a cool scene, trust me!

In today’s passage we find the apostle Paul saying to us, “Jacket off, jacket on.”

You were taught with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on your new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:22-24

Jacket off: We need to take off our old way of life. Leave it behind. Jacket on: We put on Christ, who covers us with his righteousness and holiness. Paul is teaching us that as Christians there needs to be a radical change. Yet the key to this change is not something we do to ourselves but something that has been done in us through the gospel.

Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.
Ephesians 4:21

“You guys know this, don’t you?” Paul begins. Surely, he says. The English Standard Version has “Assuming that you have heard... and were taught”. It’s like when Chinese people say, Lei ge Ma mo gau lei ah? (“Didn’t your parents teach you this?”) as a kind of rebuke whenever we mess up. Paul is saying to us, “You guys know there needs to be a radical, even visible change in our lives, if you claim to know Jesus.”

It’s really interesting how Jesus is referred to three times in this one sentence, did you notice that? You heard of him. You were taught in him. The truth that is in him. Paul is talking about the radical change in a Christian’s life and he is saying, Jesus needs to be at the centre of that change every step of the way. In our conversion, when we first heard of him. In our obedience, as we were taught in him. In our assurance, trusting in the truth that is in him. We began with Jesus, we grow in Jesus, we continue trusting in Jesus. Focussing on Jesus results in the radical change Paul is talking about. That’s important, because the “jacket off, jacket on” technique are not steps we take to earn our salvation. They are results of our salvation: by-products of our trust in Jesus as the source of our salvation. Whenever we are dealing with situations that require radical change in our lives, Paul is saying, the first thing we do is come back to Jesus. He changes us, we cannot change ourselves. It’s not what we have to do, it is all about what Jesus has done for us through the cross; what he continues to do in our lives by his spirit.

So, why doesn’t Paul just say to us, “Trust in Jesus.” Why the need for the “jacket off, jacket on” reminder? Two big reasons. The first is because we live in a world where everyone still has their old jackets on.

So I tell you this and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do in the futility of their thinking.
Ephesians 4:17

These Christians grew up as non-Christians, in homes and environments that were likely to be anti-Christian. By trusting in Jesus, they have been changed but the world they live in hasn’t. That’s reality for them and for us. And what Paul deals with is the temptation to fall back into that old way of life. “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do,” he says, implying, we were no different at one time. The things they did, we used to do. But no more, “I insist on it in the Lord,” he says. Keep your focus on Jesus.

So the first reason is that we still live in a world that is corrupted by sin. That’s why Paul says, “Put off your old self, which is corrupted by its deceitful desires.” In other words, the sins we need to watch out for are the familiar ones. Don’t be complacent. You might think you have a handle on your weak points, but you live in a world where most people don’t. That is intentional, by the way. God has put us in the world even though we are no longer part of the world to be salt and light. We are called to be different from the world and yet witnesses in this world to the transforming work of Jesus.

That brings us to the second reason. God displays his new creation to us. When we “put on the new self”, it sounds like we are putting on a jacket. Only the actual phrase Paul uses is “the new man”. He is saying you are in fact a new creation, “created to be like God”. In a way you become a walking preview like a movie trailer. When the world looks at the church, they get a glimpse of how God will change the world. Sinners are transformed into into his sons and daughters. He does this by covering us with “true righteousness and holiness”. In other words, he looks at us and sees Jesus who gives us his reward for his work on the cross.

Two reasons why Paul calls us to put off our old selves and put on the new: (1) As witnesses in a world still corrupted by sin; and (2) As a display of God’s plan to renew the world through Jesus’ work on the cross.

Though, if you have been paying attention, I’ve missed out a step in between. It is verse 23.

To be made new in the attitude (spirit) of your minds.
Ephesians 4:23

Verse 23 is probably the most important step of all, simply because it is a statement that says we cannot change ourselves. Only God can renew us from the inside out. But notice the location of that change and renewal - it is the attitude of our minds. The biggest change that happens in a person’s life are not his actions or behaviour, it is in his mind. Literally, Paul says the “spirit” of our minds - referring to the totality of our thinking and decision-making.

Look back to verse 17 and notice that Paul highlights the non-Christian manner of life in terms of their thinking. It’s futile, Paul says. He goes on to tell us they are darkened in their understanding, that there is an ignorance in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Those are not descriptions of actions but reactions towards God - their thinking. It it teaching us that sin is first and foremost an attitude towards God. It eventually results in sinful actions, yes, from which we get “bitterness, rage, anger, malice, brawling, slander” (Ephesians 4:31) but those are only symptoms. The disease is a heart that rejects God.

Therefore, it probably won’t surprise you to know that metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, means a change of thinking. At the centre of the transforming work of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ are men and women who don’t simply obey his word but love his word, who don’t merely submit to him as Lord but call God their heavenly Father. The reason why Christians want to change their lives is not simply because they want to get better and happier, it’s not because we like a change in fashion so we put on new jackets and take off our old ones. It’s because we love Jesus and his love changes us to be more like him.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Suit up (Ephesians 4:17-24)

This week 36-year-old comedian Russell Brand appeared before the House of Commons to talk about his views and personal experience of drug addiction. He described how he had overcome his own addiction to heroin brought on by “emotional, mental and spiritual problems”, how he had been arrested twelve times and how he was ultimately helped to overcome his addiction by adopting an “abstinence-based” approach to recovery. Mr Brand was his humorous self, at one time responding to the chairman’s request to wrap things up as “time was running out”, by answering, “TIme is infinite. You can’t run out of time!” Jokes aside, Russell Brand was clearly passionate about his cause. For him, the problem boiled down to addiction. It didn’t matter whether it was to illegal drugs like heroin or alcohol you could legally purchase off the supermarket counter. Addiction was a social problem that needed to be addressed pragmatically with “love and compassion”.

Addiction is a key theme of today’s passage, which is surprising when you realise that the bible is talking not about drugs or alcohol, but about culture. The apostle Paul writes:

Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
Ephesians 4:19

The more you invest into your addiction, the less you are satisfied by that addiction, yet the greater your hunger for that addiction. It is a vicious cycle. Now, we read this verse and think: drug addict or drunk alcoholic. But if you look back a couple of verses to verse 17, you see that Paul starts out not talking about them - those drug addicts and the like - but about you. “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” Don’t we have a word for this - “racism”? After all, Paul earlier referred to the Christians in Ephesus as “You Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1). Here was Paul, a Jew commenting on another people’s culture, another nation’s heritage, another society’s lifestyle and saying to them, “You must no longer live like Gentiles.” Try saying that to one of the uncles and aunties in church today, “You must no longer live like Chinese!” Understandably, they would be offended. They would be shocked. They would say to you, “Who do you think you are?” Look again at Paul’s answer in verse 17:

So I tell you this, and insist upon it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.
Ephesians 4:17

Paul is not referring to specific cultural practices but to the motivations behind those practices. He says their way of thinking is futile, meaning, it’s empty. This line of reasoning carries through the rest of the passage: “They are darkened in their understanding” because of an “ignorance” (verse 18), they are driven by a “continual lust for more” (literally, greed, verse 19). Meaning, Paul is not targeting a specific practice in a specific culture such as offering up joss-sticks at the temple or bowing down to idols, as much as he is exposing the idolatry and addiction that is inherent in every culture. And the first thing he says is, its thinking is futile. It is empty. Not that it is sinful. Not even that it’s wrong. But in the first instance, Paul says that it is deluded. Their thinking is pointless.

Before moving on, it is worth clarifying who Paul is talking about and to do that we need to know what the word “Gentile” means. The Greek word ethne (where we get the English word “ethnicity”) literally means nations. So, ethne could be a way of referring to countries (like China) or cultures (like the Chinese). It simply means “all the nations”. Jesus is praised as the lamb who was slain, whose blood paid for the salvation from every “tribe and language and people and nation (ethnous)” (Revelation 5:9). However, within the letter of Ephesians, ethne is used in a more specific sense by Paul, as a way of contrasting and at times, separating himself from his readers. This is especially seen whenever Paul switches audiences between the “we” and the “you”. Whenever this happens, Paul is contrasting his culture with theirs as Jews and as Gentiles. The Gentiles were non-Jews. The Gentiles were all the other nations except the Jews. So, in Chapter 1 verse 11, Paul says, “We were chosen,” and in verse 12, “We were the first to hope in Christ,” that is historically, the Jewish people were privileged as God’s chosen people, to whom God revealed his salvation, who received his law, his temple and his special attention in the Old Testament. But then in verse 13, he switches from “we” to “you”. “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation”. How were the Gentiles saved? Not by becoming Jews, but by hearing and trusting the gospel.

Paul explains that it was God’s plan all along to bring together Jews and Gentiles as one body and as one church. Through the gospel, he says, “the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus,” - Together, together, together (Ephesians 3:6). Meaning everything that was promised to the Jews is to be 100% shared together with the non-Jews. Furthermore, Paul was specifically chosen to be “preach to the Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:8). If you stop to think about this, this is strange. In order to bring the Gentiles into the church, God did not send another Gentile, he sent the opposite of an Gentile, he sent a Jew. He sent Paul, a former Pharisee and a former terrorist against Christianity.

This is the same Paul who is now telling the Gentiles to leave their former way of life. That’s why he has to say, “I insist on it in the Lord,” meaning, “I’m serious about this.” It is one thing to have a Chinese pastor preach about the dangers of ancestor worship. It is quite another to have a gweilo critique your culture in your own church. And yet, this is how God works. He doesn’t always send the usual suspects. Quite often in fact, God uses the most unexpected, unqualified, unimaginable people to do his work to display his glory.

Or think about it this way: What does it take to reach China with the gospel? Many who come to Cambridge with good intentions of starting up a new ministry will tell me how important it is to reach the Chinese scholars and potential leaders who are studying here at the university. Or we emphasise how gathering as a Chinese community and having a high regard for family values are important elements to life as a church and evangelism within our culture. But think about this: What would be the equivalent of God using Paul to reach the Gentiles? Can we imagine God using the Japanese church to reach China? Oh, that’s just silly, you might say to me, After all, there are so few Christians in Japan, and there is still so much animosity due to conflicts in the past century. Yet wasn’t that the case with Paul and these Christians? The former Jewish persecutor of the church is now sent to the non-Jewish Christians to love and to preach the gospel to? Or imagine if God raised missionaries from China who then went out to the Middle East. Some might say to me, That’s nonsense. We look different, we sound different. It just wouldn’t work. Instead we ought to concentrate on our own people, our own problems, our own lives. If that was God’s approach to mission, you and I wouldn’t be here today. Do you realise how marvellously strange it is for a bunch of chinamen to gather on a Sunday like this, in a foreign city like Cambridge, reading a two-thousand year old document, translated from Greek to modern-day English? Is it at all biblical to focus all our prayer, all our attention, all our evangelism to reach people who are just like us?

Paul says No. You can’t live this way anymore, not the way you used to live, when you lived like Gentiles. There needs to be a change in your life, in the direction of your life. Literally, the word he uses is “walk”. No longer walk the way the Gentiles walk, is what Paul is saying. This should remind us of Chapter 4 verse 1 where Paul urges us as Christians to walk in a manner worthy of our calling to follow Jesus. Your friends will look at you and notice something different. They should. You are following Jesus, not the world. You are living for Jesus, not for yourself. To be sure, Jesus does not take you out of the world. He calls you to be salt and light in this world and within our culture. As he redeems men and women through the cross, so Jesus redeems our culture for his glory.

Now it’s possible to swing to the other extreme when dealing with culture, that is, some of us will be all too eager to winge about the problems with our respective cultures. We expect to hear in a sermon about Christ in conflict with culture. We pick on the movies we shouldn’t be watching. We highlight all the destructive behaviour we ought to be condemning. Notice, that’s not the first thing Paul does. He warns us not to walk like the Gentiles, yes, but then adds, “in the futility of their thinking.” It is not first and foremost a cultural practice that is the problem, but its thinking. The problem arises when our culture - be it Gentile culture or Chinese culture - rationalizes our sinful behaviour and justifies our rebellion against God.

They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.
Ephesians 4:18

This is a rationalisation that pushes God out of the picture. On one hand, some will claim ignorance about God. The term Paul actually uses is agnoian, where we get the word agnostic. As opposed to atheists who do not believe there is a God, agnostics claim that God is unknowable. You can’t know whether there is a God. In a way, the agnostic position seems more humble compared to the atheist. It doesn’t deny God. It simply denies the possibility of knowing that there is a God. Paul would disagree. He says their ignorance or agnosticism is “due to the hardening of their hearts”. They are ignorant because they have chosen to ignore God. That might sound like a harsh thing to say, but if you look through the bible, the warning against hardening our hearts is first and foremost applied towards believers. One of the most familiar occurs in Hebrews 3:

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.
Hebrews 3:15 (also Hebrews 4:7, both quoting Psalm 95)

Again, the bible issues this warning to Christians against hardening their hearts. Here are men and women who hear God’s voice and yet in spite of the privilege of receiving that experience, are tempted to turn away “in rebellion”. Theirs is a culpable ignorance. Theirs is ignorance that chooses to ignore God’s voice and to turn away from his commands. The bible has a word for this. It is sin.

For some, that might be a new or surprising definition of sin. Some of us grew up being taught that sin means being bad, sin means doing bad things. In the later verses of Chapter 4, Paul will be addressing sinful actions, such as bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander (verse 31), but those are symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself. Sin means turning against God. The symptoms of sin are sinful behaviour, thoughts and actions - but the heart of sin is actually rebellion. That’s the disease: I no longer acknowledge God as God because I want to be God of my life. Paul says such thinking is “futile”. Psychologists today would call it self-delusion. God is the author and sustainer of all life. Separating ourselves from God only leads to disappointment, to darkness and ultimately ends in God’s judgement of death. Yet we continue to spiral down this track of destruction ironically because of our self-imposed ignorance.

Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
Ephesians 4:19

What I found insightful from Russell Brand’s interview with the House of Commons was his perspective as a drug addict. One Member of Parliament suggested role models to guide addicts towards rehabilitation. Another asked if it would make a difference informing addicts of the poverty and oppression that workers endured in the production of these drugs. Mr Brand responded quite candidly that it wouldn’t make one bit of difference. All an addict knows is his hunger, his appetite, his addiction for more. That is exactly Paul’s picture of sin. Sin makes big promises. It draws us back again and again for more. Even though it keeps disappointing us - it never ever delivers - we keep going back to it again and again. Like an addiction, sin robs our appetite for the real thing. Paul describes such people  as “losing all sensitivity” yet “giving themselves to sensuality”. It is a spiral that runs deeper and deeper leaving us emptier and emptier.

Having said that, drug addiction is but a pale comparison to the deceptiveness of sin. When we think of sin in our culture, we think of the worst behaviours our society produces. In the Chinese culture, caricatures might includes chewing food with our mouths open, always asking our friends how much they paid for their phone plan or being stingy with our tip at Starbucks. “Ooh, those are such annoying habits!” we say. We laugh at them because they are true, and yes, they can be quite embarrassing. But you see, at the heart of every culture’s self-centredness and sinfulness - and I mean this for every culture, whether it’s Asian, European, African - is not its worst values but its best. Our most treasured values in our culture are often the ones which excuse our sin, which justify our sinfulness. Hence recognising sinfulness within our culture may involve repentance not of our worst traits but of our best.

Take for example our high regard for hard work as Asians. We respect the self-made businessman. We tell our kids to work hard in school and get good grades. Yet I wonder how many would take me seriously if I said, “Our hard work ethic will cause more problems in the Chinese Church than even drug addiction”? Or if I said to the parents, “Your kids are in real danger of falling away from Jesus because they have made getting into Cambridge their idol”? No one would bat an eyelid. Lei Kong Mat Kwai Ah? They would say to me. You are making a big deal about nothing - would be the response I’d expect. Yet in all seriousness, I think the hard work ethic is a problem in our church. It is a common excuse for stepping back from church life and throwing ourselves into our careers. It is an easy way to hide greed and avoid having to be generous. It masks our pride when we place unfair demands on one another even here in the church in the name of Christian ministry. Friends, please do not use our culture or our Christian faith as licence to be unloving and selfish, despite how acceptable it might seem. Conversely, we just need to catch a whiff of this brother falling into sin, or that sister doing that thing that she shouldn’t have, and word gets around faster than a new K-Drama Youtube video. Don’t get me wrong. I believe church discipline is a scriptural response and a loving response as mandated by 1 Corinthians Chapter 5. Especially toward serious sin within the fellowship of believers, we should never turn a blind eye but respond quickly with grace and with the gospel.

However, what we have here in Ephesians 4 is the kind of sin that few would recognise as sinful. It is a license to continue sinning in such a way that the world will look on and say, “Nothing to see here. Keep calm and carry on.” If you are a Christian, Paul says, you don’t walk this way anymore, following the way of Gentiles. Following your Asian culture, your work culture, what your friends think is popular and cool. Following what the world says is OK and acceptable. You follow Jesus and listen to what he says is holy and acceptable before him.

This is not news. If you are a Christian, you know this. Paul adds, you have been taught better than this.

You, however did not come to know (learn) Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.
Ephesians 4:20

This is Paul’s way of saying, “You guys should know better!” following up with three actions and three emphases. The three actions are (1) Learn, (2) Heard and (3) Taught; corresponding to the three emphases which are (1) Christ, (2) Truth and (3) Jesus. All three are referring to the gospel. The gospel reveals Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah (You learned Christ). The gospel brings us into a saving relationship with Jesus (You heard of him - referring to conversion). The gospel keeps us in obedience to Jesus (You were taught in accordance to the truth in Jesus).

For Paul, the turning point is the gospel. Don’t miss this. Previously, Paul says, you walked with the world but everything changed when you learned/heard/were taught about Jesus through the gospel. Surely this happened, didn’t it? Paul seems to be saying. What is he doing? In dealing with sin, in warning the Christians about the dangers of falling back into temptation of sin, Paul brings our focus squarely back to the gospel. That’s the turning point. Hearing and trusting in the gospel. Speaking to the Gentiles, Paul says, “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” (Ephesians 1:13)

This is important because the Gentiles didn’t become Christians by abandoning their own culture and adopting the culture of the Jews. They were still Gentiles and they still lived among Gentiles (Otherwise Paul wouldn’t have had to warn them about becoming like the Gentiles). The big difference was the gospel. They were now walking in Christ as Gentiles Christians together with Jewish Christians as one church.

How do we do this? One one hand, we are supposed to be one church, but on the other, this church has two (and perhaps more) distinct cultures? Or in dealing with sin: we am supposed to fight temptation and yet live in a world that constantly succumbs to it? How do we as Christians walk as followers of Jesus when everyone seems to be going in a totally different direction?

Paul tells us how in three steps: (1) Strip off, (2) Surrender all and (3) Suit up!

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:22-24

Step 1: Strip it off! Paul says to strip off your old self - referring to your “former way of life”. Like a stinky old jacket, you need to get rid of it. It is corrupted with curry stains and deceitful desires. It needs to be gone!

Step 2: Surrender it all. That is, you need to be made new in the “spirit of your minds”. This is not something you can do, but something God does in your life when you trust completely in Jesus’ death on your behalf on the cross. He changes you completely from the inside out!

Finally, Step 3: Suit on up with your new self. God makes you a new creation in his own likeness, clothing you with true righteousness and holiness, the symbolism being that this righteousness and holiness is external to us (like a suit!) It reminds us that we are not earning our salvation like a badge of honour. This is Jesus’ righteousness and holiness that covers us making us acceptable in God’s sight.

Strip, surrender and suit up! Yet what we have here are not three steps to rehabilitation. They are three results of our one salvation. They all flow from one source - Jesus - and Paul is simply reminding these struggling Christians of who they are in Christ. He isn’t giving them a list to do. He is reminding them of what Jesus has already done. Jesus has stripped away our sin. He is changing us from within to be more like him. And he covers us with his love and holiness. This are amazing assurances that the bible gives us - Jesus has saved us; he is changing us; he will complete that work that he began in us to perfection. Until then, we continue to work out our salvation knowing that it is God who is working in us to will and to act according to his good pleasure.

I began by saying that today’s passage was on addiction. I don’t want to make light of that. For those who continue to struggle with their addictions past and present, it is a struggle that can wear you down. I hope that at least we have seen that the bible is very honest about the tension between the now and the not yet. Now as Christians we have the assurance of Jesus’ complete work of salvation on the cross. He has freed us from the penalty of sin and from the power of sin. But only when he returns, will Jesus then free us from the effects of sin. This includes death, depression and even the darkness of drug addiction. Many years ago, I was very surprised and encouraged by a prayer of a Christian who was a former drug addict. He asked us to pray for his addiction. He was absolutely clean, he had not used drugs for years and years but he was well aware of his propensity and struggle. This led him to pray. This led him to be honest about what he needed prayer for.

My worry for you, friends, is that you think you are different from my friend, because you’ve never used. The truth may simply be that you’ve never been caught. Or worse, you are in full denial. Sin is a snare and it draws us into enslavement to sin through legitimate longings and appetites - sex, approval, hunger, happiness, security, excitement, success, wealth, beauty, love - but does so by leading us away from God rather than to God as the source of all good things in life, the author of life itself. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). People wrongly interpret this verse as saying that if we sin, we die. That’s not what it’s saying. Rather this verse is exposing how we serve sin as slaves. We pour our lives into sin thinking we will get some kind of reward, some kind of satisfaction. But Paul says, sin only has one currency. It pays us in death. “The wages of sin is death.”

But read on: The gift of God is eternal life. Unlike death, eternal life is not a paycheck for a job well done. We don’t earn it, Jesus does. That is why it can only be found in him, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

If you are in Christ, the promises we have seen today are God’s guarantee to you. You are freed from sin. It no longer has any hold on you. There is absolutely no more condemnation upon you for Christ took it all on the cross. While you will struggle with the effects of sin in this life - perhaps not even yours, but those close to you - God uses all things as part of his eternal plan to mold you into his image and to bring all glory to Jesus. In these struggles and pains, and not out of them, God will display his grace, his mercy, his power and his love shown us in Jesus Christ.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
(“Rock of ages”, Augustus Toplady) 

Sunday 22 April 2012

Walk in truth (Ephesians 4:7-16)

On June 3, 1974 a man named Charles Colson pleaded guilty to the charge of obstruction of  justice. He was one of seven former political White House aides to President Richard Nixon known as the Watergate Seven. Charles Colson was Special Counsel to the President and once wrote a memo that said, “I would walk over my grandmother for Richard Nixon.” He was a brilliant man, successful in his career, influential in politics, but by his own admission lacked any moral compass for the first forty-one years of his life.

One day, a friend told him about Jesus. Charles ignored him, of course. He was intelligent, self-made, independent middle-aged man. The only reason he called up his friend was to try and make a business connection. But his friend, Tom Phillips didn’t talk about business. Instead, Tom told him about Jesus Christ and prayed that Jesus would open Chuck’s heart “to show him the light and the way”. That night, Chuck Colson broke down in tears in his car and repented of his sin of pride. He gave his life to Jesus.

Against the advice of his lawyer, Chuck pleaded guilty to the charges made against him in the Watergate Scandal. While he was in prison his father died. His career was over. His son was arrested for drugs. Yet it was there in prison that Chuck learned humility and trust in God. He read the bible. He started a fellowship to pray with other prisoners.

The apostle Paul quotes Psalm 68 to explain what it means for us as Christians to grow as the church. It is a strange verse because it talks about God leading a group of prisoners. It is strange because these prisoners are not referring to God’s enemies. It’s talking about us as Christians.

When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men
Ephesians 4:8

What does it take for us to grow as a church here in Cambridge? Maybe we need to be more focussed on reaching the Chinese students. Some say we need a more engaging worship experience. Or perhaps it’s fellowship opportunities, sharing our lives with the local community and building bridges. Paul says the first thing we need is for God to take us captive. We need more prisoners like Chuck Colson here in the church. Only then will we grow. Only then will God be glorified.

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to pastors and teachers.
Ephesians 4:11

On a Sunday like today, many traditional churches begin with a procession: the organ starts playing, everyone stands, and from the back of the hall, the minister and the worship leader walk down the aisle led by a deacon holding a great big bible. In some churches, the pastor or vicar is dressed in long, flowing robes wearing a big pointy hat. Wouldn’t it be cool if turned up next week wearing a long black robe, went up to the mic and said in a deep throaty voice, “Hi, I’m Batman.” That would be awesome.

When you see the list of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, I don’t want you to think of an impressive line-up of CEO’s and celebrities. “Hi, I’m Apostle Calvin,” and everyone goes, “What an idiot.” Think prison. Think terrorist or thief; Sirius Black the prisoner of Askaban. Dressed in orange jumpsuits, arms and legs in chains. God takes these convicted felons, he parades them in front of the church and then says to us, “Here you go. Here are your leaders.” Why does he do that? Two reasons.

Firstly, that’s who we are. Verse 7, “But to each one of us, grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” Grace means we do not deserve God’s love. We deserve punishment for rejecting God’s love. But grace means pardon. Jesus has forgiven us, freed us and enables us to serve him out of grace. Paul says every single one of us has received grace. We are pardoned prisoners, that’s who we are.

Secondly, we are given to serve others. It’s not about my gifts and my gain. “I have the gift of singing. I should enter X-Factor and be famous!” Or even, “I’m really good at bible study, I should be a pastor.” Gifts to do not define a Christian, grace does. In verse 12, it says the apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors are given “to prepare God’s people for works of service, to build up the body of Christ”. Their job is not to focus on their gifts but others, to prepare God’s people. Later today, Lydia will be gathering the musicians and song-leaders together and the main thing we will be discussing is not, “How can we play better. How can the songs sound like Stuart Townend in the MP3.” but “How can we, through our playing and leading, help others to serve. How can I help them serve God.” It’s preparation. It is serving others by giving them what they need (asking them, “How can I help you?” so that they can serve God better.

So two things: Have you received grace? It is grace that defines a Christian, not gifts. And secondly, Are you serving others with your gifts? Preparing them so they can serve God, not using them to make your job easier (and calling it “delegation”), but instead saying, “How can I encourage you? What do you need that I can provide?”

Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors - that’s their job. To prepare God’s people, to build the body of Christ. Yet notice this, they all have one thing in common: the bible. The apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church in Ephesians 2:20. That’s important because Paul is not saying we need to have apostles and prophets in the Chinese Church, he is saying we need the witness of the apostles, the witness of the prophets, and that we have their combined witness here in the bible - the Old Testament (representing the prophets) and the New Testament (representing the apostles). Next, evangelists: they preach the gospel. When you have an evangelistic meeting, the whole point is to hear the gospel - Jesus Christ is Lord. He died for your sins. He was raised for your justification. That’s the gospel. But actually, what Paul means by evangelist is actually missionary. Evangelists were church planters. When Paul says to Timothy, “Do the work of the evangelist,” he didn’t mean, “Invite all your non-Christian friends to Solid Rock.” What he meant was, “Remind the Christians what it means to trust in the gospel.” When there are problems in the church, when people are falling away from the church, the number one cause is always the same: Christians have forgotten the gospel. Finally, the pastor: his job is to teach the bible. Pauls says at the end of verse 11, “pastors and teachers”, which means pastors who are teachers. Pastors are not counsellors, they can do counselling, but that’s not their calling. Pastors are not worship leaders, they can play the guitar if they want to, but even if sound horrible when singing, that’s OK. Pastors are shepherds of the church. Their job is to lead, to protect and to guide the church and the way they do that, Paul tells us, is through the authority of God’s word. They teach.

Why all this emphasis on teaching? The church isn’t a university. Pastors are not professors. No, but we all start out as kids and like all kids we need to grow. In the same way that the physical body needs food, our spiritual lives need to be fed with God’s word. The problem is, like most kids, we like junk food.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
Ephesians 4:14

This morning I was reading about Jamie Oliver’s campaign for healthy school lunches. Two out of five kids are obese, Jamie says. What’s his approach in tackling obesity? It’s not simply the case of getting rid of all the junk food, of getting kids to eat less food. That won’t work. Jamie Oliver is putting in his own money, drumming up publicity to get schools to provide good and healthy food.

Paul is saying the same thing. When you get rid of bible teaching, and people do that sometimes for sincere reasons, saying, “We don’t have the time,” “We need to focus on worship,” or “We need more fellowship and less doctrine,” the surprising thing is you end up with more teaching - bad teaching. We are “blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” All kinds of weird ideas start floating around the church and people can’t tell the difference. Why? Because we’re kids. If you ask a kid, “Do you want Haribo for lunch?” of course, they’ll say, “Yes!”

The purpose of bible teaching - the apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors - is not to produce scholars. It’s to help people grow up. Verse 13: “Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the full measure of the fullness of Christ.” The point is not to be a perfect church - Get this right, fix this, fix that. The point is to be a healthy church - everyone growing together, helping one another, loving one another. Paul says, this is what it means to love another as the church.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From his the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament,  grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

Two ways we’ve seen we need to grow as Christians - we grow in God’s grace - serving one another; we grow in maturity - in the truth of God’s word. But what holds it together is love. Verse 15: We speak the truth in love. Verse 16: We build one another up in love.

Each year I write a report for the church reviewing the events and activities here in the English Ministry. In such reports, it is easy to get away with talking about all the stuff we did, to give statistics, to mention all the people who were involved. That’s the kind of report you expect from any social group - this is what we did, these were the people who did it. The real challenge is look back at all the stuff that’s happened here the past twelve months and ask, “How have we been loving? How have we grown in our love for God and one another?” Paul tells us.

Verse 15: It’s speaking the truth in love. The most loving thing you can do for another human being is tell them God’s love. Have you done that recently?

Verse 16: It is growing together in love. Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” If you say you love God but hate the church, you’ve missed the point. Jesus says your love for one another, as brothers and sisters, as the church - that’s the kind of love that you’ll never find anywhere else. That’s the kind of love that outsider will see and then say, “Those guys, they are the real thing. They follow Jesus.”

Chuck Colson spent seven months on his sentence before being released on parole. But the truth is he spent the rest of his life as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. The last forty years were dedicated to starting a prison fellowship helping convicts hear and grow in the gospel. It was unglamorous, hard work, but Chuck took seriously a verse in Hebrews 13:3 which reads “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners.” Chuck knew true freedom in the gospel and Chuck learned true service in Jesus Christ. It meant loving his brothers, his fellow prisoners. It meant serving the church, the body of Christ. Yesterday, at the age of 80, Chuck Colson died on 21 April 2012.

What does the church need to grow? It takes men and women freed by sin and taken captive by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only then will God receive all the glory due him for his grace shown us through the giving of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Growing together (Ephesians 4:7-16)

How do you measure growth?

If you are a company, growth is measured in terms of profit: How much money did you make last year? If you are an individual, growth might be measured in terms of achievement: How well did you do in that exam? Whatever your answer, the way you measure growth shapes the way you fuel growth. It determines what you spend your money, your time and your energy on - to expand your business, to work out more at the gym, to put in more hours in the library, even to add up more friends on your Facebook page.

Which brings me to the question: How do we measure growth here in the Chinese Church? Each year, I’m asked to prepare an annual review looking back at the events and reflecting back on the changes that took place here in the English Ministry. Each year, I ask myself the same question: How have we grown? Some might say to me, That’s not the point. The point is to recognise God’s grace and be thankful. After all, Jesus reminds us that he will build his church (Matthew 16:18). Paul reminds us that God is the only one who can bring about growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). Our job is to be faithful with the gospel, to continue building on the one foundation of Jesus Christ.

And yet, today’s passage challenges us to think about what it means to grow. Paul tells us we are supposed to grow, that the whole reason why God gave us spiritual gifts is so that we will grow, and that there will be serious problems in the church if we do not grow. In other words, when we look back at the last twelve months, Paul wants us to be able to see growth, to be able to discern spiritual growth, in our personal lives and here in the Chinese Church. How do we do that? What are we meant to look out for?

Three things:

(1) Growth that comes by God’s grace
(2) Growth that is rooted in God’s truth
(3) Growth that builds one another up in love

Growth comes by God’s grace

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. That is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”
Ephesians 4:7-8

In a few moments Paul will deal with spiritual gifts, that is, gifts empowered by God’s spirit, to be used for the building or strengthening of God’s church. These are supernatural gifts that come from Jesus himself. But Paul begins by saying, I’m talking about every single Christian in this church. “To each one of us grace has been given.” He’s not referring to a select few but every believer in Christ. No one is left out.

To help us understand how this is so, Paul quotes an Old Testament passage from Psalm 68. It is a picture of God as a conquering king. He has defeated his enemies in battle and as a sign of his victory, he ascends to his holy mountain, referring to Mount Sinai. (If you remember from our studies in the book of Exodus, Sinai was the place of God’s presence, a mountain covered with smoke and fire, out of which God spoke to the Israelites.) Anyways, the victory of God over his enemies is the occasion in which he distributes gifts to men. It is this act of ascension that Paul picks up on to demonstrate the source of our gifts, which we have received now as Christians. Paul is saying, in a similar way, our gifts come from an ascending king in victory: Jesus Christ when he ascended after his death on the cross. Have a look at what he says next.

What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions. He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
Ephesians 4:9-10

Remember that Psalm 68 was talking about God, the God of the Israelites, the God who demonstrated his power in the Exodus, that God. What Paul does is he takes this image of a conquering king and applies it directly to Jesus in his humility and in his humanity. “He who descended is the very one who ascended,” Paul says. Jesus came to earth to engage in battle - he became a man in his incarnation, he humbled himself as a servant and died on the cross - this was Jesus taking on the forces of evil, taking into himself the punishment for our sin and taking out the devil. Finally, he rose as a sign of his triumphant victory over sin, death and Satan. In John’s gospel, Jesus talked of his “descending” and “ascending” in numerous occasions. He tells Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” and then he immediately refers to the “lifting up” of the Son of Man as a way of speaking of the cross (John 3:13, see also John 6:62). The cross is the battlefield where we see Jesus’ descent and ascent - his descent in humility and humanity; his ascent in victory over sin and his enemies.

Therefore, the gifts that Christ bestows upon us aren’t simply a reflection of his generosity and grace, it is first and foremost a powerful display of his victory. He has ascended “higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe,” whereby “fullness” is an expression of Christ’s dominion and authority (see Chapter 1, verses 22 to 23) not so much that Christ’s presence will be felt everywhere, but that his headship will be clearly seen over everything. “He fills the whole universe”. In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord over all.

Now that’s the first part of the Psalm: Jesus Christ is the conquering King. But next come the gifts. The key thing to notice is not that he gives gifts to people, but that he gives certain people as his gifts to the whole church.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.
Ephesians 4:11 (NIV11)

If you are reading from the New International Version of the bible (NIV), you might notice that the version I quoted above is slightly different (which is from the updated NIV 2011), in that the previous translation had “some to be apostles, some to the prophets...” and so on, making it seem as if Jesus gave out titles (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers) or gifts to a certain few to hold these titles (eg. the gift of apostleship, of prophecy, of evangelism and so on). But as the latest translation makes clear, those are not the gifts. Rather, the people themselves are given by Jesus for the good of the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists and the pastors. We often think of gifts in terms of abilities (like preaching, singing, cooking) or possessions (money, the church building, our car). Yet here is one category of gifts we might have missed: people; individuals tasked with the responsibility of leading God’s church. The question is who are these people?

We have encountered the first two before. The apostles and prophets have been mentioned twice so far in Ephesians. In Chapter 2, verse 20, the “apostles and prophets” form the foundation of the church. In Chapter 3, verse 5, the “apostles and prophets” receive the revelation of the gospel through God’s spirit. In both instances, God used the apostles and prophets to do two things: (1) to receive the gospel; and (2) to establish the church through the preaching of the gospel. These were specific people in history used by God. The twelve disciples of Jesus were the first apostles (additionally, if you turn back to the very beginning of Ephesians we see there that Paul also introduces himself as an apostle). The word apostle means messenger, literally, “sent ones”. In the ancient world before the Internet, before Twitter and Facebook, important messages were sent through people. Through messengers. That’s what the apostles were sent to do: To carry the message of the gospel. Their job was to faithfully communicate that message, not modify it to suit their fancies, not to add to it to make it sound more impressive. As apostles sent by God, they spoke the message of God’s Son, that Jesus Christ is Lord through his death and resurrection (Romans 1:4). On the other hand, the prophets were a category of God’s servants from the Old Testament who spoke directly from God. Many of their verbal announcements began with, “This is what the LORD says.” Often times God spoke through his prophets to call his people to repentance, that is, to turn away from idols and serve the only true God. You can see immediately that apostles and prophets had one thing in common: they both spoke God’s word.

Christians debate as to whether we ought to have apostles and prophets today. Some churches have modern day apostles and prophets in their leadership team and they would back up their practice with verses from the bible. A key passage is actually the one we are looking at today. God has given apostles and prophets to plant churches, to lead churches and to strengthen churches, they would say. And as Ephesians 4:7 makes clear, the offices of apostle and prophet are given by Jesus himself, no less than the evangelists, pastors and teachers who are also included in the list of gifts given to build Christ’s church. Most churches have no problem having evangelists, pastors and teachers they argue, so why ignore the even greater gifts of the apostles and prophets? Now it is important here to note that modern-day apostles and prophets clearly distinguish themselves from the New Testament apostles chosen by Jesus, that is the Twelve, and the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Those were Apostles (with a capital “A”). Together with the prophets, the apostles witnessed to and wrote down God’s full revelation which has now come down to us in holy scripture - the prophets representing the Old Testament, the apostles representing the New. In other words, they wrote the bible. So, when Paul refers to the foundation of the “apostles and prophets” in Ephesians 2:20, he is talking about the foundation of the gospel that is outlined and revealed in the bible. Paul is saying that God’s word is the foundation of God’s church.

Now where does that leave the apostles and prophets today? While the bible does refer to a select group of individuals as the first apostles (the twelve chosen disciples of Jesus) and the Old Testament prophets, still, looking through the New Testament letters we find other apostles and other prophets outside of these exclusive circles. Barnabas is called an apostle in Acts 14, so are Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16. The church at Antioch had prophets, Acts 13 tells us, and Paul writes to the church in Corinth giving guidance on how prophecy was to be incorporated into corporate worship (1 Corinthians 14). Clearly, these apostles and prophets are not to be confused with the foundational apostles and the Old Testament prophets, and yet there they are, serving in the church and exercising their spiritual gifts of ministry. So, does that mean we should start advertising for apostles and prophets here in the Chinese Church? Actually, no. In fact, doing so might actually miss the whole point of Ephesians 4.

Firstly, Paul isn’t referring to the apostolic office in generic terms. Rather, it is the foundational non-negotiable unchanging witness of the first apostles that is in view in Chapter 2, verse 20. And in Chapter 3, verse 5, the apostles receive a revelation so unique and exclusive that God had kept it hidden from every single generation before them. So while the term apostle might be used elsewhere in the New Testament (and by Paul himself) as a generic way of referring to missionaries or church planters, it certainly cannot be the case here in Ephesians. These apostles in question are the original eye-witnesses, set apart by God to establish the non-negotiable gospel.

Secondly, the prophets mentioned here in Ephesians may not be referring to the Old Testament prophets. Aha! You might say, So you do believe in a modern-day prophetic office. Well, no, I don’t think those are kind of the people Paul has in mind either. You see, every argument for the exclusivity of the apostles we’ve just seen in Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 applies just as well to the prophets; notice that Paul pairs them up: “the apostles and prophets”. Interestingly, Ephesians 3:5 talks about God’s revelation that has “now been revealed” to them. Meaning, Paul is not talking about past revelation to the Old Testament prophets but a present unfolding of God’s will. I think the prophets he has in mind are people like Mark and Luke who wrote the gospels. Mark and Luke were not apostles (you might additionally include the author to Hebrews). Yet what they witnessed to and recorded in their writings were more than historical anecdotes. They were writing scripture. They communicated God’s word. In the case of Luke, who was a medical doctor and a missionary partner of Paul, he actually wrote one-third of the New Testament (more than the apostle Paul even). Paul is saying, don’t discount these gospel records simply because the authors don’t begin their sentences with “Thus saith the LORD”. They are God’s prophets who have received God’s revelation - a revelation surpassing even that of the Old Testament writers like Isaiah and Jeremiah. They have received the full revelation of the gospel. Their writings have the full weight of God’s word.

To use Ephesians 4 as scriptural basis for a modern-day apostolic and prophetic office within the church would miss the point. Paul is referring to their specific combined witness to Jesus in the gospel recorded for us in the bible. This argument has nothing to do with some special level of authority in the church or the display of signs and miracles. The bigger issue is the foundation of the church built on the testimony of these original apostles and prophets. If we get this, then we see the flow in the remaining gifts of the evangelist and the pastor.

The evangelists were people whose job was to preach the gospel. (Literally, the word evangelist means gospeller). Who are evangelists supposed to preach the gospel to? When we have evangelistic events in church, we usually invite our non-Christian friends because the evangelist’s job is to tell them about Jesus, to tell them the good news. And yet, this week at Rock Fellowship, we studied Paul’s letter to the Romans where he says that he is so eager to visit them in order to preach the gospel to them. In other words, Paul wants to evangelise the Romans, the surprising thing being that these Romans were already Christians. And yet, Paul says, having heard that they had put their faith in Jesus, he was all the more eager to preach the gospel to them! The lesson for us is this: the gospel is not just the ABC’s of the Christian faith, it is the A to Z. We need to keep coming back to the gospel. We need to keep holding on to the gospel. That’s why when Paul tells Timothy to “do the work of the evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5), he is telling Timothy to preach the gospel in a situation where there is already an established church, where there are already Christians, but where there was false teaching, a sore lack of leadership and all sorts of troublemakers in this church. 2 Timothy 4 is the only job description for an evangelist to be found in the entire New Testament, and it has nothing to do with getting non-Christians to become Christians, but everything to do with strengthening confessing believers in their knowledge of the gospel. Actually, I think the modern equivalent of the evangelist would be the church planter or even the missionary. That is, the ultimate responsibility of the church planter and missionary is not simply to convert a few Christians and then move on, it is actually to establish a community of Christians as the church of God rooted in the gospel; to appoint leaders who are firm in their grasp of the gospel and who keep bringing people back to the gospel. That’s the job of the evangelist - to remind everyone of the centrality and importance of the gospel - to non-Christians, yes, of course - but perhaps more so, to Christians so that they will continue to stand firm on the gospel.

Finally, we have the pastor and the teacher. Paul intentionally connects the two roles together, such that he could either be talking about (a) the pastor who teaches (the pastor-teacher, as it were) or he might be highlighting (b) two levels of authoritative teaching - one as a form of leadership (pastoral) and the other, as a form of instruction (teaching). Today, pastoral ministry has come to be equated with counselling. You go to your pastor when you feel depressed and he pours you a cup of tea, gets you to talk about your feelings and then prays for God to give you strength and guidance. That’s not the bible’s definition of a pastor. The pastor’s responsibility is to lead, to guide, to protect the church under his care; and Ephesians 4 tells us how: It is through the preaching and teaching of scripture. In fact, that is precisely what Paul is doing through this letter. He is speaking with all the authority of an apostle, with all the love of a brother-in-Christ, with all the responsibility of a pastor over this church by unfolding the implications of Christ’s death on the cross. The heart of pastoral ministry is the preaching and teaching of God’s word.

These four roles of ministry - apostle, prophet, evangelist and pastor-teacher - are all word-based ministries. Their authority comes from the bible, not themselves. Their focus is the bible, not themselves. How does this fit in with the bigger picture of God’s grace, of Christ gifting the church with these people? It is saying this - and at this point, I am going to sound heretical to some of you - it means that the gospel is not enough. Hear me out now. God didn’t just drop a holy book called the bible from heaven into our laps with a sticky note saying, “Read me.” He gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to speak the gospel. Isn’t that what Jesus did after his resurrection? He sent his friends out into the world saying, “Go and make disciples... teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.” He sent his apostles, he gave us the witness of the New Testament and gospels, he gave us individuals who told us what it meant to trust in Jesus, what he did for us on the cross, who prayed with us to trust in his sacrifice for our sake on the cross; he gave us church leaders who knew their bibles and kept opening up the scriptures to speak God’s word into our lives. The gospel isn’t enough. To each one of us God gives us friends, family, brothers and sisters who care enough about us to remind us again and again about the gospel. Why? So that we will grow in maturity in this gospel.

To prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the full measure of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 4:12-13

The new season of the Great British Menu has just started and this week in particular features a contest between chefs from the Midlands, one of whom is from Cambridge. The winner of the series will have the honour of preparing a banquet for athletes who will be competing at this year’s Olympics. So the chefs from each region compete against one another by preparing their dishes - a starter, fish dish, main course and dessert - and a panel of judges chooses the best menu to put through. Now for me, the interesting thing about the contest is not just the final judging episode at the end of each week, but the preliminary episodes leading up to it where the contestants spend a whole day preparing each of the courses. The whole episode focuses therefore on all the work that goes into preparing the one dish. You get to see the ingredients they use. You get to see all the techniques, the tools, the skill that is often hidden behind the kitchen doors. And really, it’s just a bunch of cooks chopping and stirring and mixing stuff together. They even show the bit where each chef has to scrub and clean the stoves after each round. To me, that’s real cooking. It’s the preparation, it’s the patience, it’s the experience, thought and concentration that goes into the food.

The apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors are like these master chefs. Their job is to prepare God’s people. They are not CEO’s, military commanders and big shots barking orders from behind the pulpit. Their purpose is to equip Christians in the church with what they need to carry on and do the work that God wants them to do. I think that’s a revolutionary thought for church leaders today. It means putting a priority on training men and women for ministry. It means putting in the hard work of preparing your bible studies, of preparing your sermons and then teaching your brothers and sisters to read God’s word for themselves. In the same way that good food takes hard work and preparation, so growing mature Christians takes planning, patience and perseverance. You are equipping them with the gospel, giving them the confidence they need in the gospel to boldly serve Christ in faith, without reserve. This is what it means to build the body of Christ. It’s not growing a big congregation of thousands. It’s not having multi-million pound church complex with state-of-the-art sound system. Building the body of Christ means training and equipping believers for the work of the gospel.

Conversely, when teaching is absent from the life and ministry of the church, Paul says, the result is not no-teaching, but false teaching. The result is immaturity: the inability to discern God’s word from man’s.

Growth is rooted in God’s truth

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
Ephesians 4:14

Paul says, if we focus on the gospel, “we will no longer be infants”. Some translations have, “we will no longer be children”. In other words, we won’t be like kids. Let’s think about that for a moment and ask ourselves: Why would that be so bad?

Imagine if the church was run by kids, would that be necessarily a bad thing? I mean, kids are less hung-up than adults. Kids are more innocent than adults, aren’t they? What’s so bad about being more like the kids at Sunday school? Open up a bag of Haribo and it’s good times! Didn’t Jesus tell us that we need to be more childlike in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3)?

Paul is not saying that if kids ran the church, we would lose all our members. He isn’t saying that if the church took its eye off the gospel, we would cease to exist. What he says is that we will be “tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” He is saying that the church will hop from one fad to another. That’s what he means by being like kids. He is warning us about being childish. Childish people lose focus. One day we will be all up and excited about one thing. The next day, we will lose interest and find something else to spend all our money, attention and time on. He is talking about immaturity and irresponsibility.

Again, the picture is not that of a church full of Christians who do not know the gospel, who, if you asked any one of them, “Did Jesus die for your sins?” they would answer, “Of course!” They know the gospel. They can tell you the gospel. But for them, there are other things more important than the gospel. “The gospel is for outsiders who haven’t heard the gospel. As for us, we need to move on from the gospel,” they might say. Notice that Paul describes the people behind these “winds of teaching” as smart guys. They are “cunning and crafty”, he says. Meaning, These guys are not idiots, they are, in fact, intelligent. But Paul also tells us that they are “deceitful”. Their purpose is to lead the church into destruction by leading the church away from the gospel. Remember that earlier we saw that the pastor-teacher derives his authority not from himself, but from the teaching of the gospel. Teaching represents authority. Who we listen to here in the church is who we submit to as the church. Elders are primarily tasked with teaching the church. Timothy is instructed by Paul to entrust the gospel to men who are able to teach. So when deceitful men assume a teaching role in the church, but are teaching us something other than the gospel, they are effectively leading the church away from the gospel. And when we invite such men to teach us, we are giving them the power to do so.

My point is this: When we neglect gospel-focussed, biblically faithful teaching in the church the result is not less teaching, the result is not no-teaching; the result is a proliferation of false teaching. More fads. The church will be drawn into controversy over unessential things, we will argue over unimportant things when we abandon the most important thing: the gospel.

Paul says we need to grow up in the gospel. Don’t be childish. Don’t be distracted. Keep standing on Christ our solid ground so that when the winds come, when temptation comes, when persecution comes, we will stand, we will withstand, we will stand firm. This is growth rooted in the truth of God’s word.

Growth builds one another up in God’s love

So we’ve seen that we need to grow in God’s grace, to grow in God’s truth and now finally, Paul says, we need to grow in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does it work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

This love is not independent of the grace and truth. We exercise our gifts in love. We speak the truth in love. Paul is bringing the previous two points together. Or put it another way: Love is not just a description, it results in an action. Love is not a noun, it is an active verb. You speak the truth in love. You work and serve one another out of love.

Love is more than just an emotion. Sorry to use a stereotype, but to the girls among us, Paul is saying that love isn’t just a feeling that you have. Recognise that when people around you are serving you, when they are working hard, when they are faithful in doing their job, that’s love. Paul says, it is the whole body working together, building one another up in love.

But to the guys, Love is not empty action, either. We speak to one another the truth, but it’s the truth conveyed in love. We do our jobs, we get it done, not just for the sake of the exercise or for showing off, but in order to build each up in love. There is a loving manner we need to adopt even as we are working hard, even as we are sacrificing our time and energy, otherwise we lose the plot. We speak, we work, we act in love.

Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) What is he saying? Jesus is not saying that we need to be lovely. Love is not a description, love is an action. Jesus is saying that when the world sees Christians loving one another, serving one another, sacrificing for one another - in action, in truth, in obedience to Jesus - they will say, “Those guys are the real deal. They follow Jesus.”

This is what it means to grow as the church. (1) It is growing in God’s grace - our gifts come from him, our leaders come from him and they are paid for through victorious sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. (2) It is growing in the truth - standing firm on the gospel, strengthened by God’s word, mature in our focus on Jesus. Finally it’s (3) growing in love for one another. Church is the context of Christian growth. You don’t grow as an individual, but as part of the body of Christ. Paul says, “We will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ.” We grow together as we submit to Jesus as head over his body, the church.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Not ashamed (Romans 1:16)

Our memory verse from last night’s bible study at Rock Fellowship was Romans Chapter 1, verse 16:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
Romans 1:16

What does Paul mean when he says that he is “not ashamed”? We might immediately think of situations today when Christians ought to be bold in their faith, in speaking out for Jesus. Some of us gave examples yesterday of recent events in the news of Christians getting into trouble for wearing crosses in the workplace or of persecution in some countries where publicly confessing your trust in Jesus will get you into trouble. These are indeed situations in which believers are challenged not to be ashamed of Jesus in the face of opposition, in the face of the temptation to compromise.

Yet I think that when we read on to the next verse, we get a clearer idea of what Paul meant when he said he was not ashamed of the gospel.

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed - a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’
Romans 1:17

Paul is not ashamed of the fact that God’s salvation comes to us by faith. You see, we get ashamed of stuff that makes us look bad. We are ashamed of stuff that’s embarrassing, that if our friends found out, they might laugh at us and think less of us. So the question is: what is so embarrassing about the gospel? After all, Paul says it is God’s power that brings salvation - that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Look again, it is God’s power to bring salvation to “everyone who believes”, or you could just as accurately translate it as, “everyone who has faith”. What is embarrassing about the gospel is the fact that we contribute nothing to our salvation. Zero. Salvation comes by faith alone.

Here lies the biggest difference between good news and good advice. Good advice is my doctor saying to me, “Calvin, you should eat less chocolate. Chocolate’s bad for your health. You need to exercise more.” That’s good advice. I should follow it. It’s good for me and my doctor is giving me that good advice to me out of his concern for me. But friends, that is not good news. Good news is, “Calvin, God has taken care of your chocolate problem. He’s taken away your need to constantly snack on Kit Kats. In fact, he has given you something even better than chocolate!” You see, good advice is about what I can do. Good advice tells me what I need to do. Only the good news of the gospel tells me what God has done for me.

What this means for us is this: We might be ashamed of the gospel when we are tempted to give our friends good advice in place of the good news. Stop sinning. Work harder. Tuck in your shirt. We might have their interests at heart. Following that advice might even change their lives for the better. Yet when we only give good advice we are telling our friends what they need to do instead of what God has done for them. We might have given them good advice, we haven't told them the good news.

That is why the gospel sounds so foolish. So shameful. All you do is hear the gospel and trust in the gospel - that God really has taken all our sin and all our punishment for sin and put it on Jesus on the cross; that by looking to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we receive his full blessing of forgiveness and eternal life. It is shameful because the cross is supposed to be shameful - it is an innocent man condemned to die by execution two thousand years ago, gasping for his last breaths as the crowds around him are cursing Jesus to his face in God’s name. But the cross is also shameful because it means I didn’t do anything to earn my salvation. It is an admission that I deserve to be on that cross, not Jesus. Giving someone good advice might make us look good, it makes us feel good about ourselves. Yet telling someone the good news might reveal how bad and hopeless we really are.

The world expects us to give good advice. About marriage and sexuality. About religious freedom. About spending too much time on Facebook. What it hasn’t heard enough of is the good news. The reason might simply be this: Many of us as Christians are ashamed of the good news. Much easier it is for us to dish out good advice, to have an opinion on the economy and what is needed to fix this or that problem in our society. Much harder and more honest it is to admit that we are part of the problem, that God has given us the only solution - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only way we can receive the benefits of this solution - of this salvation - is by trusting in God’s promise found in the good news.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Romans - God's righteousness revealed

"It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes."
Martin Luther on Romans

Rock Fellowship begins a new study into the book of Romans this week. Why not join us? Find out more here and here.

Monday 16 April 2012

2011 Annual Review

“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel...”
1 Corinthians 15:1

The gospel is not the ABC’s of the Christian life, it is the A to Z. That is why the bible keeps reminding us to hold on to the gospel. That is why the bible keeps warning us of the dangers of moving away from the gospel, not because we don’t know the gospel, but because it is easy to assume our knowledge of the gospel, and to focus on something other than the gospel.

The apostle Paul reminds us that the gospel is “of first importance”. In other words, it is the most important thing. It is my prayer that as we look back to the events of 2011 and recognise God’s grace and goodness, we will also be reminded of God’s grace in the good news - the gospel of our salvation in Jesus Christ.

January - VISA
The VISA course is bible study specially tailored for enquirers and newcomers going through basic questions on Christianity, such as “Who is God?”, “What is wrong with the world?” and “Why did Jesus die?” Richard and Jessica Parker were responsible for adapting all the materials and leading all the sessions held each Sunday for nine weeks. We thank God for their faithful service to Jesus and partnership with us in the gospel.

February - CNY
This year’s Chinese New Year celebration was on the theme of “Reunion - the joy of God’s love”. Looking at Jesus’ parable of the two sons - the wayward son who ran away home and the dutiful son who slaved away at home - we learned how Jesus is the true and humble Son. He is the true elder brother who obeyed his heavenly Father, sacrificing his own inheritance to bring rebellious younger brothers and sisters back into God’s family.

March - 1 Corinthians
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth addressing serious problems of pride and sin. The church in Corinth was gifted but took God’s grace for granted. They were wealthy but looked down on their weaker brothers. Despite all of this, 1 Corinthians contains some of the clearest and most stunning passages on the resurrection, spiritual gifts, leadership in God’s church, the Lord’s supper, Christian giving and even love to be found in the entire bible. By looking at the Corinthian church back in the first century, our Sunday messages had much to teach us about what God was looking for in the Chinese Church today.

April - New Word Alive
Fifteen of us spent a week attending the annual New Word Alive Christian conference up north in Wales where we stayed together in caravans, ate together every day, and joined 8,000 other believers in joyful worship under the faithful preaching of God’s word. We were challenged, we were refreshed and we were encouraged to continue living our lives wholeheartedly for Jesus!

May - Baptisms
Yao Shi, Sarah Quah and Faye Yung were baptised as an outward sign of confession to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour and as a testimony to the inward work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. We rejoice that they have continued to walk faithfully with Jesus, growing in his love and in the knowledge of God’s grace.

June - Exodus
Rock Fellowship spent a full year journeying through the epic book of Exodus in the Old Testament. We learned how God heard the cries of his people in slavery in Egypt and rescued them by sending his servant Moses, displaying his awesome power before Pharaoh through the ten plagues, and finally through the crossing of the Red Sea. We read the Ten Commandments given to Israel at God’s mountain as a contract and a promise from God himself. We read about the instructions for the Tabernacle and the priests, given so that Israel could meet with God and approach him acceptably in worship. We also read of Israel’s rejection of God salvation through idolatry and the rejection of God’s goodness through grumbling. Finally, we saw how God was preparing the way for the true Exodus - the ultimate rescue that came through Jesus - who was the true Passover Lamb, the true Tabernacle and the true Son of God.

July - Upside-down
Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom but he does so in a very surprising way. We looked at Matthew’s gospel (Chapters 19 and 20) to learn how Jesus demands not our goodness but our humility, how the first will be last and the last will be first, and how he comes as the king not to be served, but to serve us by giving up his life as payment for our sins on the cross.

We rejoiced with Sidney and Zhoujie on their wedding day as they made their vows before God and to one another as husband and wife, promising to love and to serve each other in faithfulness, sacrifice and obedience to Jesus Christ.

August - Revelation
The book of Revelation promises blessing to all who hear it and especially for all who obey it. It is Jesus’ word to his church to stand firm in the gospel in the face of temptation, compromise and persecution, reminding us that he has conquered sin, that he has overcome death and that he has defeated the devil through his finished work on the cross. In our Sunday meetings, we heard his voice speaking directly to the seven churches, we saw the worship of angels before God’s throne and we beheld Jesus as the lamb who was slain, who purchased with his blood a kingdom from every tribe, people, nation and language.

September - Light of the World
What would Jesus say during the Mid-Autumn Festival? It might surprise you to learn that the bible actually tells us in John Chapter 8 where Jesus announced himself as the light of the world. Here, Jesus uses the occasion of the festival and location of the temple to point to himself as the true source of life and the true revelation of God.

October - Hellos and goodbyes
The start of the new university term meant saying goodbye to students beginning their first year (Along Ying and Sarah Quah) but also hello to newcomers at the Chinese Church. 2011 was a year of significant growth in terms of regular attendance: averaging 20 at Rock Fellowship, our mid-week bible study (at many times bursting close to 30) and a consistent rise in numbers as well at our Sunday meetings. More importantly, God has blessed us with discernible spiritual growth, especially amongst the teenagers and students in terms of their maturity, speech and conduct. For those who remain with us, we pray we will continue love them and be faithful in our responsibility in caring for each one of them. For those who are away, we continue to ask God’s grace in providing them with a gospel-proclaiming church to be rooted in and for God’s power to keep their gaze focussed on Jesus Christ as their Lord and Shepherd.

November - Judges
In November, Rock Fellowship began a new series with the book of Judges. What made it so fascinating was how Judges dealt with generation after generation of believers who all went through similar cycles of rebellion against God, repentance towards God, rescue from God and ending with forgetfulness of God. Each generation had to come to a personal realisation of their sin and a personal trust in God to rescue them from judgement for their sinfulness. Our studies served as warnings not to assume our salvation - replacing it with church attendance, with our parents’ faith, with our personal achievements in school or at work - but to trust in Jesus as the one and only basis of our acceptance before God.

December - Christmas & Solid Rock
The theme for the Christmas season was expectation, as we looked at the events surrounding Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 20-21, in a series entitled, “All I want for Christmas”. What were the crowds expecting Jesus to do as the Messiah? What did the blind men expect Jesus to do as their healer? What did the religious teachers expect Jesus to say as God’s prophet? In each and every instance, Jesus dealt with their expectations of joy, compassion, truth and love not simply by meeting their expectations of him, but by surprising them and even by surpassing every single one of them. He did this again and again by pointing ahead to the events of the cross and the resurrection: Jesus expected to be betrayed, he expected to die and to rise again.

We ended the year with our annual Solid Rock music event, organised and led by Lydia Lee and Faye Yung with the help of the youth. Trevor Hames spoke from 1 Thessalonians on the hallmarks of a Christian. The event was well-attended - visitors came specially to see their friends perform, the hall was packed (we ran out of seats!) and the Sunday School kids and teachers joined us in singing and praising God for giving us the wonderful gift of his Son, Jesus.