Sunday 24 February 2013

The ascension (Acts 1)

1. The appearing

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up into heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
Acts 1:1-2

“All that Jesus began to do and to teach.” It is an amazing statement when you think about it. The author, Luke, in summarising the life and death of Jesus Christ, refers to it as all that Jesus began to do.

As if to say, “There’s more!” The book of Acts is a continuation to Luke’s gospel; a sequel, if you like, to Luke’s gospel, picking up from the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, what verse 3 refers to as his “suffering”.

After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
Acts 1:3

Wouldn’t it be awesome if instead of having a speaker stand up front every Sunday we could have Jesus telling us about the kingdom of God?

What if you could meet him? What if you could ask Jesus questions on suffering, evil, heaven and hell and get a straight answer?

Luke tells us that for forty days, that is what happened. Jesus was with the disciples teaching about kingdom of God, giving them convincing proofs that he was alive. More than that, Jesus sat down for lunch with his friends.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 1:4-5

This was not a theological seminar or business conference. Jesus spent the forty days hanging out with his friends, eating with them, telling them about the kingdom. Why? Because he was including them in his plan. These were eleven of his closest friends (Their names are listed for us in verse 13). The bible calls them his apostles.

On one particular occasion - over dinner, nonetheless - Luke mentions how Jesus gave clear instructions to stay in Jerusalem. “Don’t go anywhere. Something is going to happen here in Jerusalem,” Jesus says. “You are going to be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”

Now if you were thinking, “What does that mean - being baptised by the Holy Spirit?” you are not alone. The disciples were wondering the same thing. Look at their response in verse 6.

So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Acts 1:6

What’s going on? The disciples get the sense the something big is going to happen but what they expect is for Jesus to “restore the kingdom to Israel”. That is, they think, “Aha! Jesus is going public.” They think he is going to kick out the Roman government and start a new one with Jesus as President.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “No, what a silly idea.” His answer isn’t no, but rather, not yet. “It is not for you to know the times and dates,” he says.

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1:7-8

Jesus says, “There’s a reason why I have spent these forty days with you. You are going to be my witnesses - here in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, finally to the ends of the earth!”

I think they were still confused: Why would Jesus ask them to be his witnesses? And they had no idea what was going to happen next: Jesus was going to be taken away.

2. The ascension

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Acts 1:9-11

“Where did Jesus go?”  They were thinking. “Is he coming back?” “Is he taking us with him?”

The eleven guys are standing on the mountain, staring into the sky, stunned by what they had just seen. Verse 10 says, they were looking intently into the sky, meaning all their attention was focussed upwards. “Do you see him? Maybe he’s hiding behind that cloud?”

To the extent that God has to send two angels to snap them back to their senses, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (I suspect these might be the same two angels at Jesus’ tomb after the resurrection, who said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” in Luke 24:5)

The event that’s just been described here in Acts 1 is what Christians call the Ascension. Jesus Christ ascends - that is, he goes up - into heaven. And a very important clue about what the Ascension means lies behind what the two angels say to the disciples, “This same Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

It means that the same Jesus whom they just had lunch with is the same Jesus in heaven. It means that the same Jesus who died on the cross is the same Jesus who now reigns in heaven.

In other words, the Ascension is proof that Jesus really is who he says he is: He is Christ and he is Lord. In the same way an earthly king might ascend to the throne - think of a Queen Elizabeth going up to Westminster Abbey or President Obama being sworn in at Capitol Hill - so here, Jesus ascends to his throne. Only his throne is in heaven.

That means Jesus is more than king over Israel. He is Lord of heaven and earth; over all of creation.

Moreover, the Ascension means that Jesus is king right now. One day he will return to establish his kingdom here on earth in a visible and complete way, but right now, he is already king. At the end of Matthew’s gospel he says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,” (Matthew 28:18) and that authority becomes the basis of the great commission - “Make disciples.”

So that’s the first implication of the Ascension: Jesus is King.

But the second important implication of the Ascension is this: Jesus is man. The angel describes him saying “this same Jesus” will come back in the same way.

This is the same Jesus who died in the cross who was raised to new life. He has a resurrected body, yes, but his is a resurrected human body. And that’s the same Jesus who is right now in heaven. He is 100% God. He is 100% man.

What that means is: he understands us in our humanity. He empathises with us in our weaknesses, our struggles, our temptations as human beings. Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)

Just to drive home the point, notice how often the bible records Jesus eating something. It’s strange, but have you ever noticed that?

Luke tells us that right after his resurrection, he appears to his disciples and says, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him some fish and they all stared at Jesus while he had his lunch. In John’s gospel, the disciples come back from fishing and only to see Jesus cooking a barbeque by the seashore. Here in Acts again, we find Jesus eating with his disciples in verse 4.

Why on earth did the biblical authors bother to write down these instances of Jesus eating food? To give us a picture of resurrection. It’s physical. It’s material. And it’s real. We will have bodies (we will be eating food apparently) but more importantly that the resurrection at the end of the age is a real, physical renewal of all creation.

And what the Ascension does is place Jesus as King over this new physical reality. He is Lord of the universe, especially over the new heavens and the new earths.

At the same time, the Ascension teaches us that Jesus is the same Jesus. He is human. And because he is human, he is the perfect mediator for our sins.

When it comes to the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection - these are important doctrines in the bible. We are reminded of these doctrines every Christmas and Easter.

But what about the Ascension? Do you get how important the Ascension is. Luke records it twice - at the end of his gospel in Luke Chapter 24 and here in the beginning of Acts. Why?

Because like the disciples, we live in this in-between period of the now and the not yet. Like the disciples don’t we sometimes feel stuck and say, “What are we supposed to do now?”

And maybe like these disciples, we need to be reminded of Jesus’ words preparing us to live in the in-between: Wait in Jerusalem. Be my witnesses.

If you understand what the Ascension means then the in-between times are not times of confusion but of great anticipation.

That’s what the angels were saying to the disciples. What are you still doing here? You are waiting in the wrong place for the wrong thing - you want the kingdom right here and right now. Don’t you remember? Jesus said wait in Jerusalem. Wait for the Spirit.

And that’s just what they did.

3. The appointment

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath’s day walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
Acts 1:12-14

These names are important because they list out for us the names of the apostles Jesus had chosen (Acts 1:3). We have them in the gospels and we have them here in Acts to remind us that these men were hand-picked by Jesus. These men were separate from the crowds, separate from 120 believers (Acts 1:15), separate even from Jesus’ mother and his brothers. They were in a category of their own. They were the apostles (a word which means “sent ones” or “emissaries”) whom Jesus had chosen.

Yet one of them named Judas betrayed Jesus to his death.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus - he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.”
Acts 1:15-17

A thousand years earlier, a man named King David wrote two psalms in the Old Testament. And what Peter does is quote these words from David, written a thousand years ago to say that everything Judas did to betray Jesus was planned by God. It wasn’t a surprise. It was planned.

You might hear that and think, “That’s cool!” Or, you might be thinking, “Who cares?” Either way, have a listen to what Peter says next about Judas.

(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called the field in their language Akeldama, that is Field of Blood.)
Acts 1:15-18

If this were a movie, this is point where you would have to take the kids out of the room. The description of Judas’ death is gross and grim but the reason why it’s there is because of verse 19. Peter is about to quote from the bible, from a passage a thousand years old, which foretells and even explains what happened to Judas. Verse 19 begins with “For.” Meaning, it’s an explanation.

“For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no-one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’”
Acts 1:20

The first quotation comes from Psalm 69 where David calls out for help, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” He is in trouble, having been abandoned by his friends, having been abandoned seemingly even by God, and David cries out for help and salvation. Jesus himself quoted from Psalm 69 to describe how he came into the world fully expecting to be rejected by the world: “They hated me without cause.” (John 15:25)

In other words, Psalm 69 is about suffering righteously for God. David is being faithful, yet his enemies overcome him, yet he is betrayed and yet he is in pain. But David remains faithful to God and trusts in his salvation.

Peter quotes from Psalm 69 saying that God answered that prayer of David when he raised Jesus from the dead. He saves the righteous sufferer who trusted fully in him. But God also answers that prayer in a second way: by pouring out his judgement on his enemies. This is where Judas comes in.

“May his place be deserted; let there be no-one to dwell in it.” Earlier on, the description of the death of Judas was pretty grim. Luke, the author, includes that detail for our benefit today. “Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this,” verse 19 reads, meaning it was common knowledge back then. They are enclosed in brackets because Luke, and not Peter, adds in this detail. Why? Because, what Peter was implying by quoting Psalm 69 was much, much worse.

Psalm 69 shows us that what happened to Judas was a pale shadow of what God has in store for his enemies. The psalm goes on to say, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.” Meaning the gruesome fate of Judas - of spilling his guts in the Field of Blood - is but a pale shadow of the terrible judgement of God.

The second text that Peter quotes is Psalm 109, “May another take his place of leadership,” and it’s this second psalm that becomes the basis of what follows next: the appointment of Judas’ replacement.

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.
Acts 1:21-22

Why is it necessary for them to find this replacement? Verse 22, “For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

There was an objectivity to being a witness to the resurrection. You had to have seen it. You had to have met Jesus and heard him teach and seen the miracles for yourself. You had to have been there from the beginning - “from John’s baptism.”

That is, the basis of the message of the gospel is the objective witness to the historical and verifiable words and works of Jesus Christ - with a particular view to the resurrection. If you remember, that’s what Jesus did during the forty days, as described in verse 3, “Jesus gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.”

But there was also a spiritual dimension to the role of the apostles. Here we see the symbolism of the twelve apostles. Why did Jesus choose twelve guys? Not because they were the twelve most talented, religious individuals in all Israel (after all look at Judas). No, the reason for twelve guys - twelve apostles - is because they represented something. The twelve apostles represented the foundation for a new Israel.

In the same way that the twelve sons of Israel became the twelve tribes of the people of God, the twelve apostles were the foundation of a new people of God - a new community which we know more commonly as the church. In Ephesians 2:20, Paul describes the church as built on the foundation of the “apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

Peter understood that. That’s why it was important to find the twelfth guy, because he understood that when Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church,” Jesus wasn’t talking about a new building or a new charitable organisation. Jesus was talking about a new gathering of God’s people. That’s the church - a new people transformed by Jesus’ word.

“You will be my witnesses,” Jesus said to them back in verse 8, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” As the gospel goes out from Jerusalem into the whole world, what happens is people from the whole world are brought in by the gospel.

Two things are happening. The gospel goes out - Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the world - it radiates out from this one spot, centering on the events of the cross. People hear about Jesus and understand who he is and what he has accomplished in God’s plan of salvation as the gospel goes out.

But at the same time, people come in. They hear the gospel, they respond in repentance and faith, and they are brought into a new community. They are brought into the kingdom of God.

So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over the apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots and the lot fell to Matthias, so he was added to the eleven apostles.
Acts 1:23-26

The thing that causes most controversy in this last bit is the casting of lots. The question is asked, “Should we cast lots today?” In choosing a new pastor, in deciding a new direction in life - should we toss the dice and say to God, “Thy will be done?”

Remember that there were 120 people in their group that day and out of that 120, only two names were put forward. This wasn’t random. They didn’t make the 120 people sit in a circle with a bottle spinning in the middle. No, Peter already outlined a strict criteria - he must have been with us the whole time, he must have seen, heard, known Jesus in person right from the beginning of John’s ministry. Only two names fit that criteria.

But more importantly, did you notice the prayer just before casting the lots? “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen.” Who were they praying to?

Do you realise they were praying to Jesus? Remember, this is the same Jesus they were hanging out with for 40 days. But now they are praying to him, calling him Lord, asking him to choose his apostle the same way he chose the eleven other apostles when he was on earth.

What has happened? They understood the Ascension. Do you see? This is an amazing turn of events. They finally understood that Jesus is reigning in heaven and that he hears their prayer and that it’s right to address his in prayer as God.

About the issue of casting lots, I just want to add a footnote that this is not commanded in the bible. Please don’t do this in electing your leaders. I think it’s irresponsible especially in light of the clear instructions in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 on choosing elders and deacons.

But in terms of trusting Jesus who knows all our hearts, who hears us from heaven, and calling him Lord - Do you see that this is not random chance but submission to his will, not our own? In fact, their prayer even hints of submission to his judgement, not our own. Is that what you are doing when you pray to Jesus, “I have sought you in your word. Please enable me to be faithful to your will.”

All that Jesus began to teach and do

The Ascension. That’s Luke’s focus here in Acts Chapter 1. Jesus ascends to heaven in power and authority as Lord over heaven and earth. But it’s made me think as well, why doesn’t Luke skip from the Ascension straight to Chapter 2, the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Why tell us about the disciples gathering together and electing this twelfth guy, Matthias, whom we never hear about anywhere else in the bible?

I think Luke records these events because they give us a picture of what it means to wait for Jesus. Luke wants us to see the in-between period, to understand what it means to wait for Jesus.

Some people are going to read the Acts 1 and think, “If only Jesus were here, things would be different. I don’t want apostles. I don’t want pastors. I just want Jesus.”

We might even say, “I wish I was there during those forty days when Jesus was the pastor. That’s the church I want to be a part of, the one with Jesus in it!”

But don’t you see, that’s what the apostles wanted when they said, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel.” They wanted something real. And Jesus responds by saying, “It’s coming, but it’s not for you to know when. Until then, waiting for me means witnessing to the gospel.”

Are you like the apostles staring up into the sky saying, “Lord, do something. We don’t know what, but do something.”? Or are you like the apostles bowing down on your knees saying, “Lord, do something. Help us to preach the gospel”?

“Ah, but those apostles are different,” you say, “They spent forty days with Jesus.”

What if they wrote down what Jesus told them those forty days? What if God gave you his Spirit such that you could understand his Word not just with Jesus next to you, but with his Spirit living inside you, guiding your very thoughts and actions.

That is what we have in the New Covenant, or rather, what is commonly known in our bibles as the New Testament. It is the witness of the apostles. It is the word and testimony of Jesus Christ - in the gospels, in the letters, here in the bible, God continues to speak to us of his Son calling us to turn to him and call him Lord.

And when Luke says, “In my former book, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do,” what he was saying to us is, “Do you see what Jesus is doing today? Read this book and you will.”

Sunday 17 February 2013

Mission to Mars (Acts 17:16-34) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 17 February 2013.

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Monday 11 February 2013

Mission to Mars (Acts 17:16-34)

1. Full of idols

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
Acts 17:16

Paul’s trip to Athens wasn’t planned. That’s important to remember because people draw a lot of comparisons between Athens and Cambridge today: both are famous for their architecture, both are centres of great learning and thought. And we soon see how Paul was the perfect kind of speaker to invite for the Main Event at Cambridge because he spoke their language and connected with his audience.

But we need to remember that Paul didn’t plan a trip to Athens to evangelise all these potential leaders of the modern world and influence their thinking. In Chapter 16 he was kicked out of Philippi for causing a riot. In Chapter 17 he is on the run from religious Jews chasing him through the cities of Thessalonica and Berea. The reason he is in Athens is because everywhere Paul went he preached the gospel about Jesus and every time he did that, Paul got into trouble.

And verse 16 reminds that when Paul finally did arrive in Athens, he didn’t start taking photos and going on tours of the museums, rather he was “distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Athens didn’t impress Paul, it disturbed him deeply.

So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Acts 17:17-18

It is interesting to see what the intellectuals thought of Paul’s preaching. The Epicureans with their “Let’s eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,” approach to life and the Stoics with their logic and self-controlled approach in overcoming their destructive passions - think Star Trek with Kirk on one end and Spock on the other - they are both mentioned here as disputing with Paul. Both of them have problems with what he is saying.

Some of them call him a babbler. The word describes a bird that is pecking at seeds and what they were implying was that Paul was unoriginal. He was pecking at scraps of ideas - stuff he had read in a Reader’s Digest - and pulling them together claiming that they were his own.

But others thought Paul was advertising two brand-new gods like he was selling two new flavours of ice-cream to complement the 99 other flavours on offer. That’s because of verse 18, “Jesus and the Resurrection,” or Anastasis in the Greek. It sounded to them like Jesus had a companion named Anatasia.

Even so, the Athenians and their philosophers were intrigued.

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean. (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Acts 17:19-21

The Cambridge Union recently hosted a debate between Richard Dawkins and former Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams. The proposition was “This house believes religion has no place in the 21st century.” Presidents and Prime Ministers and Olympic legends have addressed members of the Union in the past. Then again, I see that this term’s calendar includes football captain Fabio Capello, magician David Blane and actress Pamela Anderson.

On the one hand, it was a great honour for Paul to be invited to speak at the distinguished members of the Areopagus, a gathering which included academics, philosophers, professors and politicians. They obviously thought he had something to say. Then again, verse 21 tells us that the Athenians and foreigners who lived there did nothing else but listen to the latest ideas. If Paul had turned up in Athens dancing Gangnam style they still would have given him a slot. They were looking to be impressed with the latest and the coolest fads.

Paul’s intention, however, was not to dazzle his hearers. His aim was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2 .The unknown God

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
Acts 17:22-23

Paul frames his argument in terms of religion and worship but remember who he is speaking to. This is not Sunday morning at StAG. These are the students and professors in the university, the philosophers of Athens, and Paul says to them, “I see that in every way you are very religious.” He isn’t saying that, “A lot of you still go to temples and bow before idols,” though many of them in Athens did. That’s not his point.

What Paul is engaging with is, for want of a better word, their world-view. Where did we come from? Is there a God? Can we know for sure? What is our purpose in life?

It is how you understand and interact with the world that is around you. Whether you are a Christian or not, whether you are university or not, whether you believe in God or you think otherwise, all of us have a view of life, a view of each other; all of us have a worldview.

And Paul says, “What I am going to tell you is something you could never ever work out for yourselves. I am going to tell you about the God of the bible.” And what he does next is establish five basic foundations about God from the bible.

Firstly, Paul tells us, God is God.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.
Acts 17:24

You cannot contain God in a universe that he has created, much less in a temple that we have built.

Secondly, God does not need us, we need him.

And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.
Acts 17:25

Thirdly, God is the determiner of history.

From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.
Acts 17:26

Those of us who know our bibles ought to be hearing echoes from Genesis at this point. God created humanity but also determines the course of human history. “The times and the exact places they should live,” is an allusion to Daniel Chapter 2, verse 36 onwards, on the rise and fall of kingdoms.

Fourthly, God wants us know him, not just generally, but personally.

God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Acts 17:27-28

Let me pause for a moment because I want you to notice how Paul has done his homework. He has just arrived in Athens, yet he says to them, “I walked around your city and looked carefully at your objects of worship.” And here, he quotes back to them one of their own poets, “We are his offspring.” He is quoting Michael Jackson, “We are the world, we are the children.”

I want to be careful to say that this isn’t some kind of trick, whereby you go on the Internet and search for funny jokes and illustrations. No, all Paul did was pay attention. What do people enjoy doing? What do they think is their purpose in life?

Such that when you do talk to your friends about God, about Jesus and about the bible, you are talking to them, not at them. The way to tell that someone is really listening to you is if they are able to say the things you have been saying, even better than yourself.

Fifthly, God calls us to repent of our ignorance.

Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone - an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Acts 17:29-30

In “repentance,” we’ve finally come to a word that needs explanation. So far, Paul has been using everyday language to talk about God. But “repentance” is a word from the bible that, I think, most people misunderstand.

God is not telling us to be sorry. To repent is not cry your eyes out and feel horrible on the inside for all the awful things you’ve done, “I’m sorry, I’m awful, please forgive me.” That’s not what he means when Paul says that God commands all people everywhere to repent.

To repent means to turn. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians, verse 9, “They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.”

Previously, you were going in one direction - worshipping idols, worshipping success, worshipping your intellect. Previously, you were walking away from God but now you have turned to face him as the true and living God. That’s repentance.

Paul says that in the past, God overlooked our ignorance. That’s not saying that it’s OK to ignore God but rather God hadn’t made it clear what were the consequences of ignoring him. Now he has. Now, says Paul, God has revealed Jesus as the man who were judge the living and the dead.

3. The resurrection of the dead

For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council.
Acts 17:31-33

Paul ties his entire message back to Jesus and the resurrection. That was what he preached at the marketplace but they didn’t understand him. But that’s the same message he preaches here in the Areopagus - Jesus and his resurrection from the dead - and some of them sneered at him.

As if to say that everything you think about God hangs on just one issue: Whether Jesus really rose from the dead. Because if God really did raise Jesus from the dead, it means two things. Firstly, God will judge the world through Jesus Christ. And secondly, we who one day will all of us, die, will be raised from the dead to face his judgement.

A lot of people here today are going to a problem with what I’ve just said. Let me be honest, I have a problem with what I’ve just said. Part of me is going, “Should the gospel be about God’s love shown to us on the cross?” Part of me wants to say, “Paul didn’t get a chance to talk about John 3:16, or that what we have here is an abridged version of his message that cut out the bit on salvation.”

But as I wrestle with this text, which is God’s word, I am not at liberty to add to or subtract from what all of us can see is right there in front of us. The resurrection is bad news for those who continue in their ignorance of God.

But at the same time, verse 18 clearly says that Paul was preaching the good news of the resurrection. How can that be? If you look back to verses 31 and 32, Paul was able to clarify one thing about the resurrection - one thing that confused his hearer in the marketplace. This was a resurrection from the dead.

You see, Christians understand that salvation is not an escape from judgement, it is an escape through judgement. That’s the good news. Jesus Christ died on the cross to take our judgement which we rightly deserved. If you are a Christian, you deserve to be punished. You were just as ignorant as the world. You were just as idolatrous as the world. But God in his great mercy, took you judgement and put in on Jesus. He died your death. And because he died your death, he was raised for your resurrection.

Paul clarified that his gospel was not about two additional new gods - Jesus and the resurrection. No, his gospel was the death of the one and only God, the God who made us, the God who sustains us, the God who judges us, took our judgement, he took our death, so that in him we might be raised to new life.

4. Three implications for our gospel witness

Let me sum up what we have seen today under three implications for our witness to the gospel, our response to the gospel and the end result of the gospel.

4.1 Our witness: Clarity not impressiveness

Paul used illustrations. Paul spoke to intellectuals. Paul reasoned with the philosophers. But each time he spoke about Jesus, he aim was to be clear, to be persuasive even. It was never to be impressive.

4.2 Our response: Radical not incremental

Paul was calling for repentance. Repentance is something that is radical and not incremental.

In our efforts to be relevant, we sometimes think that contextualisation means bridging the gap to such an extent that non-Christians can simply skip over into the Kingdom of God.

Paul outlines a worldview that is radically different from anything the world knows. He is calling his hearers to give their whole lives to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith.

4.3 The result: People not philosophy

But finally and perhaps, most importantly, the preaching of the gospel results not in a new philosophy, but a new people. It results in conversion. Men and women transformed by the gospel and living for Jesus, not themselves.

A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
Acts 17:34

These names are written down because they are real people. Whenever names of newly-converted Christians are mentioned in Acts - Lydia in Philippi, Titius Justus and Crispus in Corinth - these are names of believers who eventually led gatherings in their homes. In other words, it’s saying that a church was planted.

Similarly, when we preach the gospel through something like the Main Event or even in our gathering here today, the way to know that the gospel has truly taken hold and borne fruit, is not more events, is not more activities, is not a change in policy or influence in the way the world looks at the bible and Christians - though these are all good and godly things to be praying for.

No, the end of the gospel is the gathering of men and women transformed through the gospel as the body of the Christ. It’s the church. Paul preached in Athens and the result was a new church.

The lowest place (Luke 14:7-24) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 10 February 2013.

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Saturday 9 February 2013

The lowest place (Luke 14:7-24)


“Boyfriends for hire to beat China’s wedding pressure,” reads the title of an article published on the BBC website this week, highlighting the pressure on single Chinese women to get married before they hit that dreaded age of thirty.

"I'm pretty old - I'm almost 30 - but I'm still single," explains Ding Na, a woman hailing from China's northeast. "My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I'm not married. When they call me, I'm scared to pick up the phone."[1]

The pressure to bring home a potential husband this Chinese New Year has prompted single women to turn to popular Internet site, Taobao (China’s version of eBay), where fake boyfriends are available “for rent.” It costs just $5 per hour to accompany the girl to dinner with her parents though you will have to pay an additional $8 if you want a kiss on the cheek.

Zhou Xiaopeng, a dating consultant in China explains, “In Chinese families's hard for children to say that they haven't found someone and are still looking.” Zhou tells the heartbreaking story of a father who once told her client “just to marry anyone.” “Even if you have to divorce later,” the father said, “at least it gives him somebody.”


It is tragic when an occasion that ought to be full of joy, full of love and full of good food gets turned into a pressure-cooker of expectation, misunderstanding and heartbreak. That’s the story behind this banquet that Jesus gets invited to.

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.”
Luke 14:7-8

The closer you are to the top table, the more important you are as a guest. You get to see the bride and groom up close. You are served before everyone else. That’s true of wedding dinners. That’s true of Cambridge formal halls. A better seat means better food.

Jesus says, “Don’t sit at the VIP table.” Why? Because in verse 7, “he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour.” Even at a dinner party, there is a pecking order. It’s not just about the food. It’s who gets served their food first. Whether it’s at a wedding banquet, a company dinner, or your friend’s birthday party: where you sit and how much wine you are served says something about who you are.

But Jesus says, “Don’t take the place of honour for,” verse 8 reads, “a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.”

If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
Luke 14:9

The only opinion that matters is the host’s. Not yours. Not the other guests’. The host may have invited someone more important than you. The next thing you know, he is tapping on your shoulder and pointing you to the table next to the toilet. “Give this man your seat,” he says to you. You might not think he is that important but the host does. It’s his opinion that matters. This is his banquet.

So where should you sit? According to Jesus, you should take the lowest place.

But when you are invited, take the lowest place (literally, the last place - eschaton), so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Luke 14:10-11

So later on at dinner, at the queue for the roast duck, where should you be? The lowest place!

Now you guys are smart enough to know that Jesus when tells you to take the lowest place, he isn’t just talking about the buffet line. He is talking about our our status in society. He is talking about the workplace. He is saying that given the opportunity to choose a position for ourselves in the eyes of the world, don’t go for number one.

Now why on earth would anyone do that? So that the host can come up to you and say,”Friend, move up to a better place.”

I know that some of us hear that and think it’s a con. “Yeah right, so that’s why you Christians act all humble and polite. It’s just an act so that you can manipulate God into giving you a better spot in heaven.”

But I suspect that most of us here today, especially if we’re Chinese, will think this: “How naive! That’s not the way the world works. If you want to be successful, you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Don’t kid yourselves. There is no ‘host’ who will exalt the humble. There are just a lot of guests fighting for the same seat at the table.”

If that’s you, then I hope you realise that that was exactly how the guests were behaving around Jesus that day. They arranged themselves according to their relative status to one another (“I’m older so I should sit here.” “I brought the most food so I should sit here.”)

That is how we arrange ourselves at the dinner table. That’ is how we arrange ourselves in society. We grade ourselves against the curve: “I might not be the biggest success, but I’m certainly doing better than those losers over there, so I’m OK.”

Friends, isn’t that tiring? Having to compare yourself with your neighbour every day to make sure you’re doing OK? Don’t you wonder sometimes: Are we fooling ourselves? Isn’t there a more objective way to determine who we are and what we’re worth, without having to constantly check the number of likes on our Facebook page?

Hear me out on this. When Jesus says, “Take the lowest place,” he’s liberating us. He is saying that if you know God’s objective approval of you really are it would free you - from false expectations, from self-delusion.

A couple of weeks ago, we read in Galatians 6, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions, then he will be able to take pride in himself without comparing himself to somebody else.”

It is our identity. Jesus is talking about your identity as something you receive from God, not something you conceive through effort. So many of us work hard to establish our identity, to find our identity, to define our identity - in the workplace, in school, in our families. But for those of us who are in Christ, we receive our identity from him - holy, loved, accepted - not because of anything we did but because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross for us.

The Christian whose identity is in Jesus is someone who is confident of God’s approval, whatever the world thinks. He has nothing to prove. In fact, that’s the reason why it makes sense for the Christian to take the lowest place is because Jesus humbled himself to the lowest place. He humbled himself to death on the cross trusting in God the Father to exalt him.

Jesus says to the guests at the table, “Don’t forget there’s a host.” God is the kind of host who loves to walk up to the little guy and say, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Isn’t that amazing?

Did you know that about God? He isn’t looking for the proud, the successful and the impressive. He is always looking out for the humble and lowly. In the Old Testament, God is never ever called the God of the rich and famous. Again and again the bible calls him the God of the fatherless, the widow, the poor and the outcast. He is their God.

“Take the lowest place,” Jesus says to the guests, but then he turns and says something even more challenging to his host, “Invite the poorest guests.”

Invite the poor

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke 14:12-14

Jesus turns to the host and says, “Don’t just take your boss out to lunch or your clients out to a Michelin-star restaurant.” If you do, they might invite you back for drinks at the country club.

Instead organise a banquet for the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Not a potluck. Not McDonald’s. Put together a large-scale, big budget feast. Book a five-star hotel and fill the banquet room with the kinds of people who never, ever get invited to banquets; who are usually stopped at the door from entering banquets. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

Be honest now. How many of you read this and think: Jesus, you must be crazy!

I want you to imagine the mood in the room at this point. A few moments ago, Jesus embarrassed all the guests by calling them thick-skinned opportunists. Now he insults the host for being cheap. The host must be saying to himself, “That’s the last time I invite Jesus to my reunion dinner!” Everyone in the room would have either been offended or embarrassed.

And that is where verse 15 comes in.

When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 14:15

Verse 15 is the guy in the back who lifts up his glass and shouts, “YAM SENG!” What is he doing? He is easing the tension. He’s doing everyone a favour by lightening the mood! This guy’s the joker in the class. He’s the life of the party.

And what he does is give the kind of toast that says “Amen!” to everything Jesus has just said, but gives a chance to everyone else to laugh the whole thing off. He says, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

“Aye, we hear you Jesus! One day we’ll all have a good laugh about it in heaven, eh?”

But Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook. Instead, Jesus tells them a second parable about the feast in the kingdom of God.

Everything is now ready

Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
Luke 14:16-21

Notice, who does the master want to be brought into his banquet? The poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Who was it again that Jesus tells the host to invite to his banquet back in verse 13? The poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Notice the connection.

But the master doesn’t stop there - with just the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
Luke 14:22-24

Why does Jesus tell this parable? Sometimes you hear this parable told as a way of saying, “Look how wonderful heaven is going to be. It’s going to be like that scene in Harry Potter, in the Great Hall with all sorts of yummy food and desserts. Heaven is going to be one great big banquet.”

Yet notice that there is not a single description of the food or decorations. Why does Jesus tell this parable? Not to teach us about food but to teach us about the host and his guests.

There are two sorts of guests, Jesus explains. First, there are the VIP’s. The VIP's get exclusive invitations. In fact, on the day of the banquet, the VIP's are sent reminders yet not a single VIP turns up at the banquet. The food is ready, the hall is laid out yet every seat is empty.

So the man sends out his servants with this message, “Come, everything is ready.” One by one, they all give their excuses. One’s bought a field. Another’s bought five oxen. Yet another’s gotten married. Please excuse me.

That’s the first group of guests, the VIP’s. You don’t need to be professor in biblical languages to work out that Jesus is referring to VIP's at his dinner party - the religious leaders. But here is the big surprise, Jesus is saying to the VIP’s, “What makes you think you’re in the kingdom? Because you got the invitation? Have you RSVP’ed?”

The VIP's just assumed they would be in the kingdom. That’s what the guy meant when he lifted up his glass to toast, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” He was assuming that everyone of his friends would get in. More than that, he was assuming that heaven was something far into the future.

In response, Jesus tells them a parable about heaven, whereby the invitation card to heaven says, “Come. Everything is now ready.” Did you notice that little word now? What is the invitation card telling us? Heaven is open now. The banquet is ready now. You need to RSVP now.

You see, that’s what makes those excuses so damning. It is one thing to be buying property, looking after your business and going on honeymoon with your wife - those are all good and godly things. But when you say to God, “Sorry, I’ll worry about heaven tomorrow. Today I want to concentrate on living my life for me,” what are you doing? You are presuming upon your salvation. You are taking God's offer of salvation for granted.

In fact, don’t these excuses sound familiar? Haven’t you used them recently? “Sorry Ma, got a lot going on in the office, I can’t come back for dinner tonight.” “Sorry Pa, can’t make it back for New Year this year, have to spend time with my own family.” We give good excuses, valid reasons, all the while covering up the fact that in our hearts, what we’re really saying is, “I don’t want to come home. I can’t stand being home.” We do that to our parents. We do same thing to our heavenly Father.

In the end the master says, “Not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.” It’s a wake-up call to those of us who think of ourselves as VIP’s. Who have received this invitation again and again only to reply, “Sorry. Come back another day.”

The humble host

But there’s a second group of guests - the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Who is he talking about? Duh! The poor, crippled, blind and lame, of course. But remember what Jesus said back in verse 14 - the reason why these are the guests that ought to be ones invited to the banquet - These are the guests who can’t possibly pay back the host.

Go further back to what Jesus said about taking the lowest place, he is telling us to recognise who we are before a holy God. We don’t deserve to be in his presence but because of his grace and for the sake of his own glory, he calls us in and sets a place for us at his table.

An important way we do this each week is by confessing our sins before God; coming before him in prayer acknowledging all the ways we have rebelled against him and ignored him as God. We do this not to make ourselves feel lousy about ourselves. Not a kind of therapy. But rather, we Christians do this because we have heard that invitation in God’s word to come as we are, in our sins, and be cleansed and transformed through Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel.

The gospel is not for good people, it’s for sinful people. The gospel is not for the powerful but the powerless. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ though he was rich became poor for our sake so that we through his poverty might become rich. On the cross, he paid the penalty of our sin, taking our death, and in exchange, gave us forgiveness, righteousness and peace.

The way we do this is not by looking to ourselves, or even by comparing ourselves to our neighbour, but only by looking to the host of the banquet. You see, when Jesus did finally host a banquet for his disciples on the night he was betrayed, he took the lowest place by washing their feet as their servant. Furthermore, he took bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body.” He gave them the cup, saying, “This is my blood,” in effect explaining how his sacrifice would become the basis of their feast in heaven.

That’s why the reunion dinner that Jesus organises is so different from the ones we are used to at Chinese New Year where we are afraid of disappointing our parents or concerned about putting on an act before the other guests at the table. At Jesus' reunion dinner, everyone at this table is messed up. Everyone is a sinner. And though some of us approach this table trembling and fearful of what God might say or do to us, we soon hear his tender voice saying to us, “You silly thing, I know all you have done and I have already forgiven you at the cross. Come home, my son. Come home, my daughter.”

The lowest place is where we see who we really are as sinful human beings, but it is also there that we see who Jesus is as our gracious loving Saviour. Humble yourselves, look to God our Father and in due time, trust that he will lift you up.

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. 
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. 
But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. 

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us.
(1662 Book of Common Prayer)


Sunday 3 February 2013

Apostles and prophets - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 3 February 2013.

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Friday 1 February 2013

BibleCentral - Gospel growth (Introduction to Ephesians)

Paul spent three years in the city Ephesus. In his farewell speech to the church leaders in Acts 20, he reminds them of what he did during those three years.

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public from house to house, testifying to both Jews and Greeks of the repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Acts 20:20-21

What did Paul persistently do those three years? He declared, he taught and he testified - everywhere, every moment and to everyone (both Jews and Gentile) - that all of us need to turn to God and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord. Or in other words, Paul preached the gospel.

The result was the church. In fact, I would contend that Paul planted several churches in Ephesus - the teaching from “house to house” that he describes in verse 20, are house churches - centres of Christian gatherings (cf. Acts 18:7-8). These weren’t pastoral visitations to catch up over tea and biscuits. Paul was teaching the bible to gatherings of believers who met in individual homes. He was planting churches. The way he did this was by persistently preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Just to drive this home, Acts 19 tells us what Paul did every single day for two whole years in the city of Ephesus.

(Paul) took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
Acts 19:9-10

Every afternoon of every day (some manuscripts include the time of these meetings from 11am to 4pm), you would find Paul in a school hall teaching the bible. For two whole years, that’s what he did. It wasn’t in church, this was a public space. It wasn’t on Sundays but every day. It wasn’t just for Christians but with everyone.

And notice the impact of that persistence, “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” Everyone in the whole region of the country heard about Jesus!

Again, Paul stayed put in one city. For two years he preached in the same spot every afternoon. Yet the result was: the entire country heard the gospel. Why? Not because of some brilliant church planting strategy. Not even because of Paul. But only because of the gospel.

The gospel is God’s means of revealing his Son Jesus. The gospel is God’s means of building his church. The reason why the “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord” is because God uses the preaching of the gospel to bring about growth in the gospel.

That is what we are going to see in our study from Ephesians: God using the gospel to reveal Jesus and to build the church. It’s been five years since Paul left Ephesus and now he is in prison in Rome. He writes to his old friends to encourage them. I think he writes to them because he misses them and has been praying about them - he’s heard about their faith and love - meaning, Paul has been reading their weekly church newsletter.

But most of all, Paul writes this letter to the church in Ephesus to remind them just how amazing God is in saving them through the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all these years, now from a jail cell thousands and thousands of miles away, Paul is still persistently preaching the gospel to his friends.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ, with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places!
Ephesians 1:3