Sunday, 20 September 2020

A duty of love

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20

Meeting via Zoom or whatever isn’t great, is it? But, as we keep reminding ourselves, it’s better than nothing. At least we see one another’s friendly faces and hear one another’s voices, however briefly. So we thank God for it.

But “Zoom-fatigue” is becoming more and more of a problem. A friend said recently that he was finding it so difficult that he knew he might be in danger of drifting away from church altogether. You could, if you liked, reply without much sympathy, “Well, given that you recognise the danger, it’s up to you to make sure that doesn’t happen! Get your sleeves rolled up! We all have a responsibility to maintain and safeguard our own relationship with God.” True enough.

But that may be easier said than done, depending on a person’s prior spiritual strength and state of physical and mental health. Which means – and this is the key point - that all of us have a responsibility to look out for those we know who could be in danger.

Again, you might say “But isn’t that the pastor’s job?”, and of course you would be right. But the New Testament suggests that while churches do indeed need pastors who are specially set aside for that role, there is a sense in which we can all be pastors to one another.

James finishes his short, quick-fire letter with this reminder: we all have a responsibility for any fellow-believer who might “wander from the truth”. He suggests that “someone” (ie, not necessarily the pastor) might “bring that person back”, that “whoever” we are (again, not necessarily the pastor) we should recognise our responsibility.

A little earlier, in verse 14, he writes about people who are in need of healing, and suggests that ministering to them may well be a task for people who are specially equipped for it – “let them call the elders of the church to pray over them”. But he makes no such stipulation when it comes to those who drift away.

This raises an obvious question, especially for those of us who may feel fairly secure in our faith: Should I be doing something for people who seem to have quietly disappeared from our online meetings? If, over the weeks, they had gone missing from a normal Sunday morning service, we would probably have noticed fairly quickly. How much easier it is for them to disappear without trace from our virtual gatherings.

It’s worth remembering that appearances can be deceptive. There may be someone we have known for many years, and who we have always looked up to as a strong, solid Christian, but who now finds themselves struggling. I personally can think of someone who was truly a long-standing pillar of the church – always strong, always reliable, always cheerful - but who suddenly, quite out of the blue, slipped into a period of depression.

And while it’s very natural to expect the church’s official leaders to be getting on with the job of pastoring – well, what about the pastors themselves? Very likely they give the impression (I nearly said “project an image”) of constant cheerfulness and super-competence, but who knows if they are quietly breaking up inside?

So what’s to do?

James’s words, I think, are more about people who are consciously lapsing back into sin rather than those struggling under more neutral pressures. But the same principle applies.

So this is simply a call to each of us to keep our spiritual eyes open and to keep our spiritual antennae raised. Not, of course, that we should go grubbing around in other people’s business: God forbid. But, well – it’s all about love really, isn’t it?

Who knows what an email or message, a phone call or card, might achieve? Something as simple as that could be a turning point in someone’s life: as James puts it, “whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins”.

Jesus described himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Did he ever speak a more beautiful word? And did he ever tell a more beautiful story than that of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the open country (presumably under someone’s care!) in order to go after the one lost sheep until he found it (Luke 15:3-7)?

Need we say more?

Dear Father in heaven, thank you for Jesus, my good shepherd, who watches over me and prays for me. Thank you too for loving under-shepherds who have looked out for me over the years. Put into my mind right now, I pray, someone who I in my turn should be looking out for. Amen.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Are you a goody or a baddy?

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.  Hebrews 6:4-6

I became a Christian when I was 15 and, even before I went off to study theology, I used to get involved in quite intense discussions with friends about matters of Bible interpretation.

One question we used to debate was: Once a person has been saved, is it possible for them to lose their salvation? Not surprisingly there were two main schools of opinion: we didn’t actually refer to them as “goodies” and “baddies”, but that was pretty much what it amounted to…

The goodies (ie, “us”) were the ones who said No. It was inconceivable that someone who has been born again could be unborn again! If God has adopted someone as his child, how could that person ever be unadopted! No! – “once saved, always saved” was the motto. (These people might be called “Calvinists” after the French reformation leader, John Calvin, 1509-1564.)

The baddies (ie, “them”) were those who said Yes. Human beings are gifted by God with free will, and the sad fact is that some who seem to be true Christians do indeed make the decision to go back on their faith and deny it. (These people might be called “Arminians” after Calvin’s most prominent opponent, Jacobus Arminius, 1560-1609.)

Well, there’s plenty of scope for discussion there! – and the debate is still alive up to the present day. (And, of course, it’s far, far, far more complex than my summary suggests.)

Most Christians, once they have come to faith, just get on with the business of living the Christian life. And quite right too. Life is too busy and too pressurised to spend time fretting about matters over which fine Christians on both sides – including many brilliant theologians - can’t agree. Just enjoy being a child of God! Just relish the new status faith in Christ gives us! Just aim every day to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to live for God’s glory! Yes, of course!

But then as you get to know your Bible you are bound at some point to find yourself reading the passage I’ve put at the top: Hebrews 6:4-6. There’s no denying that it seems pretty severe, and taken at face value it certainly suggests that we can indeed lose our salvation (there’s another passage in the same vein a chapter or two later, in Hebrews 10:26-31).

Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews was obviously very concerned that some Christians he knew from a Jewish background were in danger of turning back to their Jewish practices. (It’s clear that persecution or the fear of persecution was never far away, and that may have been the reason; so we shouldn’t be too hard on them.)

So the letter as a whole amounts to an urgent running plea – as if to say, “Don’t do it! Your earlier Jewish faith was based on all sorts of wonderful things, including the scriptures God inspired (what we call the Old Testament). But it was only ever intended to lead to something far better! And that ‘something far better’ is right there in Jesus, God’s Son, and in his death on the cross and his resurrection. How can you possibly consider turning your back on that? How can you even dream of such a thing!”

Paul had a similar agonising experience with some of his converts in Galatia. His letter to them is full of the same sort of plea – in one striking phrase, indeed, he tells them that “you… have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

So what are we to make of people who seem to be true Christians but who subsequently deny their faith?

The stock answer was: Well, such people were obviously never true Christians in the first place. Perhaps they had some kind of faith, but it was never real “saving faith”.

That, of course, is possible. But if you digest slowly what Hebrews 6 says about these people, the idea that they were not true Christians is a bit hard to take - they have been “enlightened”; they have “tasted the heavenly gift”; they have “shared in the Holy Spirit”; they have “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age” (verse 5).

They don’t sound like merely “nominal” Christians! It’s hard to avoid the feeling that that stock answer is in fact an attempt to wriggle out of the plain meaning of the text.

Mmm… Could it be that the baddies aren’t so bad after all! Could it be that the us/them, goodies/baddies split isn’t quite so clear-cut?

I have no easy answer to the question. All I know is that Hebrews 6:4-6 and other similar passages are there, and they’re not going to go away!

At the very least they stand as a warning to us that the ultimate test of true faith is perseverance.

Do any of us need that warning today?

Loving heavenly Father, thank you that though I am a sinner, I am a forgiven sinner, a true child of God, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Please save me from any hint of complacency, and help me to understand that the true test of faith is perseverance to the very end. Amen.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Darkness or light - time to choose?

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. John 8:12

When our children were still quite small we went one holiday on a tour of a mine in Derbyshire. There were about twelve of us in the party, led by an official guide. Down there under the earth, it was a place of raw smells, echoey sounds and drippy water; not a place you would want to be for too long.

After taking us around, our guide asked if we would like him to briefly turn off the lights – “just so you know what total darkness is like”. Of course we all enthusiastically said Yes. And so we were plunged into a darkness you could almost feel. It wasn’t long before we were keen to have the light restored – you could understand how somebody said: if you were without light for any significant time you would very likely go mad.

We knew as never before that we need light! (On reflection it caused us also to share a thought for the blind…)

It’s no wonder that the Bible is full of the theme of light…

The first words God is recorded as having spoken at creation are “Let there be light…” (Genesis 1:3).

The people of Israel, set free from slavery in Egypt, were given by God “a pillar of fire to give them light” in the desert (Exodus 13:21).

The psalmist prays to God, “Let the light of your face shine upon us” (4:6), and rejoices that “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (27:1).

The prophet Isaiah reminds the people of Israel that the reason God called them to be his special people was to be “a light for the Gentiles” (42:6).

John introduces his Gospel by declaring that when Jesus, the living Word of God, was born into the world, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:4-5).

And now here, in chapter 8, Jesus brings it all together with this quite staggering, breath-taking claim: “I am the light of the world”. What a thing for anyone to say!

He was visiting Jerusalem at the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, when the city would be crammed with pilgrims. As part of the Feast four great lights were lit in the temple precincts, and the whole city would be bathed in light. It’s surely no accident that Jesus chose this moment to utter these words.

The Christian faith declares that Jesus’ words are plain truth; that he is indeed the very light of God himself given to this dark and troubled world. Which prompts an obvious question: Has he yet become the light of your life?

Here are two simple but vital things to think about…

First, it is our privilege to enjoy this light.

Walking in darkness is a dangerous thing to do. It results in groping, stumbling and – ultimately - falling. And this is precisely the way our world is.

In spite of technical and intellectual brilliance, we flounder in the darkness of moral wickedness, ignorance, superstition and wrong ideas; as Jesus put it: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts - murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15;16). The Bible sums it up under the word “sin”, and it’s a wretched, miserable existence, in essence nothing but a living death.

But what matters is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus followed up his claim to be the light of the world with what amounts to an invitation, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”.

“Whoever follows me…” Let me ask that obvious question I mentioned a moment ago: Have you yet become a follower of Jesus? If not, why not today? All it takes is a simple prayer from the heart, perhaps something like this:

Lord God, I realise that up to now I have been groping my way through life in darkness, living my own way and making a mess of things. I am truly sorry, and ask you now to draw me out of the darkness and into the light of Jesus, to forgive my sins, and to lead me into a new future. Amen.

That’s only a start, of course. But it amounts to a whole new birth; life will never be the same.

So that’s the first thing: it’s our privilege to enjoy the light.

But the second is also vital: it’s our responsibility to share the light.

Yes, Jesus claimed that he was himself the light of the world. But he also told his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

By this he means, in essence: just as the moon has no light of itself, but simply reflects the light of the sun, so also we, though we have no light of our own, can and should reflect the light of Jesus. He tells his disciples to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16).

This is a big subject: but what it boils down to is that our lives are to be so full of Christlike qualities – humility, compassion, honesty, courage, above all love – that people (amazing though this seems) actually look at us and see him.

What more satisfying life could there be than that!

Holy and powerful God, thank you that your light has been made known to us in Jesus Christ, your Son. Help me, minute by minute, to reflect that light so that, through even me, others will see you and come to worship you. Amen.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Watch your tongue!

 Watch your tongue!

The tongue… is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:3-10

James doesn’t mince his words when he’s talking about the tongue, does he?

Even allowing for an element of hyperbole (defined by one dictionary as “a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect”) he is obviously very keen that his readers should get the message: loose or careless words can have awesome power.

Just sense his passion…

The tongue … “is a fire”. Fire is powerful, we all know that. Used properly, of course, it’s a great thing for keeping warm, cooking, and various other uses. But if it gets out of control – well, it’s just so destructive as to be utterly terrifying.

The tongue… “is a world of evil among the parts of the body”. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but yes, I think we get the message! It “corrupts the whole body”. Ditto; but the basic drift is clear: the tongue has the power to ruin lives, as it “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire”. That’s a seriously alarming thought, don’t you think?

The tongue “is… set on fire by hell”. A bit over the top, surely? No, apparently not! Jesus said that the devil is “a liar, and the father of lies (John 8:44). Which can only mean that falsehood and deception are his weapons, invented by him alone (the first lie is reported in the garden of Eden, when the serpent convinced Eve that “you’re not going to die!” through eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:4)).

James goes on to say that the tongue is untameable. He points out that mankind has demonstrated amazing skill in bringing the animal kingdom under its control – think guide dogs for the blind or sniffer dogs helping the police, not to mention horse-trainers, lion-tamers and even snake-charmers. Wonderful! (as long as it doesn’t involve cruelty, of course).

But… that little floppy, fleshy organ inside our mouths – well, that’s a different matter altogether: “no human being can tame the tongue”.

James changes the picture here – not fire now, but poison: “a restless evil, full of deadly poison”. Take note, James is saying; every time you use your tongue for ill you are releasing lethal toxins into the atmosphere.

That phrase “restless evil” is striking. “Restless” could be translated “unstable” or “disorderly”. It’s a fact that evil in all its many forms is often marked by an unceasing and uncontrollable activism; it can’t rest. (It’s no accident that people who have an over-curious imagination coupled with an over-active mouth are often described as busybodies.)

True faith in Christ, on the other hand, is marked by peace, calm and composure.

Every day we are bombarded with words, often coarse and vulgar – on television and radio, in newspapers, plus of course the everyday interactions we have with other people. The utterly vile things that people are prepared to say on line to others they don’t like almost leave you gasping – how can people say such things!

And lies are in the very air we breathe – in anonymous opinion polls the majority of people say they have no qualms about lying if they think it will be to their advantage.

All of us can remember words spoken to us which went like arrows to our hearts. We probably pretended we weren’t bothered, that we had a “pretty thick skin”. But that wasn’t true – those words went deep and cut sharply and have since affected both our behaviour and how we think about ourselves in ways we never imagined.

Other words, thank God, had the opposite effect – words of wise advice, loving concern; words of encouragement, support, perhaps of warning.

Forgetting for a moment words spoken to us, what about words spoken by us? Don’t we all have a sense of burning shame as we remember things that we said that were cruel, heartless, untrue, insensitive or just plain stupid? This applies particularly to words spoken to the young or the specially vulnerable. It’s a disturbing question to put to ourselves: “How often have I set somebody off down a wrong path by something I said? How often have I squashed somebody’s already flat self-esteem, crushing their confidence by an unguarded word?”

It’s worth noticing that this whole section of James’s letter – from 3:1 to 3:12 – is directed particularly to people who occupy positions of influence: “Not many of you should become teachers… because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1).

Listen up, you preachers, teachers, small group leaders and youth workers! – you’re going to have to account one day for your words. If that thought makes us feel uncomfortable – good! So it should.

It’s up to each of us to respond to James’s words as we see fit. But for the moment we could do worse than take on our lips the prayer of the psalmist (Psalm 141:3):

Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Amen!

Sunday, 6 September 2020

"For such a time as this..."

Mordecai said to Esther: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14

I’ve never been a great fan of J R R Tolkien (give me Narnia any time!), but he certainly said some good things. A friend recently sent on this quote from The Fellowship of the Ring (thanks, Andrea!):

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Frodo and Gandalf are in the thick of an ominous danger threatening the whole world, and poor Frodo expresses a plaintive regret – “I wish it need not have happened in my time”. Whereupon wise old Gandalf gently puts him right, saying in effect…

“That’s perfectly natural, Frodo. That’s how anyone would feel at a time like this. But it really is a waste of time. This is the way it is, so our job is to look facts in the face, roll up our sleeves, and do the very best we can.”

The cards we have been dealt are the only cards we can play. The scrabble tiles you’ve got are – well, the ones you’ve got; so why waste time lamenting that missing “e” that would have given you a seven-letter word? Or again, if there’s a short straw to be drawn, well, someone must draw it, mustn’t they? And why not us? That’s just the way it is.

The present-day application is obvious: Why did this pandemic have to happen now? Why in my lifetime? Why should my work, or leisure, or ambitions, or pleasure, be disrupted in this way? And not far under the surface is the thought, “It’s not fair!”

To feel ourselves entitled to a basically comfortable life is natural to human nature, especially if we live in a prosperous part of the world. But in fact no such “entitlement” exists, and we’d better get used to the idea.

I don’t think Frodo is to be blamed for what he felt – as I said, his complaint was natural enough. But when we feel this way it’s very easy to topple over into self-pity – “Poor me!” And that is something to be avoided.

The people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, forgot the miraculous way God had set them free from Egypt, and lapsed into self-pity about their boring manna-food. They started “wailing” and hankering after those beautiful “cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Numbers 11:4).

And God was not pleased…

The prophet Elijah, fresh from a miraculous victory over the prophets of Baal, complains that the people of Israel are really not worth bothering with: they “put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left…” (1 Kings 19:14).

Oh poor me!

Even the godly Jeremiah has his moments: “Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends! I have neither lent not borrowed, yet everyone curses me” (Jeremiah 15:10).

I don’t mean to make light of people whose sufferings are so much greater than anything I have ever known (so far!)…

The young couple planning to get married in early 1940 – only for the second world war to break out in September 1939… The young man on the brink of a brilliant football career – who suffered a badly broken leg and never played again… The world-famous medical professor who fell foul of the authorities in her country and ended her days scrubbing public lavatories.

Above all, perhaps… Those millions of unknown people born into a remote village where there is no education, no opportunities, no health-care, just a likelihood of death by the age of forty-five. Why them?

The apostle Paul asked the Christians of Corinth to “put up with me in a little foolishness” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Perhaps you might be willing to do the same for me…

My problem is simple. From my perspective I am of course – this goes without saying – far and away the most important object in the whole universe, so everything should work out to suit my convenience. Right?

It seems not… Unfortunately the universe seems to have a slightly different perspective – it sees me as worth about the same as a millionth part of a speck of dust. So what happens to me is of no importance at all.

Huh! How dare it! But that’s the way it is.

Ah, but I have a consolation even bigger than the universe… the God who is known to us in Jesus Christ puts an infinite value on even that millionth part of a speck of dust…

The story of Joni Eareckson Tada is well known, especially in Christian circles. As a young girl she dived into shallow water and was totally paralysed. She very naturally struggled to come to terms with such an appalling change in her situation. But a breakthrough occurred when she reached the stage of asking not “Why me?” but “Why not me?” She has gone on to live a full, satisfying and creative life.

Thanks be to God for people like her.

Oh, and never forget Esther – and Mordecai, her Gandalf!

Lord God, please keep me from any trace of self-pity. Help me to look at my situation, however less than perfect it may be, and to decide every day to seek only your will, and to carry it out with faith, cheerfulness and hope. Through Jesus, who suffered more injustice than we can ever know. Amen.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

No ifs, no buts - just read this book!

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. Job 19:25-26

Recent mornings I have been reading my way through the Book of Job. I must have read it several times in my Christian life, but I am very aware that my understanding of it is extremely limited. Mind you, that doesn’t bother me too much, because, looking at various commentaries, it’s obvious that in that respect I am in good company. Does anybody fully understand this strange book?

Yet it never ceases to move me, and my conviction grows that it should be essential reading for any Christian who is remotely serious about getting to grips with God. If I were to offer advice I would suggest: Read this book right through once a year – no ifs, no buts, just read it! Don’t struggle to fathom out the precise meaning of every verse – no, just soak up the overall mood and feel of it, praying as you read, “Lord, what are you saying to me through this book? How do want to use it to change me?”

What sort of book is Job?

You could describe it as a dramatic poem – or, if you like, a poetic drama, for it’s mainly in verse, and it tells a story. It’s no wonder that down the centuries it has inspired other poems, plays and musical adaptations. For all its strangeness, it obviously exerts a fascination over many people, religious and non-religious alike.

Let’s ask a couple of questions…

First, what is the book about?

A simple one-word answer would be: pain.

Job suffers – boy, does he suffer! For no reason that he can understand, he is put through an agonising sequence of torments, physical, emotional and spiritual. Just look at these words from chapter 19, perhaps the central chapter of the book; they’re worth quoting at length…

13 He (God) has alienated my family from me;
my acquaintances are completely estranged from me.
14 My relatives have gone away;
my closest friends have forgotten me…
17 My breath is offensive to my wife;
I am loathsome to my own family.
18 Even the little boys scorn me;
when I appear, they ridicule me.
19 All my intimate friends detest me;
those I love have turned against me.
20 I am nothing but skin and bones;
I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth.

21 Have pity on me, my friends, have pity,
for the hand of God has struck me…

What a pitiful plea there in verse 21!

We know next to nothing about Job, or even to what extent he is a real historical figure, but right at the start (1:1) he is described as “blameless and upright: he feared God and shunned evil”. And it’s precisely because he fears God that he can’t help but assume that all these torments are happening to him because God for some reason wills them.

And so the age-old question arises: Why?

The great thing about Job is that he refuses to accept the smooth, shallow explanations trotted out by his “comforters”. And he is even bold enough to accuse God of treating him unjustly: “God has wronged me and drawn his net around me” (19:6). Pain, indeed…

A second question: what can we, today, take from this book?

I suggest four essential lessons…

First, it encourages us to be completely honest in our praying.

Of course, when we come to God we should always be humble and respectful. But given that he knows our hearts anyway, is there any point in pretending to feel other than we do?

Second, it should destroy any kind of triumphalism in our faith.

There is a strand of Christianity which would have us believe that if we belong to Christ every problem is solved, every disease healed, and life is comfortable right up to death: the so-called “prosperity gospel” is a species of this strand. How anyone who reads the Bible can believe such poisonous nonsense is completely baffling. But there are those who do: let us never be seduced into such a way of thinking.

Third, it stirs up compassion for those who are suffering like Job, even if we personally aren’t.

Or should do, anyway! (Enough said!)

Fourth, it gives us hope.

The very fact that this book is in the Bible at all, with all its breath-taking, agonising honesty, must surely be a comfort to us when we feel low and perhaps even abandoned by God.

And let’s also spell out the obvious: the story of Job ends well!

It’s true that, in the final chapters, God has some pretty serious words to say to Job: but that doesn’t alter the fact that “the Lord restored his fortunes… the Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part” (42:10-12).

Which can only remind us that for the child of God, every story ultimately has a happy ending!

Even in that terrible, dark chapter, chapter 19, there is a sudden, wonderful blaze of light in verses 25-26, the verses I put at the top of this blog: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God”.

Thanks be to God for his word!

Lord Jesus Christ, you suffered more than we will ever know. Please help me, when I feel pain, confusion and depression, to cling to you through thick and thin, and to find comfort and hope in your love. Bring me to the same place as your servant Job, confident that my “fortunes”, like his, will one day be gloriously “restored”. Amen.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Don't get shipwrecked!

Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. 1 Timothy 1:18-20

Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. 2 Timothy 2:16-18

I wonder who Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus were?

The fact is that we just don’t know. Hymenaeus gets two mentions in the New Testament, both in the passages above, Alexander and Philetus get just one each. But that’s all the information we have.

Just names to us. But presumably they were members of the church in Ephesus, where Timothy was the pastor. Very likely they were thoroughly pleasant people, good family men, leaders in the church.

But these three men were trouble-makers, and Paul sees fit to warn his young protégé Timothy about them…

They remind us that even in the earliest days of the church all sorts of wrong ideas were swirling around, and that some of them were anything but Christian; on the contrary, they were a danger to the church. Paul compares the teaching of Hymenaeus and Philetus to “gangrene” (not nice!), and warns that that of Hymenaeus and Alexander could lead to “shipwreck”.

Well, if it was like that then, two thousand years ago, how much more today? That’s why it’s vital that the church should stick carefully to scripture and not let itself get sucked into the world of half-truths and downright untruths which are all around us.

What was actually wrong with the influence of these men?

Regarding Hymenaeus and Alexander, it seems there was a problem about conscience (1 Timothy 1:19). They have “rejected” it – perhaps like sailors deciding they know better than the compass – and so have run aground spiritually.

Conscience is not an infallible guide to behaviour. But it is important and, hopefully, in general it points us at least roughly in the right direction. To disregard that little inner voice, especially when it has been exposed to scripture and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is folly – like carrying on with what you’re doing even though a fire warning bell is ringing.

Is this a reminder some of us need today?

Regarding Hymenaeus and Philetus, something a little more precise was obviously troubling Paul. It seems that they were teaching that “the resurrection has already taken place” (2 Timothy 2:18). Well, of course, the resurrection of Jesus has already taken place; there’s no argument about that! But that wasn’t what they were talking about.

No, they were suggesting that the general resurrection of all humankind at the end of time was not going to happen – everything that was going to happen had already happened.

To be absolutely fair to them, you could say that Paul himself had taught things that could be interpreted that way. In Colossians 2:12 and 3:1, for example, he tells the Christians of Colosse that “you have been raised with Christ” – note the past tense!

Yes, Paul certainly believed that by faith in Jesus we have already entered into his resurrection-life. But he also taught very clearly that our present resurrection is one day to be completed when Jesus returns in glory. (Just take a look at 1 Corinthians 15, his great resurrection chapter.) We will then experience a bodily resurrection, just as he did.

Presumably Hymenaeus and Philetus thought that after death we become disembodied spirits; perhaps they had absorbed a common view in the ancient world that the physical body is intrinsically evil, and they couldn’t conceive that it would one day be raised, even in a perfect and sinless form.

Whatever… the fact is that there is no such thing as Christianity without a conviction that not only did Jesus rise that first Easter day, but that one day we too will rise: our present sharing in Jesus’ resurrection life is just a foretaste of the future glory that is still to come.

Do you see yourself as already raised with Christ? And do you also anticipate a day when you will be raised to be eternally with him and “see him as he is” (I John 3:2)? This, and nothing less, is what it means to be a Christian.

So… a warning about false practices and teaching in the church. But it  needs an important footnote.

Yes, we must be very careful. But, dare I say without being misunderstood… not too careful…!

The things Paul is writing about – (a) the violating of our consciences and (b) the denial of a basic teaching of the Bible – were glaring errors, poison in the bloodstream of the church.

But we need to be careful not to go to the opposite extreme and condemn every point of view that doesn’t agree exactly with ours. History shows that there have always been people only too ready to shout “heretic!” or “unsound!” when they come across a person, book or movement which doesn’t see things quite the way they do.

This is seriously dangerous: it encourages division and perhaps self-righteousness and smugness: “We, of course, are the ones who have got it all right…”.

Is this a warning some of us need?

I am reminded of a severe pastor from a bygone age who lamented that he, his wife and their dog were the only truly biblical people around. And who then added under his breath: “And, to be honest, there are times I wonder a bit about my wife…”

(I don’t vouch for the truth of that story…)

Lord God, save me, I pray, from serious wrong in either conduct or doctrine. Save me too from the kind of confidence that breeds self-righteousness and arrogance. Keep me true – and keep me humble! Amen.