Thursday, 10 October 2019

Are you a joyful giver?

Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints...

You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8:4,9

I heard a story - a true one, apparently - about a minister who used a sermon to tell his congregation off about the level of their giving.

So what’s new? you say. Isn’t this normal in many churches? “Come on,” says the preacher, “we need to do more to bump up the church’s income.”

Only... it wasn’t like that. No - the preacher was telling the people off because they were giving too much. Yes, really. They were mainly quite poor people, but such was their love for God and his work that they were giving so generously that they were leaving themselves short.

The Bible says that “God loves a cheerful giver”, of course. A week or two ago I wrote about what I called “holy extravagance”, focussing on the unnamed woman who poured a bottle of perfume over Jesus, much to the disapproval of the religious people watching. And I don’t go back on a word of that.

But in this case a time had obviously come when the people were giving over-extravagantly, and the minister felt it right to ask them to stop.

Something like this happened in Paul’s ministry. The “they” he is speaking about in 2 Corinthians 8 are members of the Macedonian churches - Gentile churches, probably Philippi and Thessalonica. And the “service” he mentions is that of raising money for fellow-believers in need.

Paul was keen to collect money from the churches he had planted in the Gentile world in order to help the Jewish mother-church in the Jerusalem area. These Christians had fallen on hard times (we aren’t told why) and they needed help. And Paul was bowled over by the sheer generosity of the Macedonian churches: “They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service.” Note those words: urgently... pleaded... privilege... These people were anything but half-hearted! And this in spite of the fact that they themselves were experiencing “extreme poverty”.

A challenge to us all.

But it’s not really money I’m thinking about, important though our financial giving is. No, I’m thinking more about our overall attitude towards service for God.

Over my years in ministry I developed a little joke. When we made known a job needing to be done in the life of the church, I would  sometimes say, “Please form an orderly queue at the end of the service” - knowing, of course, that that was (to put it mildly) extremely unlikely to happen.
All right, a pretty feeble joke - but you get the point.

(Mind you, I do remember with great respect and gratitude one young woman in particular who would often quietly say “Yes, I think perhaps that’s something I could help with...” And if it did indeed turn out to be something that was right for her, she proved herself totally reliable. Thank God for people like her!)

I’m not saying this to pile guilt on us. No, of course, we’re living in days when everyone is frantically busy, and fitting in just the basic tasks of everyday life can be a struggle.

But could it be that some of us have slipped into a wrong mentality? A mentality where the immediate, unthinking, knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Not me! Oh no, that’s not something I could do! That’s for someone else”? - without even pausing for ten seconds to think and pray, “Lord, is this something you would like me to do?”

Here are two great Bible principles.

First, it is a joy and privilege to serve God in the building of his kingdom.

Regarding the Macedonian Christians, Paul spells this out: “In the midst of a very severe trial, their over-flowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (verse 2). And for us - well, what greater use of our earthly lives could there be than to offer our gifts and talents (and these are things we all have!) to the business of making more widely known the love of God shown in Jesus?

Second, it is through service that we grow.

Why are some Christians, even those of many years’ standing, spiritually flabby and slack? Often, I suspect, it’s because they have never rolled up their sleeves and committed themselves to the discipline and hard work of some specific task for God.

Why not read the whole passage (2 Corinthians 8:1-9), and ask yourself the question: Is there any area, whether involving money or not, where I need to take a leaf out of the book of the Macedonian Christians?

Even better, a leaf out of the book of Jesus himself, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich”?

Oh use me, Lord, use even me,/ Just as you will, and when, and where,/ Until your blessed face I see,/ Your rest, your joy, your glory share. Amen.   (Frances Ridley Havergal)

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Meekness and majesty

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”  Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.  The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 

“Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Then everyone deserted him and fled. 

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. Mark 14:43-52

How would I react if the authorities came hammering on my door at night, wanting to arrest me for being a Christian? Would I go to pieces?

Thankfully, living where I do, this isn’t a fate I need worry about too much - but that can’t be said of many Christians around the world, ordinary people like you and me; for them it is a daily possibility. May God prompt us to be faithful in prayer for them!

Well, here is Jesus, standing in the Garden of Gethsemane and confronting “a crowd armed with swords and clubs”, sent by the religious authorities. Patience has snapped, and they have come to get him.

Two things particularly strike me: Jesus’ heart-breaking aloneness, and his wonderful dignity. Go to pieces? Not him!
That aloneness...

Jesus has been in an agony of prayer, asking his disciples to stay awake and keep him company. But they fail, and he finds them asleep. Now, as the mob arrives, it turns out that they are headed by one of his own inner circle, Judas. He identifies Jesus (it’s dark in the garden) by kissing him. Then, after a brief and futile skirmish, in which one of them attacks the high priest’s servant (John’s Gospel tells us it was Simon Peter), “everyone deserted him and fled”.

As if to emphasise Jesus’ aloneness, Mark adds the semi-comical detail of a young man (Mark himself, according to an early tradition) who is so desperate to get away that, when they grab him, he slithers snake-like out of his tunic and disappears naked into the night.

So Jesus stands alone.

It’s been said that anything in this life is bearable if you have someone to bear it with you. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in that. Thank God for loyal family and friends who stick with us in our hard times!

But there’s no doubt that, tragically, this world is full of lonely people. So I must face the question, How loyal and caring am I to the lonely friend? Still more, how loyal and caring to the lonely stranger?

Lord, help me to see and love the lonely person, whoever they may be!

What about Jesus’ wonderful dignity?

At this pivotal moment in his life, he offers no resistance, either physical or verbal. “Why this show of force?” he mildly protests. “You could have come for me any time you wanted! I haven’t tried to hide myself away, have I?” So he is taken away, “led like a lamb to the slaughter”. Can you see the sad little procession, Jesus upright in the middle?

Where did he (fully human, remember, as well as fully divine) get this poise and dignity?

No doubt a life-time of self-discipline and deep spirituality fed into this. But the passage itself suggests two things which were particularly important.

First, he has just come through a time of intense, agonising prayer. Mark tells us that he was “deeply distressed and troubled”, Luke that “his sweat was like drops of blood”. He pleads with his Father to spare him the ordeal that lies ahead. But having come through that turmoil of prayer, he has found a new sense of peace and equilibrium.

There are times when we too need to grit our teeth and pray our way through hard situations. When perhaps those we have relied on fail us, what can we do but throw ourselves on the fatherly love of God and pour out our hearts to him? We may not get what we ask for, but we do reach a place of peace - not just a negative sense of resignation, but a positive acceptance of what we know in our hearts is right: “... not what I will, but what you will...”.

I wonder if any of us today need a determined getting-to-grips-with-God session, a real outpouring of our hearts?

Second, we shouldn’t overlook his simple words: “The scriptures must be fulfilled” (verse 50).

From early days, certainly by the time he was twelve, when he debated with the teachers in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2), Jesus had had a deep sense of personal destiny. I have sometimes wondered at exactly what point in his young life he, reading perhaps Isaiah 53, realised for the first time, “This is... me!”.

We have no way of knowing. But we do know that all his life he had been reflecting on the scriptures, and now, even though even he could not know all the details, he sees the jigsaw pieces of prophecy clicking into place. To suffer and to die is what he came for - so he lets them lead him away. In the words of Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame...”.

You too have a personal destiny. As do I. May God help us, by his Spirit, to find it, to follow it - and ultimately to rejoice in it. Isn’t this how we are to give honour to the one we call “Lord”?

O what a mystery,/ Meekness and majesty./ Bow down and worship/ For this is your God. Amen.   (Graham Kendrick)

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Can extravagance be holy?

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me...” Mark 14:3-6

Would you describe yourself as an extravagant person? - spending money you don’t really need to spend? - perhaps even money you don’t actually have? Ever have your family rolling their eyes or muttering under their breath?

If you do, you probably feel guilty about it. You may even have promised yourself that you really will rein it in; but, of course, that’s easier said than done. And, jokes aside, we all know of lives that have been ruined because of an irresponsible use of money.

Yes, extravagance is a pretty stupid thing; very often, indeed, a sin.

But... Are there perhaps exceptions? The Bible gives us a number of examples of what we might call holy extravagance.

One of the best of these is the unnamed woman of Mark 14. She approaches Jesus at a meal-table with a jar of “very expensive perfume” - the sort of thing, I imagine, that would normally be used in little dabs. And what does she do? She “broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head”. If that’s not extravagance, I don’t know what is.

Her action causes a right stink (so to speak). The disciples and others at the meal give vent to their outrage, and turn ferociously on the woman: “What a waste! Think of all the help the poor could have received if this perfume had been sold on their behalf!”

They have a point, of course. But Jesus, in spite of his undoubted love and concern for the poor, hungry and helpless, just dismisses it: “Leave her alone... Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me”. Isn’t that one of the greatest things Jesus ever said? I can picture the woman, cowering under the onslaught of criticism, now standing up straight and looking them full in the face.

The point, of course, is that the woman’s action was done not to gratify herself, but out of love for Jesus. She herself got nothing out of it - except the pleasure of honouring the one she had come to love, respect and, I imagine, in due course to worship.

The challenge for us is very simple. Are there occasions when we too might perform an act of holy extravagance? Could God be prompting us to do so right now?

The widow with her “two very small copper coins” thrown into the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44) is another wonderful example. Jesus tells his disciples that her giving is greater than that of the rich people, because “they all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on”.

And then there is Joseph Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37) who “sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet”. (Was that field intended as what we might call his pension-pot?)

In each of those examples, the act must have been prepared deliberately in advance - holy extravagance is not to be carried out lightly or impulsively.

Or - to digress for a moment - under any kind of pressure. Barnabas wasn’t alone in the early church to do such a thing; but there is no suggestion that it was demanded or expected of the first believers.
On the contrary, immediately after we are told about Barnabas, we are given another story: about a couple who wanted to be seen as extravagant, but who in fact weren’t. Ananias and Sapphira “also sold a piece of property”, but then “kept back part of the money... brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:1-11).

The problem wasn’t that they didn’t give the whole amount; no, that was fine. The problem was that they pretended to. Simon Peter made that very clear: “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”

While we admire the two women we have thought about, and also Barnabas, we can only feel deeply sad for this misguided couple. It’s sad that they wanted to be seen as something they weren’t - and even sadder that they saw nothing wrong in telling a lie. (Saddest of all, of course, is what happened to them - a solemn warning that it’s futile to lie to the God who knows all things.)

Holy extravagance isn’t only to do with money. It can take many forms - committing yourself to a new area of service, perhaps, or taking on a responsibility for something you’re not completely sure you can cope with. It is, putting it in a single word, risky. But isn’t faith often exactly that - taking a risk out of our love for God?

As I reflect on these stories, there’s an obvious question that nags away at my mind: When did I last (if ever) express my love for God in an act of holy extravagance? Or am I happy just being comfortable in my undemanding faith?

A question worth pondering...

Lord Jesus, please give me a loving heart, a wise mind, a generous spirit - and open hands. Amen.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Something even God can't do

Jesus said, If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Luke 17:3

I remember reading about a missionary family two of whose members were horribly killed by anti-Christian extremists. Within days of this atrocity they declared, “We have forgiven the people who did this.”

And I remember being both massively impressed and deeply humbled - what a glowing, Christlike act! Thinking about how I might have reacted to such a horror, it made me wonder if I was a real Christian at all.

But I found that along with this profound admiration, I somehow also felt uneasy deep down - “There’s something not quite right here...” It was a long time before I put my finger on what lay behind that feeling, perhaps because it seemed wrong to question in any way such a beautiful attitude. But my sense of unease refused to fade away.

And then I realised, very simply really, that the witness of those Christians, for all its wonderfulness, had failed to take account of a vital biblical theme: the link between forgiveness and repentance

Forgiveness is, of course, at the very heart of the Bible, both Old and New Testament. God is a loving and forgiving God, and you can quote passage after passage to demonstrate that supreme truth. But you don’t have to probe very deeply in order to see that that forgiveness is dependent on repentance - on us being truly sorry, and determined to turn around and re-boot our lives.

To put it bluntly, if we are not willing to repent, even God himself cannot forgive us.

Does that seem a shocking thing to say? Isn’t God “almighty”? Can’t he do anything? If that’s how we react, it shows that we have never really grasped the nature of the God revealed in the Bible. The point isn’t that he is unwilling to do so - certainly not! - he longs to forgive. No: it’s because to do so would go against his own holy nature, and even God cannot contradict himself. It would be like saying, “Sin doesn’t really matter that much, so I’m happy to turn a blind eye.”

The German writer Heinrich Heine is supposed to have said, “Dieu me pardonnera - c'est son metier” - “God will forgive me - it’s what he does”, which sums up perfectly a cynical, shallow and casual response to a deadly serious problem: “Forgiveness? Oh, don’t worry about that - that’s God’s job”.

Jesus makes the truth very clear. In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) he teaches us to pray for forgiveness: “Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us”. And immediately afterwards he adds a note of warning: “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. Could that be plainer?

That’s not God being grumpy or vindictive; it’s him saying, “Sin is a serious thing, and it needs to be dealt with, not ignored - even I can’t just brush it under the carpet”.

And in Luke 17:3, we shouldn’t miss those vital words “if they repent...”: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them”. Implying, “But if they don’t repent...” (you don’t need me to spell it out).

Does this mean that that missionary family were entitled to nurse anger, or harbour a grudge, against the people who killed their loved ones? No, not at all. If someone has wronged us, the willingness to forgive - indeed, a desire to forgive - must always be there. But by stating so boldly “We have forgiven the people who did this”, however well-meaning that was, they were in fact cheapening the whole idea of forgiveness. They were conveying to the killers that, in essence, right and wrong just don’t really matter that much.

It seems wrong to imply criticism of such a well-motivated desire to be like Jesus. But the fact is that we can be well-meaning to the nth degree - but still mistaken. Our need for forgiveness was bought at a great price - Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. It is not for us to cheapen that sacrifice.

Let’s imagine that that family had issued a different statement...

“In spite of our grief and distress at what has been done to us, we would like to reach out a hand of love and reconciliation to those who have hurt us so deeply. Our prayer is that they will recognise the wrong they have done, take hold of our hand, and enter into an experience of the loving forgiveness of God, purchased by his son Jesus on the cross.”

That wouldn’t have been easy - no easier than “We have forgiven these people”. But it would have reflected more accurately the totality of what God is like: deeply loving the sinner, but remorselessly hating the sin.

And perhaps it would have gone like an arrow to the hearts of those killers.

Heavenly Father, please give me your loving and forgiving heart - never to harbour grudges or nurse bitterness against those who have wronged me. Help me also to love and pray even for those who refuse to repent. Amen.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Is healing a gift for today?

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and illness. Matthew 10:1

A key moment has arrived in Jesus’ earthly ministry.

We aren’t told exactly how long his twelve disciples have been with him, but it’s been long enough for them to have heard his teaching and also to have witnessed his miracle-working powers. They have seen him heal people with leprosy and other diseases, cast demons out of people, and even raise the dead (Matthew 8 and 9).

They are awe-struck by what they see. “What kind of man is this?” they exclaim when he demonstrates his power even over the forces of nature (Matthew 8:27). What kind of man indeed!

And perhaps they sometimes thought, deep down, “Thank goodness he is here! Thank goodness we don’t have to do these things!”

Well, if they did think like that, they’re in for a bit of a shock.

Matthew tells us that he “called them to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and illness.” He says, in effect, “You see this divine authority I have from my Father? Well, now I am vesting it in you. For a time I’m not going to be with you - not physically, at any rate. But you will have the same authority as I have. So... get out there and use it!

And they did.

True, they didn’t have that authority to the same full extent, and there were times when they failed - Matthew 17:14-21 is a good example. But they had it nonetheless, and we are given various examples in the book of Acts, after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

This raises an intriguing question: Does the authority of Jesus extend to those who came after, or did it stop with the apostles? Does it even extend to us today?

As so often happens, sadly, Christians tend to go to opposite extremes on this question.

On the one hand, there are those who say, “Yes, we today should expect just the same power to work miracles of healing. Isn’t this exactly what’s promised in Isaiah 53:4, which Matthew has already quoted: ‘He took up our infirmities, and bore our diseases’ (8:17)?” There is, they will insist, “healing in the atonement” - in other words, Jesus’ sacrificial death accomplishes not only the forgiveness of our sins but also the healing of our bodies.

On the other hand, there are those who interpret verses like that in a non-literal sense. They maintain that while ultimately, of course, we will indeed be made perfectly whole, the supreme work of Jesus was to deal with the spiritual disease from which we all suffer - the disease of sin.

The New Testament makes at least two things very clear...

First, the authority of Jesus was not limited to the twelve.

Luke tells us that, after sending them out, Jesus also sent out “seventy-two others” - people over and above the first disciples. Giving them instructions for their mission, he includes the command, “Heal those who are ill and tell them ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’”. And it happened... “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name’” (Luke 10:8-17).

The church of Corinth, several years later, was a sorry mess in various respects. But when Paul teaches its members about “the gifts of the Spirit”, he includes “gifts of healing” (1 Corinthians 12:9). He obviously doesn’t think that such gifts ended with the twelve - even a bunch of problem Christians like the Corinthians might have miracle-workers among them.

But second, there can be no doubt that miraculous gifts become less prominent as time goes on.

There are examples of Christians not being healed... Timothy is told to "drink a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (note that, frequent illnesses!). Paul tells us that he “left Trophimus ill in Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:20) - this is the Paul who was actually used by God to raise the dead! And Paul himself, of course, had his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), which God told him he must learn to put up with it.

So... Should we expect to see miraculous gifts today?

There is no biblical reason why not. Certainly, if we are sick, we should pray for healing (perhaps with the laying on of hands and anointing with oil; James 5:14 means exactly what it says). And if we know someone who is sick, we should pray for them (without neglecting the God-given gift of medical science, of course).

The key is to be neither presumptuous (“God must heal if only I have enough faith”) nor defeatist (“Certainly, I will pray for a person’s spiritual needs, but not for their physical needs”).

What do you think? I hope I’ve got the biblical balance about right.

But who knows... if we are people of real faith, and filled with Holy Spirit, if we are people who pray with expectation - who knows when the Holy Spirit may come in power and you or I may be used in a miraculous way?

Don’t dismiss the possibility!

Lord God, I pray daily to be used by you in the bread-and-butter business of life. But give me also the faith and vision to believe that, by the empowering of your Holy Spirit, you might also use me in exceptional and even miraculous ways. Amen.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Christian, you are a work of art!

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10

Anyone who has ever tried to grapple with Paul’s letters will know that there are times it can be hard work.

What does such-and-such a verse mean? Why is this argument so hard to follow? People are sometimes asked in interviews, “If you could sit and have a conversation with some figure from the past, who would you choose?” Well, for me, Paul would come pretty near the top of such a list - oh to be able to ask him for a bit of clarification!

But this is what makes it so refreshing when you come across a passage (and there are plenty of them; he isn’t all difficult!) which shines out like a clear, steady light. I think Ephesians 2:8-10 is a perfect example. If you like to decorate your walls with challenging and encouraging words to read while you brush your teeth, I don’t think you could do better than make a poster out of this luminous little passage.

In verses 8 and 9 Paul bangs fairly and squarely on the head any notion that our salvation is our own doing. No! - “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - not by works...”
Then in verse 10 he sums it all up by telling us pretty much everything we need to know about ourselves...

First, he tells who we are: “God’s handiwork”.

I know someone who is a talented artist. All right, you won’t see his pictures in some famous gallery, but to the untrained eye they are impressive, seriously impressive.

Perhaps you are good with your hands - making things, doing home improvements. In which case you will know the feeling when you stand back and look at what you have done and think “Yes, not bad, not bad at all! That’s my handiwork!”

Handiwork. This is the word Paul uses to describe how God sees us. You could translate it, “We are what he is making us.”

Do you think of yourself as God’s handiwork - a beautiful living work of art, a renewed human being remodelled on the likeness of Christ?

Second, Paul tells us how we’ve come to be what we are. It’s because we have been “created in Christ Jesus”.

God’s original creation went badly wrong, starting with the sin of Adam and Eve in Eden. So he plans to make a new creation. And this was begun on the morning of Christ’s resurrection - he is “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), a second Adam, a new Adam.

And the great thing about putting our faith in Jesus is that, as a result, he gathers  us into himself, so to speak - we become part of him. If you read Paul carefully you find that often he describes God’s people as being “in Christ”. And that is why he says here that we have been “created in Christ Jesus”.

Do you see yourself as not only a new creation in yourself personally, but as part of the whole new creation that God is bringing into being in his Son?

Third, Paul tells us what it’s all for: we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works”.

Notice what he doesn’t say... Not that we are created in Christ Jesus so that we can rejoice that our sins are forgiven and that we are reconciled to God (wonderfully true though that is)... Not that we are created in Christ Jesus so that we can be sure that when this earthly life is over we shall be eternally with him (wonderfully true though that is too).

No. We are created in Christ Jesus “to do good works”, and these are works pre-planned by God precisely for us: “prepared in advance for us to do”. That could be translated “pre-planned so that we might walk in them”, where “walking” suggests a whole new way of life, and the good works are part and parcel of it.

But what sort of good works does Paul have in mind? Is he talking primarily about prayer, evangelism, mission? Is his emphasis purely on the “spiritual” needs of men and women?

I don’t think so. Vitally important though those things are, I suspect he has in mind deeds of Christ-like love, for which opportunities crop up every day. People aren’t simply souls to be saved, they are human beings who need to see - and to experience - the love of God in practical ways.

You could sum up Paul’s message in these three verses: Good works can never lead to salvation; but they are bound to lead from it.

People can’t eat prayer... and nor can they understand a gospel that isn’t demonstrated in deeds. Is this a truth we need to take to heart?

Lord God, thank you for making me a new person in Christ. And thank you that you have prepared good works for me to walk in. Help me to earn the right to speak your gospel to those who don’t yet believe - and to do so by filling my days with those good works. Amen.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Christians with wacky views?

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 

On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.  When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. Acts 19:1-7

It’s around 52 AD, some twenty-odd years after Jesus was crucified, and after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church on the day of Pentecost. And it’s in Ephesus, a major city of the Roman empire, about 600 miles from Jerusalem.

That’s the setting for a very odd story.

Paul has paid an earlier, fleeting visit to Ephesus (Acts 18:19-21), but now he returns for what will turn out to be a far longer stay. And no sooner has he arrived than he comes across a puzzling group of people. Luke refers to them as “disciples”, which generally means “Christians”, but in the story I’ve quoted above it appears that they might be better described as “disciples of John the Baptist”, not of Jesus at all.

How so? Well, they have never received any baptism apart from the one given by John (verse 3); it seems they haven’t been baptised into Jesus. Indeed, the way Paul mentions Jesus makes you wonder if they knew his name at all. But then, neither have they ever heard of the Holy Spirit (verse 2)! – in spite of the clear teaching of John as recorded in, say, Mark 1:8. How confusing is this!

You can almost hear Paul’s mind whirring into gear: “Mmm, there’s something not quite right here! Something missing!” 

As a result, he does two things. First, he baptises them again, but this time “in the name of the Lord Jesus”; and second, he prays for them with the laying on of hands so that that they not only believe in the Holy Spirit, but actually experience him in a very tangible way, namely with “tongues” and “prophesy”.

The story bristles with intriguing questions…

Who were these men? Members of some kind of “John the Baptist sect”? If so, how come it had survived for over twenty years since John’s death? And how come these men were located in a big centre of imperial Rome, six hundred miles from Galilee, Judah and Jerusalem?

Still more… Were these men “Christians”? Or should we call them “not-quite-Christians”? or “sort-of-Christians”? or, perhaps, “half-Christians”? If they really were disciples of John the Baptist, how come they had missed the fact that all he was bothered about was to point people to Jesus, not draw them to himself? Wasn’t this the man who spoke those wonderful words, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30)?

What’s going on?

I wish I knew all the answers. I don’t, of course – but in that respect I find I’m in good company among Bible-teachers and real experts. Still, this strange episode suggests two or three lessons worth noticing.

First, it corrects any idea we may have had that early Christianity, even in New Testament days, was completely uniform.

It wasn’t! Quite apart from Acts 19, the book as a whole makes clear that there were various “schools of thought” among different Christian groups – perhaps especially between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians (you can follow that up in Acts 15 and in Galatians if you like).

Second, it suggests that if that was the case in the earliest days, how much more is it likely to be the case today!

Our world is far more complicated than theirs, with a massive multiplicity of religious ideas, some pretty much Christian, others barely so, and others decidedly not. So let’s not be surprised if we come across “Christians” with somewhat wacky views.

Third, it warns us to be very careful about nailing our colours to rickety masts.

I don’t have any doubt that dear, faithful, Jesus-centred John the Baptist would have been utterly horrified to know that there were “disciples of John the Baptist” so long after Easter and Pentecost. (I suspect too that Martin Luther would be bemused if he knew that a whole denomination was named after him; or John Calvin, that there is a branch of Christianity which likes to call itself “Calvinist” – hear Paul on this sort of thing in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17!)

Pigeon-holes are, no doubt, very useful things for letters, keys and such-like (maybe even for pigeons!), but they aren’t designed for people to be squashed into. People are individual, varied and different, with messy lives, messy views – and sometimes messy doctrines. Let’s get used to it.

But… not too used to it!

We mustn’t miss the fact that once Paul had spotted the odd situation of the “disciples” in Ephesus, he decided to do something about it. He wasn’t content to let it rest as if it didn’t matter. And neither should we.

So… If we come across “sort-of-Christians” who are obviously confused, untaught or half-taught on various matters, it is the responsibility of those who have a reasonable grasp of Bible teaching to help them towards a fuller understanding – with, of course, patience, sensitivity and love.

Only may God grant us the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to do it well!

Lord God, enable me always to say of Jesus, “He must become greater, I must become less”. And help me too to patiently and lovingly lead others to say the same, however strange some of their ideas might be. Amen.