Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing

This was not the topic I was imagining I’d be writing about when I thought to get back into blogging. I’d much rather write some encouraging posts – and there are some in the works.

But during the past few days some revelations in the media were too big to ignore. Both relate to two men who took on the mantle of shepherds of God’s people. Two men who failed in different ways.

The first article from Vanity Fair details the fall of Hillsong New York lead pastor Carl Lentz, as well as some of the many systemic troubles within the church.

Here are a couple of lines that made me pause:

“In his last year of school, Lentz interned for [Brian] Houston, washing his car and picking up his dry cleaning.”

“Carl is like a Brian Houston mini-me,” the former employee says, observing the church leader’s Sunday routine: Taking a chauffeured car to the church’s rear entrance and then a private elevator to the greenroom; sitting in the greenroom watching sports, sometimes chatting with celebrities or athletes who dropped in. “When it’s time for the service to begin, he sits in a special section, surrounded by his people,” the staffer says. “Then he goes onstage. And then he leaves. He never actually interacts with the people he ministers to.”

I’m not keen to comment much further – it feels like an easy snipe at those not in my tribe and the lengthy article does enough of a deep dive into the issues.

The second big piece of news that came out is a bit more personally devastating, and I write this piece now partly as catharsis.

News broke over the past few days concerning Miller and Martin investigative report into allegations of sexual immorality by Ravi Zacharias.

But before I dive into the recent revelations about Ravi a bit of personal background.

I became a Christian in 2001 from a Buddhist home. It was through the reading of some apologetic material (The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel) and going through Christianity Explained that I found myself drawn to the beauty and wonder of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As a new Christian, I began devouring whatever books I was given on Christianity.

On May 19th last year, on the news of Ravi’s death, I wrote this in tribute to explain Ravi’s impact on my fledgling Christian life:

“I had just finished a couple of books, and she turned to me and asked, “Are you ready to read something meatier?” She passed me ‘Can Man Live Without God?’ by Ravi Zacharias and I chewed it up. It was the fourth Christian book I had received after becoming a Christian only weeks earlier, and I devoured it. I had already become convinced that the Christian faith was tenable and trustworthy, Ravi’s book (and his subsequent works) also showed me that the Christian faith was also philosophically and logically rigorous and satisfying.”

Ravi’s book encouraged me profoundly. And it was his other works and lectures that also partly inspired me to enter full-time paid ministry. Part of me wanted to be able to help answer questions of the faith in logically rigorous and pastorally sensitive ways – just like Ravi had done for me, I wanted to do with others (albeit on a much smaller local scale compared to Ravi’s global ministry).

A few years ago I, along with many others, heard the news that Ravi had been involved in a sexting scandal. By this point I wasn’t reading much of Ravi’s work anymore – partly because I had less time – and I didn’t follow up much afterwards. I, along with others, took what the RZIM had said on the matter as the final word – they had investigated, and Ravi was cleared. He apparently made some errors and was seemingly repentant.

After his death further allegations surfaced. This time much more serious. Then a few months later the full report was released.

It is devastating.

The report is short but hard reading. Christianity Today has an article detailing some of the background and the current response of RZIM. RZIM has their own post about the matter, and the UK Board of the Zacharias Trust has released a statement as well.

I spent a good day rattled by the report. The details are horrendous. Ravi didn’t simply stumble in sin like we all do, and he wasn’t just a hero with feet of clay – he systematically took advantage of and sexually abused a number of women, using his position and power and authority over them. The manner in which he carried on this abuse and the way he covered himself up are beyond compare. I think it’s fair to say that our generation has not seen a higher profile Christian figure fall so far from grace.

One of my FB friends reposted this open ‘Letter to Christian Friends on Ravi Zacharias’ from David Deane. I want to quote at length some points he has made in response to some of the comments and criticisms of this report that he (and I) have read over the past few days:

I am weary from reading and listening to Christians responding to this report with non-Scriptural Christianese and empty platitudes like “sin is sin,” “Christians shouldn’t judge,” “look how Jesus dealt with the woman at the well,” and “no one is perfect, just look at King David!”

First – “sin is sin.” This is a nonsense tautology empty of meaning. And as it concerns the consequences of sin, it is simply false. God help anyone who thinks the sin of stealing a packet of gum is the same as the sin of rape.

Second – “Christians shouldn’t judge.” Not only is this self-defeating in its very pronouncement, which makes a judgement of certain Christians, it is antithetical nonsense. The Bible calls Christians to “seek justice,” “bring justice,” and “do justice” (Isa. 1:17; Mic. 6:8). How do you do that without judging rightly? We cannot condemn without judging, but we can judge without condemning. We must.

Third – “look how Jesus dealt with the woman at the well.” A more appropriate case for reflection would be to look at how Jesus dealt with the Pharisees, because they, like Ravi, were the leaders of God’s people at the time. The woman at the well was not. Jesus directed some of His harshest words towards the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and that’s the issue here as it concerns Ravi. A basic expectation of New Testament believers is obedience borne out of a desire to honour our Saviour King for who He is and what He has done. Leaders in particular are called to live above reproach, meaning the stakes are higher and full and public exposition and repentance is necessary when failures are realised. Church leaders must be held to account for what has been entrusted to them (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1-16; Titus 1:5-9; Jas. 3:1f, etc.). Nothing about our doctrine of grace is soft on sin.

Fourth – “no one is perfect, just look at King David.” Yes, there are points of similarity between the sins of David and the sins of Ravi, but they are outweighed by some significant differences. For one, David’s crime was local, opportunistic, and compounded; Ravi’s was global, calculated, guarded, organised, stubborn, predatory, and enduringly cruel. “Blasphemy” – the carrying of God’s name for ungodly ends – is the summary word that came to mind when I finish reading the report. And for another, when Nathan confronted David and charged “Thou art the man!” David crumbled in brokenness and repented before the Lord. Ravi was confronted multiple times and we have no evidence that he ever repented and multiple instances where he doubled down and went on the offensive. The RICO lawsuit against Lori Anne Thompson is a case in point. Just three weeks after filing, he was receiving explicit photos, and just one day after his public statement on the settlement (12 Mar 2017), he received more photos. Add to all of this the fact that Ravi himself preached on the moral failures of David, and you have to ask the question: what degree of cognitive dissonance are we talking about here?

I hate that I’m writing this, but I feel compelled by the ugliness of my own heart to do so. Many Christians around the world are understandably hurt, shocked and disillusioned by this scandal that seems to defy everything we thought we knew about Ravi for so long. But these Christianese responses do not move us in the right direction. Part of the reason Ravi’s fall is so posthumously great is because he was placed in such a high almost untouchable position by Christians. We have a tendency in the Church to look up to the Ravi’s and the David’s but the notion of a ‘Christian celebrity’ is an oxymoron. Our culture cries for equality and at the foot of the cross we have it! Every single one of us is equal in our desperate need of Jesus. Don’t look to David – look to Christ!

I want to add a fifth point.

Fifth – “the man is not here to defend himself.” No, he is not. He will ultimately be held accountable to the perfect judge as he is, no doubt, being so at the present moment. But that does not excuse us from looking at this report carefully and listening to the various corroborating voices. The methodology of the report is sound. The witnesses gave credible accounts that verify the allegations. Multiple sources giving similar overlapping accounts must be taken seriously. As seriously as we take the multiple sources giving similar overlapping accounts of the resurrection that we find in the gospels.

Deane goes on his post to say that he will no longer be recommending Zacharias’ books. I feel like I am in the same position. This feels different to a Joshua Harris moment. Harris’ books are no longer in print, but at least when I read his stuff now I can, with sadness, still hear the words of someone who believed what he wrote at the time.

But Zacharias… I have his latest book on my shelf (‘The Logic of God’ released in 2019) but I cannot bring myself to read it, knowing that the truths in that book were written at a time when he was abusing women and covering his tracks.

In the light of all the reports, I’ve come to a sad and troubling conclusion: Ravi was not merely a lost sheep who acted hypocritically, he was a wolf in shepherds clothing.

May God have mercy on his soul.

 

 

P.S

Another comment in response to the question of whether or not we should get rid of Ravi’s books in the light of these revelations, and a great response from one of my friends:

Q: Do we remove the book of Psalms from the Old Testament because of King David’s act of adultery and murder?

A: Not the same.

David repented. The Psalms even contain his explicit statements of repentance. David didn’t gaslight Nathan when Nathan called out his act of rape and murder.

Ravi went to his grave perpetuating the lie that one of his victims — the one who dared to expose him while he was alive — was an extortionist; and conducting illicit relationships based on awful power dynamics around the world, betraying his Lord, the church, his various victims, his wife, his family and colleagues.

 

P.P.S

Another friend has asked whether the news that various Christian bookstores (like Koorong) have removed Ravi’s titles (and his publisher has stopped printing his works) amounts to cancel culture?

To that, I’d say no it does not. It’s a recognition that the teacher’s lessons and his life are inseparable in the biblical worldview. If my conclusion in this post is correct, that Ravi was a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, then his works cannot be recommended. Should they be burned? No. Should they be printed and sold ongoing? No. His works will survive. Records will be kept. But the memory of what he did must forever taint that work.

An Addendum to ‘Be Strong and Courageous’

Last Sunday we began our series in Joshua. Towards the end I said that the phrase ‘be strong and courageous’ wasn’t something necessarily applicable to Christians today for two reasons:

  1. Nowhere else in the Old Testament is this phrased used; and
  2. The phrase is never used for Christians in the New Testament.

To make the point that this phrase was particular to Joshua I showed how God’s command in giving it was set within the historical context of Joshua for the moment.

I realised now that point 1 is actually incorrect.

The phrase is used a number of other times in the Old Testament – however each time it is used, it still appears only applicable within its primary historical context. For instance:

It is used three of times in Deuteronomy (31:6-7, 23) – but this is particular to Joshua again. The repetition of those words in Joshua 1, I think, further fuels the idea that Joshua is feeling weak and afraid!

Joshua himself uses the phrase to encourage the men of Israel in 10:25 – right before striking down the 5 kings of Canaan. In context, this phrase is again particular to the context of the conquest of Canaan by Israel.

David also uses the phrase with his son Solomon in 1 Chronicles 22:13, 28:20 – both times in relation to Solomon’s task of building the Temple.

The final usage of the phrase comes in 2 Chronicles 32:7 when good king Hezekiah uses the phrase to bolster the courage of his men as they faced the armies of Assyria. The usage of this phrase within this battle context makes sense of how it is used with Joshua.

In the New Testament, there is no ‘be strong and courageous’ imperative – but there are moments of courage and strength to be had.

However, to be strong is usually within the context of being weak! For instance:

In 2 Corinthians 12:10, Paul powerfully makes his argument that it is through his weakness that God displays his strength and power. So, Paul declares, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong.’

In Hebrews 11:34 the use of the word ‘strong’ is also within the context of weakness.

In 1 Corinthians 16:13, we have an imperative to be strong that comes closest to a somewhat militarist mode – but even then it is used metaphorically of standing firm in the faith. This show of strength differs from the battle context in which Joshua is told to be strong.

Being ‘strong’ is otherwise used in the New Testament to indicate maturity of faith (eg 1 John 2:14, Romans 15:1, Ephesians 6:10).

Courage is used less frequently than strong in the New Testament, and the three particular uses by Paul (2 Corinthians 5:6, 8; Philippians 1:20) appear to be within the context of gospel-driven hope to power him on in ministry.

This survey of OT and NT uses of ‘strong and courageous’ still, I hope, demonstrates that the phrase within Joshua is still primarily applicable to Joshua – and the greater ‘Joshua’ to come. Because Joshua was ‘strong and courageous’ he led his people to claim what was promised to them. Because the greater Joshua to come, Jesus, was ‘strong and courageous’ he has won the greatest battle on our behalf, and we can claim the promise of eternal life through him.

Or to use the analogy from Sunday – Jesus has taken the ball, run over the opposition, and we follow in his footsteps enjoying his victory, cheering his works, and giving thanks that we are now on his team.

 

He Will Make All Things New (Pastor’s Desk)

It’s hard to imagine that only four weeks ago was the last time most of us saw all of us together. You’d probably have to go back a few weeks more to remember when our church was beginning to fill up with new students starting the year, visiting parents, newcomers along with all the regular faces we’re so used to seeing.

But that was then, and this is now. God’s people have always been a people called and gathered together by our God – and over the past 2000 years only in a few other rare and exceptional circumstances have churches not gathered together. It’s sometimes astonishing to think that it took an invisible virus to once again do prevent our gatherings.

But in 2020 our technological advances mean we haven’t stopped opening God’s Word with each other – online, digitally, through the screen. And with that has come a different way of looking at things, and a new learning curve.

As SLE Church closed its doors a few weeks ago and moved online, there was heaps of tension in the air. Behind the scenes we had guys like Ivan Tan, Li Wei Wee and Matthew Tao – along with the other musicians and PA guys working out all the tech of live streaming. (Drop them an encouraging message and say thanks!). We’ve had some hitches with live-streaming the second service that we’re aware of and ironing out. But we’re glad that it’s gone relatively smoothly.

Quite a number of our fellowship groups have been working out how to move online as well – using Zoom, Jitsi Meet, Google Hangouts, and other video conferencing sites. We’ve been able to maintain some contact, some catchups, and some prayer between us even as we remain socially distanced, and self-isolated. And if you’re not already connected in this way, let us encourage you to seek those options out – contact Ben, myself, or one of your fellowship leaders to get connected.

Feedback on these online gatherings has been generally positive – but there is one piece of feedback that has come up consistently – and it’s worth repeating: the feedback is that while online meetings have generally been ok, it isn’t the same as being face to face.

No, it isn’t. And I think this is all the more reason to keep persisting with meeting online when we can – and not just in our small bible study groups, but catching up with more people online 1 to 1. It isn’t the same, and every time we meet online we are reminded of what we have lost. You’d think that in this day and age of webcams and chat groups that we would overcome that loss – but something is still missing.

I miss seeing people face to face – of seeing you smile, of responding with my own smile, of you connecting with this and joy being shared. I miss looking at people’s eyes, of seeing the hidden joys and pains. I miss the appropriate hugs of joy. I miss the singing at church – oh how I miss hearing each other’s voices together!

And all of this is why we should persist in meeting online. Because with every online meeting we build up within us a longing for more, a desire for a return to our gathered time together.

One of my friends, Stephen McAlpine, wrote on his blog recently that after all this is over there will be a lot of hugging when church gets back together again.

But as much as I look forward to that day when SLE Church gathers again in person – that day will be a shadow of the better, brighter day to come.

It will be as it has been written in the Bible:

[1] Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. [2] And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. [3] And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. [4] He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

[5] And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Let’s keep gathering together online, as a church, in our fellowship groups, and in one to one catch ups with each other. And let’s keep doing so looking forward not only to the day when we rejoice together as a church, but also looking forward to that day when we will rejoice with all Christians from history past and history future, around the throne of Jesus, forever more.

Revelation 21:1–5

“He will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Himself. And there will be no more social distancing. Ever. Again.”
– Stephen McAlpine

When Loving each other means not seeing each other (Pastor’s Desk)

When Jesus was asked to summarise the Law he distilled it down to two commands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind; the second command is to love your neighbour as yourself (cf Matt 22:34-40)

On Wednesday the Prime Minister of Australia announced some strict measures to combat the Covid19 spread and help flatten the curve (Edit: this post was written pre-weekend, on Sunday evening the PM announced further stricter measures). Flattening the curve has been the catch cry during this period – and is basically the hope of medical professionals that through good hygiene practices and ‘social distancing’ we will be able to keep the number of infections low enough that serious cases will not overload our already loaded medical facilities. If the curve is not flattened, if the number of infections is allowed to grow unchecked, then the number of serious infections will quickly overwhelm our systems and people will die who might not have – Italy being a particularly serious example of this.

The virus itself has so far clearly shown itself to be quite deadly for elderly generations and those with compromised immune systems, and it is not ‘just like the flu’. Given this information, and given the demographics of our church, we believe that as an act of loving our church members, doing good to the household of faith (cf Gal 6:10), and ultimately as an act of loving God, we would heed the government’s warnings on this matter and temporarily cancel our services.

So, it was a little disappointing to hear recently of someone breaking the government-mandated 14 self-isolation and brushing off concerns with, ‘I’m young…’ and ‘You should have more faith.’

Let me explain why this is not only naïve and foolish but also breaking the greatest commandment #2 and ultimately commandment #1: if you were to catch the virus then sure, being of young age would mean that you would have a high chance of survival – but what of those to whom you have passed it on during your contagious incubation period? What of the person three or four steps removed from you who has received the virus because you chose to ignore the warnings? That is not loving your neighbour as yourself. It is profoundly self-interested.

If I understand the interplay of the two great commands together, then the implication is that if you willingly choose to not love your neighbour, you are not truly loving God. The two are tied together. Christians who do not heed governmental authority in these matters (cf Romans 13) or your church leadership are not demonstrating faithfulness. They are demonstrating disobedience.

So let this be an exhortation for us all – let us care for each other in this season by heeding the warnings of our government, practising good hygiene and appropriate social distancing, and to do so not out of mere lip service but out of love for God and love for our neighbour.

 

Christian – stop using Psalm 91 against Covid 19!

If you haven’t already, expect to see it sometime soon: a misapplied, ripped out of context, application of Psalm 91 to believers in this present Covid 19 crisis.

Here’s the full Psalm:

Psalm 91

[1] He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
[2] I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

[3] For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
[4] He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

[5] You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
[6] nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

[7] A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
[8] You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.

[9] Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
[10] no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.

[11] For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
[12] On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
[13] You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

[14] “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
[15] When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honour him.
[16] With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.” (ESV)

As you can see verses 6 and 10 appear to be the favourite reasons why this Psalm is being quoted as encouragement and security for Christians in our present crisis.

But let me give you one big reason, among many, why we should be extremely conscious of not applying this passage directly to us: Satan tried that on Jesus.

In Matthew 4 as a part of the temptations of Jesus, Satan quotes Psalm 91:11-12 and tells Jesus that if he were to jump off the temple roof then, according to this Psalm, God would take care of him. Jesus retorts that this would be testing God.

So, here’s a biblical interpretative principle for those who were not aware – if the Devil misapplies scripture then we would do very well to check we are not doing the same.

And especially when it comes to the particular passage that he misapplied.

Of the examples, I have been sent or come across recently the usage of Psalm 91 has been to take this Old Testament passage, treat it as a promise for believers today, and encourage the reader/listener to take hold of the promises contained within. Not only does this ignore biblical theology but it sets Christians up for thorough disappointment and accompanying disillusionment.

Think about it. If you take the promises of this Psalm and apply it directly onto our lives here in Covid 19 panic-filled 2020 then it raises some very important questions:

  • What happens if you, a believer, get sick with the virus? Has God not kept his promise?
  • What happens if a believer dies because of the virus? Did they not have enough faith that God would protect them?
  • What happens when you do feel afraid when the panic around you begins to settle into your own heart? Does that mean we have not been delivered?

The Psalm itself opens up some odd applications if they were to be directly applied to believers today. For instance, in v13 when it speaks of treading on lions and adders – there’s a language of dominion over these creatures. Of victory over them. Yet I don’t see Christians rushing out to their local zoo, or booking flights to Africa, to show off their victory in God by having dominion over these wild animals.

But let’s say you argue we should read v13 metaphorically – then can I ask why you read that verse metaphorically but not the other verses? Why does your hermeneutic (your principles of interpretation) change so dramatically within the Psalm?

Let me put it bluntly – applying Psalm 91 directly to ourselves is a misapplication and misinterpretation of the scriptures.

But don’t take it just from me. Jesus says so.

In Luke 24 Jesus gives us the proper way we should be interpreting the whole of scripture:

[44] Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” [45] Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, [46] and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, [47] and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. [48] You are witnesses of these things.

(Luke 24:44–48)

Right there in Luke 24:44, Jesus says that everything written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (ie the entire Old Testament) are about him and must be fulfilled. This is not to say that Jesus cherry-picked a whole bunch of verses that ‘prophesied’ his coming – he opened up the scriptures to the disciples to show them how each part pointed forward to his life, death, and resurrection.

So here’s how Jesus applied the Old Testament: as pointing forward and helping us understand who he is and what he came to accomplish. If your reading or application of the Old Testament doesn’t help you understand the gospel then you are fundamentally misreading it.

Or put it another way – if your reading and application of the Old Testament (or indeed the whole Bible) isn’t Christian, if it could be equally applied to the Jew or the Muslim, then you have failed to understand the point and purpose of the Old Testament.

So, then, how do we understand and apply Psalm 91?

Without going into a full exegesis of the passage let me make a few observations.

First, in verses 1-2 you can see the particular context and ground for the fantastic promises made in the Psalm: those who shelter, abide in, and find refuge in Yahweh. The idea of taking refuge – finding shelter and safety – in Yahweh is littered throughout the Psalms and the Old Testament. So only those who have sought refuge in Yahweh will experience the blessings promised within.

Second, as you go through the Psalm and compare it to Deuteronomy 28 you’ll notice that the blessings of Psalm 91 find a number of parallels to the blessings of the covenant in Deuteronomy. The parallels help us see that the blessings of Psalm 91, and Deuteronomy 28, are available for those who keep the Old covenant.

Which, let me be clear, is not Christians because we live under a new covenant.

But if I could summarise the main point of Psalm 91 I would say that those who find refuge in Yahweh will experience the fullness of victory and blessing.

But as we read the Psalm within the context of the Old Testament we find that none of these promises in Psalm 91 ever found fulfilment. There were hints of them through the kingship of David – but most of the history of Israel is not filled with any sort of total encompassing life victory that Psalm 91 holds out for God’s people.

That is until the coming of Jesus.

Jesus who lived a sinless life, who deserved to enjoy the blessings of the covenant (and Psalm 91), experienced the covenant curses on behalf of others. His resurrection was God’s approval that his substitutionary sacrifice sufficiently paid the penalty and curses.

And now, for those united to Jesus by faith, who are ‘in Christ’ (Yahweh’s King), they have been richly blessed with every blessing in the heavenly realms (cf Ephesians 1:3), and can now enjoy guaranteed future glory in Christ even though they suffer temporarily now (cf Romans 8).

Therefore, those in Christ, by faith alone, are able to enjoy the blessings of Psalm 91 because they are eternally secure in Christ and can now face any trial, suffering, or brokenness without fear.

Psalm 91 does not hold out a life free from suffering and sickness and Covid 19. Psalm 91, fulfilled for us in Christ, holds out the promised blessings that are eternally secured even in the face of present suffering and sickness and, yes, even death.

Christian: stop applying Psalm 91 directly to yourself and others. It is not only a misapplication of the text but also a shallow hope. Psalm 91, as it points us to the gospel of Jesus, gives us eternal hope even when we face the fiery arrows, the terrors of the night, pestilence and destruction of the present.

6 Steps to Presuming on God’s Grace (Pastor’s Desk)

To presume on God’s grace is to take for granted, or assume, that God will show favour towards you. It is a thoroughly dangerous place to be, and as we saw in Jonah 2 it has dangerous consequences for how we relate to God and to our world.

Nobody, I hope (!), intentionally presumes on God’s grace. So how does one end up at that point?

Here are six steps to the process, not necessarily all in order, and all of them subtle drifts from intentional gospel-centred thankfulness and humility.

  1. Assume the gospel. This means not only are you not clear on what the gospel is, but it primarily means that the gospel becomes sidelined. It moves from central place in our teaching and how we do ministry. We don’t actively or explicitly teach it, and we view it as only something to be used when speaking with non-Christians. Our Bible studies, gatherings, sermons, or other teaching moments do not bring the gospel in, rather it is assumed in the background of all that is being said.
  2. Refocus on your good works. Next step is to subtly shift emphasis in your good works from being a response of faithfulness to making them about keeping your status of grace. This will go hand in hand with assuming the gospel. A technical way of saying this is that we quietly assume the indicatives (what God has done for us in Jesus and the gospel) and we focus on the imperatives (what we must do). When you focus on what you should be doing you’ll eventually get used to the idea that faith is all about doing stuff. And then it’s a short step from there to doing stuff in order to keep your salvation.
  3. Focus your Bible reading on yourself. The task here is to not read in order to understand God’s plans and purposes in Jesus Christ. Rather you are trying to find yourself in the story. It will help to look for heroes of the faith who should be imitated – because by imitating them you show yourself to be one who has true faith. Think of yourself as a neutral observer, making judgements on the actions of the biblical characters. Feel a touch of pride that you’re not as bad as those who fail. Ignore that these stories hold up a mirror to our own failings.
  4. Focus your prayers on yourself. And by this I mean spend all of your prayer time on your physical needs and wants. Don’t let scripture shape how you should pray. Don’t spend time in adoration and thanksgiving. Prayer is about getting your wants met from your heavenly Father. If you must pray for others focus on their spiritual needs alone (and not their physical needs), for it will make you feel very spiritual.
  5. Ignore sin. You know that you’re not perfect, but it’s ok – God knows it and has already shown you grace. There’s no need to acknowledge the wrongs you have done, no need to confess sin, and therefore no need to repent. And there is no special need to do this publicly, or as a congregation.
  6. Form an echo chamber. Surround yourself with those exactly like you – in opinion, in age, and even in race or nationality. Finding people of like mind is crucial here. People who push back on you should be avoided and are probably less mature in the faith than you are. Reduce or don’t mix with non-Christians. Remember they need grace, but they’ve got to really want to know God. Sticking with an echo chamber is also very comfortable and secure.

Bonus step:

  1. Be a consumer, not a builder. When it comes to church your primary job is to receive teaching and give in your offering. Anything that requires building your brothers and sisters up in faith and maturity is purely optional and will probably take time away from your echo chamber.

 

Some of these steps may be tongue in cheek, but in concert together they work to build a person who presumes on God’s grace. Living this way long enough ultimately leads to hearing these devastating words, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (cf Matthew 7:23).

Friends, may we never presume the grace of God – may it always be central to our lives and as truly awesome and profound that it is.

The Family – a prayer from ‘The Valley of Vision’ (Pastor’s Desk)

The Valley of Vision is a wonderful collection puritan prayers. If you haven’t got it I highly commend it as a way of growing your prayer vocabulary. Here is the prayer ‘The Family’, with updated English, which, I think, focuses on our familial relationship in church.

—-

O Sovereign Lord,

You are the Creator-Father of all men,
for you have made and support them;

You are the special Father of those who know, love, and honour you,
who find your yoke easy, and your burden light,
your work honourable,
your commandments glorious.

But how little your undeserved goodness has affected me!
How imperfectly have I improved my religious privileges!
How negligent have I been in doing good to others!

I am before you in my trespass and sins,
have mercy on me,
and my your goodness bring me to repentance.

Help me hate and forsake every false way,
to be attentive to my condition and character,
to bridle my tongue,
to keep my heart with all diligence,
to watch and pray against temptation,
to kill sin,
to be concerned for the salvation of others.

O God, I cannot endure to see the destruction of my kindred.

Let those who are united to me in tender ties
be precious in your sight and devoted to your glory.

Sanctify and prosper my domestic devotion,
instruction, discipline, example,
that my house may be a nursery for heaven,
my church the garden of the Lord,
enriched with the trees of righteousness of your planting,
for your glory;

Let not those of my family who are amiable, moral, attractive,
fall short of heaven at last;

Grant that the promising appearances of a tender conscience,
soft heart, the alarms and delights of your Word,
be not finally blotted out, but bring forth judgement to victory
in all whom I love.

Amen.

A Quick Word on Bible Translations (Pastor’s Desk)

I haven’t blogged much in the past couple of years, but I have been writing. I figured I can always throw up on here my Pastor’s Desks that I write up every other week for our church bulletin. So here’s last Sunday’s Pastor’s Desk with some additional links.

[Context: the week before I had preached on ‘The Bible’ as part of our Church’s ‘On Firm Foundations’ sermon series. During the sermon I made a tangential point regarding Bible translations, and warning against a particular “translation”: The Passion Translation. Links regarding that at the end.]

——

William Tyndale was martyred in 1536 for translating the Bible into English. We owe so much to this man who made the Bible readily available to the masses. Even today, some two thirds of the English Standard Version contain the original words and phrases translated by Tyndale!

Since then there has been an explosion of different translations of the Bible and praise God for that! Multiple translations are a gracious gift from our God – giving us translations that are easy to read (even for children), and translations that help us grapple with what was originally written.

Translations fall into three main categories. There are word for word translations that seek to give an accurate translation of the original scripture manuscripts. Examples include the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV) and the old King James Version (KJV).

The second category of Bibles are thought for thought translations. As indicated in the name of the category the translators have attempted to bring the thoughts and intentions of the authors to light. This usually requires more interpretation by the translators. Examples of these Bibles include the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT).

The final category of Bibles are paraphrases. These are much looser translations, usually aimed at ease of reading or those whose English is a second language, giving you a very general sense of scripture. Examples include the Contemporary English Version (CEV) and The Message (MSG).

While it may seem bewildering that there are so many translations, we should rejoice that the Bible has been translated by godly people throughout the ages to give God’s people, of all reading levels, access to God’s Word.

At SLE Church we use and highly commend the ESV. Translated by a faithful committee it is a word for word translation which balances accuracy with readability. Having an ESV open in front of you while we’re studying the Bible or listening to sermons will help us all grow in knowing what is said, how God’s Word is to be read, and what God is asking of us in that text.

——

Additional links:

George Athas reviews ‘Song of Songs’. Rev Dr George Athas is Director of Postgraduate Studies at Moore Theological College and Lectures in Old Testament, Hebrew and Church History. The first line of this review says it all, “This translation of the Song of Songs is truly awful.

Andrew Shead – Burning Scripture with Passion: A Review of The Psalms (The Passion Translation). A long, detailed review from Themelios. The abstract gives a fair summary:

Brian Simmons has made a new translation of the Psalms (and now the whole New Testament) which aims to ‘re-introduce the passion and fire of the Bible to the English reader.’ He achieves this by abandoning all interest in textual accuracy, playing fast and loose with the original languages, and inserting so much new material into the text that it is at least 50% longer than the original. The result is a strongly sectarian translation that no longer counts as Scripture; by masquerading as a Bible it threatens to bind entire churches in thrall to a false god.

Got Questions site – a generally helpful apologetic site – has a short and helpful critique of The Passion Translation with some examples of other Bible translations vs what The Passion has attempted.

 

Ignite Training Conference 2020: Day 5 [LIVE BLOG]

Morning Session | James 5:7-12 | Dave Pitt

What sort of things do we need to be patient with in life? Sometimes small things – like the traffic. Sometimes bigger things – like people. Maybe you’re waiting for a job, a spouse, for healing?

How many of us consider patience to be of importance? We know it’s a fruit of the spirit but is it really central? How highly does it factor into our personal desire for growth – we desire to grow in patience?

Patience factors in highly for the apostles and for the early church. Tertullian said it was the highest virtue. Whole treatise was written on it.

One recent book has argued that the early church grew so much not because of their strategies but because of their patience.

We would do well to dwell on the topic of patience.

James begins 5:7 by calling for patience. Consider our topic for the week – why were the prophets a great example of patience?

Patience is not passivity. Whatever patience is it is not doing nothing. In 5:11 Job is given an example of patient suffering. Remember that Job was suffering, he was angry, he spoke, he wrestled, he went to the brink of what he could say to God… he was anything but passive.

We are to get on with the task of trusting God.

Patience is also founded in the character of God.

The Prophets are also held up as an example because they had a job to do, the spoke it, they were faithful to their ministry though they did not see the fruit of that ministry.

Patience is about being steadfast – again Job is held up as an example here in 5:11. In the depth of his suffering his wife told him to curse God and die, yet he refused.

5:8 is a gentle reminder as well that patience is necessary because the coming of the Lord is imminent – we need to wait faithfully for this to come.

One shocking aspect of patience can be found in v9 – the command in the middle of the passage Is not to grumble, it’s pretty serious. Like the wisdom writers of Proverbs two relatively random ideas are stuck together to help us see their link/contrast.

Grumbling comes in the middle of this passage because grumbling is an act of non-patience. Grumbling causes rot and decay in our relationships – and never leads to patience.

If you are caught up in grumbling see the warning that is attached – do not grumble or you will be judged. Not the final judgement, that wouldn’t fit theologically, but the judgement of God’s discipline.

Very rarely will you find a grumbling person who is happy or growing spiritually. It is a bad thing to grumble against other brothers or sisters. It discourages yourself and discourages others.

People like the prophets were not passive, they threw themselves into his work and they did not grumble. (Jeremiah comes close – but his language is more like words of lament: grumbling in the presence of and left at the feet of God). Let us be encouraged by their example as those who are God-followers today to be patient.

[A rather encouraging finish to the conference. A call to wati with patience as we hear God speak to us, live out the beautiful life, and long for the return of the Son!

In other news, Chris Lung is stepping down as chair to focus on other areas of ministry within his church and denomination. Iggy Wong will be stepping to chair the conference. If you see these guys thank them for their service and pray for them!]

Ignite Training Conference 2020: Day 4 [LIVE BLOG]

Morning Session| Colossians 1:19-23, 3:12-14 | Geoff Tacon

What does the beautiful life actually look like? Today’s passage and message will focus on one aspect of that beautiful life: forgiveness.

Lack of forgiveness separates close friendships. A lack of forgiveness can grow a hardness within us. You end up destroying yourself if you cannot or won’t forgive. The hardness you carry around you place upon others. It leads to loneliness and isolation due to the lack of reconciliation – so you end up shifting from friendship to friendship.

How can one live the beautiful life of forgiveness? First because God has sent the beautiful saviour in Jesus Christ.

  1. Meet your maker

Colossians 1:15-16

God invisible is made visible – not because we are actually seeing God, but because we see the perfect image of him in Jesus Christ. If you see that image you are truly seeing God – and what God is like. Where is the image of God? In the Son.

The Son is also the firstborn over all creation – what does this mean? Firstborn typically means you’re the oldest. But that’s not it’s saying here. In the Biblical context the firstborn is the one who inherits all things. God has gifted over to Jesus ownership rights over everything. Everything belongs to him. Not that he is first in time, but he is the one to whom all things belong.

How did Jesus receive everything? Was someone alive, then die, and then pass it on to Jesus? V16 explains it for us – everything was created by Jesus. Jesus owns everything because Jesus made them all.

You don’t get to make Jesus Lord. We call him Lord because he made us. He is our maker – we’re not the one who make him into our Lord.

  1. Meet your peacemaker

Colossians 1:19-20 – Jesus has not only made everything, he has made peace.

Pause for the moment to consider how Jesus makes peace. Who is it that reconciles to whom? We have been fighting against God in our mind and behaviour. Who makes peace with whom then? Who has to go make peace, who has to receive the apology in order for peace to be made?

God is clearly the one aggrieved.

V19 – in Jesus God is dwelling in his absolute fullness – then in v20 through Jesus he reconciles all things to himself. This is extraordinary.

Who is the aggrieved party? In v20 God is the aggrieved party and the one to whom satisfaction and reconciliation is made. But who is the one who is making peace with God? It’s extraordinary that it’s God also who is the peacemaker. It is God who has dwelled fully and truly in Jesus who makes peace.

The gospel is that God has come to calm God down concerning ourselves.

This is the extraordinary heart that the prophets kept pointing to.

God by himself, up on the cross, bore his own anger – he pacified himself – in the death of Jesus God bore the suffering and wrath we deserved.

The prophetic word was that God has this beautiful life planned out in the Torah, and the prophets looked forward to seeing the Torah come into our lives more wondrously and radically. The prophetic word saw a beautiful saviour who would come to do this.

Jesus is here, he has done it.

The beautiful life is then partly revealed in Colossians 3:1ff.

As those who have been made new in Christ there is new life ahead – the beautiful life.

Part of that new beautiful life is forgiveness. In Jesus Christ is a person who forgives. Forgiveness is who you are now – you have entered into a world of forgiveness, not because we changed ourselves but because Christ has entered our lives and radically changed them.

So what?

What happens when you have been aggrieved by someone in church? Either through intentional or unintentional sin. Putting up with someone who has hurt you is not easy.

And yet from another angle isn’t it nice to know that you have friends and brothers and sisters who will put up with you even if you have caused them pain, hurt, and embarrassment? That they have been there with you during the sad and bad times, but also that they have remained with you when you have caused them hurt?

Jesus has been a friend to us even when we have aggrieved and embarrassed him.

If we have such a friend in Jesus then our lives should also reflect his posture towards us.

 

Evening Session | The Hope of the Prophets (Zechariah 14) | Gary Millar

Martin Luther – the great reformer – commented on a lot of scripture but gave up with Zechariah!

Zechariah is a longer vision of God’s plans and purposes – and gets an insight into ‘that Day’ – the Day of the Lord. So what is this going to happen, and what will happen on that day?

As you work through these chapters you’ll find that it’s a very long day. It starts when the Davidic shoot shows up (ie Jesus) and the day doesn’t stop until the new universe is constituted. Hence we seem to be living in this Day now…

In Zechariah 14 he sees a war that leads to worship. History, the Day in which we are living, is all about a war that leads to worship.

Zech 14:1 – a day is coming for Yahweh – it’s a day for him, his centre-stage day, a day that is ultimately about him acting for his glory. This is God’s day, so prepare to meet him and see him in action.

Our God is relentlessly and mind-blowingly impressive. The single most reason to read the prophets is that they ensure that our God is big enough and expansive enough. They explode our small mindedness and expose our rather small view of God.

And yet he is introduced as Yahweh – his personal name. The expansive God invites him to know him personally :)

So what will happen on this day?

  1. The War (Zech 14:1-11)

People gather for battle, women are raped (a covenant curse) and half the city goes into exile. Yah, fun. For the other half who stay home there is small comfort of staying at home. And yet in v3 Yahweh will go out to battle against the nations.

Previously there have been references to the battle belonging to Yahweh, but here we see him appear on the scene.

We so instinctively forget that we are embroiled in a cosmic conflict – our enemies are God’s enemies. No amount of positive thinking can change this – because everywhere we go in the Bible we see this war. It is a jungle out there and we are caught up in this war.

In Church there is a growing sense of wanting to be sensitive to people, focus on sharing our story, invest in people first so that we’re real friends with them, then they’ll react better to the gospel. Not be obnoxious is a good thing… but never forget that the Bible says we are caught up in a war and you do have to be on one side or the other.

Blood will be spilled – the default position of the world is anti-God. The world hates the message because it hates what it says about them and hates the One behind the message.

The good news is that God is not a general way at the back of the battle – our God comes and fights with us and for us.

Zech 14:4-5 – here God is providing the avenue for safety for his people – splitting a mountain to do that! It’s important the he comes from the East to do this. In Ezekiel he left the Temple and headed east, not he’s coming back from where he disappeared from and is coming to the rescue of his people.

God is a God who fights and will win in the end. And as his people we will share in his victory – not that we do anything, the people run away and hide among the rocks. But they get to celebrate in the victory together.

V6 – there shall be such a dramatic victory that on that day the sun, moon and stars will come to a grinding halt (lit: they will congeal together), And a new unique day starts – the whole of creation is now changed and transformed.

Through this whole section God is the victor – he is the main subject. And he’s working all things in this section for his glory.

Sometimes we have to stop and ask ourselves how God-centred our churches and ministries are. Would it make a difference is God disappeared from our gatherings?

The one thing that matters more than anything else here is that God speaks to reveal himself to us through his Word by his Spirit. And when this God, the God of the prophets, the God of our Lord Jesus, when he speaks he cuts through our defences and meets us.

Our God is king over all the earth and yet he says, ‘Behold your God’

Through Jesus our God has made it possible to know him. That is the highest privilege offered to us, children of the living God. Is that the pulsing reality at the heart of our existence?

Jonathan Edwards – there is a difference between an opinion of the goodness of God and the sense of the goodness of God in the same way that one can have an opinion of the sweetness of honey vs one who has the experience of the sweetness of it all.

Zechariah is challenging us to not just know about God but to know him personally.

Zech 14:10 – where are these places? After exile the land was flattened and didn’t really contain much. Zechariah is seeing the glory of old Jerusalem rebuilt.

By 14:11 the war is over and security is achieved.

So when does this war happen? Both the cross of Jesus, the final moment of the end of time when Jesus appears to wrap up history, and also the final moments between then and then where we live now because Jesus is king and the war is over. Life now is lived in this mopping up period – and while there will be casualties and losses it is all on the way to an inevitable victory.

  1. Worship (14:12-21)

This is great news, but this is not where the prophets stop.

In 14:12-21 God works to bring his people to him to enjoy his presence. It is done in a way that replays the Exodus.

The plagues sound pretty bad – but they are a reminder that you don’t mess with our God.

14:16 reminds us that God brings the nations to worship him – and if they don’t they will be excluded. 14:17 reminds us that those who do not worship Yahweh will have the covenant curses rained down on them.

14:20ff – all the horse bells and all the crockery will be holy to God. Everything will be holy to him! 14:21 – no ‘trader’ (Canaanite) in the house, no crooks.

The war that is won reminds us that God is a God who is determined to battle to bring his people to him so they can gasp in awe and delight of him.

Jesus is the one who brings this to pass. The one who brings judgement upon himself for us, and upon everyone else, who brings us into reconciled relationship with God, in order to help us sit before his Father in awe.

Piper – Missions exists because worship doesn’t… at the end when we all before the throne enjoy God missions will be no more…

This is the picture we see in Revelation 7 – al the nations who have bowed to Jesus in awe of him.

Everything ultimately leads to worship – everything in this world is designed to say ‘behold our God’. This is what we were made for, why we do what we do, why we gather as a local church, when we open the Bible together – when all that happens we hear ‘I am your God, you are my people.’

The prophets knew that this was our future and hope, That Father, Son and Spirit fight for us so that we might worship Him forever. This is what life is about.

The prophets proclaimed God’s word to show us his majesty and draw our focus on his goodness and glory. They champion this message, grieve when people turn from it, and remind us of this solid hope – that there is only one outcome of the war that God is waging: the worship of God, Father – Son – and Spirit.

[What a wondrous way to finish – to be reminded that the goal of all that God does is his glory and our beholding of that!]