Sabbath is…

The subject of Sabbath came up somewhat tangentially in our bible study on Sunday, so I’m finally posting this list of observations about what the Bible teaches about the Sabbath. I don’t have the time to unpack all the implications–and can’t pretend that I have come anywhere close to mastering the art of Sabbathing well. But here are some initial impressions.

#1 …a day of rest.
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. (Genesis 2:2)

#2 …part of the creation order.
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day… (Exodus 20:11a)

#3 …a fractal reality.
But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. (Leviticus 25:4)

#4 … a holy day.
Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11b)

#5 …a day of Biblical teaching.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read… (Luke 4:16)

#6 …a vital ingredient of healthy family life.
Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. (Leviticus 19:3

#7 …a local celebration.
the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. (Acts 1:12)

#8 …an opportunity for hospitality.
On the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach… As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. (Mark 1:21,29)

#9 …a matter of social justice.
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15)

#10 …a form of true fasting.
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?…
“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,
From doing your pleasure on My holy day,
And call the Sabbath a delight,
The holy day of the Lord honorable,
And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,
Nor finding your own pleasure,
Nor speaking your own words,
Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord…

(Isaiah 58:6,13-14)

#11 …a covenant privilege.
Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them. (Ezekiel 20:12)

#12 …a catalyst for righteous government and national revival.
“And it shall be, if you heed Me carefully,” says the Lord, “to bring no burden through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but hallow the Sabbath day, to do no work in it, 25 then shall enter the gates of this city kings and princes sitting on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, accompanied by the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall remain forever. 26 And they shall come from the cities of Judah and from the places around Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin and from the lowland, from the mountains and from the South, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings and incense, bringing sacrifices of praise to the house of the Lord.
(Jeremiah 17:24-26)

#13 …a secondary sign that points to primary priorities.
If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? (John 7:23)
“What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12)

#14 …a day of deliverance.
Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:17)

#15 … a delight not a duty.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. (Romans 14:5-6)
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)

#16 …a deadly serious matter.
“They found a man gathering wood on the sabbath day… Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” (Numbers 15:33,35)

#17 …to be defended with zeal.
“Then I warned them, and said to them, “Why do you spend the night around the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you!” From that time on they came no more on the Sabbath.” (Nehemiah 13:15-21)

#18 …a loss to be mourned.
The LORD has caused to be forgotten
The appointed feast and sabbath in Zion…

(Lamentations 2:6)

Ten Truths in Tension

Dedicated to Ryan, with whom I was discussing Romans this past Sunday.

Dedicated to John Piper and Greg Boyd, whose ministries both inspire me, and who I am convinced will be great friends when they get to heaven.

Dedicated to my mum, who reads my blog, but doesn’t really like it when I try to start provocative and controversial conversations.

Dedicated to the Lausanne Younger Leaders with whom I have spent these last three days in Oslo.

Dedicated to my beautiful wife Taryn, whose destiny is at least now entangled with mine.

#1 Judicial Impartiality
For there is no partiality with God. Romans 2:11

This is a clear unambiguous sentence, and as we wrestle with the philosophical conundrums that the Book of Romans presents to us, it is a good place to begin. There is no partiality with God. He applies the same rules to everyone. He is fair. He is just. If he were not, then the devil would be within his rights to freely accuse God. And indeed the fact that God is patiently refusing to immediately punish people for their sins so as to give them the opportunity to repent (2 Peter 3:9) is what allows the devil to “roam about like a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8).

Now, God’s judicial impartiality does not mean that He cannot also engage relationally, personally and uniquely with each human being. But it does mean that these diverse interactions are all subject to the same standards of justice (and mercy!) — and, ultimately and foundationally, to God’s consistent nature and character.

#2 Personal Responsibility
God will render to each one according to his deeds. Romans 2:6

There is no avoiding it — we are all each accountable to God for what we do with our lives. Paul puts it even more clearly in 2 Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”. Or as he tells the Galatians: “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

Most would rather avoid the unpleasant idea that God will hold them responsible for all that they have done. And thus there are many who say, like the Psalmist’s fool, “in their heart, ‘There is no God’ “. And we might note here that far fewer are willing to do the necessary intellectual examination of the objective evidence to be able to say ‘with their minds’ whether or not there might be a God.

But whether we like the idea or not, the ethical responsibility of each individual human being is an unavoidable biblical truth.

#3 Legal Impossibility
By deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. Romans 3:20

We’ve mentioned that some recognize that they have done wrong, but dislike the idea that God should judge them for this. We should mention too that there are those who are glibly unworried by the thought of divine judgement because they think that, all things considered, they’re reasonably good people who — if there is indeed an afterlife — ought to be considered worthy of a ticket to heaven.

‘Well, I’m not a murderer! I’m not a rapist! I’m not as bad as Hitler!’

Unfortunately, the biblical reality is that it’s not only some exclusive list of especially bad sins that separate us from God, but all and any sin. The way I find most helpful and convincing to explain it is to remind whoever’s listening that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that sin at its most basic is anything that’s not love (for Jesus taught that God’s law could be simplified without reduction to the two ‘love’ commands, to love God entirely, and to love others as one’s self). ‘Love’ and ‘not-love’ can, quite clearly, not co-exist. Like oil and water, they inevitably separate. Thus we who have sinned are separated from God. And the most terrible judgement with which our sin will be punished is for that separation from God to be made complete and unalterable.

Aside: On Hell, Eternal Torment and Proportionate Punishment
Ah, I’ve strayed onto the difficult and controversial subject of divine judgment — in short, the subject of hell. This is perhaps the one idea of Christianity that contemporary believers find most difficult to accept. In generations past, when tyrannical kings more commonly subjected their citizens to barbaric cruelty and systems of ‘justice’ were less fettered by democratic ideals, it was maybe easier to accept a doctrine of vindictive punishment. But in an age where — for all the mistakes of modern man — there is thankfully a kinder prison system and a greater appreciation of the value of human life, hell seems obviously inconsistent with the character of God revealed in Christ.

And yet it was Christ who spoke more than anyone else in the Bible of the reality of hell. Jesus was the original fire-and-brimstone preacher! And if you don’t believe me, just read Mark 9, Matthew 5, Matthew 18, and Luke 16.

What then, can we say? First, that there is something about the doctrine of hell that resonates with the human desire for justice. We can, I believe, affirm this without giving in to the temptation of vengeful and vindictive unforgiveness — indeed, this is why when we hear of others’ suffering at the hands of evil, we feel that some sort of punishment is rightly deserved by the perpetrators of that evil, even though we ourselves have not been its victims.

Second, we should expose the logically flawed and mathematically embarrassing idea that the biblical vision of hell is one of infinite suffering. Here we must finely distinguish the difference between eternal and infinite punishment. A meaningless distinction, some might say, but they would be wrong (and have probably not studied Analytic Calculus!) Jesus clearly endorsed the doctrine of eternal punishment, repeatedly quoting Isaiah’s prophecy that “their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched”. But we must also mention the biblical doctrine of limited retribution, “[only] an eye for an eye, and [only] a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24). And surely in a finite lifetime, it’s only possible to merit a finite quantity (though perhaps nevertheless a horrifically large quantity) of punishment for your sins.

Now although I have never heard anyone else point this out, it’s mathematically quite simple to envisage a situation where a finite quantity (in this case, of punishment) is spread out over an infinite period of time. Consider a point A moving towards a destination B. Each minute A moves half of the remaining distance l towards B, so the first minute it moves l/2, then l/4, then l/8 — constantly getting closer, but never quite arriving (and with ever-decreasing speed).

#4 Gospel Simplicity
For there is no difference: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith… Romans 3:23-25

Enough of tangential dogmatic discussions — let’s return to our central, glorious message, the simple gospel of Jesus!

This is the single fact that every human absolutely needs to know. This is the double-edged sword that cuts through all of our social differences and personal preferences, right to the very heart of who we are, confronting us simultaneously with the unattainable standard of righteousness that God’s justice requires, and with the limitless mercy that He lavishly delivers.

This is how much God your Father loves you — as much as He loves His perfect Son, whom He was willing to give so that you could be substituted out from the prison of your sin and back into the glorious game of life. This is how much Jesus Christ, God the Son, loves you — that He would lay down His life for you, so that you could be reconciled to your Creator, your surroundings, and indeed your self. This is how much the Holy Spirit loves you, and He now pours out that divine love into the hearts of all who turn to Christ.

Death has been overcome, the devil has been defeated, the curse has been broken!

Humanity’s cries are heard, God’s promise is fulfilled, God’s people are justified!

But it is necessary that you respond personally and turn to Jesus in faith and simple repentance.

#5 Eschatological Totality
Hardening in part has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And thus all Israel will be saved, as it is written… Romans 11:26
For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? Romans 11:15

But “not all have faith” (2 Thessalonians 3:2). Not all believe the gospel.

Although Jesus’ death and resurrection won the decisive victory over sin and Satan, nevertheless the battle wages on and we — like the Allies after D-Day — must continue to fight this spiritual battle until the mission is finally complete. ‘Will you at this time restore the kingdom?,’ the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus. And he replied by telling them that there was still work to be done, and He was trusting them — with the help of the Holy Spirit — to complete that work.

Here is the point that I want to emphasize that this work will be completed! Although for a brief (at least compared to eternity!) season, we are perplexed (“but not in despair”) by the lack of faith of some, nevertheless we can be confident that there is coming a day when the fullness of the Gentiles will come in. That means all of the nations! That means every tribe and every tongue! That means a great multitude which no-one could number!

And then there will be revival in Israel, and the Jews will be saved, and Christ will return with an army of angels–not to carry us away to some disembodied realm of ethereal vagueness, but to actually establish His heavenly kingdom on earth in all of its fullness.

We need a confident conviction that this will certainly happen to carry us through the trials and tribulations that will necessarily face us in the ministries to which God has called us. We need an increasingly clear and vivid vision of the hope we are waiting for, if we are to avoid being offended by the pressure that God will allow us to face. We need to pray for supernatural wisdom to right divide the word of truth, if we are to discern what God is actually doing in the midst of the complexity and chaos that will increase.

Just because all the nations will be reached (Mark 13:10), it doesn’t mean that every individual will be saved (Matthew 7:22-23). Just because the establishment of the state of Israel is a prophetic sign (Isaiah 11:11; Ezekiel 36:24), it doesn’t mean that the Israelis are necessarily in the right and the Palestinians in the wrong. Just because those Christians who try and prepare for the return of Christ frequently make moral errors and theological blunders, it doesn’t mean that we are excused from the task of discerning the signs of the times (Matt. 16:3).

#6 Sovereign Selectivity
He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. Romans 9:18

But why is it that some have faith, and others don’t?

We have mentioned those who are simply unwilling to listen to the message, refusing to examine the evidence because they know — perhaps only subconsciously! — that the implications are too great. Far easier to deny the existence of God than accept the difficult task of integrating every part of your life with the truth and beauty of His holiness.

But this unwillingness is not the case with everyone. I know people who have been ready to study the claims of Christ, who have even opened their hearts up in prayer asking God to reveal himself — but have not (yet) received the glorious assurance that for some reason has taken root in my heart. I do not think it is because I am more intelligent, or less prone to sin, that I have come to faith when others haven’t. Indeed I could name specific people who are more intellectually rigorous and more ethically consistent than I, who know and understand the gospel, but for various reasons, don’t believe it.

Why is this?

Paul is ruthlessly direct in answering the question with an appeal to the sovereign freedom of God to do what He wants to fulfil His purposes. We should maybe add to this sentence the clause ‘within the bounds of His rules’, for as we began by saying, God shows no partiality. He doesn’t bend the rules for anyone. But — as we also already pointed out — judicial impartiality does not prevent God from engaging uniquely and therefore differently with each person on a relational basis. And this means that although judicially the rules are clear (a person either receives Christ by faith as Lord and Saviour and benefits from the redemption from judgement that Jesus accomplished on the cross, or they must endure the condemnation that their sins deserve), this doesn’t necessarily prevent God selectively granting the gift of faith to some and not to others, thus qualifying those ‘some’ for redemption. Paul would call this “fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law”.

In the same way, imagine a running coach with a son whom he hoped would break an athletic record — say for the 400m. There’s a difference between the coach trying to cheat to help his son break the record (either by using performance-enhancing drugs, or fiddling the timing equipment, or whatever it might be), and the coach exclusively training his son, so that his son was able to genuinely achieve the necessary standard.

And yet, and yet — if faith is something God can just impart, then why doesn’t He grant faith to more people? Paul seems to indicate that the unbelief of certain people is necessary for certain purposes of God to be fulfilled: “a hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”. But what about Paul’s assertion elsewhere that God “desires all to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). What about God’s plea through Ezekiel: “Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? And not that he should turn and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).

There comes a point in every Christian’s learning, when they are confronted with the question of how to reconcile these texts. And on the one side you have the ‘Calvinists’, who remind us that Paul says in Ephesians that saving faith is “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) and urge us to embrace God’s right to have mercy on whom He will — though it effectively implies that God doesn’t really desire all to be saved. On the other side you have the ‘Arminian’ position, which affirms God’s genuine desire that absolutely all individuals should be saved and brought to a knowledge of the truth — but seems to avoid the implications of Romans 9-11. (Although I have just discovered Greg Boyd‘s thoughts on Romans 9, which look to be a provocative read).

I had considered this question somewhat as a teenager, but was particularly confronted with it in my second year as a student, as I discovered John Piper‘s incredible array of free online (Calvinistic) resources, and found the CICCU Bible Studies for the term were focussed on the book of Malachi (from which Paul draws the verse “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated”). I found myself encouraged and liberated by the idea that God had specifically predestined me, that in spite of my mess and my struggle with sin, He had called me by name and though I might sometimes be faithless, He would be faithful. And on the other hand I found myself bemused and frustrated by what seemed to me at the time to be the way that some Christians seemed to be ducking and diving around this issue, unwilling to accept the teaching of Scripture just because it was something of a hard truth to come to terms with. It took more than a year, but eventually I had changed churches — and planted my roots in the committedly Calvinist soil of Cambridge Presbyterian Church.

CPC was not however a place, where all my convictions could fully flourish, committed as the church is to a cessationist interpretation of the Westminster Confession (I admit that to me this seems the obvious interpretation of the Confession cf. chapter I.6) as their standard of orthodoxy, and myself being a convinced believer in the importance of eagerly desiring spiritual gifts. I spent a year and a bit as a student at CPC, and then worked with the church for a year as an evangelist. God then called us into YWAM — a very different organization! For one thing, YWAM is unabashedly charismatic; for another, there do not seem to be many outspoken YWAM Calvinists (though YWAM is not committed to any doctrinal stance on the question of predestination; and it is committed to being interdenominational — so there is room for more Calvinists within YWAM!).

It needs to be said explicitly that there is no necessary contradiction between believing that God has specifically predestined individuals to salvation and believing that the Holy Spirit continues to give all of His supernatural gifts to the church today. John Piper would be an example of one who strongly holds to both.

Speaking of John Piper, I might clarify now that while I continue to believe in and be comforted by God’s predestination of individuals to salvation, I don’t believe in total determinism, limited atonement, or double predestination. And now we’ve thrown in three more bits of theological jargon that require explanation:

Total Determinism: This is the idea that not only the salvation of a certain set of believers has been predestined in advance, but that every single event has been absolutely and unchangeably determined by God. Piper would argue that this is the necessary corollary of a verse like Ephesians 1:11, which speaks of God working “all things according to the counsel of His will”. But I disagree, for two reasons. First, the most obvious interpretation seems to me that God works through time to work circumstances from the situation (which we are still currently in) when many things are not in accordance with his will, to the one (which we will eventually reach!) where all things will finally align with his will. Second, I see no indication that God’s will is immediately concerned with every single minute detail of the universe. God is not a micro-manager! He is concerned that all the world be flooded with the knowledge of the glory of God — but the way in which His glory is most magnified is by Him releasing control to the voluntary choices of the living creatures (not clockwork robots!) that He has created. God’s leadership is releasing and risk-taking — ours should be the same.

What I have said so far would apply even if God simply foreknew all events, but only actively predestined a certain subset of those (eg. individual salvations and important prophesied events). But I think we can go even further and embrace Greg Boyd’s idea that if God were to give us the freedom to completely make our own choices, then the future wouldn’t technically be there for Him to know or not know, and so without diminishing His omniscience, we can actually affirm the existence of genuine possibilities. Boyd’s ‘Open Theism’ is generally contrasted with Piper’s Calvinism — but I quite like the idea of what you might call an ‘Open Calvinism’ (where ‘Open’ is used in its technical, anti-deterministic sense).

Limited Atonement: This is the idea that Jesus only died for the sins of those who have been predestined — and not for those who have not. Piper would argue that ‘everyone limits the atonement–you either limit the extent of it [ie. to the elect, and not to the rest], or you limit the effect of it [ie. just making salvation possible, but not effectual]’. But this requires a simplistic and reductionistic understanding of the cross, where all that happens is punitory (not even penal!) substitution.

I like David Pawson’s helpful acrostic for the word CROSS: “with regards to the devil, it was a Conquest; with regards to the world, it was a Reconciliation; with regards to God, it was an Offering; with regards to the law, it was a Satisfaction; with regards to the sinner, it was a Substitution”. I would agree that actually the Substitution is properly not ‘with regards to the sinner’ in general, but ‘in regards to the believing/repentant sinner’ in particular. And I believe that this faith is not possible without God’s predestining help. (Though I find Wesley’s idea of ‘prevenient grace’ — that “enables, but does not ensure, personal acceptance of the gift of salvation” — to be an interesting one). But I am convinced that the legal satisfaction of objective justice accomplished by Christ’s death was more the result of the infinite value of His life as a divine person, rather than the specific quantity of punishment that He suffered.

On the other hand, I would be happy to affirm the idea of ‘Definite Atonement’ (though disputing the claim that this is an identical and equivalent doctrine to Limited Atonement), that the finished work of Christ on the cross is the direct and effective cause of the faith of all who will believe.

Double Predestination: The word ‘double’ here indicates that just as God predestines individuals to salvation, deciding unconditionally to grant them the necessary faith to believe in Jesus and thus be delivered from judgement, so he must predestine all remaining individuals to damnation, actively willing that they specifically be condemned. Here Piper goes beyond even the classic Reformed confessions: the Westminster Confession, for example, consistently distinguishes between God ‘predestining’ some to salvation, and ‘ordaining’ the rest to judgement. The difference might only be whether it be an active primary desire or a passive, secondary consequence. But to me it feels important.

This implication that predestining some but not all to eternal salvation means that some have been left to eternal damnation is without doubt the most difficult problem with the doctrine of predestination — even if God’s ordaining of the rest to judgement is subtly different from His predestining the elect to salvation. Paul gives three reasons (i. to show His wrath; ii. to make His power known; iii. to highlight by contrast the riches of His glorious mercy Romans 9:22-23) as to why God might be justified in creating someone “prepared for destruction” — but none of them seem relevant to the actual individual whose fate it is to have not been “granted repentance unto life”. Has Paul no empathy?

Anyway, I have a suggestion which I have found helpful as an idea — you are free to take it or leave it. It goes like this:
– first, remember our argument that suffering in hell is eternal but not infinite.
– second, suppose very simplistically that we are able to quantify happiness and suffering on a single dimension, such that one unit of suffering be equivalent to a negative unit of happiness
– third, we suggest that it is at least feasible that in a finite lifetime one could experience more joy (by virtue of the presence of God’s undeserved goodness encountered in so much of creation) than the finite amount of suffering that would be earned from the lifetime’s accumulated wrongs (to be experienced in hell) and that would have been experienced in that lifetime
– fourth, if we affirm a real degree of ‘Open-ness’, in which the choices of this person are not determined in advance, then in particular the possibility of whether the aggregate score of happiness versus suffering would turn out to be positive or negative would also not be determined (or even known?) in advance.
It’s just a thought–let me know what you make of it.

#7 Vital Humility
Indeed, o man, who are you to reply against God? Romans 9:20

In all of this discussion, an essential quality is humility. First of all, we must humble ourselves before God — who are we to require answers from him? Second, we would do well to stay humble in all of our discussions with other people — especially those whose position differs from our own. I present my thoughts here, not because I am convinced that I am right — but because now Ryan is asking these questions I feel a responsibility to try and elucidate the conclusions that I have reached, so that he can learn from them and decide for himself (hopefully with the help of whichever others of you join in this conversation — feel free to correct whatever you think are my theological mis-steps) how to make sense of all these things.

To keep it all in perspective, it’s healthy to remember Paul’s caution to the Colossians (2:8) that we should “beware! lest anyone cheat [us] through philosophy and empty deceit”. These questions of free will, determinism, the nature of time, and the existence of the future are incredibly complex topics once you begin to consider them in a philosophical manner — but such consideration can sometimes prevent us from hearing the straightforward and primary call to faith and obedience.

On the other hand, we cannot shrink back from the subject either. Paul says in Romans 11:25, “I do not desire that you be ignorant of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own opinion”. He may be talking primarily of the destiny of Israel, but it’s all in the context of the mystery of predestination and the sovereign will of God. And there’s nothing like trying to wrestle with the subject of predestination to keep you from feeling ‘wise in your own eyes’!

#8 Gloriously Unfathomable Divinity
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! Romans 11:33

I think the key is to not rest content with whatever philosophical conclusions you might reach, but to turn it all into fuel for worship. Praise God for His inscrutable greatness! Praise God for His impartial justice! Praise God for His individual love! Praise God for His sacrificial generosity!

At the end of this deep discussion of the most profoundly challenging questions of the faith, Paul breaks out in doxology, and then goes on to tell us that our ‘logical act of worship’ (12:1) is to present our bodies as living sacrifices unto God.

#9 Evangelistic Necessity
How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Romans 10:14-15

And let’s not forget that in the midst of all of this, Paul is speaking as one who knows that not just he but all of us “have received grace and a missionary mandate to call forth the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of His name” (1:5). The gift of predestined saving faith is not just beamed directly down out of heaven, but is activated by the preaching of the gospel — this seems clear from Acts 13:48: “And when the Gentiles heard this [ie. the gospel], they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”.

It seems to me that while God may have predestined people to salvation, He’s not made any decisions about who gets to share the gospel with those people, and have the privilege of being the labourer God uses to sow the saving seed of the gospel into their hearts. Whoever you are that be reading — there are people on your street, in your city, in your sphere of influence that God has appointed to eternal life, and if you step out in faith and courage you will have the privilege of being the one that they point to when they share their testimony of salvation in heaven, before the myriad angels and watching angels. This, says Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:19, is a believer’s joy and crown — precisely those other believers who are the fruit of their evangelism. If you don’t share the gospel with them — well, like Mordecai says to Esther, “if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise from another place” (Esther 4:14), but you will have missed your chance.

I realise this seems a novel way of looking at things — it’s certainly quite different from the way that the call to evangelism is typically fuelled by the fear that many will burn in hell because you failed to do your Christian duty. Some will complain that in thus taking the pressure off, I’m undermining the need for evangelism. But what if it were the case that our evangelism would be more successful if we were not motivated by guilt, fear and condemnation but instead propelled into conversations about Jesus by a joyful sense that the purposes of God will certainly be soon fulfilled, and we have freely volunteered to be involved in the glorious final chapter of history that the Holy Spirit is finishing writing even as we speak!

#10 Intercessory Agency
My heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved… Romans 10:1

As well as the necessity of evangelism, I also want to highlight the agency of intercession. Paul mentions his prayer for Israel, as well as asking that the Roman believers “strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe…and that I may come to you with joy by the will of God and may be refreshed together with you” (15:30-32).

One of the reasons I am not a determinist, is that 2 Peter 3:12 teaches that we can be “hastening the day of God”. And although that passage doesn’t quite say it explicitly, I believe that prayer is one of the primary ways that we do this. In Revelation, John sees “golden bowls, full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8), and then as a result of this incense, the power of God is released upon the earth (Revelation 8:5). I believe that many of the things that God wills are bowls of incense that are waiting to be filled with the incense of our prayers before God’s power is released and those promises are fulfilled.

This will not always look like we expected! Paul asked the Roman believers to pray that he would be delivered from those in Judea who did not believe that he might come with joy to Rome and be refreshed. I doubt he expected that God’s deliverance would come through him being put under arrest and his arrival in Rome would be as a political prisoner! But nevertheless, those prayers were undeniably answered, and God’s power manifestly poured out on and through Paul.

May the same be true of all of our generation who have been granted the gift of faith.

Excellence, Brokenness, & Simple Obedience

I’ve meant to put some of these thoughts into writing for some time now–and thought I should finally put out at least a sketch of my thinking, even if I’m not able to write an eloquent essay. In fact, that this subject should be addressed in this manner is very apposite, as you shall see.

The Call To Excellence

Our topic is ‘The Call to Excellence’, a subject which some may think so blindingly obvious that to waste one’s time discussing it is needless, though I have encountered others who seem of the opinion that this is one of the more important messages that needs to be declared to today’s church. My own take on the matter is that this is an important issue to think through, not because I want to straightforwardly affirm the usual encouragement to strive to be the best you can be for the sake of the glory of God, but precisely because I want to dismantle the simplistic power of such rhetoric.

As Christians we are called to excellence—but in a way that is counterintuitive and quite contrary to the world’s pursuit of it.

We begin by acknowledging the biblical basis of this idea. There’s Paul’s call (1 Timothy 4:12) to Timothy to be exemplary in all of his conduct – and we rightly apply that same exhortation to all Christians. And Paul again tells all believers that whatever they do, they should “do it as unto the Lord” – therefore with all the excellence they can muster.

And then there’s the various biblical heroes of the faith whose lives we are called to imitate, like Daniel who distinguished himself because he had “an excellent spirit” (Dan. 6:3).

Certainly in the environment in which I grew up (specifically, Christian boarding schools), the idea that Christians are called to excellence was a very familiar one. I have been privileged to have been given an education in which I was consistently encouraged to grow in knowledge, skills and understanding, and given opportunities to develop in academic study, sport, and drama. “Study to present yourself approved unto God”, Paul tells Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15), and the same exhortation was applied to us – though whether Paul meant quite the same thing by ‘study’ as did my teachers, I’m not entirely sure.

And I excelled: nine A*s at GCSE, four As at A Level, I was captain of our school football team and we won the interschool tournament twice, I broke most of the athletic records for the track events that I ran, I was named Sportsman of the Year, Scholar of the Year, and Best Actor for my part as Hook in Peter Pan. I applied to Cambridge University, ranked the best university in the world, and I was accepted.

True Excellence is found in Christ Alone

Unfortunately the sorts of achievements that the world might consider ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’ are nothing but what the Bible calls ‘confidence in the flesh’. In Philippians 3:5-6, we find Paul’s list of reasons that he might be ‘confident in the flesh’, but he concludes it thus:
“Yet indeed I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish.”

As Christians we affirm the ‘call to excellence’ – if and only if the definition of ‘excellence’ has been narrowed to include only “one thing… the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).

Now, this doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from those who aren’t Christians. From the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 4:20-22), credit is given to those outside of the family of faith for the cultural and technological advances they achieved.

But what it does is radically shift one’s perspective on the significance of such achievements. What’s the point of being a pioneer in the field of music or metallurgy, if ultimately you will be destroyed by the wrath of God?

Brokenness, Not Brilliance

And particularly in Christian ministry, the implications of this need to be integrated into our practice. Paul says to the Corinthians, “when I came to you, I [deliberately!] did not come with excellence” (2:1), “lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect”.

Paul is speaking of the eloquence of his words, but surely the same applies to the proficiency of a worship band, the impressiveness of church architecture, to so many things that we think are necessary to impress the watching multitudes!

I don’t know quite how hard to press this theme—because, as I began by acknowledging, there is biblical truth in the idea that we are called to excellence. And even as I write about worship bands, I know that someone will point out Psalm 33:3 instruction to “play skilfully”; even as I talk about architecture, I’m sure someone will remind me of the “beauty and glory” of the Tabernacle of Moses.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that our primary task is to let our flaws and our brokenness be visible and unhidden – “that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Simple Obedience Changes History

This becomes particularly relevant because God is not a distant, silent deity who has merely revealed principles that we must work out how to put into practice, but rather a living, active communicator, who answers us when we call to him, and speaks to us when we listen.

And as we surrender our lives – not just our religious identity, not just a tenth of our income, not just a few hours on a Sunday morning, not just our intellectual assent to some doctrinal propositions – as we surrender our lives to Jesus, He will begin to lead us by His Spirit. And the situations that the Spirit leads us into, may be precisely those situations that our strengths and skills seem least suited to.

Certainly this is not always the case. God has plans to prosper us, not to harm us. And as we delight ourselves in Him, He will give us the desires of our hearts. But the reality is that our ultimate satisfaction is found not in superficial success, but in a growing and deepening revelation of the reality of Jesus Christ.

And this is good news. Because if we are supposed to ‘achieve excellence’, then we all too easily find ourselves locked into the rat-race to be better than everyone else – which is clearly a game that not everyone can win! But when we realise that all the excellence belongs to God, then we are set free to obey whatever he calls us to do, confident in the knowledge that through the power of His excellency, our simple obedience will change the course of history.

Every Simple Salvation Prayer Counts!

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This post is intended as a brief defense of the practice of street evangelism, and in particular, my habit of counting responses.

Since taking part in the School of the Circuit Rider, I have been persuaded of the power of keeping count of the number of people who respond to the gospel when we are involved in evangelism. It’s particularly helpful when on a regular basis you are going out onto the streets trying to share the simple gospel, and having to wage a constant battle against disillusionment and discouragement as you find more people closed to the message than are ready to hear it, let alone respond. Because the fact is that even though most people might be disinterested, there are *always* at least some who are open. Matthew 9:37 *promises* that “the harvest is plentiful”, and I am convinced that this is a truth that applies in every place and at every time — not just to first-century Galilee. The gospel is always the power of salvation, and as we lift up Jesus, people will be drawn to Him.

If it seems like this isn’t working, then the problem isn’t the gospel, nor even the hardness of the hearts of those that we’re trying to reach. It’s that we’re called (Matthew 9:37-38 tells us) to pray for more labourers. We’re not just called to win the lost to Christ, we’re called to mobilise the saved, and we’re called to pray. I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again: one anointed evangelist that led a thousand people to faith every night couldn’t reach the whole world even in a thousand years — but if two people would both win one person to Christ and each train that person to win another person, and train them to do the same, and so on, and so on, then every year their number would double, and in less than forty years their numbers would have equalled that of the world’s population.

Now, one might conclude from this that we hardly need to worry about evangelism at all–surely those figures show that it’s discipleship rather than evangelism that should be our priority! But the truth is that in the kingdom very rarely does the same person share the gospel with someone, lead them to the Lord, disciple them, and continue to train them as they develop as a leader. Rather, Jesus tells his disciples, “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:38). If we want to see a movement take place in which new converts find themselves easily leading others to the Lord, we need to be prepared to put in our share of hard work, in prayer and apparently-fruitless sowing of the word of God.

And — to come back to our original point — it is a vital encouragement when you have embraced the call to live a lifestyle of evangelistic seed-sowing to remember that there are people responding to what you are doing. And as you repeatedly go out and share the gospel message, and a few of those with whom you share consistently respond in faith or at least interest or openness, then the number of those who have responded will grow! I at least find this very encouraging.

However, it is true (I have found!) that some dislike this practice of counting the number of responses. There are a number of objections that I have encountered, and I will now try to respond to them.

Objection #1. Didn’t Jesus explicitly say not to rejoice in outreach testimonies, but in personal salvation?

The reference here is to Luke 10:20, after the seventy short-term missionaries that Jesus has sent out come back rejoicing that even the demons submit to the power of the name of Jesus, and Jesus tells them “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven”.

But I would argue that Jesus’ comment is about maintaining perspective, not about an absolute prohibition on sharing outreach testimonies. Indeed, their testimonies have the immediate effect that Jesus is filled with joy through the Holy Spirit. One could also point out that this passage in fact affirms that salvation is the thing we should prioritise in our rejoicing!

Objection #2. Counting the number of ‘salvation prayers’ devalues the other parts of the process.

I have to admit that this has sometimes been an unintended side-effect of my energetic persistence in rejoicing in the number of responses where people respond to the gospel and pray a simple prayer receiving the gift of salvation through Jesus.

Our friend Abigail has written eloquently on her blog to this effect–about how a simplistic celebration of someone turning to Christ “misses out all the doubt, waiting, patience, confusion, praying, and more doubt”, and can cause a Christian to start “comparing myself to other Christians, and feeling truly rubbish”. (And let me take this opportunity to say briefly how amazing Abigail is: she was one of the first people we met when we moved into Arbury (that’s North Cambridge, for those of you reading who aren’t from ‘ere!), and has been part of our discipleship-group/house-church since the beginning; she’s now just finished her first year of university, and spent the summer in mission in Ukraine).

Certainly there are many things that I still need to learn about how to encourage people to engage in evangelism. Maybe in our numerical record-keeping, we should record and rejoice in every single gospel conversation (or even just conversation with a stranger–particularly for those of us who struggle to start talking to new people), not just the ones that end positively. But hopefully at least as people get to know me they will see that my heart is not to convey any sort of competitive condemnation.

Objection #3. It’s about individuals — not numbers!

I absolutely agree that God loves each individual person specifically, uniquely, and infinitely. As Jesus encouraged his disciples: “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father knowing it. But in fact, your Father knows the very number of hairs on your head. So do not fear–you are more valuable than many sparrows!”

But I disagree that counting the number of responses diminishes the significance of the individuals concerned. If we look at the book of Acts it is clear that Luke is thrilled — almost obsessed! — with the numerical growth of the church: from the original count of “one hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:15), then on Pentecost “there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41), then later “the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). One could also look at Acts 6:1, 6:7, 11:21, 14:21, 16:5, 19:26 — all these verses emphasise the growing number of responses to the gospel.

Objection #4. It’s meaningless without follow-up.

Sometimes this objection appears on its own, sometimes it is given in reaction to my response to the previous objection–‘Ah, but the numbers in Acts are referring to newly baptized church members, not just apparent responses to some simple gospel presentation’. Even when people aren’t objecting per se to the keeping track of numbers of responses to evangelism, the frequent question that appears in answer to an attempt to enthusiastically share this evidence of gospel breakthrough is something like ‘Hmm, really?–and what about the follow-up?’

And I readily concede that it is good and important to do whatever we can to help those who respond to the gospel to transition into some Christian community where they will be able to be taught and discipled and encouraged and held accountable to continue growing as a Christian. I believe just as passionately in discipleship as I do in evangelism.

But on the other hand, I am convinced that even if there is no way for us to ever connect with someone again, we have still been commissioned to share the gospel with them. And even if the fault for failing to follow-up does lie fairly on us, then we can still trust that God is able to use whatever seed of gospel truth we succeeded in sowing when we had opportunity to do whatever he wants in that person’s life. “God’s word will not return void!”

In fact in the Book of Acts (specifically ch. 8:26-40) we see that God engineered a situation such that an evangelist was unable to arrange any follow-up: when Philip shared the gospel with the Ethiopian, the man responded instantly and was baptized in some water that happened to be at hand, and immediately “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away”.

Aside: A Parable
Still considering the question of the effectiveness of evangelism without adequate follow-up, consider this hypothetical situation:
Imagine a person who knew nothing of God, who was struggling with all sorts of serious sins, who one day encountered one of our simple evangelists as he was walking through town. ‘Hi, do you have a minute?, can we share the message of Jesus with you?’ The person is too shocked by the offer to immediately refuse to listen, and our evangelist takes advantage of the pause to begin sharing.

She explains how everything starts with the God who created everything, whose love is infinite and irresistible–but does he know that love? No? Well, that’s because all of humanity has been cut off from God ever since the first human beings turned away from God in mistrust and unbelief. But God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die for us, to demonstrate his love for us–and there’s no greater way to show love than to lay down your life for someone! And because of his death, the penalty for our sin has been paid! We can be forgiven, we can have assurance of eternal life, we can receive the indwelling personal love of the Holy Spirit!

Our evangelist asks, ‘Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to receive this gift of salvation?’

Suddenly the Holy Spirit pierces through a lifetime’s apathy to spiritual things, and ignites a tiny spark of faith in the heart of our hypothetical person, and to his surprise he finds himself saying ‘Er okay, do I have to do anything?’

‘Well, like any gift, you have to unwrap it and receive it! May I lead you in a simple prayer right now?’ And before he knows it, he’s repeating a simple salvation prayer: ‘Father God, I’m sorry for the wrong I’ve done; Thankyou that Jesus came and died to set me free; I believe–I want to receive the gift of salvation; In Jesus’ name, Amen.’ To his astonishment, his eyes are beginning to fill with tears — before the evangelist can tell quite what’s happened, he’s made a quick exit.

Now suppose that person fails to connect with any Christians who are able to encourage him to grow in his faith. He doesn’t have a Bible. He continues to be trapped in various ungodly addictions. A neutral human assessment would see no convincing evidence of clear sanctification in his life. Suppose that he dies, just a year later, in a tragic car accident.

His body is buried; his spirit ascends before the judgement seat of God. The devil appears, cackling diabolically: ‘I think this one’s for me!’

But suddenly Jesus speaks: ‘Just hold on a minute, let’s do this properly!’ An angel is dispatched and returns within an instant with a large book — the devil grabs it out of his hand, and opens it. He starts flicking through the pages, which reveal a series of incriminating photographs. ‘See what he’s like! Pornography, theft, cheating, stealing, bullying, lying, swearing, fornication, sexual abuse, rape, abortion, murder! He’s mine, I tell you!’

‘Hold on’, Jesus repeats, and he turns to a page where there’s a single photo of the man standing talking to our evangelist. Beside the photo is written a transcript of the conversation that took place. Jesus lays a finger of his nail-pierced hand next to a particular phrase, and reads it slowly. ‘What? What are you saying?’ the devil rants, increasingly agitated. Jesus repeats it louder, and then louder: ‘Jesus came and died to set me free’. And then, so soft it’s barely a whisper, in a still small voice: ‘He’s definitely mine’.

A mighty angel appears with another book, from which is read out: “FOR WITH THE HEART ONE BELIEVES AND IS JUSTIFIED, AND WITH THE MOUTH ONE CONFESSES AND IS SAVED”. ‘What about all this?’ screams the enraged devil, reaching for the first book, and trying to find again the condemning evidence. But now there’s nothing but blank pages. ‘Argh, where did they go?’ screams Satan. The mighty angel speaks again: “HE CANCELLED THE RECORD OF THE CHARGES AGAINST US AND TOOK IT AWAY BY NAILING IT TO THE CROSS”. The devil disappears in a cloud of fury. Jesus beckons the man towards a banqueting table where a lavish feast has been set out. Too stunned to immediately respond to the invitation, the man mutters to one of the angels, ‘Whew, that was close!’ The angel’s booming voice thunders forth again: “WHO COULD BRING A CHARGE AGAINST GOD’S CHOSEN ONES? IT IS GOD WHO JUSTIFIES. WHO IS HE WHO CONDEMNS? IT IS CHRIST WHO DIED, YES RATHER, WHO WAS RAISED FROM THE DEAD, WHO IS AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, WHO ALSO MAKES INTERCESSION FOR US.”

Objection #5. How can you reliably judge whether people are sincere in their response?

I admit that this is difficult. Some would say it’s always impossible to say with certainty whether someone — certainly a new convert! — has saving faith.

But Paul writes to the Thessalonians saying, “we know, brethren loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. And if we believe the Book of Acts, Paul was only in Thessalonica for “three Sabbath days”, so not long enough to see the long-term fruit and sanctifying evidence of the faith of the Thessalonian believers.

Strictly speaking, we try to make clear that the numbers we share are numbers of salvation-prayers prayed, rather than of guaranteed salvations. And certainly in many situations there is not the visible evidence that Paul speaks of. But on the other hand, sometimes there is! Sometimes you see the tears running down people’s cheeks, or the joy in their faces, or just the light coming on in their eyes. And I don’t want to undermine the authentic reality of assured salvation which simple faith guarantees, just for the sake of erring on the safe side in my reporting of numbers.

I speak sincerely, in the fear of the Lord, when I say that I don’t want to be guilty of exaggerating our evangelistic success. But I confess that my greater concern is that I would never fail to respond with exuberant joy whenever it seems that one who is lost has been found, one who was dead is now alive. It so strikes me that in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father doesn’t even wait for the son to finish saying his ‘sinner’s prayer’ before leaping on him in inappropriately extravagant celebration. And I don’t want to be like the older brother, critical and self-righteous, refusing to join in the rejoicing. I want to be like the Father.

one-heart-equation

1≤3 : A Meditation

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One is less than or equal to Three — taking theological truth from mathematical mundanity.
“Count the stars — if indeed you can count them.” (Genesis 15:5)

This post is a little exercise in hearing God’s voice — using a simple mathematical equation as a springboard for spiritual contemplation.

I realise that there may not be many others who find this as inspiring as I have — and when I recently tried to share this profoundly meaningful triad of mathematical symbols with a few friends we quickly ran aground in a cross-cultural debate about the proper way to write the less-than-or-equal-to symbol. So I share my thoughts here in an attempt to help whoever’s interested to squeeze some theological revelation out of this self-evident piece of mathematics. (Perhaps this sort of thing was the point of my having studied Mathematics and Theology at Cambridge.)

Before starting though, it is necessary to address the comment occasionally voiced that one is not ‘less-than-or-equal-to‘ three it is simply ‘less-than’ three. For this comment is merely mistaken. And while I admit that it is peculiar to actually write 1≤3, the fact is that it is a perfectly legitimate mathematical sentence, for if we were to consider the set {x≤3}, then 1 would certainly be a possible value of x. Alternatively, we could put it like this: one may not be equal to three, but since it is certainly less than three, it is consequently logically true to say that it is less-than-or-equal-to three.

Okay — trivialities completed, we press on in hope of theological profundities.

One is less than Three — obvious truths point to ultimate Truth.
What can be known about God is plain to them, for God has shown it to them. (Romans 1:19)
“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

The first nugget of theological gold that we can mine from this equation (and indeed, from any equation) is that for equations to function at all depends on the existence of Truth. Obvious truths like this point us towards the existence of ultimate Truth. And in a world beset by relativism and all manner of postmodern pandering to insufferable nonsense, it is encouraging to step back from the fray and take solace in the fact that mathematics at least can provide us with sound, reliable, unquestionable Truth.

And a mathematical mind could even easily construct a little proof to refute the pernicious doctrine of absolute relativism: ‘Suppose there are no absolute truths; then it would follow that There are no absolute truths would be an absolute truth. Contradiction! QED.’

But we can go further than arguing the mere existence of mathematical truth — we can follow this trail of revelation by noting that mathematical truths consistently and inexplicably describe with impeccable precision the behaviour of the universe in which we live. As the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman once commented, “The fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all, but it leads to the possibility of prediction”.

I have elsewhere referred to this inexplicability as ‘The Orderliness Argument’ for the existence of a consistent God who enables and sustains the natural laws of the universe. And in a similar vein, one could use the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments to argue for (but not ‘prove’ — note my epistemological caution!) the existence of a spiritual and eternal Creator and Designer; the Moral Argument then shows that even evil points towards the existence of absolute moral Goodness; finally, the Historical Argument confirms our faith in the God of the Bible and leads us to identify the biblical God with these other philosophical accounts of Deity.

One is equal to Three — the mystery of the Trinity, and the dignity of ‘The Person’.
…he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18)

Thus far we have simply contented ourselves with the trivial observation that if one is less than three, then it is necessarily also true that one is less-than-or-equal-to three. But now that we have mentioned the God of the Bible, whom we believe to be One Holy Undivided Trinity, the One and the Three now grow in significance, causing our philosophical courage to rise and our analytical boldness to grow.

For the biblical God reveals himself through the Scriptural narrative as uniquely One — the God who alone is worthy of worship, and also as Three — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now to be one God and yet three Persons implies no necessary contradiction: Trinitarian dogma does not state that God is one God and three Gods, or one Person and three Persons, but rather merely one God and three Persons.

But the fact that each of these Persons is fully God means that it seems somewhat meaningful to suggest that ‘1=3’ in the context of the Trinity. Properly, what we mean is perhaps something more like V(1P)=V(3P), where V(x) is the function assessing the Value of x, and xP is the number of divine Persons. And since the infinite value of the divine Persons follows from their divine nature, it is independent of their number.

Yet although our argument thus far has minimised the significance of the personal, one cannot meditate on the very fact of the existence of these divine Trinitarian persons, without also coming to a weighty sense of the dignity of ‘the Person’ in general, even and perhaps especially as that applies to non-divine Persons. Persons like you and me, ordinary everyday human persons, with idiosynchratic mannerisms and annoying habits. You do now have to have read Emmanuel Mounier to appreciate the potential significance of this. And the fact that the second Trinitarian person actually became an incarnate, embodied human person only strengthens and confirms our intuited sens of the awesome value of each and every individual person.

One is less than the Triune God — wonder, consolation, and other theological implications.
…what is man that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4)
…for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart… (1 John 3:20)

But to say such things without qualification is dangerous in a world so full of commercialized self-help coaches and glib feel-good gurus. So no sooner have we asserted the worth of the human person, than we must immediately proclaim again the matchless glory of the invisible God and lift our eyes away from our poor and broken selves, up towards the heavens.

As we begin to do so, we realize that even our entire planet is but a mote of dust suspended in a sun beam. But rather than overwhelming us with existential dread in the face of our apparent insignificance, the immensity of the universe should rather fill us with an unspeakable wonder that releases a wordless joy. It is perhaps the joy of being reminded that we are not God, while simultaneously knowing prior to all analysis that the heavens demonstrate that nevertheless Someone is! And that Someone is glorious.

And in this revelation there is supreme consolation, for it means that for all the dignity and responsibility that comes with being a person made in God’s image, still we can be justified in (and by!) confessing that our sins are manifold and our problems are beyond our abilities to solve.

One Heart — no Love without the Trinity.
God is love. (1 John 4:8)
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

This is a good point for me to freely admit that we are now springing rather creatively from our simple equation into the realms of revelation. For I now want to draw your attention to the fact that the ‘<3' looks remarkably like a heart (indeed, it is a standard emoticon).

So we note next that God does not call us just to reverently tremble before him. Rather, He invites us to love Him with all our hearts, minds, souls, strength. And, as all the pop songs on all the radio stations in all the world testify, it is Love that the human heart longs for. This is what we were made for!

And here we make the controversial claim that unless the Trinity is acknowledged to be actual reality, then in fact Love is deprived of its ontological foundation and necessary rationale, and becomes nothing “but a second-hand emotion”. For only if we can affirm the existence of a plurality of eternal Persons can we conceive of and invoke the reality of eternal necessarily-interpersonal Love. Without God, love might be a fleeting feeling or a chemical contingency, but love cannot be the capital-L Love that the inspires the poets, commissions the prophets, and promises to heal the world’s wounds and solve the planet’s problems.

The Heart on its side — Love laid down is the greatest Love.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. (1 John 3:16)
Greater love has no one than this, that to lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

That established, we look again at our mathematical muse, and note that in our equation’s emoticon the heart lies fallen on its side. What, we ask, might this signify?

And in answering we remember that it is a truth universally acknowledged that there can be no greater demonstration of love than to lay one’s life down for one’s beloved. Thus a lover irreversibly gives up his everything for the sake of her whom he loves; thus the story of Romeo & Juliet captivates our imaginations with its two lovers each confirming their supreme love for the other by willingly embracing Death.

Without being distracted by the tragedies of Shakespearean romance, we press on to identify the true and final fulfilment of this ‘love laid down’ — and, in Jesus Christ crucified, we find it. As the apostle John sums it up in his First Epistle: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us”.

‘One’ opens his mouth — Love will not be silent.
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died….We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:14,20)

And so the contemplation
of this simple equation
has led us to the revelation
that Jesus died for our salvation.

But permit me one final observation before we conclude: that the less-than symbol’s triangle somewhat resembles a mouth, or perhaps the stem of a speech-bubble. Which leads us to conclude with the comment that Love cannot be silent, but necessarily must result in vocalized praise and declarative adoration, in joyful summons and unrelenting invitation.

And on that I will end, with a summons for you to consider the claims of Christ, and what it might look like for the shape of your life to be conformed to the cruciform love of Jesus. And if you’re ever around in Cambridge on a Sunday afternoon, then there’s always an invitation for you to join us for lunch amidst a community of people imperfectly attempting to work out the implications of a Love that surpasses understanding.

Mark 14:1-11

#markMark 14:1-11

In Summary
You who think of the poor in the abstract as a political problem to be solved (whether by hard work and austerity or by democratic restructuring and financial redistribution) will find that you always have them among you. But while Jesus knows of human need (Simon the leper was an untouchable social outcast until Jesus healed him; Mary a demon-possessed prostitute until Jesus delivered her), he knows that the root of poverty is not being disconnected merely from financial resources, but from loving relationship. And only God the Father, through Jesus the sole Mediator, can provide the abundant unfailing love that we not only want but ultimately need. Therefore extravagant love for Jesus not only qualifies as responsible stewardship, but is a necessary and vital part of the gospel message.

Eating: Roast Chicken, Mashed Potato, Roasted Vegetables, & Gravy
Present: Peter & Taryn + Isaac; Sophie + Ryan; Linda + Adam; Danny + Sarah, Matthijs; Simon, Becca; Doug.
Passage: Mark 14:1-11

As usual we spent some time scribbling on Scripture to work out what’s going on in the passage:

Then eventually we come to the
Questions & Comments

___________________

On that subject…
— You can read here the text of a sermon that I preached reflecting on this incident in the context of the First Commandment.

— Here’s a song from IHOP on the alabaster jar theme:

On Spiritual Gifts

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on-spiritual-gifts

Photo Credit: Ian McGlasham

In God’s perfect timing, it so happened that in the Bible-reading plan we are using, the topic of ‘Spiritual Gifts’ happened to be the subject of the teaching–immediately after one of our DTS trainees had quit over issues to do with this particular subject. The fact that I was able to preach was also a God-thing, because ordinarily Connie Taylor would be first in line to teach on this subject. But she had lost her voice, and so I was able to help her out, and take the opportunity to clarify my own convictions and understanding of the matter.

I want to emphasise this before I begin, that I do not claim to have the final word on this subject, and I want to honour all those with whom I disagree. I offer this to help you understand where I’m coming from, and perhaps to be assisted in your own understanding–and where you do disagree, please do me the honour of explaining with what you disagree and why! It’s also worth pointing out that the text that follows is a considered expansion of the ideas contained in the audio message, rather than an exact transcript — which might explain why this written piece comes more than a month after the preached sermon.

#1 The Importance of This Topic
“Concerning spiritual gifts, I do not want you to be uninformed.” (1 Cor. 12:1)

Paul begins his discussion of the issue by highlighting the importance of the topic. This is vital because the question of spiritual gifts is often (perhaps always?) a controversial one, and so it’s tempting to think that we’d be best avoiding the matter and just focussing on things on which we can all straightforwardly agree. But if it’s controversial in our days, it was equally controversial in Paul’s day–in fact, the reason that he raises the subject is that the Corinthians were suffering the effects of disunity caused at least in part by disagreements over spiritual gifts. This passage becomes especially meaningful when we put it into the historical context provided by the Book of Acts.

To recap: Paul arrived in Corinth during his second missionary journey, after having been driven out of Thessalonica and the Berea by persecution. In Corinth he met Priscilla and Aquilla, and was reconnected with Silas and Timothy (who had remained a little longer in Berea). Encouraged by a vision of Jesus, he remained in Corinth for a year and half in spite of persecution, before returning to his home church in Antioch. On the way back to Antioch Paul passed through Ephesus, where he was asked to remain longer but could only promise that he would return when he got the chance. Priscilla and Aquilla however, who had travelled with him, remained in Ephesus. Apollos then arrives in Ephesus, and begins preaching ‘the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John’ (–we shall discuss this strange phase later). Priscilla and Aquilla meet Apollos, ‘explain to him the way of God more accurately’, and when he feels stirred to move on to Achaia (the region where Corinth was) write a letter recommending him to the Corinthian church.

While Apollos is in Corinth, Paul at last arrives back in Ephesus. He meets twelve disciples (not the twelve disciples!) who had been baptised ‘into John’s baptism’, but who ‘had not so much as heard of the Holy Spirit’. Paul explains that John the Baptist’s own very message was that he came with a baptism of repentance to prepare people for the coming Christ, who would baptise them in the Holy Spirit. And he lays hands on them, and they experience that baptism, and begin speaking in tongues and prophesying.

Paul then continues ministering in Ephesus for another two years, experiencing what I can only describe as revival & reformation — even by Paul’s standards, his ministry in Ephesus was uniquely successful. Revival breaks out as all in the region hear and begin to fear the name of Jesus, and unusual miracles (in contrast to ‘the usual miracles’!?) take place; reformation begins as the strongholds of witchcraft are exposed and destroyed, and the industry of idol-manufacturing is challenged; and even Paul’s missionary vision is expanded as he begins to make plans to take the gospel to Rome.

Understanding this context helps give us some ideas about what the issues were that were dividing those Corinthians who said they were ‘of Apollos’ and those who said they were ‘of Paul’ — it must have been something to do with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It also helps us understand why Paul thought it so important to have a proper understanding of the issues to do with the Spirit — because he was at that moment enjoying the supernatural breakthrough that occurs when even a small group of believers begin to fully experience the power of the Holy Spirit.

#2 The Foundational Truth: If Jesus is Lord, you have the Holy Spirit
“No-one can say Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3)

One of the big disagreements between Christians is over what it means to ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Does it all happen (as Paul’s statement here in 1 Cor. 12:3 seems to clearly say) when you first believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord? Or is there a subsequent ‘receiving of the Holy Spirit’ that happens after your spirit is regenerated by repentant faith (as is suggested by Paul’s question in Acts to the Ephesian disciples)? I think it’s fair to call the first position ‘the Evangelical position’ (cf. UCCF Doctrinal Basis, and the second ‘the Pentecostal position’ (cf. Assemblies of God Statement of Fundamental Beliefs).

But maybe it’s better to think of these two not as contradictory ‘positions’ but as complementary ‘differences in emphasis’. Let me repeat: I don’t think it is contradictory to affirm both that whoever has believed in Jesus as the risen Lord has received the Holy Spirit, and that there is a need for a distinct overflowing experience of the power of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because when the disciples first encountered the resurrected Jesus, he said that they received the Holy Spirit; yet, subsequently he commanded them to wait and pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

There’s an illustration we sometimes use with a glass and (a jug of) water. The water represents the Holy Spirit, and the glass the believer. And the point is made that there’s a difference between the glass containing water and the glass being filled completely. ‘And how do you know when the glass is full? When it overflows!’ It occurs to me that a helpful development of the illustration might be to use a selection of differently sized glasses to make the point that someone who has never experienced any ‘overflow’ might have a greater depth in the Spirit than someone who has.

On the subject of overflow, it’s worth noting here that as well as the question of whether the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ is the original indwelling or a distinct overwhelming, there is also the (distinct) question of whether such an overflowing must be demonstrated by speaking in tongues (this is classically also part of ‘the Pentecostal position’). Personally, I believe in the need of a distinct first-filling of the Spirit (cf. Acts 8:16), but not in the idea that this must be evidenced by speaking in tongues–for, as Paul says later in this passage, ‘Do all speak in tongues?’

My personal experience is also a factor in my understanding: I grew up in a missionary family and so grew up with an understanding of the gospel and at multiple times in my childhood prayed a sinner’s prayer confessing my sin and placing my trust in Jesus as Lord. But it was at age eighteen, a year after I’d been baptised, that I encountered the overwhelming joy of the Holy Spirit (without any speaking in tongues) after having been challenged by the call to surrender absolutely everything to Christ. Then in my second year of university, I again had a dramatic experience of the power of the Holy Spirit, which again didn’t involve any speaking in tongues, but this time included an incredible sense of the LOVE of God, and an explosively energetic impulse to missional activity — evangelistic bible studies, feeding the homeless, obedient putting-into-action of whatever idea seemed Spirit-inspired. Subsequently I sometimes tried speaking in tongues but it felt forced and false. Then the following year, I went on a mini-pilgrimage to Mt Sinai with my friend Jonny, and we were trying to fast and pray, but finding it a bit of a battle–until at dawn at the peak of Sinai, suddenly some Africans behind us broke into worship, and it was as if a dam broke in my spirit, and suddenly me and Jonny were singing Amazing Grace at the top of our lungs. And I’ve found myself speaking in tongues frequently and joyfully and profitably since then.

Whichever your emphasis, it’s easy to be misunderstood. If you emphasise that all who have been born again have the Holy Spirit already living within them, then you risk cultivating a culture of complacency. If you emphasise that people need to seek after the baptism of the Holy Spirit’s power, then you risk being accused of spiritual arrogance, and of condemning those that have not had such an experience. In declaring any biblical truth there is a risk of being misunderstood, and it takes time to teach the full counsel of God.

#3 The Gifts are Trinitarian
“…one Spirit…many charismatic gifts; …one Lord… many ministries; …one God… many activities”

It’s important to notice the way that before Paul hones in on the issue of the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, he starts by emphasising the Trinitarian unity (“one Spirit…one Lord…one God”–and note that for Paul, ‘Lord’ almost always means Christ Jesus the Son, and ‘God’ always means the Father) of the God from whom the gifts come.

The reason it’s important to start here, is that we’re so easily tempted to limit God and the work that He wants to do through us. Whatever gifts we think we have, we think we’re limited to, and whatever gifts we’ve never experienced, we think we’ll never be able to minister in. But here Paul emphasises that there’s not a different ‘spirit of prophecy’, and another ‘spirit of wisdom’ (though elsewhere he’s not afraid to use that sort of language) — there’s one Holy Spirit. And there’s not one ‘lord of evangelism’ and another ‘lord of teaching’ — there’s one Jesus. And there’s not one ‘god of leadership’ and another ‘god of giving’ — there’s one God, the Father.

Now within the Trinity there is not only unity but also distinction, and it’s also important to see that Paul introduces an interesting Trinitarian differentiation between the charismatic gifts released by the Holy Spirit, the ministries released by the Lord Jesus, and the activities released by God the Father. That this Trinitarian parallelism is not merely an on-the-fly rhetorical flourish but an actual systematic framework in Paul’s theology is demonstrated by its consistent appearance in the other places where Paul refers to God-given gifts.

When Paul continues in this passage to focus on the charismatic gifts it is indeed the “Spirit” who he says is “distributing” the gifts “as He wills”. And if we flick forward in our Bibles to Ephesians 4, where Paul speaks of the ministry gifts, it is Christ “who descended… who also ascended far above the heavens” who gives “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers” as gifts to the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry”. And in Romans 12, where Paul gives a diverse list of activities ranging from the specifically supernatural (“prophecy”) to the more wide-ranging (“acts of mercy”), it is “God” who has assigned a measure of faith to each person that they can bless the body of Christ in some particular way.

Because my understanding of what Paul is saying is slightly different to what you may have heard elsewhere, I’ll repeat. There are the charismatic gifts–the Holy Spirit gives these different supernatural tools to help us bring the Kingdom of God into specific situations. There are various ministries — Jesus gives specific people as gifts to the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (note that the people are the ministry gifts, not the anointings!). And there are all manner of godly activities — and like a good father, God gives each of us faith (confidence!) that we can do particular things, and encourages and releases us to do whatever good we are motivated to do.

The charismatic gifts are supernatural, sovereignly given by the Spirit according to his will. And that means that no matter how much we may have used those gifts in the past, we don’t have those gifts to produce on demand — but what we do have is the Holy Spirit, who is good and kind and generous and longs “to give to each one individually, as [indeed!] he wills”.

Now, if we repeatedly ask the Spirit for these supernatural gifts, and by stepping out in faith give Him opportunity to let us use them, then we will begin to grow in God-given confidence that we are able to be used in supernatural ways in the course of various activities to the benefit of others in the church. This, I think, is what Paul is implying when he lists something like ‘prophecy’ both among the 1 Corinthians 12 charismatic gifts, and the Romans 12 activities. And finally, as we become more experienced in, say, the activity of prophecy, we will begin to be able to equip others in that ministry, thus acting in the role of ‘a prophet’ to them.

I probably need to repeat this too, because again I am going against the grain of conventional thinking on the topic. The ministry gifts are not supernatural anointings given to some elite few so that they can do those things while the rest of us sit quietly watching from the pews. The ministries are things that all of us are commissioned and commanded to do, and as we gain experience in doing them we will find that we are able to equip others to do likewise–and thus we ourselves will become ‘gifts’ to those around us.

#4 A Closer Look at the Holy Spirit Gifts

So finally we reach the ‘spiritual gifts’, which Pentecostal preachers like to divide neatly up into three categories: gifts of revelation, gifts of power, and gifts of utterance. And before we dive in it’s always fun to note the symmetry between the nine named charismatic gifts, and the nine named fruits of the Spirit. And we can’t forget the fact that the dove (by which the Holy Spirit is represented) has nine primary wing-feathers–cue easy preaching point that to soar in the Spirit we need both gifts and fruit.

The Revelation Gifts
Word of Knowledge: a supernatural impartation of knowledge that could not otherwise be had.
Eg. Jesus’ knowledge of the Samaritan woman’s unhappy relationship history in John 4:16-19; Elisha’s knowledge of Gehazi’s greedily deceptive attempt to squeeze some profit out of Naaman in 2 Kings 5.

Word of Wisdom: a supernatural impartation of wisdom to respond to a complex situation.
eg. Solomon’s command in 1 Kings 3 to cut the baby in half, which reveals the truth of who the baby’s mother really is; Jesus’s own question in Matthew 21:23-27 in response to the question of where his authority came from.

Discerning of Spirits: a supernatural impartation of discernment as to what spirit is at work in a given situation, thus allowing the believer to know what course of action to take.
eg. Paul discerns the spiritual nastiness of Elymas in Acts 13; Micaiah in 1 Kings 22 vividly recounts a vision exposing a ‘lying spirit’ at work; and Jesus demonstrates this gift in various ways — in healing a demonised child, in rebuking Peter’s Satanic denial of the necessity of the cross, in discerning the spirit of self-promoting pride puffing up his disciples.

The Power Gifts
Gift of Faith: an impartation of faith which, when activated, releases supernatural power.
This is what Jesus was talking about in Mark 11:23-24, when he explains the power of the prayer of faith. Examples include the Roman centurion’s faith which so impressed Jesus, and the faith of the haemorraging woman in Mark 5.

Working of Miracles: a demonstration of supernatural power.
Eg. Jesus turning the water into wine, Jesus (and, briefly, Peter!) walking on water, and Jesus directing Peter to a coin found in a fish’s mouth.

Gifts of Healing: includes all sorts of healing — social, spiritual, emotional, as well as physical.
That healing includes the spiritual and not just the physical is evidenced by the way Jesus brings up the issue of forgiveness with regard to the paralysed man in Mark 2; conversely, in John 5 it seems that this paralyzed man experienced physical but not spiritual healing. And in his command to the healed leper to offer the appropriate sacrifices “as a public testimony that you have been cleansed” (NLT), Jesus demonstrates the importance of the social implications of healing.

The Utterance Gifts
Tongues: Spirit-empowered unintelligible speech.
There are three aspects to note here: first, speaking in tongues seems to be a common result of receiving the infilling baptism of the Holy Spirit (even if I have argued that it is neither a definite nor a necessary proof). We see this repeatedly in the book of Acts (eg. ch.2:4; 10:46; 19:6). I would suggest that it makes sense to include other visible manifestations of the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit in the same category: eg. laughter (cf. Psalm 126:2), falling to the ground (cf. Acts 9:4), et cetera.

Second, speaking in tongues is sometimes understood by others present as being an actual human language known to them although it is unknown to the speaker — this is what happens in Acts 2, and if you spend enough time with Pentecostal Christians you will eventually hear testimonies of it occasionally happening still.

Third, speaking in tongues offers a way of praying when you don’t know what to say. This seems to be what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 14:2 — “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” — and in Romans 8:26 — “we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”. Even Jesus sometimes needed to do this. The gifted ability to pray beyond one’s intellectual capacity means that “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself” (1 Cor. 14:4), and explains why Paul said “I want you all to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:5).

Prophecy: Spirit-empowered intelligible speech.
This could be in the context of congregational worship (eg. 2 Chronicles 20), although this is not necessary (eg. Elijah’s word to Ahab 1 Kings 17:1, Zechariah’s prophecy about his son John the Baptist Luke 1:67ff., Jesus’ prophecy to his disciples on the Mount of Olives Mk. 13).

Now, people sometimes ‘despise [modern-day] prophecy’ because i. they think that believing in prophecy is equivalent to adding to Scripture, and ii. they are afraid that it will lead to manipulation, or at least confusion.

In response to the first, I would clarify that I am a ‘Supernatural Continuationist’ but a ‘Scriptural Cessationist’. Certainly, the writing of the Scriptures has ceased (Rev. 22:18-19). But Scripture encourages us to “eagerly desire to prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1) — and if you hold to a theology that says that this Scriptural word no longer applies then do you not “nullify the word of God by your tradition”?

In response to the second concern, it must be emphasised that nowhere among the spiritual gifts is there listed a ‘word of command’. Even if something is an authentic word of wisdom, it’s not necessarily meant to be obeyed — remember Solomon’s word about cutting the prostitute’s baby in half! Having received the Holy Spirit means we are no longer under law but now have a dynamic personal freedom to work out how best to live in step with the Spirit in a complex world — if that applies to the biblical law then it must also apply to any other prophecies. On the other hand, a real word of prophecy should ring true in a way that helps us know how to apply God’s timeless principles in our rapidly changing world.

It’s interesting to consider Acts 21, and Paul’s response to prophetic advice. Here Paul has set himself to return to Jerusalem. But he keeps having Spirit-filled believers discourage him on this journey. First some disciples tell him “through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem”. Then Agabus, one of the few New Testament characters who is actually described as a prophet, comes and enacts a prophecy about how Paul will be arrested when he gets to Jerusalem — and those with Paul respond by telling him not to go to Jerusalem. But Paul chooses to ignore the prophetic word (although it does come to pass, vindicating its authenticity), having already “resolved through the Spirit to go to Jerusalem”.

Interpretation of Tongues: supernatural interpretation of an otherwise unintelligible message from God.
This gift is typically classified as a gift of utterance, as Paul is focused on the context of congregational worship where the gift allows an utterance in tongues to be converted into a prophecy. But throughout the Bible we see that it’s not just congregational words in unknown languages that need interpretation. So, in my opinion, it is helpful to think of the gift of interpretation more broadly, for there are numerous things that would be unintelligible to us without the help of the Holy Spirit: eg. dreams (Genesis 40:8, Daniel 2:36), the signs of the times (Matt. 16:3), and even Scripture! (2 Cor. 3, cf. Ps. 119:18).

‘…As the Holy Spirit wills…’
Paul concludes his list of these charismatic gifts by saying that the Holy Spirit gives these gifts “to each one individually as he wills” (12:11). I used to read this fatalistically — taking it to mean that since it is up to the Holy Spirit’s will who receives which charismatic gifts, there’s nothing much we can do to actively use any of the gifts which we’ve not been given. But I have come to understand it in a much more dynamic way — to see it a statement that the Holy Spirit does indeed will for each one of us individually to use these various gifts, and since that is his will we need to respond with desire, expectation and faith, and be willing to risk stepping out into situations where we need his miraculous gifts to help us! I would argue that this latter reading is supported by Paul’s exhortation in 1 Cor. 14:1 to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts”.

#5 Some Personal Testimonies of these Gifts
Now let’s have a few stories to try and demonstrate what some of these things look like in action.

The Prophetic Word that brought us full-time into YWAM
I have told the story before of how the key event that caused us to commit long-term to work with YWAM was a prophetic word from Bella, a Rwandese lady that we were working with while on our DTS outreach. Previously that afternoon myself and Taryn had been talking about what we should do after the DTS finished. Three different people had suggested that we could stay on with YWAM in Harpenden, but there were four reasons that we discussed that stood as obstacles to this. Anyway, that evening Bella told us that ‘God is calling you to be missionaries’ and combined that with a completely accurate word of knowledge about the things we were struggling with–she named every single one of our four reasons against joining YWAM. (And she can’t have been listening outside our door while Taryn and I had our conversation, for she didn’t speak English, and so her word to us had to be translated from Kinyarwanda).

The Girl Next Door With Chronic Back Pain
When we first moved to Arbury to start the Revival & Reformation DTS, we knocked on our neighbour’s doors and introduced ourselves–and invited them to join us for a bible study that evening. This became a weekly thing: we started off going through the Simple Christianity course before beginning going through Mark’s Gospel. The topic for our third session was Prayer, and Haley (one of our DTS trainees) taught about how Prayer is more than just talking to God; rather, it’s a two-way conversation with God. We ended with a time of application, and split into threes to try and practise hearing God’s voice, specifically asking for words of knowledge, words of wisdom and simple prophetic words of encouragement for each other.

I was in a group with Abigail, who had suffered from chronic back pain for several years in spite of only being a teenager. Anyway, two things came into my mind as I was praying for her: one was a bible verse that came with the sense that it was an encouragement that she was a gifted writer; the second was just a name, ‘Patricia’. I shared these, and they both turned out to be relevant — she was actually planning on studying writing at university, and Patricia was the name of a friend of hers who had been particularly in her thoughts. She then prayed for me, and had the words ‘new life’ and ‘family’ — and she was astonished when I told her that those words were very prophetic, because we’d just discovered Taryn was pregnant!

Hannah (another girl on our DTS) had been talking to Abigail the week before, and so knew of her struggle with back pain, and seeing Abigail’s faith rise as a result of these supernaturally accurate words, decided to ask if we could pray for healing for her. First we asked how bad the pain was on a scale of one to ten, and then our group gathered around her and prayed a few simple prayers for physical healing. We asked again how the pain was — it had improved slightly but still remained. So we prayed again. We ended up praying three or four times — each time the situation improved, and by the end the pain had completely gone and her younger brother’s jaw was dropping at the range of mobility in her back that Abigail suddenly had.

So in this situation you see simple prophecy and words of knowledge inspired a gift of faith which released a physical healing.

Faith for Finance for a YWAM Cambridge House
I have shared this story in full previously, so I won’t recount it all again (but click the link if you’ve not heard it), but in short it goes like this:

We’d been thinking about how great it would be to live in a revival-focused community house in Cambridge, and I was praying the subsequent morning and felt God give me a nudge to ask him for £100 that very day as a sign that God was in this vision. I did and that very day discovered that we’d been given not one hundred but one thousand pounds. So the activated gift of faith released a miracle.

Later, I felt God gift me another gift of faith for a thousand gifts of £1000 to allow us to buy a £1 million property. This was inspired by Revelation 5:11‘s thousand 1000s. I began to share this, which led to slightly more than a dozen spontaneous £1000 gifts (ie. some more miracles)– an impressive release of finance, but not nearly enough to buy the property. Which leaves me wondering about the nature of the word about the thousand £1000s: does it remain a still-to-be-fulfilled prophecy? or was it partially accurate but not entirely?

Discerning the Spirit of Unforgiveness & Deliverance
A friend of ours was around for dinner at our DTS house in Cambridge, and complaining about his house-mates. I challenged him about his apparent unforgiveness, explaining that we aim to have a culture of ‘Unoffendable Hearts’, based on the fact that even when Jesus was on the cross he still chose to forgive — meaning that we can never have a valid excuse for not forgiving. This would be the discerning of spirits, helped by the fact that as a team we had a practice of being especially sensitive to this issue.

My gentle challenge was met with an expression of rage and the declaration that ‘I can’t forgive!’ and our friend got up and stormed round the house. A few minutes later he returned and said he was willing to pray through the issue, but asked that we do so privately. So the two of us found a room where we could pray just the two of us, and I encouraged him to explicitly declare his forgiveness of his housemates and anyone else he was aware of holding grudges against. He began to do so, but upon coming to a particular person with whom he’d had a difficult relationship said ‘I can’t forgive this person’. I encouraged him that he needed to, and God would give him the necessary strength.

Suddenly he fell down shaking, and began shouting in a strange voice, ‘I won’t come out of him’. This I took to be a demonic manifestation, and so began saying in a loud voice that the blood of Jesus had delivered him from the power of the enemy, and so whatever unclean spirit was demonising him had to leave. After a few minutes he stopped shaking and screaming, and began to gently laugh, asking ‘What just happened?’

I think I would classify deliverance as a particularly dramatic sort of (inner) healing.

#6 Unity in the Body needs a Culture of Honour

Paul goes on from his list of charismatic gifts to highlight the importance of honouring all of those within the body of Christ:

20 But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. 23 And those members of the body which we think to be less honourable, on these we bestow greater honour; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, 24 but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honour to that part which lacks it, 25 that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it.

If we are to sustain an atmosphere where the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit is at work, then we must learn to honour those with whom we disagree (for this of all theological subjects will stir up heated debate), we must learn to honour those who offend us (because sometimes the Holy Spirit will even deliberately offend our minds to reach our hearts), and to even honour those who dishonour us.

On that note, let me explicitly and specifically say again how much I appreciate the ministry of my former minister Ian Hamilton, whose understanding of the question of spiritual gifts is slightly different from mine, him being a cessationist (and apparently Britain’s foremeost cessationist spokesman) when it comes to things like tongues and prophecy. But even though we may disagree about the external manifestations one might expect today with the work of the Holy Spirit, I have been very blessed by his well-read and sincere passion for the Holy Spirit to work internally. (And I realise that in this essay I haven’t seriously engaged at all with anything he has said on this subject — but I wanted to positively set forth my own convictions before worrying about a detailed apologetic wrangling over the interpretation of all the relevant verses.)

#7 What Does ‘Orderly Worship’ Look Like?

In the preached message, I concluded on the previous point, but seeing as I have no time limit here, I’m going to expand this little essay here to include this final question of what then our worship should look like — because this is where the rubber hits the road! There are three things that I want to mention to give us a framework for appreciating different varieties of gathered Christian worship.

Participation & Edification
“Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Paul seems to envisage here a culture of maximum participation within the church, in which everyone comes ready to contribute in the power of the Spirit. Psalms, teachings, tongues, revelations, interpretations — anything seems to go. If that was all he said, then one would be forced to strongly criticise the majority of modern church meetings, which include nothing like the described degree of participation.

However, Paul immediately follows this description of everybody being involved with the command that “all things be done for edification”. And this gives us our first tension, because while in some situations (a prayer meeting, for example) higher participation does result in greater edification, in other situations it does not. If I wanted to learn how better to understand the teaching of the Bible, I would rather come and listen to an extended exposition from someone who had thoughtfully and prayerfully considered the passage, than from whichever several people present felt most enthusiastic about spontaneously sharing something.

Which is not to say that I don’t think participation is important for learning–small group discussion can be as or more helpful than sermons. Nor am I against spontaneous speeches! But what I am saying is that how we proceed towards edification differs depending on the desired goal.

Appropriate Order & Liberty
Paul’s whole discussion in 1 Corinthians 14 of tongues and prophecy is building towards his concluding comment that “everything must be done decently and in order”. But while it is easy in the abstract to acknowledge the merits of ‘order’, the fact is that our ideas of what constitutes proper order are always highly influenced by our different cultures. A Rwandan Pentecostal and a Scottish Presbyterian, for example, can have somewhat different expectactions of what an orderly prayer meeting should involve.

Added to the problem of cultural differences is the unavoidable fact that life is messy. As it says in Proverbs, “without oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for the harvest”. In many ways a cemetery is a much more orderly place than a crèche — but we don’t want to be so obsessed with ‘order’ that we lose the liberty necessary for life to survive and, better, thrive. For all of the problems that glossalalia was causing in the Corinthian congregation, Paul insists that we must not “forbid to speak in tongues”.

Authority & Responsibility
While the Bible does give us a glimpse, in Revelation 4-5, of what culture-transcending heavenly worship looks like, I am not interested in working out the perfect formula to reproduce exactly that sort of meeting every time that we gather together as Christians. Every situation and context is different, and that variety of differences is something to be treasured. The liturgical Anglican church I go to on Sunday mornings has quite a different blend of order, liberty, and participation from the little house church gathering that follows Sunday lunch in my house. And this in turn is different from the non-stop free-flowing four-hour session of simple prophetic worship that Taryn and I have been asked to be involved with at the monthly Heavenly Exchange.

My understanding is that in every Christian gathering it is the appointed leaders who have the authority to make decisions about how to balance these different tensions so as to most fruitfully cultivate an atmosphere of spiritual life. That is not to say that they can’t be challenged if they are doing something wrong or advised on how they might do something better. But it does mean that I don’t need to try and align everything that goes on with my own particular personal preferences, because ultimately it is their responsibility to answer to God for what happens (or isn’t allowed to happen!). As James warns, “We who teach will be judged more strictly”.

And on that note, I will finish by again repeating what I said at the beginning: that I do not claim to have the final word on this subject, and I want to honour all those with whom I disagree. I offer this to help you understand where I’m coming from, and perhaps to be assisted in your own understanding–and where you do disagree, please do me the honour of explaining with what you disagree and why!

More Incarnational Implications: ‘Dignifying of the Ordinary’

incarnational-implication

Listening to Dan Baumann teach in Herrnhut last week, one thing in particular stuck out to me. It was Dan’s comment that
“What we most need is a fresh revelation of the humanity of Jesus”. [Tweet that].

Now the humanity of Jesus is actually a subject that I have spent some considerable time meditating on–and I devoted an entire extended session to the topic when I was teaching the DTS about JESUS. I’d drawn out three implications of Jesus’ humanity: first, that Jesus understands the frustrations of human limits; second, that he models how to live well as a human being–by the spiritual disciplines; third, that he demonstrates that a limited human being can–through the anointing of the Holy Spirit–do the supernatural works of God.

But Dan made me realise that I have missed something vital! And that thing is what I am now calling ‘the Dignifying of the Ordinary’.

In writing that it strikes me that such a title sounds somewhat pretentious–and Dan would probably have a much more down-to-earth phrase. Maybe ‘Keeping it real’? But my ‘ordinary’ is more defined by Cambridge than by California (in spite of my two months there aged eight), and so we’ll stick with ‘the Dignifying of the Ordinary’. Which, come to think of it, reminds me of another of Dan’s catch-phrases: “Watch out! It’s just another ordinary day!” [Tweet that.]

Anyway, the point is this: that the incredible reality of the incarnation — the very Son of God taking on human flesh permanently — means that all the unavoidably ordinary bits of human life take on an overwhelming significance, simply because Jesus experienced them too. And so they are places where we can–and will!– meet with God! And so they are at the very least dignified, and in fact it might not be too much to also say (at least over the course of time, and into eschatological eternity) sanctified, glorified, and hallowed.

So let’s try and unpack that with regards to a few ordinary activities:

#1 Eating
“Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it…”

The quote is from Luke’s account of the Last Supper, an event so encrusted with religious traditions and ecclesiastical interpretations that we are forevermore in danger of missing the point that it is one of the most ordinary human activities that there is–eating. I am a huge believer in the importance of eating together–Jesus put such emphasis on eating with people that he was called a glutton and drunkard. And Tim Chester points out the missional opportunity provided by our meals: what if we tried as much as possible to eat every meal together with someone who is not yet a Christian?

#2 Sleeping
“Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.”

It’s difficult to do very much when you are asleep! And it is easy to think that we can only commune with God when we are awake. In his book, The Day Is Yours, Ian Stackhouse observes that though we spend a good deal of our time asleep… there has hardly been any reflection within the Christian community on its theology. But the Psalmist says that God gives sleep to those he loves! Not just rest, refreshment, and restored strength for the new day, but sleep itself. One could mention ‘dreams and visions of the night’ — sleep is a time when we can continue to hear God’s voice. And I’m sure there are other things one could draw from the fact that Jesus slept.

#3 Learning & Growing
“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”

This is one of the important ones, because it so directly turns upside-down all of our unhelpful notions of what ‘perfection’ means. If we could just grasp something of the significance that Jesus — very God in real humanity — was morally flawless and unchangeably divine, and yet still needed to learn and to grow! If we could grasp this, then it would shatter all of our stultifying perfectionistic hang-ups, widening our hearts to better understand the generous grace of God, and releasing us to run fearlessly in the paths that God has set before us, free from fear of failure and frustration. God’s power is made perfect in the midst of our weakness.

#4 Celebrating
“The kingdom of heaven is like… a feast

From the opening moment of Jesus’ ministry, when he miraculously produced an extra one hundred and fifty gallons of the finest wine, to his final resurrection appearance, when he had a surprise barbecue breakfast of fried fish awaiting his disciples, Jesus demonstrated a zeal not just for celebrating, but for celebrating in style. What are the occasions in my life that I currently pay little heed to, which I need to truly celebrate? Not just for the opportunity that celebrations present to gather together the neighbours and have a party, but because joyous celebration is the only appropriate response of gratitude to the outrageous and undeserved goodness of God.

What other ordinary activities does the incarnation of Jesus give added significance to?

The Five Loaves: Experiencing Supernatural Provision

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supernaturalprovisionRecently, I’ve been chewing on the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. And in particular I’ve been struck by the different responses of the various characters in the story–and of what it would mean to put those responses into practice in my own situation. Here are my reflections on seven responses to the invitation to partner with God in the joy of experiencing supernatural provision.

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The Initiative: God invites us to join him in the game of living by faith
Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.
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Before we look at the responses, let’s begin with God’s initiative–for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things! To Him be glory forever! Amen.

To feed five thousand people without preparation and find provision for their needs without advance planning is transparently a foolish idea. But as the prophet said, God’s thoughts and ways are incomparably different from normal human so-called common-sense. And here in John’s Gospel — all of which is an extended meditation on the divinity of Jesus, the Word become flesh — we have pointed out to us that Jesus’ question to Philip is more than a foolish human question, it is a divine invitation to experience the supernatural provision of Jehovah Jireh.

John calls it a ‘test’. But it’s not an exam they must pass for fear of losing anything–in spite of their various faltering responses of faith, they will all equally get to enjoy being utterly satisfied by God’s abundant miracle-working power. Rather, Jesus is giving the disciples an opportunity to show how well they understand the power and personality of God, to put into action the faith they have in His nature and character.

And God being an unchanging God, He still gives us these same sorts of opportunities today! The question then is, when faced with these ‘tests’, how do we respond?

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Response #1: Philip assesses the need
Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
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The first response in this story is that of Philip. Now, one could criticise Philip’s visible lack of faith. Elsewhere, Jesus was not slow to rebuke an inadequate response of trust in the power of God.

But here Jesus doesn’t offer any correction. Perhaps he’s waiting to see how the other disciples will respond. But perhaps also it’s that there is at least something right about Philip’s realistic assessment of the situation. In Luke 14:28, Jesus tells a parable pointing out the necessity of counting the cost of a task before beginning it. And so Philip’s response does in fact have something for us to imitate in our situation.

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Response #2: Andrew finds others to contribute to the cause
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
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Second to speak up is Andrew. He doesn’t seem overly filled with faith either. But again Jesus doesn’t criticise, and again there is something for us to learn from Andrew, for although the text doesn’t explicitly mention it, we know that in general you do not have unless you ask. So to have received this little boy’s five loaves and two fish, Andrew must have sought help from others in the crowd, and asked them to contribute to the cause.

And now seems as good a time as any to point out the fun little fact that you can treat ASK as an acronym for ‘Ask, Seek, Knock’ — something that Jesus encourages all of us his disciples to do.

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Response #3: The Young Boy unquestioningly offers all that he has
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish”
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He’s practically glossed over with Andrew’s unhopeful statement in less than half a verse, but the young boy with the loaves and the fish is in a real sense the hero of the story. He is apparently the only one in the crowd who had had the sense to bring and keep enough food to last him until the end of Jesus’ wilderness gathering, but when he hears that there is a need, he doesn’t get precious with his picnic. We’ve heard of the rich young man who went away sad when challenged by Jesus to give away what he had to the poor–well here’s the simple young boy, who unquestioningly gives all that he has so the poor can be fed.

The challenge for us then is whether we are willing to give what little we have to Jesus, even when it seems to small and insignificant to make much difference to the problems of the world around us.

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Response #4: Jesus thanks God for whatever has been provided, trusting it will be enough
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves.
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It’s interesting to consider Jesus’ response here as a paradigm of the faith-filled Spirit-anointed leader charged with the task of ministering to the poor and the hungry.

When God gives us a vision and people to minister to, but the resources at our command are all to obviously not up to the size of the task in question, what is our response? Do we grumble to ourselves and then give up? Do we scale down the scope of the original vision? Or do we stay obedient to the heavenly vision, refuse to despise the day of small things, and rather than giving way to anxiety instead give thanks in everything.

For when Jesus gives thanks, then somehow the loaves multiply. And when we do the same with our apparently insufficient resources, I believe that the same will happen.

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Response #5: Everyone eats as much as they want.
He distributed the loaves to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish–as much as they wanted.
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Here we just pause for a moment to take in the full glory of what is happening. Five thousand men. Plus women and children. Being fed with five loaves and a few fish. This is amazing. Even if you try and explain it away with the anti-supernatural idea that the boy’s willingness to share simply triggered an amazing release of generosity (I won’t even start on why I don’t think this theory is realistic), it’s still amazing. And what particularly strikes me is that they didn’t just get ‘as much as they needed‘, but ‘as much as they wanted‘.

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. This is a promise! He will give you the very desires of your heart. Maybe he’ll first have to reveal to you what your heart’s desires really are. Maybe he’ll first have to change what those desires are. But he will give you the desires of your heart if you delight in Him. Hallelujah!

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Response #6: The Twelve are encouraged to be good stewards
And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.
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I find it so fascinating that immediately after Jesus has taken a five little rolls and multiplied them so that five thousand can be satisfied, the disciples are charged with the task of making sure that none of the left-overs are wasted. If there is supernatural power available to multiply our supplies whenever necessary, then what does it matter how we steward the natural resources that we currently have?

And at once level, I think it is definitely true that Jesus doesn’t want us to over-emphasise material stewardship: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. This comes out really clearly when Jesus talks about the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ — the disciples are beating themselves up over not having remembered to bring bread, and so completely miss the meaning of the word that Jesus is giving them. And he chastises them for having forgotten what happened when he fed the multitudes.

Nevertheless, Romans 14:12 says, ‘Each of us will give an account of ourselves before God’. Likewise, 2 Corinthians 5:10 talks about how we must all come before the judgement seat of Christ to receive what is due for what we have done in this life. And so stewardship needs to be taken seriously! Particularly regarding the weightier matters of justice, mercy, faith and God’s word to us, but still including our money and resources.

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Response #7: Peter realises however difficult it gets, Jesus is worth it!
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…”
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Unlike the Synoptics, The Gospel of John doesn’t end the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand with the filling of their stomachs, but connects it with Jesus’ subsequent proclamation that he himself is the true Bread of Life. But Jesus’ message meets with dispute, dissatisfaction and the departure of a number of disciples.

As I myself wrestle with the pressure of, on the one hand a need for multiplication of provision, and as it happens, also a departure of a dissatisfied trainee (!), it’s vital to keep hold of Peter’s revelation that whatever happens, there is nothing that can compare to the privilege of following Jesus.

Only He has the words of eternal life. Jesus is the pearl of great price. He is worth giving up everything for. Whether or not he gives the financial provision that I think I need, Jesus is enough! He is my portion, and my exceedingly great reward.

And we remain committed to stepping out in faith even if it is not immediately obvious where the supply will come from, trusting that God will never let us down.

Jesus: The Focus of Revival

Both this and last year, I’ve had the privilege of doing an extended series of teaching on JESUS. These slides don’t include my own stories and testimonies, but give a good idea of what I was trying to cover. If these are helpful to you, please feel free to use them. And if you would like me to come and teach (on these or any other topics) then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

We Want To See Jesus

Plus:
Poem: The Vision
Audio: We Want To See Jesus (from the previous year)
Message: The First Commandment

The Meaning of the Cross

The Truth of the Resurrection

Handouts:
Biblical Testimony to the Resurrection
Non-biblical Evidence of Jesus
Plus:
Video: Life of Brian’s Sermon on the Mount
(I didn’t actually use this, but I think it’s a hilarious and thought-provoking launchpad into the whole topic of the Historical Jesus.)
Message: The Undeniable Evidence of the Resurrection

God, the Trinity, & the Divinity of Jesus

Plus:
Video: That’s My King
Video: St. Patrick’s Bad Trinitarian Analogies

The Implications of the Humanity of Jesus

Plus:
Blog Post: More Incarnational Implications–‘The Dignifying of the Ordinary’

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I love preaching. I love the privilege of declaring the glorious truths of the word of God. I love the joy of the Spirit that courses through me as I do so.

But the moment after you’ve just finished preaching can be tough. You’ve just waged war in the heavenlies with all the might you can muster, you’ve just poured out your heart and soul, you’ve just bared your darkest secrets so that the light of God’s truth might shine as clear and bright as possible–and you can’t possibly immediately see the long-term fruit of God’s word taking root in people’s hearts and minds.

This is the case even with just a sermon–how much more with seven and a half hours of preaching to the little team of people that have signed up to spend nine months running together with you for the kingdom of God to come in power?

So it was an incredible blessing on Wednesday afternoon, just after I had finished my final teaching session, to then be able to hear our trainees begin to share their testimonies. If anything they were more raw and vulnerable than I had been in my sharing from the front. But the best part was the moment at the end, after we’d concluded with a few songs of worship, and I’d said that the scheduled time had finished and people could leave if they wanted–but no-one did. Such was the hunger for Jesus, the desire to have eyes opened for a greater vision of him, that everyone stayed for another hour and a half of passionate worship. There were tears, there was dancing, there were new songs–and in the end it only finished because me and Taryn were going out to have dinner together, and so people needed to leave our house.

So to everyone on the Revival & Reformation DTS — and those from last year, who got to hear my first attempt at teaching this subject — THANKYOU!