Saturday, March 31, 2018

In brief: Easter in Pisidia

Friday: "though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed." (Acts 13:28)
Saturday: "but he whom God raised up did not see corruption." (Acts 13:37)
Sunday: "But God raised him from the dead" Acts 13:30)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Easter: The Biggest 'April Fool', Ever?


This year Easter Sunday coincides with April Fool’s Day. Over the years there have been some famous April Fool hoaxes. My favourite is probably the BBC’s  spaghetti tree broadcast. Some people were taken in and believed  that pasta grew on trees. A close second is the Beeb’s feature on a colony of flying penguins. You’d think that having Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, rather than Sir David Attenborough fronting the programme was a bit of a giveaway, but it does look pretty convincing. Look it up on YouTube.

But was the biggest April Fool hoax ever the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead, leaving his tomb empty? The resurrection story is one of the most contested facts in history. Fake news, or what? As with any historical claim, one thing to consider is the reliability of the eyewitnesses. By ancient standards the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb weren’t reliable at all. Their testimony in a court of law was worthless. Why? Because they were women. Chauvinistic, I know, but that’s how things were back then. If the Gospel writers wanted to fabricate the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, why make women key eyewitnesses? It is testimony to their honesty that all the Gospel accounts record that women were the first to see that Jesus’ tomb was empty.

It took the empty tomb and personal encounters with the risen Jesus to convince the apostles that he was alive from the dead. His original followers thought all was lost when Jesus was crucified and then laid to rest. The last thing they expected was to see him again. And what they saw was no dream, or vision. Jesus said to his followers, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” The disciples had forsaken Jesus when he was arrested and crucified. In the wake of his death they hid themselves away in case the authorities come for them too. But soon after we find them boldly telling everyone who would listen that Jesus had risen from the dead. Many of the apostles laid down their lives for that claim. Which at least suggests that they genuinely believed it. The word for witness in Greek is ‘martyr’. The apostles were martyrs who testified that Jesus was alive. Who would knowingly die for a lie?

The Gospel accounts invite our careful scrutiny. Look up Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20 on The credibility of the eyewitnesses is a strong argument that Easter was no April Fool’s hoax. It happened. Jesus laid down his life for the sins of the world and then rose from the dead. This is not ‘fake news’, but Gospel truth. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9).

* For Trinity Parish Magazine, Dilton Marsh and News & Views, West Lavington

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart by Catherine Haddow

10Publishing, 2017, 126pp

We live in an age where feeling has trumped thinking. People are told to, ‘follow their hearts’, or ‘do what feels right to them’. I can scarcely think of worse advice. For, as the prophet Jeremiah tells us, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). The emotions of fallen humanity are not to be trusted. But neither are emotions to be discounted. In his great work, The Religious Affections Jonathan Edwards argued, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” He defined “affections” as,

all the exercises of the inclination and will… either in approving and liking, or disapproving and rejecting, so the affections are of two sorts; they are those by which the soul is carried out to what is in view, cleaving to it, or seeking it; or those by which it is averse from it, and opposes it. Of the former sort are love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, complacence. Of the latter kind are hatred, fear, anger, grief, and such like

Our ‘affections’ reveal our inmost desires; what we delight in and what we dread, or despise. As Catherine Haddow puts it, “Emotions are mirrors of the heart”. When we ‘let rip’ at someone for some trivial offence, the state our hearts is revealed. The unwitting irritant has touched something precious to us, disturbing our selfish preoccupations. If we view the future with fear and foreboding because we cannot control it, our lack of faith in God’s sovereign care is likewise disclosed.

Most of us experience a certain amount of emotional turbulence, ranging from extreme grief to ecstatic joy. Usually we trundle along somewhere in between those two poles. Sometimes people get stuck in the negative end of the emotional spectrum. Anger, anxiety and misery prevail. We call it depression.

People suffering from depression may be referred to a counsellor for sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This ‘talking treatment’ has its uses in helping to correct distorted thinking and disturbed emotions. Haddow draws on the insights of CBT, but also seeks to bring biblical principles to bear. She proposes a ‘tbH’ model, deploying an approach that addresses ‘thoughts, biology, behaviour, and Heart’.

The mind of a depressed person may become dominated by anxious, fearful thoughts. That, in turn, may make them feel nauseous when under pressure – a biological response. To avoid feeling that way, the sufferer will alter their behaviour to evade what they perceive as stressful situations. They begin to move in ever decreasing circles. But all this says something about the Heart. Perhaps the person in question is seeking security elsewhere than in God? In that case, they need to bring their heart to trust him as their refuge and strength. Their distorted thinking needs to be corrected in the light of God’s Word. Then they may know his peace that relieves us of soul-sapping anxiety, Philippians 4:6-7.

Haddow devotes chapters to ‘The sneers’, ‘The fears’, and ‘The tears’, applying her ‘tbH’ model to each type of negative feeling. The book makes for a searching read. The writer probes our hearts in the light of God’s word that we may see the things that often lie at the root of our disturbed emotions; pride, control-freakery, and a festering sense of loss that refuses to acknowledge that what the Lord has given he may also take away.  

I found the book useful for my own spiritual life. But it also has value for pastors and indeed all believers who are trying to offer guidance and support to people with emotional problems. Helpful direction is given on how to counsel such friends with understanding and biblical honesty. Haddow offers no pat answers, or silver bullets, but her ‘tbH’ approach provides a useful framework for biblical counselling.

It is refreshing that the author does not wrap counselling in a shroud of professional mystery. She urges the usefulness of the ordinary means of grace; church life, exposure to the Bible read and preached, prayer and the Sacraments.  But, contrary what Haddow says on p. 110, we are not to trust in the means of God’s grace to put him in the ‘driving seat’ of our lives. We are to trust in the God who works through means in order to impart all needed grace to his suffering people.

Jonathan Edwards said of the Ministry of the Word, “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth”. Edwards wanted his people to know 'joy unspeakable and full of glory' in their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Some of the Lord's people, however, find themselves cast down and emotionally broken. 

Jesus, the Servant of the Lord par excellence confessed, ‘The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.’ (Isaiah 50:4) Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart is full of sound, scriptural instruction on how to minister to believers with emotional difficulties. In one way or another, we all find ourselves in that camp. May this work be widely used to help afflicted Christians recover the joy of their salvation. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

In brief: the Spirit of life

Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg recently said he could not become a Christian because bodily resurrection is against the laws of physics. He is right, it is. Our hope is not based on the laws of physics, however, but the laws of pneumatics. As Paul said,"For the law of the Spirit (pneuma) of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death." And again, "But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness." (Romans 8:2, 10) 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

In brief: repentance and faith

Repentance is our 'no' to sin against God. Faith is our 'yes' to forgiveness of sin from God.

In brief: the Spirit of Judgement

The same Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin and judgement, in assurance echoes the verdict of heaven upon believers: "justified".

Monday, March 12, 2018

From plight to solution and back again

The view we take of the plight of human beings in sin will affect our understanding of salvation as the solution to sin.

If sin is a trivial problem, it requires only a trivial solution.

Is sin is serious, it demands a serious solution.

A Pelagian view of sin requires only a Socinian Jesus; a human example to show us a better way.

An Augustinian view of sin demands a Chalcedonian Jesus; one who is fully God and fully human in one person, dying in the place of human beings to put us right with God.

The same applies if you argue from solution to plight. If it took the death of God incarnate to save us from sin, then sin is the most weighty problem we will ever face. A problem that outside of Jesus has no solution.

Biblically speaking, Matthew 1:21 only holds true because of Matthew 1:23.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Unexpected Bookends: 2 Chronicles 32

Reading 2 Chronicles 32 the other day, I was struck by the way in which the chronicler opens and closes the chapter. The first and last verses act as unexpected bookends that hold the material in between together, 2 Chronicles 32:1, 33. 

Hezekiah is something of a rarity in Chronicles. He is one of the good guys, matching up to the godly standard set by David, 2 Chronicles 29:2. In 2 Chronicles 29-31, the king leads Southern Kingdom in a programme of thoroughgoing reformation. He cleanses the temple in Jerusalem from the filth of idolatry. He reforms temple worship according to the biblical pattern. He revives the ancient feast of the Passover that had long been neglected. He ensures the priests and Levies are provided for and that they carried out their ministry in the temple. The Chronicler summarises Hezekiah's reforms in the most glowing terms, 2 Chronicles 31:20-21. 

It is something of a shock, then to read the opening words of 2 Chronicles 32, "After these things and these acts of faithfulness, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah and encamped against the fortified cities, thinking to win them for himself.". Not what you might expect. Following unparalleled faithfulness, Hezekiah finds himself under siege. The kingdom is in peril. Where did that come from? 

Times of blessing and advance often provoke a backlash. It doesn't seem as though the Lord was disciplining Hezekiah by sending Sennacherib against him. Hezekiah was no Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28). But the Lord was testing his servant to see whether he would remain faithful while surrounded by the Assyrian hordes. Hezekiah stood firm by taking practical measures to withstand the siege (2 Chronicles 32:1-5, preaching (2 Chronicles 32:6-8) and prayer (2 Chronicles 32:20-23). 

Similarly in church life, a fellowship may seek to be faithful to the Lord in their life and witness and experience some fruitfulness and blessing. Then comes trouble, from within, or without. That 'trouble' does not call into question the reality of former blessing. But difficulties and setbacks are a test of our spiritual resilience. By way of response we could do little better than take a leaf from Hezekiah's book. We should take practical measures can to address problems in the fellowship. But above all we need preaching and prayer to see us through in the face of enemy attack, Ephesians 6:10-20. 

The siege is broken, 2 Chronicles 32:21. 

Hezekiah dies as the chapter draws to a close. The king is buried in honour. Mention is made of his "good deeds" (2 Chronicles 32:32-33). But 2 Chronicles 32 ends on a devastating note, "And Manasseh his son reigned in his place." One of the best is followed by one of the worst. If not the worst. Manasseh systematically undid his father's reforms. His anti-Yahweh zeal is detailed in 2 Chronicles 33:1-9. 

Unexpected bookends. 

The cycle of faithfulness and failure in Chronicles ends with the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom. Not quite. The final paragraph points to life after Babylon, 2 Chronicles 36:22-23. Never again, however, would a king in the line of David sit upon the throne of Israel. 

Whole Bible unexpected bookends.

Adam lost his crown - and ours. 
David's successors lost their crown.
A new David won his crown by his Cross. 
The Last Adam crowned - and we in him. 

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Snow on St David's Day

It was meant to be the first day of Spring.
Early daffodils promised warmth,
Their yellow beckoning the sun.
But now they are frozen to the roots,
Submerged beneath chilly white dust.
You can never tell with the Welsh.
Always awkward.