Heaven, how I got here

heavenI miss Chappo! Yesterday I saw someone reading one of his books and I felt a pang of grief. He was so good to talk with, to chat to about real stuff. He’d always keep pointing me to Jesus. He loved Jesus and wanted nothing more than for others to love him too. Chappo might not be here—that’s because he is now with the risen Jesus—but I still have his books. My favourite is A Fresh Start. It’s clear, fun, engaging, serious, Biblical, and helpful, all rolled into one. It’s a great explanation of what a Christian is and how you can become one.

It got me thinking that we could do with some more books like A Fresh Start. It’s a while since I’ve read a simple and engaging book that explains the significance of Jesus and calls people to respond.

Last night, Good Friday, I sat down with my Kindle and thumbed through the books that I’d bought cheaply, but hadn’t got around to reading. Colin S. Smith’s book, Heaven, how I got here caught my eye. I decided to take a look, hoping it wasn’t another of those ‘heaven tourism’ books. My Kindle told me that it would take about an hour to complete. Just what I needed before I went to bed.

Heaven, how I got here tells the story of the thief on the cross from the thief’s perspective. Of course, we only have a brief glimpse of this man in the Scriptures and only a few of his words are recorded, so there is much that has to be ‘imagined’ in this account. However, I would describe Smith’s narrative as a ‘Biblically informed imagination’. The author draws all his important insights from the Scriptures themselves. Profoundly important theological insights are ascribed to the dying thief as he reflects on the significance of the innocent Jesus, dying at his side.

Why has he be condemned if he is innocent? How can God allow him to hang on the cross if he is the promised Christ? Smith highlights one reality that I’d only ever glossed over—that Jesus died before this man. He watched as Jesus died. He had time (albeit agonisingly brief) to reflect on what Jesus had said and done. The thief heard the taunts and attacks thrown at Jesus. He saw close up the injustice and horror. He witnessed the devastating words of Jesus, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” and his final cry “It is finished.” He experienced the total darkness in the middle of the day, the shudder of the earthquake, and the acclamation of the centurion, “Surely this man was the son of God.”

This book is tonic to those for whom the cross has become mundane. It brings us in, close and personal. We can almost hear and touch and see and smell the events as they unfold. But the real strength of this book lies not in reminding us of the horrors of crucifixion. It lies in the awesome significance of what Jesus achieved, not only for the thief, but for you and for me. Heaven, how I got here is good news to all who think they have no hope of forgiveness and a challenge to any who think that it’s what they do that will get them there.

Why Christians believe Jesus is God

From time to time I get asked why Christians believe that the man of history, Jesus Christ, is believed to be divine. It’s one thing to believe that he is special and that he’s left his mark on history, but it’s another thing altogether to believe that Jesus is God. Sometimes people support there critiques by claiming that Jesus never said he was God, or that the Bible doesn’t actually describe Jesus as God. While it is true that you won’t a quotation of Jesus saying “I am God” in the Bible, this is not to say that Jesus and the Bible writers deny this. In fact, there is significant evidence to support the claim that Jesus is divine.

jesusasgodIf you are interested in considering the Bible’s claims on this matter, the following list of references is a helpful start. They’ve been adapted from the book by Murray Harris called Jesus as God.

Divine functions performed by Jesus

In relation to the universe

  • Creator (John 1:3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2)
  • Sustainer (1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16; Heb 1:3)
  • Author of life (John 1:4; Acts 3:15)
  • Ruler (Matt 28:18; Rom 14:9; Rev 1:5)

In relation to human beings

  • Healing the sick (Mark 1:32-34; Acts 3:6; 10:38)
  • Teaching authoritatively (Mark 1:21-22; 13:31)
  • Forgiving sins (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31; Col 3:13)
  • Granting salvation (Acts 4:12; Rom 10:12-14)
  • Dispensing the Spirit (Matt 3:11; Acts 2:17, 33)
  • Raising the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 5:21; 6:40)
  • Exercising judgment (Matt 25:31-46; John 5:19-29; Acts 10:42; 1 Cor 4:4-5)

Divine status claimed by or accorded to Jesus

In relation to his Father

  • Having divine attributes (John 1:4; 10:30; 21:17; Eph 4:10; Col 1:19; 2:9)
  • Eternally existent (John 1:1; 8:58; 12:41; 17:5; 1 Cor 10:4; Phil 2:6; Heb 11:26; 13:8; Jude 5)
  • Equal in dignity (Matt 28:19; John 5:23; 2 Cor 13:14; Rev 22:13; cf. 21:6)
  • Perfect revealer (John 1:9, 14; 6:32; 14:6; Rev 3:7, 14)
  • Joint possessor of the kingdom (Eph 5:5; Rev 11:15), churches (Rom 16:16), Spirit (Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19), temple (Rev 21:22) divine name (Matt 28:19; cf. Rev 14:1), and throne (Rev 22:1, 3)

In relation to human beings

  • Recipient of praise (Matt 21:15-16; Eph 5:19; 1 Tim. 1:12; Rev 5:8-14)
  • Recipient of prayer (Acts 1:24; 7:59-60; 9:10-17, 21; 22:16, 19; 1 Cor 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor 12:8)
  • Object of saving faith (John 14:1; Acts 10:43; 16:31; Rom 10:8-13)
  • Object of worship (Matt 14:33; 28:9, 17; John 5:23; 20:28; Phil 2:10-11; Heb 1:6; Rev 5:8-12)
  • Joint source of blessing (1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; 1 Thess 3:11; 2 Thes 2:16)
  • Object of doxologies (2 Tim 4:18; 2 Pet 3:18; Rev 1:5-6; 5:13)

Old Testament passages referring to Yahweh applied to Jesus

  • Character of Yahweh (Exod 3:14 and Isa 43:11 alluded to in John 8:58; Ps 102:27-28 quoted in Heb 1:11-12; Isa 44:6 alluded to in Rev 1:17)
  • Holiness of Yahweh (Isa 8:12-13 [cf. 29:23] quoted in 1 Pet 3:14-15)
  • Descriptions of Yahweh (Ezek 43:2 and Dan 10:5-6 alluded to in Rev 1:13-16)
  • Worship of Yahweh (Isa 45:23 alluded to in Phil 2:10-11; Deut 32:43 and Ps 97:7 quoted in Heb 1:6)
  • Work of Yahweh in creation (Ps 102:25 quoted in Heb 1:10)
  • Salvation of Yahweh (Joel 2:32 quoted in Rom 10:13; cf. Acts 2:21; Isa 40:3 quoted in Matt 3:3)
  •  Trustworthiness of Yahweh (Isa 28:16 quoted in Rom 9:33; 10:11; 1 Pet 2:6)
  • Judgment of Yahweh (Isa 6:10 alluded to in John 12:41; Isa 8:14 quoted in Rom 9:33 and I Pet 2:8)
  • Triumph of Yahweh (Ps 68:18 quoted in Eph 4:8)

Divine titles claimed by or applied to Jesus

  • Son of Man (Matt 16:28; 24:30; Mark 8:38; 14:62-64; Acts 7:56)
  • Son of God (Matt 11:27; Mark 15:39; John 1:18; Rom 1:4; Gal 4:4; Heb 1:2)
  • Messiah (Matt 16:16; Mark 14:61; John 20:31)
  • Lord (Mark 12:35-37; John 20:28; Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 8:5-6; 12:3; 16:22; Phil 2:11; 1 Pet 2:3; 3:15)
  • Alpha and Omega (Rev 22:13; cf. 1:8; 21:6, of the Lord God)
  • God (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Rom 9:5; Tit 2:13; Heb 1:8; 2 Pet 1:1)

Worth reading

NIV_blueWe’re not all natural readers, but my experience is that reading brings great reward. I struggle to read the great novels or works of fiction. But I’m a fan of sports biographies, and works on leadership, people, organisations, and new ways of thinking and doing. But hands down the most instructive, life-changing, and liberating book I’ve ever read—and continue to read is the Bible.

Apparently it takes less time to read than Game of Thrones and not all that much more than Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. And while these are great stories, the Bible is so much more. If you’ve never really dipped into the Bible, can I recommend you give it a shot. Grab a modern translation—replace the old King James with a New International Version or the Holman Christian Standard Bible—and give it a read. Maybe start in the second part, the New Testament, and discover the extraordinary account of Jesus. It’s a book of life and hope and, contrary to popular opinion, extraordinary relevance and applicability to life now.

If you’d like to read the Bible with someone else, this can make it easier and more fun. Let me know and I will see if I can arrange a reading buddy or even a reading group.

For those of you who have read the Bible—’have’ being the operative word—and want to dip into it again, here are a few suggested approaches to get you restarted.

  1. Read the whole Bible through in one year. A good option is to get a Bible reading plan and follow it. Such plans are available on line or on smart phone Bible apps.
  2. Listen to the Bible on your mp3 player as you travel to and from work, go on holidays, or exercise.
  3. Use some Bible study guide, such as those produced by Matthias Media, which help you through an entire book of the Bible. These provide some commentary and ask questions to assist your understanding and application of the passage.
  4. Get into a routine Monday to Friday that fits with work and other regularities. Don’t worry if the weekend doesn’t fit the routine – do something different on weekends.
  5. If you know another language then, after you have looked at the passage in English, read through it again in the other language. This with help you give more attention to the meaning.
  6. Read with a friend and discuss what you have learned. Or both of you read on your own and then make contact to discuss it together.
  7. Read the Bible out loud to yourself.
  8. Use Search the Scriptures – a three year Bible reading program. You can take this at whatever pace you desire. Maximum benefit is gained if you take the time to write your answers to the questions.
  9. Follow Don Carson’s For the Love of God to read the Bible over one to four years. Excellent commentary by Carson. Available free on the Gospel Coalition website.
  10. Keep a journal of what you have learned and intend to apply from your reading.
  11. Prepare for sermons and Bible studies by reading over the passages beforehand.
  12. Read a passage with a view to giving a very brief talk which explains it, illustrates it and applies it. Then you can talk to me about finding an opportunity to give it!
  13. Try the S.O.A.P. approach. Read or write out the passage of Scripture. Note your observations and questions of the text. Decide how you are going to apply what you’ve learned. Pray that God will give you understanding and enable you to put it into practice.
  14.  ‘Manuscript Discovery’ is a term given to the study of the text of the Bible without chapters, verses, paragraphs or headings included. This means you have to do more work, with the result that you learn more. You can do this yourself simply by printing out the text of the Bible from Bible Gateway and removing all added numbers and headings.
  15. Commit verses to memory.
  16. Type out the entire Bible.
  17. Come up with your own ideas… share them with others

Cancer, death, funerals, hope

IMG_0545I’ve been to two funerals in the past eight days.

The first was a man I met through having cancer myself. We were both diagnosed with lung cancer in our forties. We were both concerned for our wives and children. And we both trusted in Jesus for a hope beyond the grave.

My friend’s funeral was a testimony to his faith in God and his hope in resurrection. While the funeral was distinctively Christian, I got the impression that many present did not share my friend’s convictions. I didn’t really know anyone there, having only briefly met his wife on one occasion, but my heart longed for people to know the truth that gave my friend hope that death was not the victor.

Yesterday I attended a family funeral. Fiona’s uncle had passed away after cancer had overrun his body. He left behind a loving wife and daughter, adoring grandchildren, extended family, and many friends. It was a privilege to share in his farewell. Fiona and I came away wishing that we had known him more closely. We heard tributes to a devoted husband and grandfather, a wonderful educator, a hard working farmer, a wise confidant, and much more. We were reminded that he placed his trust in Jesus until his final breaths and that he was confident of being united Jesus in the life ahead.

Ecclesiastes tells us that…

It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.  (7:2)

This is so true. Funerals focus us deeply on what matters really matter. Both these funerals were times of grieving and tears, but they were not without hope—real hope. They were coloured by the confidence that all is not lost, cancer has not won, death is not the end, and there is an awesome future for all who hope in Christ.

I came away from both funerals wanting everyone to take personally the news that each man went to their death with a strong hope beyond cure. This is far more than wishful thinking, more than a positive outlook to lift everyone’s spirits—it’s a confident hope based on the resurrection of Jesus.

Wow!

I’m overjoyed at the reach and impact Hope Beyond Cure is having, and how God is using this book to give people—all sorts of people—real and lasting hope. I received this message from a friend last week. The names have been changed…

Hi Dave,

Spoke to a friend of mine who works at the Catholic Aged Care facility. She noticed your book on Sister Mary’s desk and asked her about it (Sister Mary is the chaplain). Sister Mary raved about it, apparently it has been passed around to all the old nuns and priests, many of whom are terminally ill. She explained to Robyn, my friend, that many are afraid of death because they are afraid that they have not done enough good works to get to heaven. They have been so excited about the book that they can have assurance of eternal life. A number of the nuns have given up the struggle to live and died peacefully after reading the book, thankful that finally they can be sure of being with their heavenly father! All I can say in response to this is WOW. Robyn is going to ask Sister Mary to write to you.

Your sister in Christ

Is God’s love unconditional?

Wire Rim Glasses ca. 2002I believe if I asked many of my friends whether they thought that God’s love is unconditional, I’d get a mix of responses.

There would be some who’d say, ‘No way!’ They believe that God is the ‘ultimate in condition-imposing beings’. He sets the standards, sets them way too high, and then delights in marking everyone down. This is the God of ‘Do nots’—just look at the ten commandments, then add the hundreds of other laws. This is the God who delights in judgement.

Others would say, ‘No way!’ because they believe that God is all about setting the bar low enough that people can meet it. God rewards the basically good, the religious, the moral, the upright, the disciplined, the churchy, those who aren’t perfect but never cross the ‘line’.

And then there’d be those who’d say, ‘Yes of course!’ God welcomes everybody unconditionally. David Powlison argues that most people think unconditional love means it simply doesn’t matter what they think, believe or do.

Deep down you’re okay; God accepts you as you are. God smiles on you even if you don’t jump through any hoops. You have intrinsic worth. God accepts you, warts and all. You can relax, bask in his smile, and let the basically good, real you emerge. (Seeing with new eyes, p169)

Such diversity of perspectives about God; such confusion about what God wants, how God relates; such contrast in what love means and how it works. How can this be overcome? Is there a path to clarity? Are there answers and can they be known? I say, ‘Yes!’ The Bible cuts through our subjectivity. It does so by spotlighting the significance of the events of Go0d Friday.

This Easter we’re reminded again of the awesome love of God. I want the world to know this love, to embrace it, and live by it. I want people to understand that I don’t preach a message of salvation by works or religion or discipline or ritual or moral goodness. The Christian message is one of acceptance and freedom and mercy and grace. But I need to be careful, lest this message is misunderstood.

God isn’t wet and wimpy, vague and valueless, tepid and tolerant, affirming and all-accepting. The God who demands nothing, ultimately offers nothing. This is a God who can be ignored as irrelevant.

By contrast the true God, revealed through his Word, is loving in a way that is costly and courageous, vigorous and complex, effective and transforming. This love can only be understood in the light of the death of Jesus Christ. There is no better day to search intently into this love of God than Good Friday. On this day, we learn that God’s love is not strictly unconditional.

While it’s true that God’s love does not depend upon what you do, it very much depends on what Jesus Christ did for you. In that sense it is highly conditional. It cost Jesus his life.

… unconditional love? No, something much better, something costly and hard and generous. (Seeing with new eyes, p168)

I’m praying that this Easter we are provoked, troubled, comforted, inspired, and transformed by the love of God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

When it’s good to get bad news

bad-newsI used to think that bad news was always bad news. How could it be anything else? But I see things differently now. Sometimes we need to hear bad news to have any chance of hearing good news. My cancer is a case in point.

The bad news: you have cancer.
More bad news: you have a non-small cell lung cancer.
Still more bad news: there is a tumour on the left lung and it has spread.
Even more bad news: you have an ALK+ mutation that is driving the cancer.

No one wants the news they have cancer. It’s always bad news. But the bad news pointed the way to hope. Subsequent bad news provided a specific pathway to hope. It has been indispensable to treating the cancer accurately. My diagnosis and my subsequent prognosis were seriously bad news that I needed to hear.

I know people who have not wanted to know what’s wrong with them. They’ve had cancer, but have not been willing to have it accurately diagnosed. Some have endured the wrong treatment. Others have avoided dealing with it until it’s been too late, and nothing could be done to help them. Some have died from cancer, when an early diagnosis would have saved them.

It’s the same when it comes to God. We don’t want to hear the bad news. We don’t like to hear that we’ve pushed God aside, that we prefer to live independently, that God will hold us to account, and we’re facing God’s judgment. This is bad news, it’s uncomfortable, it’s distasteful, and we’d prefer not to hear it.

I’ve discovered that it’s good to hear this bad news. We need an accurate diagnosis of our rejection of God. We need an accurate prognosis of the consequences of our rejection. The bad news prepares the way for hope. Unless we understand our desperate state before God, then we will not understand what God has done to turn things around. The bad news of our independence and judgment prepares us to hear the good news—the gospel—of hope through Jesus Christ. There’s hope for a renewed relationship with God in this life and beyond. God has the cure. It’s freely available.

Don’t ignore the bad news. It can help you to hear and grasp the good news that God wants you to enjoy.

Bad news
Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us,
Good news
God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.
(Romans 3:23-24 from The Message, my headings)