Bring back the testimony

…in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  (1 Peter 3:16-17)
God’s word encourages us to be willing and able to let people know what we believe and why we believe it. One way to do this is to share how God’s story—the good news of Jesus Christ—intersects with our story. Traditionally this has been called ‘sharing your testimony.’

Testimonies: evidence and honour

Testimony isn’t a word we use very often. We hear it in a courtroom, because it has to do with providing evidence. Sometimes special functions or dinners are held as a testimonial to a person, honouring their life or particular achievements.

A personal Christian testimony will provide evidence of how the gospel has transformed the life of an individual. The transformed person provides evidence that God’s continues to be active in people’s lives today.

When I was growing up, it was very common for Christians to share their testimonies. We would do this at youth group, in church services, or during special evangelistic events. Let me share a few things I’ve picked up along the way.

A testimony to forget

I can still remember giving my first testimony. At the age of 16, at a church camp, I was asked to describe what it was like to be a Christian. It was something I will likely never forget. The fear of speaking in front of others didn’t seem to bother me. It was more the pressure to say something impressive. I hadn’t been a knife-wielding, drug-crazed gang member. Nor had my conversion been any great, emotional, charismatic experience. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God, brought up in a Christian home, what could I say? I remember it well. I lied! That’s right, I made up a story to impress. And it was a great testimony. I know, because people came up and told me afterwards! Have you heard people give testimonies? Have you given one yourself? What was it like?

I made up a testimony to impress. And it was a great testimony. I know, because people came up and told me afterwards!

Why a testimony?

Testimonies are a great way of letting others know that people do change to become Christians. Real people—people who are like them. Because the gospel we preach is rooted in an event of early history, it is helpful for people to hear that God still works powerfully through His Word today. And living evidence for this stands before them.

Where and when to give a testimony?

Almost any situation can be a good time to give your testimony. You don’t need to be invited up front at church to tell someone about what Jesus has done.  This can be done as you talk with your friends, as you travel on a plane, as you chat with other mums in your antenatal class, as you share the good news on your campus, or as you talk with mates after work. If your church or group is planning a public outreach meeting, it may be helpful to arrange for someone to give their testimony. This gives a real-life example of the good news of Jesus at work.

Who should speak?

Remember the purpose of a testimony is to show that the gospel changes real people, people that the listener can relate to. For this reason, there is probably little mileage in having an ex-bikie speak at the Women’s Fellowship dinner. It is usually better to have an ordinary member of the group speak, rather than some high-powered outsider. You want those who accept your invitations to hear about someone just like them. It might even be good to have a couple of people speak to show how God deals differently with each of us.

What should you say?

Firstly, work out clearly why you are saying anything at all. You are speaking because you want to see people come into a relationship with God. And that means they need to hear about Jesus, not all the sordid details of your pre-Christian days. Some testimonies I hear are 95% sin and 5% salvation. And sometimes Jesus doesn’t even get a look in. Standing up and talking about your experience can be a great means of ego-tripping, so it is of first importance that we point people beyond ourselves to Jesus.

Your purpose is not to preach a sermon—it’s not about explaining a Bible passage. It’s about explaining what God has done in your life. So, speak about what Jesus has done, and how he has changed your life. Most people have no trouble speaking about themselves, so you must work out clearly beforehand what you are going to put in and what you will leave out.  We don’t need to hear every little detail, just the important bits: what was going on in your life, how you came to hear and understand about Jesus, how you responded to him, and what difference this has made to your life. A short clear talk will be remembered, but long-winded drivel will only bore people, and leave them wondering about your point.

I remember listening to a student give her testimony one night. It started off great. She quickly moved from her need of forgiveness to the night that she understood that Jesus had died for her. But then she didn’t know how to stop. Another 10 minutes passed before she sat down. Work out beforehand what you should say, how you will start, and how you should finish. You may not know when to stop but everyone else will.

How should you give it?

Not like an expert, but then you don’t want to be sloppy either. Think about meetings you’ve been to where everything seems laid back and relaxed. My guess is that they were very well prepared. It is a great idea to practise your testimony with a friend. They will be able to tell you how it sounds, whether there is jargon to chop out, if it is too long and so on. Clarity, sincerity and honesty are called for in a testimony. Not slickness! Give it without notes. If you think you need notes, then you’re probably saying too much, or perhaps you are speaking about things that haven’t really made a big impact on your life.

Interviewing

An alternative to the monologue testimony is the interview. Tom asks Jane a series of questions designed to show how Jesus has changed Jane’s life. The aim of the interview remains the same as the testimony. But this way gives Jane the advantage of not having to remember the format of the testimony. And people like to hear conversations and dialogue. Tom is able to control what is being said and the length of the interview. This is a great help to people who are unsure about public speaking. If Jane says something that’s unclear, or full of jargon, Tom is able to ask another question to clarify it. Again, preparation is important. Both people should meet beforehand to go over the questions and responses. Then you both know what is going to happen.

John Chapman developed a pattern of questions thatyou may find helpful:

  • Did you grow up in a Christian home?
  • What makes you say that?
  • How did you come to understand that Jesus died for you?
  • What did you do to respond to this?
  • What is the hardest part of the Christian life for you?
  • What is the best part of the Christian life for you?

Finally

Remember, it is Jesus you are promoting, not yourself. So pray that what you say might lead others to Jesus. That’s what you really want to happen, isn’t it?

P.S. 

There are a number of ways to improve your ability to testify to Jesus.  Here are some further tips:

  • Pray for opportunities to share Christ with others.
  • Practice talking with others about Jesus.
  • Know a gospel outline clearly.
  • Read Honest Evangelism by Rico Tice.
  • Listen to some evangelistic talks on line.
  • Practice talking with others about Jesus.
  • Pray for more opportunities to share Christ with others.

Edited version of article Remember Testimonies that first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Australia site.

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)

Fact or fantasy

You head to the local library looking for a book to read over the long weekend. Something with drama, mystery, intrigue, torture, murder. You want to read about some allegations of grave robbery, insider plots, religious corruption, political power plays. And you’re keen to spice it up with some angels and demons, astrology, ghostly appearances, the spiritual underworld, ancient signs, the dead coming to life, and claims to divinity. “Where will I find something?” you ask.

matthewThe librarian brings you a book. It’s a little bit dusty. Doesn”t get borrowed too often. You look at the cover and it says Holy Bible. She opens it for you and points to The Gospel of Matthew. Where did she get it from? Is this Fact or Fantasy? Is it found in Fiction or Non-fiction? Is it History or Legend? Biography or Novel? Was it next to Harry Potter and The Twilight series, or was it down with The Works of Josephus and Suetonius?

What do you think?

Reading these requirements sounds like we’re dealing with fiction and fantasy, not history and reality. This is the kind of stuff you find in airport novels, B grade movies, low rating TV dramas. It’s not the kind of book you take seriously. Or is it?

I can tell you most people don’t. Even in many churches. The last 100 years or more has seen embarrassed churchy people talking these things down. Bishops denying that Jesus was born to a virgin. Theologians writing books claiming that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead. It’s just his idea that lives on and that’s what we mean by resurrection. Many will say, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. The ideas are nice, they’re moral, they’re a good story, they’re nice for children. And hey, we get a few public holidays, so don’t worry about it!

Let me be open with you. Unless this is non-fiction, historical, factual, and continues to have relevance, then I’ve backed a complete loser. I’ve invested all my hopes, plans, priorities, aspirations, on this being truth. When I discovered that I had a terminal illness, the weight of these issues became enormous. I experienced doubts, fears, and confusion. I had big questions. Real questions, not just theoretical or ideological questions. They were intense, existential, of utmost significance. I engaged in investigation and reinvestigation. I had bet my life on this. Is it true?

I hadn’t just staked my future on this being real. I’d been living my life on the basis that it is. I’d been teaching that this book explains life. I’d been calling others to take it seriously. I’d been an advocate, an ambassador, a preacher of these things. Was I a fraud? Inadvertently even? Am I mistaken? Some say it doesn’t matter. I say it does!

In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, one of the first Christian preachers had this to say about the substance of the events described in the gospels:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

This is not just the idea of Christ living on, keeping his memory alive, but his physical bodily resurrection. Real death followed by real coming back to life. If it didn’t happen then there’s no point me trusting that it did or trying to persuade people that it still matters.

15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.

If these things are simply one big misunderstanding then the early Christians were guilty of perjuring themselves. They were liars, perpetuating myths about Jesus, brainwashing people with ridiculous notions. And therefore I’m guilty of doing much the same thing. Gullible, deluded, or just plain deceptive.

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

When it comes to death – and let me tell you this is something that I take very seriously – I believe what happens afterwards really matters. If there is a God, and he takes me seriously, and I’m asked to give an account for how I’ve treated Him, then my only hope is in Christ dealing with my sins in his body on the cross. No point claiming I’ve been good. I haven’t. No point backing my religious behaviour. It’s pathetic. My hope is only in Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection. If this didn’t happen, then I don’t have a leg to stand on before God.

18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.

There’s no hope for countless people who’ve already gone to their grave believing in Jesus. And what about those who’ve done so at gun point, who’ve been burned alive, crucified upside down, or thrown to lions? When all they had to do was change their minds! Recant! All they had to say was “No, I don’t really believe it!” They could have lived.

19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

What a waste! Why would you spend your life living for a fiction, trying to persuade others. It’s really pretty sad! In fact, we may as well take these words seriously…

32 If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

That’s right. No point wasting my life on God, Jesus, hoping for resurrection, and a life beyond the grave. May as well simply focus on and enjoy what I’ve got now, because that’s all there is, and it’s not going to last that long.

What do I believe? I believe in the death of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I believe in the ongoing significance of these events. I believe that my sin against God has been dealt with and that I have real hope for all eternity. As it says in 1 Corinthians 15:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

I believe the evidence needs to be considered carefully. Weighed up seriously. These events make sense of promises written centuries before. They tie in so well with the words of the Bible that predicted them happening. When these words were first written, it was less that a generation after the events described. There were people alive who claimed to be eye-witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. You could question and cross examine them.

Cephas (Peter) had spent so long with Jesus, he was hardly likely to be mistaken. The twelve weren’t expecting him to appear. They were cowering in a room, in fear of their lives, after Jesus was killed. Five hundred people claimed to have seen Jesus on one occasion. You can’t explain this as mass hallucinations. And you could have asked some of them about who and what they saw. James, the brother of Jesus, would have been hard to convince. Not to mention Thomas, who wouldn’t believe without physical evidence. And Paul (or Saul as he used to be known) was so persuaded of the resurrection that he went from imprisoning Christians to joining them in prison. I understand a few lawyers would love this quality of evidence.

And then there’s the circumstantial evidence. How do you explain the missing body? The empty tomb? The wrong tomb? Surely, they’d just go to the next one. The authorities stole the body? All they had to do to stop the early Christians was produce it. The disciples stole the body and pulled off a conspiracy? Likely! A pathetic bunch of eleven cowards overthrowing imperial guards and then perpetuating lies that they go on to die for? Surely, at least one would have cracked to save himself!

There are many more pieces to the puzzle. Lot’s more circumstances to consider carefully. They keep pointing me to the conclusion that the accounts of Jesus are non-fiction, factual, historical records of real events. And these events are worth staking your life on.

This Easter, please consider.

Hey barista

This post is for my two baristas this morning…

photo[1]Thank you for your coffee, and the second one! I’d contemplated making myself a coffee this morning, but my machine was off, I only had a few beans, and I didn’t have time. So discovering you guys as I walked to work was a bonus!

Sorry I didn’t have any money. I’d left my wallet in the jeans I was wearing yesterday. It was nice of you to offer to barter, but I didn’t really have anything I could part with. And then you were so generous – offering me lunch! Bananas, plums, rolls! I couldn’t take anything because I’d already picked up the lunch my wife left on the bench.

You seemed surprised when I told you I was a pastor. Maybe you don’t meet too many! And then suggesting I could offer you a blessing in exchange for a coffee! But your next suggestion was a cracker…

How about free entry to heaven?!!

Not sure how powerful you think I am or what influence I have, but as I said, I can’t give you that. BUT it is available! Truly! There are free tickets on offer. Paid for already. It’s what Easter is all about. Good Friday, the day Jesus died, is the day the entry fee to heaven was paid. For you. For me. For all who will trust Jesus. So if you’re serious about getting in, then I’d recommend you take a good look at Jesus. Best place to look is in the Bible. I’d suggest reading the Gospel of Mark.

I know you were surprised when I came back with the money. You probably get lots of people pretending to be pastors who have left their wallets at home, asking for free coffees! And you were probably even more surprised when I told you that I wanted to give you a blessing too. Those two books called A Fresh Start that I gave you were written by a good mate of mine. It’s a pretty clear explanation of what being a Christian is all about. The book explains how entry to heaven is possible and why it’s free. Please check it out. And I hope you like the Chuppa Chups too. I’m not allowed to eat sugar any more.

Not sure if you’ll get to read this, but I hope you will.

Great coffee too, by the way. I’ll be back for another! Have a great day.

Good Friday and the curse of cancer

Cancer has been front and centre this last week. Relay for Life on the weekend, with cancer survivors and carers, and the memory of loved ones now gone. Surgery today for our niece to remove any traces of melanoma. A funeral this morning for my friend’s mum, who lost her brief battle with lung cancer. Not long before there was Tony Grieg, and then Peter Harvey, and there have been so many others. Mums and dads, grandparents, cousins, uncles, children, bosses, neighbours, colleagues, passing acquaintances. Cancer is a cancer on our world. It invades our lives. It breaks our hearts.

Next Friday is Good Friday. A strange day, when we remember a man dying. In fact, I remember two men dying on this day. On Good Friday 2007 – it was the 6th April – I lost a good friend. He was only 29 years of age. He’d only been married for two years. We’d go to the gym together. He was my neighbour. He stood in the rain and helped us bury our family pet. He’d encourage me with stories – all true. He was my brother in Christ. Cancer took hold of my friend and it didn’t let go. I’d conducted his wedding and, soon after, I conducted his funeral.

It’s not right that a parent should have to view the death of their child.
It’s not right that a wife should lose a husband after only 2 years of marriage.
It’s not right that a man shouldn’t live to see his 30th birthday.

It’s not right. God knows it’s not right. I wondered, after my friend’s passing, if we’d be able to look on Good Friday as good ever again. How could it be good when every Easter we’d be reminded of the death of our friend, or husband, or son?

crossWe need to reflect on the death of the other man. He’s the reason we call it Good Friday. Jesus, who wasn’t much older than my friend. Jesus, who never married. Jesus, whose mother looked on in anguish at his death. Not a good Friday for Jesus. Nailed on a wooden cross. Between two criminals. Publicly ridiculed. Despised and rejected. Forsaken by his followers. Crying out, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The worst of Fridays. The brutal execution of an innocent man. A genuinely good man. A just and merciful, compassionate and courageous man. But even more, this man Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, and the Saviour. He was Immanuel, God with us. The death of Jesus was no accident. God wasn’t ambushed by the might of the Jews or Romans. There was a plan, a costly plan, a purpose to the death of Jesus. Something that would turn the worst of Fridays into the best day ever.

God had promised this day, centuries before, through the prophet Isaiah:

The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
on him, on him. (Isaiah 53:2-6 The Message)

On that first Good Friday, Jesus took our sin upon himself and he bore the punishment. He paid the price. He won our forgiveness, our freedom, our life with God. As Jesus hung on that cross, it should’ve been me… and you. Jesus, the Righteous One, took the judgment we deserve. He endured it, himself, so that we don’t have to.

It’s because of that first Good Friday, that we can look on the day my friend died as a very good day. My friend knew the forgiveness of sins that comes through Jesus. He trusted Jesus, not only in his life, but unto death. He knew the significance of Good Friday and the sure hope of Resurrection Sunday. As I saw the lifeless body of my friend in the hospital on Good Friday, I recognised that he was no longer there. He’d already departed. He was now with his Saviour. Death no longer had hold on him. Cancer did not have the final word. That word belonged to Jesus.

The wind and the waves

As many throughout Australia battle fires and soaring temperatures, I’m privileged to be staying on Sydney Harbour. The sea breeze is soothing, the harbour waters are cooling, and the views are amazing. Yesterday I went for a paddle on a surf ski, joined by a little dog called Maliki. She’s one of three dogs here at the moment (including our Bonnie) and the only one who managed to clamber onto the slippery ski without falling off.

IMG_5021We headed out against the breeze towards Middle Harbour Yacht Club. After a while the winds built up, gusting around 30-40 kph. I figured we should turn back. We made the turn and, while side on to the waves, Maliki slipped off and started swimming away. I reached for her and promptly fell off also. Dog one way, ski the other way, and the current was strong. I let go of the paddle, reached Maliki and then had to swim to the ski and recover the paddle. Not that easy in high winds. Eventually, I got hold of all three, put Maliki back on the ski, and hung on gasping for breath. The lungs aren’t what they used to be.

IMG_5020Meanwhile, the ski kept floating away in the wind and the waves, with me in the water clinging on, until it bumped into a luxury boat anchored in the harbour. A man poked his head over the side and asked if I was okay. I replied that I was, but I wouldn’t mind a rest! So we tethered the ski and climbed on board. Maliki and I shared a drink with the three couples on board! These people were very hospitable, doted on Maliki, and wanted to know all about where we’d come from. They could see I was pretty breathless and encouraged me to stay a while, until all was well. I explained that I had lung cancer and that I was struggling a bit. They probably thought I was stupid to be paddling on the harbour in these winds, because they mentioned more than once that it would be better to go out in the mornings before the winds got up. Yes, I know! I know!

IMG_5015After the winds had died down somewhat, we made our way back to shore. Interesting afternoon! It didn’t seem that big a deal, but it’s a reminder not to take the sea or my abilities for granted. Sometimes little things can quickly grow into big things. I’d proven the day before how easily I could fall off a stand-up paddle board, especially when two or three dogs try to get in on the action. Next time I’ll take a son, or daughter, or wife to rescue me!

I’ve been involved in rescuing people from the ocean before. And I’ve also enjoyed the help from others when caught in a rip and strong seas. It can be pretty scary. The important thing is to recognise when you’re in trouble and not to be too proud to seek help. Better to look stupid and be rescued, than to drown trying to do it all yourself.

It’s like this when it comes to relating to God. We need to be rescued and God is offering help. We need to drop our pride, our self righteousness, our hostility, and our apathy toward God. He’s reaching out his hand. He’s asking if we need help. He’s offering to take us on board his boat. He’s promising to get us safely to shore. He simply calls us to turn and put our faith in Jesus.

My experience yesterday brings to mind an extraordinary event in the life of Jesus – an incident that shows Jesus’ power to rescue.

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:35-41)

To be honest, I didn’t think to cry out to God yesterday. But some years ago I did cry out, and he heard my cry, and he rescued me from something far more serious than the wind and the waves. He rescued me from the consequences of my sin and his judgement. God delights in rescuing people and I’m eternally grateful.

Learning from the Mayan mistake

mayanDecember 21 came and went without so much as a ripple. 21/12/12 had been forecasted as cataclysmic end to the world, based on a particular understanding of the Mayan Calendar. A handful of people escaped to various ‘safe zones’ throughout the world – though I’m not sure how that helps if the earth gets destroyed. Others were stockpiling food and wine – but I don’t know if they planned a feast before or after the world’s end! There was a bit of noise, some media hype, a few fanatics, and then disappointment – or should that be relief? December 21 was followed by 22, then 23, then 24, then Christmas… and now we’re well into 2013. What do we make of this? Ignore it? Joke about it?

I recommend learning from it. But what’s there to learn? Don’t listen to doomsday prophecies? Filter all media beat-ups? Be skeptical of all mystical explanations of the cosmos? Maybe, but I suggest something more concrete and personal:

It may not be possible to predict the end of the world,
but you can certainly predict the end of your world.

You probably won’t know the day or the month or even the year, but you can be absolutely certain that it will happen. Death is one of life’s certainties. We are finite beings. We grow old, get sick, and die. Sometimes this comes quickly, sometimes it’s delayed, but it always happens. Moses got right to the point when he wrote long ago:

Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.  (Psalm 90:10)

RepentThe Bible also teaches that this world will come to an end. It’s tied up with Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus entered this world once to bring salvation, so he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus promises that this day will mean judgement for all who reject him, and life for all who submit to him and trust him. It’s common to ridicule and caricature the Bible’s teaching on the end of the world, but we’d do well to take Jesus at his word. He will come again.

So whether it’s the return of Jesus that marks the end, or whether it’s our mortality that guarantees our end, it makes sense to be prepared. There’s no point stockpiling things because they won’t help you and you can’t take them with you. There’s no ‘safe zone’ in this world you can flee to. But there is a way to prepare. Flee to Jesus and find refuge in him. He died and rose again to rescue you from the judgement to come. He’s offering you fulness of life now and forever. Do it now so that you don’t get caught out. Do it now so that you don’t miss out on the joy of relationship with Jesus in all the time you have left. Do it now because the more you practise putting things off, the better you’ll get at doing it. Do it now because the God who gave you this life wants you to enjoy life with him forever.

Religious crap!

Some of you might be upset that I’ve used an offensive word in the title. To which I’m tempted to apologise for using the word ‘religious’! But seriously, I needed to use an offensive word, and I can think of more offensive words, but ‘crap’ seemed a good compromise. Why use it? Let me explain.

I think the average Aussie believes that Christians are religious people who are trying hard to get into God’s good books. They think a Christian is one who keeps various rules, regulations, and rituals in order to get right with God. If it was a comparison between a drug dealer and a nun, then the nun would be seen as closer to God. The more you do for God, the more likely you are to be in his good books. The better your religious resume, the more confident you can be of going to heaven. I know not everyone thinks this way, but enough do to make it an issue. What worries me, is that people think this is what Christianity is all about. And it’s scary.

If this were true, then I reckon I’d shape up pretty well…

Born while my dad was at theological college.
Grandfather a minister.
Dad a minister.
Uncle who’s a minister.
Another who was a missionary.
Pretty good pedigree!

Been to church nearly every Sunday I’ve been alive.
Still remember feeling guilty the first time we skipped to go on a train ride.
Went to Sunday School, Christian Endeavour, and church holiday camps.
Involved in youth group and Christian Fellowship at high school.
Even paid my own way to a National Christian Youth Convention.
On track and doing well!

At university I joined a campus Bible study.
More Christian camps and conferences.
Did a lay preaching course.
Began occasional preaching.
Organised and ran Bible studies and camps.
Better than average!

After uni I did a ministry apprenticeship.
Working for a church.
Off to Moore Theological College.
Bachelor of Theology with Honours.
Trained as a preacher by Chappo.
Master of Arts in Theology.
A-Grade training!

Ministry in Canberra.
Building Christian groups on the campuses.
Founding a new church.
Growing church, growing staff team, growing budget.
Planting another church.
Training ministry apprentices.
Sending out missionaries.
A ‘successful’ ministry, surely!

Preaching everywhere.
Baptist, Presbyterian, Uniting, Anglican, Independent.
Australia, South Africa, Kenya.
Canberra, Perth, Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane.
Only Darwin missing.
Not a bad resume!

If religious pedigree, training, and experience counts with God, then surely I’ve got what it takes. If I miss out, then only an elite few will ever get in. Surely, I can be confident that I’ve done enough? Can’t I?

NO!

In fact all that stuff is nothing more than crap, if I think God will be impressed by it. It’s worse than useless as a means of getting right with God. Let me prove this by giving you a case study.

If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.

But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith.  (Philippians 3:4-9 HCSB)

The Apostle Paul had it all – pedigree, training and experience. What Sonny Bill Williams is to rugby league, union, boxing and ticket sales, so was the apostle to religion! He was the superstar. He came from the right stock, he’d worked hard, and he was perched at the top of the religious tree. Surely he could be confident of his standing with God, couldn’t he?

NO!

What he thought was to his profit, was actually loss. In fact, he says all his religious credentials are ‘filth’. The word is literally dung or excrement. The Message translates it as ‘dog dung’ and the Common English Bible as ‘sewer trash’. It’s fit for the toilet. It’s crap! Everything he was, everything he’d worked for, everything he’d achieved – all filthy. And remember it’s his religious credentials he’s describing. What would make him say this?

His knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Paul came to understand that to be a Christian was to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It meant putting his trust in Jesus rather than himself. It meant recognising that even though Jesus once hung upon a cross, God had now raised him to life and placed him in the position of supreme authority. It meant recognising that Jesus hadn’t died for his own sins (he was sinless), he’d died for Paul’s, and mine, and yours.

Paul came to recognise that being a Christian had nothing whatsoever to do with being religious. It’s not about rules and regulations. It’s not about religious rites and rituals.

It’s about having a real RELATIONSHIP with Jesus.

His religious resume was excellent, unsurpassed even. If you had to be good and do all the right things for God to accept you, then Paul would have passed with high distinctions. But once he recognised who Jesus was, and what he had done, everything changed. He recognised that it’s not about our religious performance.

Christianity is not about what we DO for God.
It’s about what Jesus has DONE for us.

So if you’re tempted to put your confidence in your religious achievements, please don’t. It’s a dead end, literally. It’s filth. It’s to your loss, not your gain. What would you prefer –  to stand before God depending on your self-achieved righteousness? Or to trust in the God-given righteousness that comes by trusting in Jesus alone? Those who suggest that being a Christian is about religious performance are peddling dangerous and deceptive lies. To suggest that being Christian is about anything other than following Jesus is absolute crap! Don’t be deceived!

Making the most of the Bible

My youngest son received a wonderful parcel in the mail this morning – four copies of Making the most of the Bible sent by its author, John Chapman. One for him, another for his sister, one for Fiona and I, and another to give away. Thanks so much Chappo!

This is a great little primer for getting the most out of reading the Scriptures. It’s warm and engaging without wasting words. It’s more about attitude to the Bible than any special approach to reading. It’s only 66 pages short, I read it between breakfast and morning tea, and it’s the first book I’ve been able to read all year without glasses (nice large print)!

Chappo begins with the importance of faith. Reading the Bible should be more than an academic pursuit. We read it to discover the joy of trusting God with our lives. The Gospels reveal Jesus to be someone who can be completely trusted. He is reliable and always keeps his promises. As we read the Bible we have two choices: (1) either we approach it with hard hearts, only accepting what fits with our own desires and dismissing what doesn’t, or (2) we open our minds to discovering who God is, what he’s like, with a willingness grow in trusting him. Our attitude will make all the difference.

Making the most of the Bible focuses upon Jesus understanding and use of the Scriptures. This is an excellent approach, because anyone claiming to follow Jesus will surely want to see how Jesus treated the Bible. If we’re going to follow him with our lives, then we’ll also want to follow his lead with the Bible.

What was Jesus’ attitude to the Old Testament, what do we make of Jesus’ own words, and what was Jesus’ view of the New Testament?

The first thing we discover is that Jesus treated the Old Testament as having authority because he believed it to be God’s own words. He submitted to these words and called others to do the same. Jesus resisted the ancient temptation to doubt God’s truth and goodness, instead placing his full confidence in God’s promises. Jesus also claimed a special relationship to these words. He declared that the whole Old Testament points to him, and finds its fulfilment in him. These are bold claims, and they offer us the key to understanding the whole message of the Bible. After his resurrection, Jesus explained his life and ministry to his followers in these words:

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  (Luke 24:44-45)

It’s common for people to grab hold of some of Jesus’ teaching, without any intention of following him personally. Chappo reminds us that Jesus’ person, works and words are all tied together. Jesus’ life and teaching reveal who he is and his words calls us to follow him. Jesus claims to reveal God to us and backs this up with all he says and does. We might not appreciate this today, but at the time the religious authorities recognised the magnitude of his claim and they killed him for it. As Jesus reminded one of his followers at the last supper:

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.  (John 14:9-10)

Jesus also explained why the New Testament should be accepted as God’s word. The apostles are the key. Jesus had spent time teaching them before and after his resurrection. It was his plan that they would pass on his message, and do it with an inspired accuracy. He promised the apostles that God’s Spirit would oversee this happening:

12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”  (John 16:12-15)

Chappo takes us to the heart of the Bible’s message, drawing us to God’s awesome offer of forgiveness and life with him for eternity. These promises are rooted in the Old Testament and find their full expression in Jesus. My heart was warmed as I was reminded of some of the wonderful promises contained in the Bible:

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;  (Psalm 103:11-13)

34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:34)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
(Revelation 21:3-4)

What an awesome God! What wonderful promises he makes! What a beautiful hope he offers all who will take him at his word and put their trust in the Lord Jesus.

The final sections of this little book, highlight how to respect the Bible as literature and read it with understanding. They address commonly held concerns over the reliability of the Bible, confidence in the transmission of the manuscripts, and evidence for Jesus’ divinity.

Making the most of the Bible is an excellent introduction for people who want to understand what the Bible is about, why it matters and how we should approach it. I recommend it. Read it and think about who you can pass a copy to. Christmas is coming! I’d give this book to my two teenagers… but Chappo has beaten me to it!

The garden in the window

  photo[1]  photo

As I lie in bed
I see through my window
our garden of delight
greens and pinks
reds and purples.

Today
drops of water
beading on branches
the sound of rain
trickling through leaves.

Tomorrow
blossom will fall
leaves will wither
beauty will fade.
and death will come.

Long ago
another garden
unlike any other
harmony and perfection
the gift of God.

Generously given
so quickly lost
we knew better
than to listen to God
and now it’s gone.

Through another window
the promise of God
a garden to come
a city of joy
a reason for hope.

The Son will return
coming through clouds
restoring the earth
healing the broken
fulfilling our hope.

Turn to the Son
he gave his life
in exchange for yours
hope for the contrite
of a future redeemed.

Investigating Jesus – An Historian’s Quest

I was never a great fan of history. Stuff done in the past. Dust and cobwebs. Rote learning names, dates, events and details. It all seemed so boring and irrelevant. I had to study some history at school, but from the moment I could choose my subjects I left it behind. History was history as far as I was concerned!

Of course, this attitude is pretty naive. History helps explain who we are, where we’ve come from, what’s influenced us, what things matter and what don’t. Every time we watch the news or read the paper we’re studying history. When we flick through our family albums or read over our diaries we’re reflecting on our own history. What I didn’t appreciate for sometime was that whenever I opened my Bible I was engaging with history. I was reading of people and events in the past that were shaping my life in the present. How reliable was that history? Could it be trusted? Was it something I could stake my life on? These are important questions for those of us who want to consider, or reconsider, the basis of our beliefs.

I’ve just finished reading Investigating Jesus – An Historian’s Quest by John Dickson. Firstly, let me say it’s a beautiful book! Hardback, stitch bound, colour photos of archeological sites and ancient papyri, laced with wonderful paintings and works of art, helpful diagrams, pithy quotes … and it’s well written!

More significantly, this book is entirely about history. It’s about how historians do their job. It’s not a theological book. It’s not religious propaganda aiming to persuade people to become Christians. Investigating Jesus offers a good introduction to anyone wanting to learn the tools and strategies available to historians, and it demonstrates how they’ve been applied in examining the evidence regarding Jesus.

John focuses the bulk of this book on examining the various sources that provide historical data about Jesus. He considers the Gnostic Gospels, that came to fame in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, and shows both their value and limitations in gaining information on Jesus. He examines various non-Christian sources, from the first and second centuries, that make reference to Jesus and he argues that it’s important not to exaggerate or underestimate the value of these sources. In fact, without any reference to the Bible, the evidence from these sources leads all reputable historians to agree that a Jewish teacher named Jesus really did live and die in the first part of the first century AD.  (p84)

The New Testament provides the bulk of the information we have about Jesus. It’s common for people to dismiss this evidence as one source that’s biased and therefore unreliable. However, the New Testament is a collection of many sources, not just one. And the biases of the authors doesn’t mean that they’re therefore fabricating evidence. Historians are used to handling documents with obvious biases and they’ve developed a number of tests to evaluate the reliability of their evidence. These include:

  • The criterion of dissimilarity
  • The criterion of date
  • The criterion of multiple attestation
  • The criterion of embarrassment
  • The criterion of coherence
  • The criterion of historical plausibility
  • The criterion of archaic language
  • The criterion of memorability

These criterion are explained and illustrated in this book to show how they can be applied to the various accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. We are continually reminded that these are common tools of the trade for historians. These are the normal processes that historians, be they atheist, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, apply to weighing the evidence before them.

Archeology is also considered alongside these criterion. In recent years there have been some very important archeological discoveries that have given insight into the world of the New Testament. Some incidental details in the Gospels have been confirmed and some previously held theories about Jesus have been overturned.

The concluding chapter of this book considers the difference between probability and proof. The discipline of history deals in degrees of probability rather than repeatable scientific proofs. This doesn’t mean that history only offers second class knowledge. In fact, there are strong similarities with our legal system that gains knowledge by weighing up the evidence. Historical (and legal) proof is really probability beyond reasonable doubt. 

Examining all the sources that refer to Jesus, both outside and inside the New Testament, and applying the aforementioned criterion for testing these sources, leads historians of all persuasions to agree on the following:

… while many doubts remain over the details, the core elements of Jesus’ life are in fact known … there is an overwhelming scholarly consensus today that a Galilean teacher and (reputed) healer named Jesus proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom, wined and dined with ‘sinners’, appointed a circle of twelve apostles, clashed with religious authorities, denounced the Jerusalem Temple and wound up dead on a Roman cross; shortly after which his first followers declared that they had seen him alive again, announced he was the long-awaited Messiah and sought to preserve and promote (first in oral form, then in writing) all that they could of their memorable master’s life. The sources and methods contemporary scholars use allow certainty on at least these elements of the ancient Gospel story. (p155)

If, like me, you’ve never been much into history, then Investigating Jesus is a great introduction. If you’ve never considered the reliability of the evidence for Jesus, then here’s a place to start. If you’re after an easy to read, well illustrated, clearly argued book on the historical bedrock of Christianity, then I recommend this one. In writing this, John Dickson set out to bridge the gap between popular perception and scholarly judgment about the figure of Jesus and in my humble opinion he does this well.

At the end of the day, this is a ‘second order’ book. It’s like an instruction manual that shows how something works and helps you to use it. Investigating Jesus is aimed at helping the reader to investigate Jesus. It’s not an alternative to investigating Jesus for yourself. Having read this book you’ll be better equipped to go back to the primary sources, read them over and over, and weigh up their implications. If you’ve never done this before, let me encourage you to get hold of a New Testament (and any of the other primary documents mentioned in this book) and discover all you can about Jesus.