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.