Gospel ink

Tattoos used to be the just for bikers and sailors. Now they’re for everyone! Walk up and down the beach on a summer’s day and count them. Check out the tattoos on the arms, legs and bodies of the rugby players. It’s like they’re wearing line-art skins under their jerseys. Musicians, artists, athletes, public servants, computer geeks, tradies, stay-at-home mothers… everyone’s getting inked!

Last year I thought seriously about getting some tattoos. Yeah, I did! Maybe I was having a mid-life crisis, but I saw it as a way to communicate some really important things about myself. If it matters that much to me, then surely I’d be willing to write it on my arms was my line of thinking. There’s a tattoo shop near where we live, so I paid them a visit, checked out some designs, worked out some costings, even asked about booking a time!

We were planning a move to Darwin and tattoos are more common than crocodiles up there. I figured that my uniform for the Territory could be shorts, t-shirt, thongs, and tattoos! We were heading north to start a new church, so I thought that I could use tattoos as part of my advertising strategy! The plan was for two tattoos. One on each arm. Three words each.

SAVED BY GRACE and COMPELLED BY LOVE

There’s so much packed into each of these phrases. They sum up what God has done for me and how this motivates me. Each phrase is taken from verses in the Bible. Let me quote them in full:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

Both these sets of verses mean so much to me. The first makes it absolutely clear that the only way I can be right with God is by what he has done. So many people make the mistake of thinking that a Christian is a religious person who tries to earn their standing with God by living a good life. Absolute rubbish! Being Christian is about what God has done for us, not what we do for God. It’s a God-given righteousness, not a self-righteousness. And God makes this possible through Jesus Christ dying on the cross to pay the price for our rejection of him. We are simply called to trust (put our faith) in what God has already done on our behalf. A Christian is one who is saved by grace.

tattooThe second set of verses shape the way I respond to what God has done for me. Love is the compelling motivation to change how I live. This love is Christ’s love for me, not my love for him. Jesus effectively swapped places with me, dying my judgement instead of me. The price is paid. There’s nothing owing on my account. It’s as though when Christ died in 30AD I died with him. The invoice is wiped and God no longer holds anything against me.

Following the logic of this connection with Christ, not only have I died with him, but I’ve also been raised with him. I’ve been given a new life and a new purpose for living. The death and resurrection aren’t simply facts of history, they’re motivators for a whole new personal history. I’ve been given my life back so that I can live it for Jesus, rather than selfishly living it for myself all over again.

These two phrases sum it up for me. Saved by grace – I’ve been rescued from my sin through the death of Jesus. Compelled by love – having dealt with my sin, Christ is calling me to live for him.

Should I get these words inked on my arms? My mum will say no! Maybe, I should take a poll! I must confess, I’m a bit nervous given my infection risk with chemotherapy. I’m not even supposed to get a scratch at certain points of the chemo cycle. So, it’d probably be irresponsible. And I can’t help thinking, what if they spolled one of the words rong?!

Making the most of the cross

The second sermon I ever gave was a cracker. People told me! It was logical, engaging and humorous. I succeeded in explaining, illustrating and applying the Bible in a way that captivated the listeners. My girlfriend (now wife) even started to believe that I might have some hope of becoming a preacher! But, it’s time for public confession. I basically pinched the whole talk, idea for idea, point for point, from John Chapman.

I don’t think I was the first to do this, and I’m certain that I wasn’t the last. You see, I’d looked over the Bible passage again and again, and I couldn’t see any way to make it clearer than Chappo. So why not simply copy his talk?

Chappo’s passionate desire for people to understand the truth, and his confidence in the Bible to reveal it, came through so clearly in his preaching. He still has this same passion and confidence, and it comes across in his recent book, Making the most of the Cross. How many people are still writing books after their 80th birthdays, and dedicating them to their friends in the retirement home? Well, at least one! And I thank him for it!

This book takes us to the very core of the Christian message – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything stands or falls on these events. Without them, there is no Christianity. If Jesus didn’t die, or if he died and remains dead, then there is no real hope for humanity, either in life or in death. This is no take it or leave it topic. It’s worth investigating seriously, whether we’re a child or an octogenarian. But don’t leave it until you’re 80 if you’re not already there!

There are two main sections in Making the most of the Cross. The first explores the significance of the death of the Lord Jesus. The second considers the facts and meaning of the resurrection. You could tackle the book in two parts, but the real benefits will come from going even more slowly and considering the many different aspects and implications of these events.

The death of Jesus has been described as a jewel with many facets. Each facet gives us a different window into the significance of the cross and its profound implications for us. All facets need to be seen so that we don’t underestimate or skew the meaning of the cross. For example, Chappo helps us to see that…

  1. Jesus’ death brings salvation
  2. Jesus’ death is a substitute
  3. Jesus’ death is a ransom
  4. Jesus’ death turns away God’s anger
  5. Jesus’ death brings the defeat of Satan
  6. In Jesus’ death, the just God justifies sinners freely
  7. Jesus’ death is the unifying force in the Christian community
  8. Jesus’ death brings forgiveness and cleansing

John Chapman grounds every chapter of his book in the text of the Bible. The Gospel accounts are the primary evidence for what happened to Jesus, and how Jesus understood what was happening. The rest of the New Testament supports this, giving additional insight into their meaning. Sometimes the Old Testament is quoted to assist us in understanding a particular background to Jesus’ death or resurrection. In fact, reading this book helps us to see more of how the whole Bible is focused on Jesus and only makes sense in the light of what he has done.

Given the brevity of this book, there is much more that could be said about the significance of the cross. But, this book provides a very good primer. If you are keen to take things deeper then let me recommend The Cross of Christ by John Stott, The Atonement by Leon Morris, and Where Wrath and Mercy Meet edited by David Peterson, among others.

To claim that Jesus was raised from the dead and is alive today, 2000 years later, is nothing short of extraordinary. What is more, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of this claim. It’s not an optional accessory. It’s the heart and soul of it all! Chappo outlines briefly the evidence for the resurrection, including the empty tomb, the eyewitnesses, the amazing transformation of the disciples, and their lasting impact on others (even to this day). But he doesn’t stop here. He goes on to highlight the significance of Jesus being raised, how the resurrection vindicates Jesus in his death, reveals him to be God’s appointed eternal ruler, the judge of all people, the pioneer of life beyond the grave, the pattern of resurrection to come, and the very real hope for you and me that death is not the end.

One thing that impressed and encouraged me about Making the most of the Cross is the suggested prayer, usually just a sentence or two, printed at the end of each chapter. This gives the book a personal edge that encouraged me to relate to God and not simply fill my head with ideas and information. The death and resurrection of Jesus is life-transforming. It has changed my life forever. But the truth is, I need to keep being reminded of these things. Perhaps you do too! I found these words ringing true…

Sometimes the circumstances of life may cause us to wonder if God has forgotten us. Everything seems to be going wrong. But the death of Jesus is above our circumstances. Nothing can take away the fact that Christ died for us. No matter what happens to you or to me, the death of the Lord Jesus says, “I love you”. Nothing can change that. Be in no doubt that God loves you. Jesus’ death remains as a beacon of God’s eternal love for us. (p14)

Making the most of the rest of your life

John Chapman, or Chappo as we like to call him, is one of my heroes. Back in 1989 I had the privilege of being trained by Chappo to become a preacher. He’s a master communicator, one of the best preachers I’ve heard, and he also knows how to share his craft with others. He’d give his young apprentices, including yours truly, what we affectionately called ‘the blow torch to the belly’. If he didn’t like your talk, he’d tell you! And then he’d deconstruct and reconstruct the talk, and eventually it would morph into a much better one. It wasn’t always pleasant, but he worked hard with us, and on us, because he was passionate about what we were doing. Our job was to communicate, clearly and truthfully, the importance of Jesus Christ. Chappo’s job was to make sure we did it well.

John is now well into his 80s and he remains just as committed to communicating the good news about Jesus. He doesn’t do as much preaching these days, but he still makes the most of his opportunities. Making the most of the rest of your life is Chappo practising what he preaches. This is a book about Chappo’s favourite topic – Jesus!

It’s taken me a while to pull this book off my shelf and read it. I shouldn’t have waited so long, because it’s a great book and it took me less than an hour to read the whole thing. I’d assumed it was only for old people, and that wasn’t me! But the key thing about being ‘old’ is not your age. It’s being forced to accept your mortality. Getting older means you don’t have as long to live anymore. I’m not that old (I haven’t hit 50 yet), but God has certainly confronted me with my mortality recently. Chappo writes:

Life in a retirement village has been a new experience for me. The paper man comes every morning at 4.30am and the ambulance at 9.15am. Sometimes it brings people home, but not always. Your mortality presses in.  (p9)

There’s nothing morbid about this book. Chappo has a cheeky sense of humour and it comes through in his writing. He writes with clarity and energy, and this is a book brimming with life and hope. Greater hope than you could ever imagine. A hope that motivates Chappo to write and share with others… while he still can, and while we can still read it (and it is printed in large type)!

You may think it is strange that I’m writing about making the most of the rest of our lives. Humanly speaking, I don’t have all that much left. The average male in Australia lives for 79 years. That doesn’t leave me much time.

On the other hand, if there is life after death, if eternity is really eternity and I have the greater bulk of my life to look forward to, then it makes all the difference.  (p9)

For Chappo, life beyond the grave is far more than wishful thinking. It’s the promise of God. He bases his confidence in the words of the Bible, and the historical person of Jesus. It’s the death and the resurrection of Jesus that provides the hope of resurrection beyond death for others. This is not the cartoon-like picture of someone in a white dress hanging out in the clouds playing a harp. Nor is it the idea of a disembodied soul floating around in heaven. It’s the hope of having a resurrected body, living in a new creation, made by God. Perhaps this still sounds a little weird, but I reckon it’s worth an hour of your time reading Making the most of the rest of your life to begin an investigation. If it’s not true then I guarantee you’ve still spent a better hour than anyone watching Biggest Loser. If it is true, then you’d be the biggest loser if you didn’t bother to check it out.

The guts of the book are spent describing who Jesus is, and what he said and did. Chappo takes us through Mark’s Gospel, explaining, illustrating, and applying as he goes. He has the knack of showing how Jesus makes sense of everything in the Bible and how he impacts life here and now. I’d recommend reading the book first, and then getting hold of a Bible and reading over Mark’s Gospel for yourself. Perhaps you could read the relevant section in Mark’s Gospel and then compare it with what Chappo writes in the book.

Chappo’s aim with this book is to persuade people to put their trust in Jesus, and to do this before it’s too late. He addresses some of the reasons and excuses we might have that prevent us from taking such a step. And he offers a prayer – some words we might want to borrow – to let God know if we decide to put our lives in his hands. Finally, he shares a few tips for people who’ve made the decision to go with Jesus.

So who’s this book for? It’s for you, if you want to get to the heart of the Christian message. Read it for yourself. Discuss it with friends. Buy one for your grandparents. Share it with friends in the retirement village or nursing home. Get a copy for your kids – that’s right – it’s only 50 or so pages, it’s large easy-to-read type, and it explains Christianity so clearly. It’s a great book for anyone really!

I’d like to recommend it to another group of people as well. If you’re a novice preacher, if you want to communicate the Bible well to others, if you need help becoming less boring, clearer, and more relevant in your ministry… then read this book! Making the most of the rest of your life is a great example of how to connect the ancient text of the Bible with real life and real people today. Grab a copy and read it!

Patience

Patience has never been my strong suit. You’ve probably heard about the person who prays, “Lord make me patient, and do it now!” How does God answer that one?!

I just want to be better… now! I want to get off the chemo and onto drugs that don’t hurt… now! I want to be fit again… to run, lift weights, throw a football, climb stairs easily, catch waves, join my friends on bike rides… NOW!

The family are off being active and I’m just climbing out of bed after a nanna nap! Do I take panadol for the chest pain, the sore head, and the aches in my joints? Or do I hop back into bed and hope it will go away? Do I push through the pain barriers? Or do I rest and let the body catch up? I’ll tell you, there are no easy answers.

Most of my life I’ve maintained a reasonable level of fitness. Running, swimming, walking, riding, lifting. I’ve never been a top class athlete, but I’ve never felt disabled either. That is, until now. And I don’t like it!

This year I’d planned to be active, really active. I was going to be a barra fishing, pig shooting, motorbike riding, four-wheel driving, pastor in the NT! We were looking forward to a physical, outdoors lifestyle. And now I’m stuck inside, hiding from the cold, unable to shake a cold. So what on earth does God have to teach me?

Patience… I’m a slow learner! And I usually have to learn the hard way. There’s lots I need to learn, but patience has to be right up there.

I need to be reminded that this world is not the way God intends it to be. I’m not the way God intends me to be. It’s not how things started, and it’s not how they’ll finish. God has big plans and he’s not done yet. The Apostle Paul reflects on the chaos and suffering he sees in this world and he helps us to get things back in perspective – God’s perspective.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.  (Romans 8:18-25)

I don’t have to be satisfied with how things are… because God is ok with me longing for things to be better. I don’t have to pretend that the world really is wonderful… because God reminds me that it’s been subjected to frustration. There’s no point putting on a brave face and doing all I can to improve my lot… because God has put into place his plan to renew all things. So what does he ask of me?

To put my hope in him, and to wait, patiently.

The Biblical way to dodge death

As I opened the Canberra Times over breakfast this morning, I was intrigued to read an article on the Bible. Stories about the Bible are rare in the papers, but this one’s rather special. The Bible belonged to Lance Corporal Elvas Jenkins. He placed it in his shirt pocket and it took a bullet for him at Gallipoli on May 7, 1915. It’s a great story. The lead shrapnel bullet from the shell of a 75mm field gun went through the Psalms and lodged in the Gospels! The Bible literally saved his life… that is, until he was killed a year later while heading a reconnaissance party on its way to the Battle of Somme. Now, nearly a hundred years later, this little Bible has come to rest in Canberra!

Very cool to be saved by a Bible tucked into your shirt pocket, and a testimony to God’s kindness to him that day. But then, it could have equally been a tobacco tin that saved him, or a pocket watch, or something else that could withstand the shrapnel. These days, I guess it would be more likely a kevlar jacket, or some other piece of high-tech armour. So why get excited about this pocket Bible saving his life that day?

I think it’s because of the strong associations with something bigger and more profound. The Bible has saved many people, countless people, from death. Not the ‘dodging bullets’ kind of death (only to die later), but from spiritual death that is separation from God for eternity. Arguably, the most famous words in the Bible, give us this life-saving message:

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)

The Bible offers real hope to the dying. The evidence of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows us that death doesn’t have the final say. Life beyond the grave or the crematorium isn’t just an empty wish, but a rational expectation based on the evidence of Jesus Christ who has made it possible. It’s worth grabbing a Bible and reading one of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – to find out more.

(You can read the Canberra Times article here.)

On my way to heaven

Have you ever been given a gift by someone you’ve only just met? Last year my friend and colleague in Christian ministry was given two copies of the same book by a person they didn’t know. It was a short book written by the guy’s recently deceased minister, Mark Ashton. The book was called On my way to heaven. My friend had no idea why he was being given one copy of this book, let alone two! That is, until he returned to Australia and a few days later discovered that I had been diagnosed with a ‘terminal’ cancer. He realised, in God’s providence, that he’d been given a copy for me too!

This is another little book that punches well above its weight. It’s only 24 pages long, and printed in large type. (Makes it easier for me to keep reading and reviewing books!) I would assume that the title of this of this book will be very confronting to many. Either because it presents us again with our mortality. Or, perhaps, because it seems so presumptuous – how can anyone be sure they are headed for heaven? Isn’t this is an arrogant claim?

On this latter point, the answer is very clear in the Bible. A Christian is not a religious person, trusting in their moral performance to be offered a place in heaven. Rather a Christian is one who has received forgiveness from God for having ignored him or pushed him away. This forgiveness is a completely free gift from God, that can be received by all who put their trust in Jesus to lead them and rescue them from God’s judgment. The New Testament makes it clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus, events that took place in human history, have a direct bearing on you and me today. Jesus died to pay the cost for our rejection of God, and God raised him to life to destroy the power that death has over us. A Christian is not a ‘self-righteous’ person, but one who has been given a pardon by God.

On the former point, Mark Ashton wants to do exactly this – get us to think seriously about where we’re headed. The one thing we can be assured of in this life is that one day it will come to an end. It may be later, or it may be sooner than we’d like. But it will happen. It often surprises me how much time and energy people (including me) spend distracting themselves with the unimportant and the trivial. We get all focused on ourselves, our hobbies, our bits and pieces, our aspirations for wealth or achievement or recognition, and we give little or no time to considering the profound question of what happens when we die. Please, if you you are avoiding this question – don’t! It’s too important!

Ashton was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the gall bladder in 2008, informed that he had only months to live, and he passed away in 2010 at the age of 62. His book offers us a window into his thinking, his struggles and his faith over the final months of his life. I was deeply moved as I read how he faced death as a Christian believer.

The core of this book is Ashton’s conviction that resurrection awaits him. This is the basis of his hope and it is grounded in the evidence of the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. He does not dread death, or seek to extend his life at all costs, but rather sees resurrection as a prospect to be welcomed.

He doesn’t gloss over the hardship of sickness. Throughout his life he, like most of us, expected to recover from whatever sickness or injury he experienced. He’d rest up until he got better. But he came to know that he wasn’t going to get better, the cancer wasn’t going to go away, and that he was dying day by day. This is something I’ve also been coming to grips with. Physical pleasures such as eating, exercising, or resting, no longer offered the enjoyment they once did. He came to appreciate that they were God’s gift for a time, but not for all time. His love, affection, and appreciation for his wife and family was deepened over this time, but be also came to grasp that relationship with God gave meaning to them all.

Ashton is honest about his failures and foibles in life. He gently points out that funeral eulogies rarely present an honest picture of the person’s life. They end up magnifying the good points and excluding the bad (and maybe this is appropriate). But he leaves us in no doubt that he wants to be remembered not as a flawless saint, but as a forgiven sinner.   God enabled Mark Ashton to be focused on others as he faced his final days. This is his prayer:

It is my prayer for my family and friends, that my death will be for them all a great strengthening and clarifying of their relationship with Jesus. Amen. (p24)

I agree!