The launch of Crosslands

Today see the launch of Crosslands – gospel training when and where you need it.

In 2005 we started what became Porterbrook Training and the Porterbrook Seminary to provide Reformed, missional training for church leaders, church planters and church members.

In 2015 the Acts 29 church planting network and Oak Hill theological college came together in partnership to deepen and expand this ministry. So for the past two years we’ve been temporarily known as the Acts 29 Oak Hill Academy. But today we’re launching with a new name and a new website

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When Christians annoy you #2: remember Christ died for you

In our first post on how to respond when other Christians annoy you, based on Romans 14-15, we saw that we’re to remember Christ died for them. In this second post we see the importance of remembering that Christ died for you.

2. Remember Christ died for you (Romans 15:1-6)

Look at verses 1-2: ‘We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up.’

Do you think you’re a strong Christian? Do you think you’re a mature believer? A strong Christian does not go round pointing out other people’s faults. (Actually that’s how weak Christians try to make themselves look strong.)

Here’s the measure of maturity: bearing with and building up. Verse 1: ‘We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.’ Verse 2: ‘Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up.’

The key thing is we don’t live to please ourselves. We bear with others instead of pleasing ourselves – verse 1. And we please others by building them up – verse 2. In any interaction with people we need to think, ‘My goal here is not to please myself. My goal is to please them, that is, to help them find pleasure, true joy in Christ.’ In Philippians 1:25 Paul summarises the goal of his ministry: ‘I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.’

And what keeps us focused on this is remembering that Christ died for us. Look at verse 3: ‘For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”’ When we tempted to dish out insults – either with our words or in our minds – remember that Christ chose to receive insults. Christ bore in concentrated form all the hatred of humanity. And he did that for you. Is it now too much to ask you to put up with the frustrations your brother or sister causes you?

So Christ is to be our inspiration and our model. Look at verse 5: ‘May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had.’

Paul’s prayer is that we might have the same attitude as Jesus. And what is that attitude? Don’t please yourself. Build others up. Fight for their joy in Christ.

In the final post in this series we’ll look at the importance of remembering Christ died for us.

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When Christians annoy you #1: remember Christ died for them

Today is the first post in a series of three on how to respond when other Christians annoy you.

In Romans 14:1 Paul talks about ‘disputable matters’ – issues that are not central. In Rome those presenting issues included whether Christians could eat meat which had previously been offered to idols and whether they should observance a Jewish-style day of Sabbath. Paul has his own view of those issues, but he’s more concerned that the church should accept the diversity within the congregations. Modern disputable matters include things like baptism, charismatic issues, worship styles.

But I think it will help us apply this passage to ourselves and our church if we think of it in these terms: What do you do when someone in the congregation frustrates you? This will help us bring home the truths in this passage. Because that happens, doesn’t it! We do frustrate one another. Different priorities, different personalities, different parenting styles, different political views – and that’s just the Ps. Or never mind explicit differences. We frustrate one another in the day-to-day rubbing up against one another. Sometimes we feel let down. Sometimes we feel jealous. Maybe someone is invited over for a meal and we feel left out. What do you do when someone in the congregation frustrates you?

Our frustration is a form of judging. We convene the court, appoint ourselves as judge and come to our verdict. It all takes place in our heads, but that’s what we’re doing. Look at verse 10: ‘You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister?’ Or look at verse 13: ‘Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.’ Stop passing judgment.

But how can we do this? How can we check ourselves when we feel frustrated? How can we stop being judgmental? After all, we don’t normally decide to be judgmental. Nobody says, ‘I think in this situation, I’m going to be judgmental.’ No, we slip into it. It’s not something we can simply un-decide to do. It’s more visceral than that. It’s a gut response. But neither are we victims. There are some things we can do when we find ourselves feeling frustrated.

1. Remember Christ died for them (14:13-23)

Look at verse 15: ‘If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.’ Paul didn’t need to add that. He could have said, ‘Do not destroy someone by your eating.’ That would have been sufficient. So this is a deliberate, significant addition. This person who frustrates you is someone for whom Christ died.

Here’s the logic of Paul’s argument. Look at verse 14: ‘I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.’ In other words, meat is neither clean nor unclean. Eating it doesn’t bring you nearer to God and it doesn’t move you further from God. It’s not an act of obedience and it’s not an act of disobedience. But if you think it’s unclean then in a sense it becomes unclean for you. Why? Because if you think it’s an act of disobedience then by doing it you’re choosing to disobey God.

Imagine you’re a mother. You enter the room saying, ‘There’s something on the table for you.’ But, even as the words are forming in your mouth, you see your child trying to hide a half-eaten biscuit. Has that child been disobedient? In one sense, No, because you put the biscuit there for them. But in another sense, Yes, because they thought they shouldn’t eat it and yet they did.

Paul imagines a Christian who, like Paul, thinks eating meat is fine. This free Christian says, ‘It’s so annoying that we can’t meat because of your ridiculous scruples. Why don’t you just get over it. An idol is just a lump of metal. Go on – it’s fine.’ And so they pressure their brother to act against their conscience. They pressure their sister to disobey God. Not only is that leading them into sin, but it’s also deadening their conscience. (Not only that, but verses 16 seems to suggests that this kind of action will damage the reputation of the gospel.)

Look at verses 22-23: ‘So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.’  In other words, good for you if you approve of eating meat. ‘But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.’

Here’s Paul’s point. Christ died to bring us out of condemnation. That what Paul said back in 8:1: ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ So don’t lead people back into condemnation.

So when you disagree over disputable matters and indeed every time someone frustrates you: remember Christ died for them.

It’s good to have convictions. Paul is not suggesting we settle for a relativism in which anything goes. One of our emphases in this church is one pastoring one another in the context of daily life. We want to be a community that is ‘speaking the truth in love’ to one another (Ephesians 4:15). We want to be helping one grow to be more like Christ. So it’s right to exhort and to correct one another.

But Romans 14 gives us a clear test for this: Are you being constructive or destructive? Are we building people up or are we pulling them down? If you speak out of frustration then you’ll almost certainly be pulling people down. Shortly after Paul says ‘speak the truth in love’ he goes on:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.’ (Ephesians 4:29-31)

Out goes bitterness. In comes building others up. Anything else grieves the Holy Spirit.

The language of Romans 14 is very strong. Look at verse 15: ‘Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.’ Or look at verse 20: ‘Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.’ I don’t think we condemn people to hell in this way. But we unpick God’s work of sanctification in their lives. God is re-making them in the image of his Son and we’re pulling the pieces out.

Imagine a child has built a beautiful duplo or lego building. And then a sibling comes in like some mini-Godzilla and destroys it. What happens next? Some of you have had to handle the aftermath of that kind of situation on many occasions.

‘Do not destroy the work of God,’ says Paul. ‘Do not … destroy someone for whom Christ died.’ God is building something very beautiful and very precious in your brother or sister. And he is building it through the blood of his own Son. He’s building it with his own sweat and blood. Remember that next time your brother or sister frustrates you. Yes, they’re a work in progress. But make sure your contribution helps that progress rather than hinders it. Don’t destroy the work of God. Horatius Bonar said:

We are God’s workmanship says Paul in Ephesians 2:10. It pictures God as a craftsman, shaping us into the image of his Son. But we are no inanimate marble, ready to be sculptured. We are complex beings with distinct personalities, diverse histories and a great variety competing influences. This is the substance which God works and which he fashions through the course of a lifetime, without violating our will and yet without fail, into the image of his Son. (Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness, Evangelical Press, 1864, 1979, 5-6.)

God is very patient in that work. Don’t be impatient with God’s timescale. God does use the church in the process. We are to challenge, exhort, encourage one another. But imagine a sculptor who picks up his chisel when he’s angry or impatient!

Next time you’re frustrated with someone remember that Christ shed his blood for them. Next time you’re tempted to say something out of frustration remember you may be destroying the work of God.

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Calvin on calling God ‘Father’

Here’s an quote from John Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.36-37.

With what confidence would anyone address God as ‘Father’? Who would break forth into such rashness as to claim for himself the honour of a son of God unless we had been adopted as children of grace in Christ? He, while he is the true Son, has of himself been given us as a brother that what he has of his own by nature may become ours by benefit of adoption if we embrace this great blessing with sure faith. Accordingly, John says that power has been given to those who believe in the name of the only-begotten Son of God, that they too may become children of John (John 1:12) …

But a son cannot give himself over to the safekeeping of a stranger and an alien without at the same time complaining either of his father’s cruelty or want. Thus, if we are his sons, we cannot seek help anywhere else than from him without reproaching him for poverty, or want of means, or cruelty and excessive rigour…

But because the narrowness of our hearts cannot comprehend God’s boundless favour, not only is Christ the pledge and guarantee of our adoption, but he moves the Spirit as witness to us of the same adoption, through whom with free and full voice we may cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15). Therefore, whenever any hesitation shall hinder us, let us remember to ask him to correct our fearfulness, and to set before us that Spirit that he may guide us to pray boldly.

My book, co-authored with Michael Reeves, Why the Reformation Still Matters, can be bought from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

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An exercise in friendship

Here’s an exercise on friendship you might want to do on your own or with a group.

  1. Arrange the following verses from Proverbs into groups by theme.
  2. Convert each group into a principle.
  3. Identify any implications you think are particularly relevant to you.

And don’t miss the conclusion on friendship and the gospel.

Proverbs 3:27-30
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act.
28 Do not say to your neighbour,
‘Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you’ –
when you already have it with you.
29 Do not plot harm against your neighbour,
who lives trustfully near you.
30 Do not accuse anyone for no reason –
when they have done you no harm.

Proverbs 12:26
The righteous choose their friends carefully,
but the way of the wicked leads them astray.

Proverbs 14:10
The poor are shunned even by their neighbours,
but the rich have many friends.

Proverbs 14:13
Even in laughter the heart may ache,
and rejoicing may end in grief.

Proverbs 16:28
A perverse person stirs up conflict,
and a gossip separates close friends.

Proverbs 17:9
Whoever would foster love covers over an offence,
but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.

Proverbs 17:17
A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity.

Proverbs 18:24
One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Proverbs 19:4,6
Wealth attracts many friends,
but even the closest friend of the poor person deserts them …
6 Many curry favour with a ruler,
and everyone is the friend of one who gives gifts.

Proverbs 20:19
A gossip betrays a confidence;
so avoid anyone who talks too much.

Proverbs 22:10-11
Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife;
quarrels and insults are ended.
11 One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace
will have the king for a friend.

Proverbs 22:24-25
Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person,
do not associate with one easily angered,
25 or you may learn their ways
and get yourself ensnared.

Proverbs 25:15
Through patience a ruler can be persuaded,
and a gentle tongue can break a bone.

Proverbs 25:16-17
If you find honey, eat just enough –
too much of it, and you will vomit.
17 Seldom set foot in your neighbour’s house –
too much of you, and they will hate you.

Proverbs 25:19-20
Like a broken tooth or a lame foot
is reliance on the unfaithful in a time of trouble.
20 Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on a wound,
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.

Proverbs 26:18-19
Like a maniac shooting
flaming arrows of death
19 is one who deceives their neighbour
and says, ‘I was only joking!’

Proverbs 27:5-6
Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
6 Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

Proverbs 27:9-10
Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart,
and the pleasantness of a friend
springs from their heartfelt advice.
10 Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family,
and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you –
better a neighbour nearby than a relative far away.

Proverbs 27:14
If anyone loudly blesses their neighbour early in the morning,
it will be taken as a curse.

Proverbs 27:17
As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 28:23
Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favour
rather than one who has a flattering tongue.

Proverbs 29:5
Those who flatter their neighbours
are spreading nets for their feet.

Friendship and the Gospel

The principles of friendship that we see in Proverbs can leave us feeling disappointed:

  • in others
  • in ourselves

But Proverbs 18:24 gives a hint that there might be a better, truer friend: ‘One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.’ And Jesus said:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: love each other. (John 15:13-17)

Jesus is the friend that lays down his life for us.

This, of course, is a gospel truism! But it is vital for healthy friendships.

If we look for fulfilment or perfection in friendships then:

  • we can choke friendship – people withdraw because they feel suffocated or feel crushed by our expectations
  • we can create corrosive jealousy – we resent their time with, or affection for, other people

We create a set of expectations (a ‘law’) and then demand that people meet our expectations.

Here’s a couple of tests:

  • Is my primary concern to give in the relationship or to get from the relationship?
  • If I’m giving in the relationship, am I trying to build obligation?

My relational longings will never be satisfied in other human beings. They can only be met in Christ.

But the good news is that they are met in Christ. And this relationship gives the security in which I can relate to others in love.

Recommendation

True Friendship by Vaughan Roberts – available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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Trinitarian love is made complete in the Christian community

In a previous post I looked at how 1 John shows that Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community. In this post we look at how Trinitarian love is also made complete in the Christian community.

1 John 2:3 says: ‘We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.’ John has in mind a specific command here. In verses 7-8 he talks about an old command that is a new command. He has in mind Jesus’ words: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ (John 13:34) It’s the old command to love, but Jesus has given it a new quality or a new standard. So throughout this section obeying the commands of Jesus and living like Jesus are just different ways of saying loving like Jesus.

As in chapter one, John lists three false claims (2:4, 6, 9). They’re the claims of people who say they know God, but don’t love their Christian brothers and sisters. Today people calling themselves Christians are condemning the Bible’s teaching on hell, on sexuality, on the uniqueness of Christ. And they hate true Christians. They denounce us for holding to biblical truths. Verse 4 says: ‘Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands’ – that is, his command to love the Christian community – ‘is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.’

That’s the negative. But with each false claim John goes on to give us a positive encouragement. So verse 5 says: ‘But if anyone obeys his word’ – to love the Christian community – ‘love for God is truly made complete in them.’

Back in 1:4 divine joy is made complete in the Christian community as it proclaims the word of Christ. Now divine love is made complete in the Christian community as we love one another. That means our love for God reaches its goal. Love for God finds fulfilment in love for our brothers and sisters. Love for one another is the proper way to love God.

So you can’t love God on your own! Love for God only becomes complete when you love other people. You’ve got to be part of a Christian community. That’s what it means to know Jesus, obey Jesus and live like Jesus (2:3-6).

We enjoy God when we receive love

In 4:12-13 John says: ‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’ John’s point is this. People can’t see God. but they can see us. So people see the love of the invisible God in the love of the Christian community. God’s love becomes a reality that be seen and heard and touched in the love of the Christian community.

And brotherly love is not a poor substitute for the real thing, for divine love. For brotherly love is divine love. God loves us through the love of other Christians.

The brother who speaks a word of comfort to you, the sister who bakes a cake for you, the family who welcome you into their home – they are the hands and feet of God. When a brother hugs you, Christ is hugging you. When a sister sits by your hospital bed, Christ is sitting by your bedside. When a friend weeps with you, Christ is weeping you.

The love of Jesus was the overflow of the love within the Trinity. God’s love spilled over to us in Christ. It was generated from within, out of sheer grace. In the same way, Christian love is the overflow of God’s love to us. ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God … Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’ (4:7, 11)

We enjoy God when we give love

Did you notice what John says about why he writes in 1:4? ‘We write this to make our joy complete.’ You might expect him to say, ‘to make your joy complete.’ (And it seems some early copyists thought that’s what it should have been so they changed it.) It’s clear he does write to bring his reader joy. So why does he say ‘our joy’? The point is that ‘your joy’ is ‘our joy’. What John enjoys is seeing other Christians experience joy. There’s nothing he likes more than people having joy in Christ. That’s complete joy.

Pursing my joy in Christ can be self-defeating. If it’s a selfish, self-centred exercise in self-fulfilment then joy will elude you – even joy in Christ. But if we pursue one another’s joy then our joy is made complete and our love for God is made complete. So if you want to have joy stop looking for joy and instead start working for the joy of other people. The strange thing is that you’ll never really be happy while you’re pursuing your own happiness.

Recently my wife said: ‘You’re weary, you sigh when people ask you do things and you’re not being intentional in discipleship.’ Wham! She was right. Everything I had to do felt like a burden. So I was trying to do what makes me happy, but it wasn’t working. Her words flicked a switch. I started being intentional about serving others and, as it happens, I felt so much better as a result. Nothing has changed and everything has changed because I’m seeking to serve others more.

To give is to gain in the economy of Christ. I don’t mean this in the sense that is touted by the prosperity gospel. I’m not suggesting that giving money will lead to a full bank account. That lie suggests you give up earthly treasures to gain more earthly treasures. It reinforces the selfishness that robs us of true joy.

But it is true that we find ourselves by giving ourselves. Our problem is that too often we want to be radical Christians leading comfortable lives. We want to give everything for Christ and have everything this life offers. We want to tell the world about Christ and we want to be liked by our peers. We want to grow more like Jesus and enjoy the pleasures of this world. But this double-mindedness doesn’t work. Pleasure-seekers are world-weary. High achievers are insecure. Jesus said

‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 8:34-36)

To gain a life that it rich and full, a life into which eternity has begun to shine (2:10), we need show the sacrificial love of the cross and lose ourselves.

If you simply hang out with a group of peers – people of your age or people you find fun or people with your interests – you’re not loving like Christ. It’s self-interest. By all means have a good time. But don’t call it Christian love because you’re not doing anything different from the world around us. What’s distinctive about christlike love is that the way it crosses personality divides, ethnic divides, generational divides, social divides, singles and married, young and old.

So love the people in your church. Spend time with them. Build community with them. I realise that spending time with your peers offers a quick reward – it’s fun. But loving your Christian community will bring deep and lasting rewards.

Verse 8 says: ‘I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you …’ The distinctive character of Christian love that it is seen in Jesus is also seen in you. Your church may have all lots of problems and failings. It’s all too ordinary. But see beyond that for a moment. Look at your community as John sees it. He sees the new age taking shape in your community. We are the prototype of the new creation. We are the proof of concept. The future has broken into history and can be seen in your Christian community. Our cities and towns are places in spiritual darkness. But every time we plant a church or missional community it’s as if God switches on a light. Light shines through Christian love.

Let me leave you with one practical thing to do. Have a meal. Invite some round for food or out for a drink. That’s the best first step for living in community.

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Trinitarian joy in Christian community: a case study

In a previous post I looked at how 1 John shows that Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community. In this post we look at a case study of this in action. 

Perhaps the main thing that robs our joy is our awareness of sin. Our sin makes us wonder whether we really know God. And that’s especially the case when other Christians claim to be more godly. And this was what was going on among John’s readers. Three times in 1:5-10 John says, ‘If we claim’. Each time he’s talking about people who claimed to have conquered sin. But against each claim John says: they lie, they deceive, they make God a liar.

I suspect John’s readers would have been relieved to read this. And so should we. Remember people have left the church claiming that sin is not a problem for them or that they have victory over sin. That’s going to make you feel threatened and fearful. Every time you sin you’re going to feel that confusion.

A couple of years ago I realised I’d been a Christian for more than forty years. Do you know how I felt? I was grieved that I had made such little progress! So I started to wonder: Maybe I’m deceived. Maybe I don’t really know God. And then I hear John’s words: ‘No. It’s the people who claim to be without sin who are deceived.’

In washing powder adverts they always hold clothes up to the light. It’s in the light that you really see the dirt. John says God is light (1:5). The more you know God, the more you see yourself in the light – the clearer your sin appears. In the half-light you can think of yourself as a good person. But the more you step into the light, the more you see the stains of sin.

But the good news is that each of these false claims has a corresponding promise:

1:7      ‘If we walk in the light … the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.’

1:9      ‘If we confess our sins … [God] will forgive us our sins and purify us.’

2:2      Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’

Yes, we still sin. But Jesus purifies, forgives, atones.

There’s nothing like hearing the words, ‘You’re forgiven.’ Maybe had the experience of letting down a good friend. And it made you miserable until they said, ‘You’re forgiven.’ We’ve let God down. But we don’t need to feel miserable. Because, if we confess our sins, God says, ‘You’re forgiven.’

Here’s my point. You don’t need the Christian community to know you’re forgiven by God – but it helps! Sometimes our hearts condemn us. And the word of Christ spoken by a brother or sister cut through the confusion.

Often when the church meets we an opportunity to confess our sins together. It’s not that God is holding us at a distance until we make up with him. Quite the opposite. We’re the ones who are holding him at distance. Confession is an opportunity to come back to God. It restores our assurance because we hear his word of forgiveness by faith in the promises of the Bible. It doesn’t change God. God doesn’t love us any less before that act of confession. But it can change us. It can make the objective reality of God’s grace a subjective reality for us.

I often look forward to this act of confession. And I can tell you exactly when and where the anticipation begins. I usually pray on my walk to work. I start by confessing my sin as I walk down our road. And then I turn the corner and walk up the hill through the trees. And that’s moment when I begin to look forward to our time of corporate confession. I know God has forgiven me. But I still enjoy hearing his word of assurance and forgiveness in the Christian community.

In the film The Mission, set in eighteenth-century Latin America, the repentant slave-trader Mendoza (played by Robert De Niro) climbs a waterfall as an act of penance with his armour – the symbol of his past life – roped to his back. The film powerfully portrays his struggle to reach the top. Release only comes when one of the indigenous people, whom he had formerly terrorised, cuts the rope so that his burden falls away. The objective reality of acceptance with God becomes a liberating experience through the acceptance of others.

In a future post I’ll look at how Trinitarian love is made complete in the Christian community. 

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Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community

I want to look at how in his first letter John shows how the Christian community helps us enjoy God. In a future post I’ll look at how Trinitarian love is made complete in the Christian community.

I want to suggest the Christian community is the main place where you can experience divine joy. When you think of your church you might not find that prospect look very promising! But I want to suggest that, if we have the eyes of faith, we will see in our brothers sand sisters a hundred ways in which the divine joy and divine love are made complete.

Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community

In 1 John 2 John describes how people have left the church (2:19). It’s not hard to imagine how that might would have caused confusion. It seems these people were claiming a deeper knowledge of God, a higher level of holiness, a greater anointing of the Spirit, a more victorious life.

If you’re just an ‘ordinary’ Christian, that’s pretty intimidating! In fact it’s joy-sapping. You’re going to live with a sense of fear or inferiority. But John writes to show that the people who’ve left are not all they seem.

This explains the strange opening of the letter. There’s no greeting. There’s no, ‘I hope you’re well.’ He jumps straight in. And three times in this opening paragraph John says we proclaim what we have seen:

verse 1: ‘that which … we have heard … seen … and … touched – this we proclaim’

verse 2: ‘[what] we have seen … we proclaim to you’

verse 3: ‘we proclaim to you what we have seen and heard’

What is it that we have seen and proclaim? The word of life, the Lord Jesus (1:1). These verses echo the language of John 20:27 where the Risen Jesus appears to his disciples. Jesus said, ‘See my hands’ and now John says, ‘We have seen.’ Jesus said, ‘Reach out your hand’ and now John says, ‘Our hands have touched.’ John saw and heard and touched the Risen Jesus. That’s why the word is the word of eternal life.

But the question is, Who are the ‘we’ John keeps talking about? In these first four verses he refers to ‘we’ or ‘our’ or ‘us’ sixteen times. And he’s not talking about ‘we Christians’. After all, you and I didn’t see or hear or touch the Risen Jesus. And John talks about ‘we’ in contrast to ‘you’, his readers. No, the ‘we’ here are the people who heard and saw the Risen Christ – the first Apostles.

God revealed himself in Jesus, but you and I weren’t around to witness that for ourselves. So how can we encounter God’s revelation in Jesus? The answer is we have the testimony of the Apostles. We have eye-witnesses who heard and saw and touched Jesus.

And how do we encounter the testimony of the Apostles? They wrote it down. In verse 4 John says, ‘We write this to make our joy complete.’ Here it is in our Bibles.

Jesus appeared and John writes so that Christians might have fellowship or community. This community is with the Apostles – ‘so that you also may have fellowship with us.’ (1:3a). But this community is also with God – ‘Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.’(1:3b). Together Christians participate in the life of the Trinity.

We’re just ordinary Christians. But there is nothing ordinary about ordinary Christianity! We have fellowship with the Father and the Son. At the end of the letter John writes, ‘We are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ.’ (5:20) We’re connected to Christ by faith and so we’re connected into the triune God. Because we’re in the Son, we experience what the Son experiences. The joy the Father has in his Son is the joy that he has in you. The love the Father has for his Son is the love that he has for you. You’re future is as secure as the future of Jesus.

Here’s the key thing for our purposes: we experience this joy as we participate in a word-proclaiming community. It’s as we read what the Apostles (and Prophets) have written and as we proclaim what the Apostles proclaimed that we experience joy together. In other words, we experience joy as the Bible is read and proclaimed in the Christian community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘The Christ in [our] own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.’[1]

Here’s what he means. Later in this letter John speaks about moments when our hearts condemn us (3:19-22). Perhaps we’ve fallen into sin. Perhaps we’re plagued by doubt. And our thinking gets all in a stew. Our hearts are muddled. And then a Christian speaks. It might be the preaching on a Sunday morning. It might a conversation with a friend. But for you the words of that preacher or your friend are the words of Christ. They come to you from outside. This is not your internal monologue with all its confusions. These words come as an objective reality, speaking good news to your heart.

This is our experience, isn’t it? Most of the moments in which we’ve felt God speaking to us to comfort us or challenge us have come through other Christians. Of course, it can happen while you’re reading the Bible on your own, but more often it happens through others.

Bonhoeffer links this to what the Reformers called our ‘alien righteousness’. We’re not made right with God because of anything within us. It’s not that we get ourselves good enough for God. Instead what makes us right with God is the righteousness of Jesus. We are righteous in him and through him. It comes to us from outside of ourselves. So we need a word from outside. Bonhoeffer said:

Christians encounter both death and life only in the Word that comes to them from outside, in God’s Word … In themselves they are destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ … But God put his Word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others … Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves.[2]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 32.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 31-32.

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The Glory of the Story Sample: Day 117 – Remember, remember – a pause for reflection

Reading: Psalm 105:1-23

Here is another extracts from The Glory of the Story, my father’s devotional introduction to biblical theology in the form of 366 daily readings which show how the Old Testament story is fulfilled in Christ. The Glory of the Story is available as a Kindle book for $2.99 from amazon.com and £1.99 from amazon.co.uk. I’m posting extracts from the chaper on the story of Jacob, usually on the first Monday of the month.

Today’s psalm surveys the sweep of events from Abraham to the entry into the promised land. Though it covers many years it paints one picture: a promise-making, promise-keeping God, mysterious in his ways, but always mindful of his people. The first fifteen verses (plus most of Psalm 96) are from David’s prayer of thanksgiving when the ark was brought to Jerusalem
(1 Chron. 16:7-36). Possibly it was recited on each anniversary of this event and made the occasion for covenant renewal. In this way the saving acts of God became present realities for each successive generation (8; cf. Ps. 78:4-8).

1. God remembers (8-23)

He remembers his covenant (8)

He remembers it not merely by calling it to mind, but by acting on what he promised (cf. Gen. 8:1; 19:29; 30:22). His covenant is the word he commanded (8); and not one of the LORD’s good promises fail (Josh. 21:45; 23:14). Contrast: ‘I remembered your birthday. I didn’t do anything about it, but I did remember it!’

Verses 12-15 describe the three generations of Abraham’s family (cf. Heb. 11:8-9) living as nomadic strangers in the land (cf. Gen 20:7).

Verses 16-23 describe the circumstances that led them to migrate to Egypt. He called down famine … he sent a man before them… (16-17). This is far more than a history lesson; it is a record of God’s grace and faithfulness.

2. We remember (1-7)

Remember the wonders he has done (5)

We have seen how every Christian belongs to this family and so we view its miraculous beginnings with more than a spectator interest. These are the early chapters of our own story! Granted that ‘a thousand generations’ (8) is a figure of speech – by its own terms it represents 30,000 years! – it still indicates how Scripture views the reach of God’s covenant dealings. What must our response be?

Give thanks (1-3). Give thanks … call on his name … sing praise to him … glory in his holy name … rejoice. Here is doxology. This is not only our story; this is our song!

Make known (1-2). Make known among the nations what he has done … tell of all his wonderful acts. How can we keep silent? (cf. Acts 4:20).

Seek his face (4). All that God has done is with a view to having an obedient people (42-45). Without godliness, praise is only religious noise (cf. Amos 5:23-24).

Remember (5). Reflect on God’s wonders, miracles and judgements (the dark side of his saving miracles). This is the God in whom we live and move and have our being, and through whom we experience an even greater redemption than those who lived under the old covenant.

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