Sunday, April 29, 2007

2 Timothy 3

Ever seen those washing detergent adverts? You know the ones I mean, there’s Brand X, which is so hopeless that the poor mothers may as well have just used their own saliva. Then there’s Magical Brand Semua Pun Boleh!, which somehow manages to get rid of all the shirt stains that your kid has accumulated from having investigated the rubbish dump, played football on a waterlogged pitch and winning a foodfight with his sister. The (obvious) intention of the advert was to show you the stark contrast between the two pictures.

That’s the point in chapter 3. The picture being painted in verses 1-9 are not meant to be your topics for polite conversation! But they’re meant to be a hugely negative example. This is serious business, conveyed by Paul’s "But understand this...". It has an urgency about it. Think of a father, who, knowing he is going to die soon, and having hidden the family heirloom, grabs his son by the shoulders and shakes him hard: “Do you understand, son, that they’ll be plenty who will turn away from you, torture you, but you must never reveal where I’ve hidden it!”

I won’t pretend to know definitively what "last days" mean, but for my purposes, I’m going to assume that it simply refers to the age after Christ’s ascension and his second coming, in other words, the age we’re living in now.

Paul gives us a long list of behaviour which is simply terrible. Some people think that the list springs out of the very first characteristic: "lovers of self". This is plausible; the list is bookended by the last phrase in verse 4: "rather than lovers of God". It doesn’t make a difference to the main point though; what we’re seeing is akin to an artwork by Van Gogh being defecated upon, or Mozart being horribly mangled, as people, made in the image of God, degenerate into ugliness. Arrogant. Abusive. Heartless. Treacherous.

We might be nodding our heads at this point as we recall some event or encounter with a non-believer that fits in somewhat with this description. And here is the real danger. Paul isn’t really talking about the surrounding culture. Rather, he is talking about the culture in the church itself. Here we have those who have "the appearance of godliness, but denying its power" (v.5). In other words, there are some who look like Christians. They go to church, attend Bible study, pray. But there is no true inward change, no transforming power at work in the life of this person. He is like the wannabe paikia or gangster. (Sorry for this trivial illustration!) Ultimately, his love for God isn’t there. "Always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth"(v.7). This is, for me, possibly the most sobering verse in 2 Timothy.

Paul commands Timothy to avoid them. Leaders, do not get involved with them because they will bring poison into your flock. Those under Christian leadership, if your leaders are faithful to God and his word, don’t be tempted to stray to those whose teachings might be more palatable. To heighten the impact of his warning, Paul uses by way of illustrations the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses in the plagues (Ex. 7:11). In the end, their teaching will not get very far and they will be shown for what they are (v.8-9)

3:10-17 is the point of contrast. Paul now wants to show what it means to "live a godly life in Christ Jesus". He sets himself as an example first of all (v.10), and implicitly we recall the spiritual legacy passed down from Tim’s mum and grandmum (1:5), and his responsibility to then entrust it to others(2:2). Leaders are to be modellers. This will, however, inevitably involve persecution. "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." I don’t really have to explain that verse do I? Paul is stressing that his position is not unique. Not everyone will go to jail for their faith, but we will experience some degree of suffering simply because we are Christians. But Paul shows that the alternative is actually much worse, for evil people and impostors will continue on their demeaning path. Sadly, they’re not only deceiving, but they deceive themselves. A few contemporary examples might be leaders of cults, but there are probably more subtle cases out there as well.

Timothy is now called to abide in what he knows to be true, that is, the Scriptures. We must never ever think we’ve graduated from them, but be a student under the word of God all our lives. It sounds conservative, but it is actually the way forward to being the most radical and counter-cultural Christian ever. Just imagine, if you truly believed we should “share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus” (2:3). If we understand that it is not wise to take part in “foolish, ignorant controversies” (2:23). If church leaders corrected their opponents “with gentleness” (2:25). If we ultimately believed that we are asked to love God and neighbour. And we understand all this is possible only by grace. For the word of God "make(s) you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (v.15).

2 Timothy 3:16 is a famous verse of course, and set in context, acquires more force*. It is tempting to think of the Bible today as outmoded. Sacred writings sound so...primitive! Isn’t this the Information Age? Church leaders especially might be tempted to turn to substitutes such as motivational techniques (not wrong in itself) and let it trump Scripture. But these are God’s words, and can be used to pierce us in many different ways. It can teach us. It can tell us where we’ve gone wrong. It can help strengthen our faith. And ultimately, it makes the "messenger of God" (v.17, footnote) to be one who is ready to help do some kingdom work.

As we look back on chapter 3, we find a hopeful realism. In the previous chapter, Paul has asked Timothy to watch over his flock by handling the truth rightly, avoiding needless quarrels, and to correct his opponents with gentleness. But he wants Timothy to know that there will be opposition to be endured and people which are to be avoided, and asks that ultimately, Timothy not lose confidence in the gospel and God’s word. For us today, the charge is the same, and is especially critical for those in positions of Christian leadership. Keep on the beaten track!

As always, this post is open to feedback.

*A little digression that I thought was worth pointing out but not worth interrupting the main flow of thought. When Paul was writing this verse, “all scripture” then meant of course, the Old Testament. Occasionally we can fall into the danger of ignoring the Old Testament altogether in favour of the New, but this verse tells us that even the Old Testament is useful for teaching, reproof and so on. Of course, the Old Testament is not easy to interpret, and we have to be careful in handling it. Perhaps one place to start is by reading Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its worth.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

United in Christ, even in disagreement

One of my favourite stories, which I have heard a couple of times over the last few years, is that of George Whitefield, the great evangelist, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It's a tale I've often used to remind myself of the possibility and beauty of Christian fellowship with people who are different, and who differ with you. Whitefield was a Calvinist and Wesley, of course, an Arminian, who believed in the possibility of sinless perfection. They were good friends but disagreed profoundly over this issue.

One day, one of Whitefield's supporters walked over to him and asked, "Sir, do you think we shall see Mr. Wesley in heaven?". Whitefield turned to look at this fellow, and replied: "I fear not". He paused, then continued reverently: "For he will be so near the throne, and we shall be at such a distance, that we shall hardly get a sight of him!"


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Controversy, division and unity in the body of Christ

Let me state it upfront: I hate it. I hate conflict. I avoid disagreeing with people if I can help it. As for controversies, if they’re confined to the realm of sports, fine, but not anywhere else. Especially not the church.

And yet I find that if I am to continue in the Christian life, inevitably I will come face-to-face with controversy. Sweeping it under the carpet and nodding politely at each other just will not cut it in the long run. I’ve been thinking a lot on this lately. A few reasons: the continued rising of the theological temperature here in Britain – it's not the purpose of this post to delve into this; for details, see here. The amount of time I’ve been spending in 2 Timothy, especially the first 2 chapters, which have plenty to say about division, opposition, quarrelling, staying faithful and the like. Some of JollyBlogger’s recent musings on unity - Why We haven’t changed the world and How Paul resolved problems. And that while Jesus’ kingdom most definitely was inclusive in that anyone, Jew, Gentile, woman, child, outcast could enter it, it also had an exclusive nature, for refusal to listen and obey the Word means that you are an outsider to the kingdom.

And I guess some stuff that has been festering for a while now, probably arising from my undergraduate days, such as the extent we can communicate and miscommunicate with the “other”, also contributed to this. And finally, there is my background: having grown up in comparatively “charismatic” Christian circles before attending “conservative evangelical” churches in the UK – rather than completely rejecting my heritage, I often find myself looking for points of convergence. (I’m not completely won over to the term, but I suppose I’m a post-charismatic. See more on what that might mean here.)

There must indeed be a place, indeed, an active seeking, for unity. I’ve been reading a book by Bruce Milne in which he argues passionately for a church that must look like a reconciled community, and to that end, he argues for congregations that display diversity, in race, in gender, in age. I was privileged to have grown up in a church which was fairly multi-racial, and have been blessed as well to have been able to meet people of many nationalities during my time in the UK. In fact, one of my biggest desires would be to have a church in Malaysia that mirrors its social makeup. But this isn’t just any superficial unity. According to Ephesians 2:11-22, it is Jesus’ act of atonement that unites; we unite because of the cross. But also, to put a different spin on the same proposition, the cross creates community. In other words, because of the cross, we should be one.

Yet there must be a time for contending the truth. We see it in early church history, where various people stood for the doctrines of the Trinity, affirming the deity of Christ and so on. In 2 Timothy, it’s really clear, Paul talks about guarding the gospel. For false teaching "ruin the hearers" and "lead people into more and more ungodliness". Notice that I said false teaching. In my earlier post examining 2 Tim 2:14-26, one of the things I initially missed was that many who propagate false teachings can actually be genuine believers. Yet it must be opposed, because of the serious consequences. This is why we can’t all just get along. One of the main objections to controversy, which I’m sympathetic to, is one of needing to get on the task with mission instead of bickering with one another. However, in truth, it is precisely because we need to get on in doing kingdom work that debate needs to take place, false teaching needs to be stopped if it is identified as such, and in certain cases, division needs to happen to avoid further draining of energy and time.

For me, the struggle has always been, how do we know which situation is which? When is it right to agree to disagree? When must we rise up and actively oppose error? When is it okay to put it on the backburner? Now the classic statement on this, often attributed to Augustine, is 'in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity'. But this doesn’t always solve the problem – for the main issue usually then becomes: what is essential? For most people, and I do agree, it is the gospel. But there is increasing confusion over what the gospel constitutes. Indeed, that is what the current controversy over penal substitution is all about.This is where I get frustrated. Clarity seems so elusive – it is very difficult to spot what is false teaching and what is merely a legitimate difference of opinion.

But I also get frustrated at what sometimes seems to me a deliberate muddying of the waters. Accusations abound: "by whose orthodoxy? Whose interpretation?"; "you’re just trying to preserve power"; "We're really the true Christians, you're the ones who are being too liberal/conservative". Which is why, despite all the challenges posed by the current state of play in the field of epistemology and hermeneutics, I think that we need to get back to the Word of God and acknowledge its authority (which, as Tom Wright for example has shown, is ultimately acknowledging the authority of God Himself). One of the things that struck me was a comment made at the retreat I was at. One of the staff workers remarked that he winces whenever he hears people say: “The St. Helen’s line on issue X is…” (St. Helen's is the church I’m at). For him, it’s not what the church says, but what the Bible, God’s Word says; the same Word that the church tries to teach as faithfully as possible, knowing that this is how the living God speaks.

At the same time we have a mandate to practise the fruit of "gentleness". This isn’t just to do with tone, although it is that. It is also to do with giving the benefit of the doubt.

This post has already gone on for too long and has been very hard to write - I've deleted whole paragraphs and kept changing the way I word things! So I'll just end with the words of Francis Schaeffer:
In John 13 and 17, Jesus talks about a real seeable oneness, a practicing oneness, a practical oneness across all lines, among all true Christians.

The Christian really has a double task. He has to practice both God's holiness and God's love. The Christian is to exhibit that God exists as the infinite-personal God; and then he is to exhibit simultaneously God's character of holiness and love. Not his holiness without his love: that is only harshness. Not his love without his holiness: that is only compromise. Anything that an individual Christian or Christian group does that fails to show the simultaneous balance of the holiness of God and the love of God presents to a watching world not a demonstration of the God who exists but a caricature of the God who exists.

According to the Scripture and the teaching of Christ, the love that is shown is to be exceedingly strong. It is not just something you mention in words once in a while.
- The Mark of the Christian
A less clumsy effort worth reading: Warning: Heresy contains biohazardous materials

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Blog post > #100

So I finally surpassed a hundred posts here on Blogspot! It took me some time, but I got there. :) I can’t believe I’m still in this blogging business. Well, considering that I probably only attract readers like Mr. Secret Rapture, trying to convince me how both he and Jesus are wizard buddies.

Anyway, as you can see, I’ve slowed down in my postings after a flurry in March. The surge of energy was deliberate, as I wanted to see if I could get back in the habit of regular blogging again, but it was never going to be maintained. Still, at least I’m back in the game.

I’m away on a mini-retreat from tomorrow.I was hoping to finish blogging my way through 2 Timothy before then, but I didn’t quite make it. I will finish it though.


The NBA season ended today

[This post is also to discover if anybody out there loves the NBA too.]

I have participated, with the exception of 2005/06, in an NBA fantasy league for the last 4 years - this year I'm fourth, which was more or less where I was the whole season. (I'm a two-time winner, btw. :-p) I briefly flirted with 2nd place, but was mostly fighting for 3rd. The eventual winner was quite something, though - he started out hovering between 4th or 5th; roughly a third into the season he picked up a free agent that propelled him into 2nd. That's where I thought he'll end up, since the league leader for just about the whole season was so far ahead, but somehow in the last week he overtook him! It was truly impressive.

My best gamble was Deron Williams, who had a breakout season, and I did benefit, in spurts, from Monta Ellis, Al Harrington and J.R Smith too. Carmelo was doing fine until he got himself suspended for 15 games. Gerald Wallace was frustrating - he was a complete stud in the final quarter of the season, but he's so injury-prone I don't know if it was worth it. I missed out picking up Bierdrins when he was shooting something like 78% FG though.

Anyway, my season-ending awards:
MVP: Dirk Nowitzki. Just beats out Nash. If the Lakers had a better record, I'll give it to Kobe.
6th Man: Probably Leandro Barbosa.
Defensive Player: No Artest, No Ben Wallace. So Duncan. If Gerald Wallace wasn't injured so often he had a chance.
Most Improved: Some will plum for Kevin Martin, but Monta Ellis is who I'm going with.
Rookie of the Year: I don't know, since I can't watch the NBA in the UK so am not familiar with any of the new guys. But everyone seems to be putting their money on Brandon Roy.

And this year's NBA champs? ...I think the Mavs will win it, but I want the Suns to. So, Phoenix Suns!


Monday, April 16, 2007

Oh no...

not again.

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Psalm 37:7

UPDATE (17/4/2007): For latest updates, go here. I know someone, although not very well, at Virginia Tech and am glad to report he is fine.

UPDATE 2: Here is an email from aforementioned friend. If you need something concrete to pray for, pray for Steve.

'Thanks so much for your e-mail. The past couple of days have been really crazy. I worked with InterVarsity at Virginia Tech for a year and still have close ties to their community (my wife and I led a retreat for them this past fall).

We're okay and all the folks we're close to are okay, but most of our students know people who were either injured or killed. I'm struggling to balance pastoring and grieving, but I think that's to be expected.

If you could pray for us, that would be much appreciated.'

Challies also has a post on praying for Blacksburg.

UPDATE 3 (18/4): This is likely to be my last update since there's plenty of coverage elsewhere. I was quite moved to see pictures of South Koreans holding vigils as well. Anyway, I just wanted to point to this absolutely superb reflection by Mark Galli. Definitely worth your time.

2 Timothy 2:14-26

Is anyone else finding 2 Timothy 2 not at all an easy read?

Who are the Christian leaders you admire? And why do you admire them? I can think of a few – they were invariably gracious, humble, full of integrity while showing a concern for biblical fidelity and thus faithfulness to their Master, Jesus Christ. I think they knew and internalised the words of Paul to Timothy here in 2:14-26, words which, as someone who has served a little in leadership myself, make me tremble. How we need the strength by the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2:1)!

Paul starts off this section by telling Timothy to keep reminding "them" – the "faithful men" entrusted to teach others – of "these things" (v.14). These things are all the big themes that he has hit on so far: not to be ashamed of God or his people, to share in his suffering, to guard the deposit that is the gospel, to keep going. All this, of course has its basis "in Christ Jesus". What does it mean "not to quarrel about words"? Here he is talking about relentless nitpicking – splitting hairs over such minute doctrinal differences that one loses sight of everything else. I suspect many will have a war story to tell here. This only serves to damage those who are listening in. Just as seriously, notice this charge is "before God", and no wonder, as it might distract us from truly learning what God has to teach us.

So Paul has told Christian leaders what to avoid; what should they be striving for instead? They are "workers", which tells us that it’s not an easy job (keeping in line with the metaphors used in the previous section), who should "do your best to present yourself to God as one approved" (v.15). In doing so, we will have no need to be ashamed, like Paul! Moreover, Christian leaders must "rightly [handle] the word of truth". Apparently, "rightly handling" is literally “cutting straight”. Some think the term here has connotations of bricklaying, others, ploughing. In any case, the implication is clear, it is to present the Word of God clearly to the people of God that they might live as the Bride of God.

This is so important because, to use a pithy phrase, ideas have consequences. "Irreverent babble" leads to increasing ungodliness, and will not stay self-contained: it will spread like an outbreak of chicken pox (if you don’t mind me modifying the simile!). Paul gives the example of two people and their teaching. At first glance this might puzzle us: hasn’t the resurrection already happened? (v.18) But it seems like, to use the technical term, a case of overrealised eschatology. In other words, Hymenaeus and Philetus were teaching that we were living, as it were, as if we were already in heaven – it is the age after the Second Coming, there is nothing left to anticipate. There won’t be a physical resurrection in the future. This might be more helpfully illustrated by showing, from this song excerpt, what orthodox Christians have always believed:
Now death destroyed, the death left open wide,
our Saviour reigns at the Father’s side.
Where death your sting, where your power, O Grave?
The Son of God prepares to come again.
It might help to explore the consequences of such teaching. Firstly, imagine those who are grieving the death of family and friends. How devastating such teaching might be! Death becomes a bleaker reality; there’s no hope of a call back to embodied life (eg. see John 5:24-30). Secondly, imagine the false picture it gives of the present! It leads to unrealistic expectations that there is no suffering in the Christian life. Yet we can be sure that to encounter suffering, all we have to do is live long enough. How crushed a believer might be who hears such false teaching; it might lead to unnecessary doubts. “They are upsetting the faith of some”. (v.18b).

V.19 is a reassurance however (and might be in favour of my reading of v.13, but you’ll have to judge that for yourself!). Paul is apparently alluding to Numbers 16:5, where the context is the truth that God knows who is faithful and unfaithful, and he will preserve the former. The mark of such people is their departure from wickedness.

Having talked about his "firm foundation", the true people of God, Paul now employs a picture to describe this in further detail. A "great house" will have different kinds of "vessels". Some think that "vessels" here refers to faithful and unfaithful Christians. Others, to true and false teachers. If you were to read v.20 as following straight on from v.19 then it would seem as if the former option is more appealing. But if you were to take v.19 as a further elaboration of v.18, and v.20 as returning back to the larger argument of good and bad workers, then the latter option is more palatable. It seems to me that the latter option makes more sense in the context of the whole section. In v.21, for instance, Paul talks about “cleans[ing]…from what is dishonourable”, taking the former option would seem to imply having to distance ourselves from Christians whom we think are not living faithfully, and I’m not sure if that is something we can support from the entire counsel of Scripture.

Paul shows what this is to look like in practice. We need to "flee youthful passions" (v.22)- really, really run! A sermon I heard once helpfully made this concrete for me when the pastor pointed out that "youthful passions" doesn’t just refer to lust, which is often the first thought that pops into our head, especially for guys. Rather, it also includes other things like a love for novelty and a desire to look good. Instead, we're to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matt 6:33). So we’re asked not just to put as much distance between ourselves and "youthful passions", but also to re-orient ourselves to pursue what God knows is best.

Verses 23-26 is very important and in some ways is really self-explanatory. Verse 23 doesn’t mean that any dispute should be brushed under the carpet, since Paul has already clearly stressed the need to "rightly handle the word of truth" and has expressed to Timothy not to be like the false teachers. Rather, it is to model what Josh Harris calls “humble orthodoxy” (or alternatively, Dan Kimball’s term “humble theology” – I like both phrases). Here is the criteria for a faithful Christian teacher of God’s Word. "Able to teach" here doesn’t just refer to having impeccable academic credentials. Rather, here it means having the credibility to teach. The person’s conduct (as noted in v.23-24) and character is in line with his teaching. It is also the ability to teach under pressure. Yet he is also not just teaching truth, but correcting error “with gentleness”. For me, J.I Packer is one person who immediately comes to mind here when I think of someone who models such leadership.

The last two verses are a call to hope. In continuing to gently correct and teach, it is always with a view to the restoration of those who are in error. It is to be done, not for the sake of feeling superior, but a genuine wish to be able to fellowship better and to rejoice that a brother or sister is once again following God.

True, biblical leadership must remain humble. In his little book, Humility, CJ Mahaney, himself in Christian leadership for nearly 30 years, writes about one of his prayers of confession: “Lord, in that moment, with that attitude and that action, I was contending for supremacy with You. That's what it was all about. Forgive me.” Every Christian of course, should place God at the throne of their lives, and this is particularly true of anyone in positions of influence. So to anyone in Christian leadership, and btw, that doesn’t mean you have to be the senior pastor of a megachurch, hear Paul’s words again:

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth."

I feel like this was a bit of a haphazard post and not particularly well-written, so my apologies there. As always, feel free to ask a question, point out what I’ve missed or might have gotten wrong etc. This is the section I’ll be leading a study on so prayers and insights are really appreciated!

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

2 Timothy 2:1-13

At the end of chapter 1 we learn that sadly, many "in Asia turned away from" Paul, and by implication, from the gospel. Paul pleads with Timothy here not to do so, but like Onesiphorus, be "not ashamed of my chains". But can Timothy do that on his own? Paul asks Timothy, in contrast to dependence on his own strength, to instead "be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (v.1). Here I defer to Jerry Bridges:
This means that all our responses to God’s dealings with us and all our practice of the spiritual disciplines must be based on the knowledge that God is dealing with us in grace. And it means that all our effort to teach godly living and spiritual maturity to others must be grounded in grace. If we fail to teach that discipline is by grace, people will assume, as I did, that it is by performance.
That is why we must not put the gospel on the shelf once a person becomes a new believer. He or she will have just as difficult a time believing that God relates to us every day on the basis of grace as a person has believing that God saves by grace instead of works.

- The Discipline of Grace, p.79
He then charges Tim to teach to other faithful men the truth of the good news. (Again, I think this strengthens the case for the "deposit" being the gospel in 1:12-14). It’s kind of like a chain reaction here – Paul entrusts Timothy, whom he obviously regards as a "faithful" person, with the charge to teach the gospel, who then in turns entrusts it to other trustworthy people, and so on. It’s interesting here to note that Paul says "faithful", keeping in mind that he was writing when there were many false teachers about – a point he addresses later on in the letter. I’m sure there would also be connotations of “faithful” in the sense that there is no dichotomy in the words and lives of those entrusted with the gospel (cf. my last 2 Tim post on shame). Also, there seems to be an emphasis on the gospel as unchanging.

Paul then uses 3 metaphors to encourage Timothy to persevere and "share in suffering"(v.3). The first is that of the soldier, and I think it seems to mainly talk about single-mindedness. So a soldier will have no time to get "entangled in civilian pursuits", instead, he is resolute in his cause. This of course doesn’t mean that a Christian is meant to withdraw from so-called ‘secular’ pursuits. Rather, it’s a matter of priorities. So when the siren goes off, I don’t think any soldier would still be mulling over the game of chess he’s been having with a comrade, he’s getting ready to man the battle stations. Secondly, there’s the metaphor of an athlete. I think that endurance and discipline is being talked about here. So an athlete can’t expect to be gorging on fast food and be fit, he’s got to "compete according to the rules", including the rules of a healthy diet which would aid him in his quest for that medal. Thirdly, there’s the metaphor of the farmer, which seems to imply the need for hard work, and also the reward at the end. All these illustrations have the common theme of self-denial.

These are truths that are not natural to us, to say the least! So Paul writes: "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything." (v.7) There is both a need for conscious reflection and a humble recognition that it is God who reveals his word to us.

Specifically, there is a need to keep remembering Jesus (v.8)! I thought Stott’s remarks were very perceptive here, and I’ll try to paraphrase him. Jesus needs to be at the forefront because we humans are so fickle that we often forget him, the heart of our faith! We are reminded of both Jesus’ humanity and divinity here, for he was "descended from David", but also "risen from the dead". His resurrection also shows his victory over sin, and at the same time the allusion to David reminds us of his kingly authority; the phrases used here allude to Jesus as both Saviour and King. Finally, they also show that, from Jesus’ own experience, “the principle that death is the gateway to life and suffering the path to glory.” In light of the path of suffering every disciple of Jesus must take, there is encouragement to be found in looking to Jesus himself! (Amazing how much Stott unpacked from that one verse!)

Although Paul suffers, he is aware of the fact that God’s words will not suffer; even in prison the gospel is still effective. (cf. Phil. 1:12-14). He suffers not for the sake of suffering, but for the sake of others (v.10). I think the "elect" here refers to those who have not believed, but in God’s good grace certainly will. He then proceeds to cite what perhaps might have been a creed or catechism of sorts during his time (v.11-13)
The first line tells us about every Christian’s present reality, that in Jesus, our old self has died and we are a new creation. The second line tells us about our future reality, that in enduring, it will be worth it as co-heirs with Christ.

2 Tim 2:12-13 is a little harder. The third line functions as a warning, an echo of Mark 8.38 (which I though also had echoes in chapter 1). I think traditionally, we often take v.13 to be an encouragement; even when we’ve blown it, Jesus will remain faithful, not being as fickle-minded as we are. It does not mean we can do anything we like, as the previous verses make clear, but it is an antidote to despair over our inadequacies. However, some have taken the line that this saying is actually a pair of contrasts. So the first half is positive and the second negative. In other words, "he also will deny us" and "he remains faithful" are taken as parallels, and when it says "he remains faithful" here, it means God will be faithful to his own character and thus will most definitely carry out what he says, that is, "deny us".

As you can imagine, this is not a light matter, and it has serious pastoral consequences. Stott takes the latter position here, although another wiser head than mine thinks that the former position is the right one. At the moment, partly because of some of my presuppositions (which hopefully is always being modified by Scripture itself!), I also take the former position and go against the mighty John Stott! :-p

As always, feedback is welcome. Is there an observation you want to add? An insight? Anything on 2:11-13? An application?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A special night in Europe

Sorry, couldn't resist.

Man U 7 - Roma 1


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

2 Timothy 1:8-18

Shame is an insidious poison, a worm in the apple, a horrible feeling. It occurs when we are exposed – we trip on the way up to the stage, we get a bad mark on an exam everyone else claimed was easy, we feel embarrassed at the way our parents dress. But more than that, it is our heart’s desires that get shown up: acclaim for the spotlight on the podium, a want to cover up our need for help on that subject, an acknowledgement that coolness is of the utmost importance. Shame tells me what my true beliefs are, that perhaps it is all these things and not God that are at the centre of my life. It acts as “pride’s cloak”, as the poet William Blake puts it.

Paul writes to tell us why we do not need to feel that shame! He has already given us a basis for why we should not be timid or restrained, that we have in us a spirit of "power and love and self-control". But more than that, he now boldly tells us that it is because of who God is and what he has done that he does not think to feel shame at ridicule or disapproval. "I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed..." (v.12). Paul puts his trust in the person of Jesus Christ. Why? Because of the gospel! The good news of the Jesus way is that God has "saved us...because of his own purpose and grace...which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which has now manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality."(v.9-10)

This is a succinct statement of the message of Christianity. God saves us via grace not because of anything we’ve done. Instead, he "called us to a holy calling" (v.9), that is, to be his disciple. He has saved us from the effects of sin – death. (Remember that Paul is staring at the reality of death while writing this.) What is interesting here is that this is not anything new, yet Paul obviously saw the importance of foregrounding the gospel in encouraging Timothy (He does this a lot in the pastoral epistles, apparently.) In a way, we never move beyond the basics – it is the gospel that keeps us going in this life.

Paul also reminds Timothy not to be ashamed of him, but “share in suffering”. Throughout 1:8-18, there seems to be some sort of link between the threat of suffering and the temptation to be ashamed, and evidently Timothy must have been struggling with this. (If you want to look it up, the same sort of dynamic seems to be going on in Mark 8:34-38). Perhaps Timothy was tempted to water down the gospel to escape imprisonment. After all, Paul "was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do." I don’t think there is any escaping the implication that to follow Jesus means to encounter suffering. This might mean re-evaluating our criteria for what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus. That is why Paul needed to write v.9-10, so that Timothy, and us, will not follow the example of Phygelus and Hermogenus (v.15) but Onesiphorus instead (v.16-18).

Verses 12-14 constitute the difficult bit of this section. It isn’t immediately apparent until you read verse 12 in different translations. In the NIV, the second bit of v.12 is rendered "...and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day." In the ESV, it is rendered "...I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me". That’s quite different, don't you think? I think it has to do with the way the sentence is originally constructed in Greek which makes it difficult to translate. What is it that’s being guarded? We’ll leave that behind first and move to v.13. Here is Stott on that verse:

'Sound' words are 'healthy' words, the Greek expression being used in the Gospels of whom Jesus healed. Previously they had been maimed or diseased,; now they were well or 'whole'. So the Christian faith is the 'sound teaching' (4:3), consisting of 'sound' words, because it is not maimed or diseased but ‘whole’.
Tim should therefore make sure that he does not modify his message but to preach the same gospel as the one he heard from Paul, in a manner consistent with followers of Jesus.

Again, Paul mentions the Holy Spirit, the Helper whom Jesus has left with us. It is through him that the Tim can guard the "good deposit", which seems to follow from v.13. So now, to return back to v.12, it seems as if it is the gospel that is being mentioned here. God will definitely be able to make sure the truth of the gospel is not contaminated, but entrusts it to Tim, and Christians, to live in light of it and proclaim it.

I don’t think we will be free of shame this side of heaven, because we will still sin, and when we are exposed it will still bite. But maybe my first paragraph was an overstatement. True shame helps us along the way of repentance, and that helps bring us back to the gospel, back to Jesus. “I know whom I have believed…” And if we really believe in Jesus and his gospel of redemption, his promise of the Holy Spirit, there is no need to be ashamed. For me, the problem lies in keeping my gaze on Jesus; it is always averted. So I feel more liable to being ashamed of Him, which in turn, ironically, makes me more vulnerable to shame itself.

Comments are open. Anyone wanting to tackle v.12-14 is especially welcome because I know I haven’t really thought it through yet. I should quickly state that although I think that it is the gospel that is being referred to here, not everyone agrees. For instance, some see the deposit as Paul’s life and work rather than the gospel. Feel free to ask questions too!

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Great Day at the Boat Race

boat race route On Saturday I went with a couple of friends to watch my alma mater go up against our archrivals in the annual boat race. It was good fun; the first time I've gone to see it live. We got to Hammersmith Bridge, which is the halfway point, at about 2.30, and there were already throngs of people about. The race starts at 4.30, but my friend said that we needed to be there early, and he was right! Never figured that a rowing race would draw so many people.

As for the result, I'll have you know that this only goes to prove our generosity, for out of our boundless compassion for the poor Tabs, who have only won once in the last 5 years, we decided that we could loan them the trophy for a while =P

We were the underdogs this year, since the Tabs boasted 2 world champions this time around, and we started pretty well, taking the early lead. In fact, I was quite optimistic since they were still in front at the halfway mark. Taunting the Tabs at that stage was great, as was joining in the rousing cheer of "Oxxxxxfuuuuurd!!!!"

According to the good folks on ITV however (there was a big screen nearby), the Cambridge crew upped their stroke rate by 5, and we never found the extra gear to match them, and in the end it was a comprehensive victory for the Light Blues. So much for hypnotherapy...

See Boat Race live...check!


Friday, April 06, 2007

The curtain is torn!

The cross, light breaking through darknessAt the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah."
One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!" - Mark 15:33-39

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
- Hebrews 10:19-23

"It would be most unseemly to feign a cool detachment as we contemplate Christ's cross. For willy-nilly we are involved. Our sins put Him there. So, far from offering us flattery, the cross undermines our self-righteousness. We can stand before it only with a bowed head and a broken spirit. And there we remain until the Lord Jesus speaks to our hearts His word of pardon and acceptance, and we, gripped by His love and brimful of thanksgiving, go out into the world to live our lives in His service."
- John Stott, The Cross of Christ
Have a good Easter weekend!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

2 Timothy 1:1-7

Paul. It’s hard to get rid of our notions of him. He’s the uber-Christian, the one with the dramatic conversion story and the trailblazing missionary exploits. He’s the formidable intellectual, a writer more prolific than even the current Bishop of Durham and a lawyer more accomplished than Raja Aziz Addruse (Phil. 3:5).

But as always, in his greetings he prefers to identify himself chiefly as an "apostle of Christ Jesus". Not only that, however, but he doesn’t see that status as one he attained. No, the stress here is on God’s work and also God’s faithfulness. This is interesting in light of the big themes we saw from our quick survey of the whole letter a couple of days ago – to keep going and to remain faithful. Here is Paul’s motivation, one he will keep urging Timothy (and ultimately, us) to keep remembering. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is promise of life to be found in him! I don’t want to wander too far away from the letter at hand, but I’m sure we can all think of how this is so – we already have new life in Jesus, in one sense, and we can also look forward ultimately to new life in the New Creation. Any follower of Christ can rest assured that this is true.

The next paragraph (v.3-7) is pretty personal. Paul reflects on the past – “remember…remember…reminded” with joy and thanksgiving. This is because of Timothy’s "sincere faith", and he also gives thanks for the spiritual legacy that Timothy inherited. It seems as if Tim's family has played an instrumental part in helping him come to faith. I currently attend an Anglican church where infant baptism is practised. While I don’t agree with this doctrinally, I can appreciate the thinking behind this – that it’s a sign of belonging to the covenant community, and an encouragement to the parents to bring up their children in the Lord. I grew up in a home where only one of my parents was Christian, and I’m always grateful that my mum persevered in bringing me to church and reading a (really nice!) children’s Bible with me.

Now these three sentences become even more remarkable when we recall where Paul was. That’s right, he’s in prison, on death row! Yet the beginnings of his letter are other person-centred – he remembers Tim in his prayers constantly, and we’ll later see in the opening paragraph that he is concerned with encouraging Timothy as well. I know one way we might take these few sentences is with despair (I certainly can identify with those who do) – here is proof that Paul belongs to a higher tier of Christians, one we can’t aspire to! But instead, I think we can actually be encouraged when we hark back to earlier in the letter, verse 1, where Paul clearly tells us it’s nothing to do with him, and also by Paul’s human side on display here – I don’t think you can accuse him of being unfeeling and 'all-spiritual'! Verses 6-7, which we’re about to come to, is also written to encourage us in grappling with our inadequacies.

Paul has just laid the foundation for what he is about to say next (“For this reason...”). He’s mentioned the "promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus" and has been remembering the God-given ("I thank God..." v.3) spiritual heritage of Timothy. Now Paul goes: “Yeah Tim, we’ve evoked some good memories there, huh? Thinking about these, how about kickstarting that gift that you have?” Now we run into an interpretive difficulty – what exactly is this "gift of God"?

I confess when I first read it, I automatically assumed that it was basically Paul telling Tim not to be too reticent about whatever leadership or ministry gifts that he had. That was my natural reading. However, a friend reminded me that it is possible that it could also mean the Holy Spirit. And certainly, it could be read in the latter sense. For one thing, Paul immediately, in the same sentence, then goes on to say that God "gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control". For another, the sentence preceding talks about Timothy’s faith that dwells in him, and we know from other parts of the Bible that it is the Holy Spirit that does the regenerating work in us. Actually, the two options here spring out of the same root, since Timothy’s leadership/ministry gifts would also have been endowed by the Holy Spirit. The question, more precisely, is whether the gift of God here refers to his regenerating work, or his enabling work. (Or we could dodge the question and claim a multivalent reading – it’s both! :-> ) I turned to Stott for help; and he is typically cautious, he does not rule out the latter, but he thinks it best to opt for the former, it is “the authority and power to be a minister for Christ”.

Paul has a reason for his words, and that’s in verse 7. I have a certain kinship with Timothy here. Like Tim, I think I can be pretty timid. I’m not a natural risk-taker; I tend to always err on the side of caution. I have a reputation for being the atas pagar (on the fence) guy, which is both a strength and a weakness I think! I have been told, more than once, that I’m a natural teacher, but it’s a gift I don’t always explore. Yet Paul says we can and should be bold because of what we have. Power here doesn’t imply some sort of triumphalism of course, as the rest of the letter will make plain, but it means that we can have confidence in a God who is “so big, so strong and so mighty!”, in the words of the children’s song. For me, personally, this is something that I need to meditate more on.

Quite a bit to chew on here! I hope my comments have been useful. Is there anything any of you out there want to add? What is your take on the “gift of God”? And how has this encouraged you; any more insights into how this translates into our lives for today?

1:8-18 is next!
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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

An early Good Friday lesson

I had some unexpected and urgent bank stuff to do today, and it is still not fully resolved. However, it’s out of my hands for now, and all I can do is wait.

What got me thinking was my reaction. No, I didn’t outwardly get angry or anything like that, but I thought and did some things that ultimately, I think, revealed the state of my heart, and my idols. I initially justified my thoughts and actions, thinking that I was entitled to it (and even now I still want to justify myself!) “It’s ok, you’re not really that bad. It's just a little problem.” “People generally think well of me. Remember that compliment you got last night?”

But then I read 1 John 1:8 – "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." I always thought this to mean a verbal claim to be perfect, and therefore it didn’t really apply to me – after all, I do acknowledge that I am imperfect, a sinner, right? But today I realised I have, in my sinfulness, actually misconstrued those words. While it does cover what I’ve just written, it is a more radical, all-encompassing statement than I’ve allowed. It is actually a strike against hypocrisy, what we say and what we do. If I blame someone else, if I try to downplay my sin or conceal it (after all, no one could see what was going on in my mind), I am actually sending a message, a claim, that I have no sin. Sure, I won’t actually say "I'm sinless!", but it is implicit. (See also v.10)

When I recognise this (and it’s really, really tough!), what I am actually doing is admitting my heart issues, that my god isn’t God, that my sin hurts God. To use the language of 1 John 1:8, the truth is not in me. I am worse off that I want to admit. And that I need help. Only God can change me from the inside-out.

This isn’t meant to be a self-bashing session, and I have no intent or interest in guilt-tripping anyone here. It just seemed to me that the act of repentance is even more radical than I thought or want it to be, and that’s worth sharing. And pondering. And writing this forces me to do the latter.

Leaving verse 9 out would be a distortion of the gospel, however. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." Again, this is harder for me to believe than I admit. Really? Will he?

Then the cross comes into view – this is how God demonstrated his love for us. For me. And because of this I died and am united with Christ Jesus, if I just trust him. "My every road leads to the cross", Matt Redman sings. He’s right. It's the only road we can take.

Helping me think this through:
My earlier poetry post on Psalm 51
David Powlison on the heart
Indicatives, imperatives, and grace
Thinking through Tim’s post


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

2 Timothy: The big picture

I am reading 2 Timothy in the ESV. I printed it out so that it might feel more like a letter, and to give myself the liberty to scribble all over it!

To start off, I put myself in Timothy’s shoes, and what a pleasant surprise it gave me! The warm and personal tone of the letter is striking. As Timothy, I am Paul’s “beloved child” (1:2; 2:1). Anyone who has been separated from their friends by geographical distance will tell you that when they do get in touch, among the first things they do is to reminiscence about shared memories, and so it is here – Paul speaks about my family with familiarity (1:5), and we go over our catalogue of mutual friends (eg. 1:15,17; 4:10-12), some with fondness, others, sadness. As I read through his correspondence, I hear Paul the preacher, preaching Christ and the gospel (eg. 1:8-11; 2:8). I hear Paul the wounded, all too aware of those who have turned away from him, or from the truth (1:15; 2:17b-18). I hear Paul my friend, really wanting me to go and see him (4:9,21). And I hear Paul the victor (4:7), knowing full well that though death is coming, he has no fear of it. My guide and fellow worker here on Earth has not wasted his life.

I then read the letter again to get the general flow of thought. Below is a loose paraphrase of sorts which I hope captures what seems to be going on in the letter.

1:1-2 Greetings Tim,

1:3-7 Tim, I thank God for you, you give me joy! Your family’s a blessing. I know you’re sometimes hard on yourself, but God has gifted you, so be encouraged!

1:8-18 Look at what Jesus has done. Don’t be ashamed, he will see you through. Keep following him. God will come out tops in the end. Phygelus and Hermogenus may have disheartened you, but there are others who have done precisely this, like Onesiphorus.

2:1-13 So Tim, keep going! It’s hard work, but keep focused on Jesus. There’ll be hardships along the way, but He is faithful and will see you through.

2:14-26 Present yourself to God as one approved, and be united around the truth of the gospel. Don’t go astray like some others; the Lord will keep you. Keep being kind, being able to teach, and patiently enduring evil.

3 Be realistic, there are plenty of people who don’t love God out there, even if it’s not always obvious. Never mind them, but follow my example. Keep going!

4 ...and keep teaching the truths of the gospel! I’ve not got long, and I would dearly love to see you. But I have run the good race, and God will vindicate me. Here’s an update on everyone else. Do come as fast as you can. Grace be with you.

I think the big themes are fairly evident. There’s the constant exhortation to keep going, persevere, be encouraged (1:3-7; 2:1,22; 3:12). Paul also keeps urging Timothy to have confidence in words or truths that are “sound” and “trustworthy”(1:13-14; 2:11-13; 2:19; 3:16). Keeping faithful is another recurrent idea (1:13-14; 2:15; 3:10), and this seems to be in response to whom God is and what He can do (1:8-10,14; 2:19)

Indeed, the one phrase I noticed kept appearing time and time again is "in Christ Jesus". It occurs 7 times – 1:1, 1:9, 1:13, 2:1, 2:10, 3:11, 3:15 – and has variously to do with aspects of our new life in him. For example, in 1:1, it’s the “promise of the life in Christ Jesus”, in 1:13, it’s the “faith and love in Christ Jesus”, in 3:15, it’s “salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”. Furthermore, the phrase “of Christ Jesus” appears 5 times. My initial thoughts on this is that Paul wants to emphasise that we can do nothing apart from Jesus, but that the glorious truth of the gospel is that we are united with him, which gives us hope! Plus, we belong to him, and we serve Him ultimately. When we are described as being of Christ Jesus, He is variously referred to as our Lord, Saviour, Commander (implicitly), Judge and Sender.

For the next couple of 2 Tim posts, we’ll be looking at each section a little more closely, and I think it’d correspond to the way I divided it up in my paraphrase above (although I might further sub-divide chapter 3). But over to you! What did you see? Feel? Imagine? Did I miss something in my flow of thought? Are there any other big ideas you detect? What did you think about the repetition of the phrase “in Christ Jesus”? Is there any significance that Paul says “Christ Jesus” instead of “Jesus Christ”, or is it just a turn of phrase he chooses to adopt? What are you anticipating from this quick skim of 2 Timothy? Any thoughts from this quick survey how 2 Timothy might be relevant to us today?
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Monday, April 02, 2007

2 Timothy: Introductory matters

From the outset, I’m going to assume that Paul wrote 2 Timothy. However, you should be aware that authorship of the pastoral epistles (1-2 Tim, Titus) has been disputed. I’m not going to bother wading into more technical waters here, but I’m sure most commentaries would cover this and my guess is evangelicals on the whole would defend Pauline authorship.

This is Paul’s final letter. He is in prison, and he senses that his time on Earth is drawing to a close. He has already been in court once, and the outcome is not likely to be favourable. It is suggested that this letter was possibly written mere weeks before his death! In any case, there is no doubt that he was suffering.

Paul and Timothy have known each other for a long time and evidently had much affection for each other. The younger Timothy (1 Tim. 4:12) is Paul’s “brother and God’s servant in the gospel” (1 Thess. 3:2) and “fellow worker” (Romans 16:21). “I have no one else like him” he says of Timothy in his letter to the Philippians. You could say that Paul was Timothy’s mentor, or godfather even.

So set the scene! Picture an elderly sifu lying on his deathbed, his quiet, anxious apprentice hovering over him, hanging onto every faltering word his master utters, even as their enemies close in on the outside. The dying elder, mindful of his charge’s self-deprecating manner, wants to encourage him even as he gets ready to pass the torch. Think Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker here. Not quite the same thing, but close enough. "Timothy was exceedingly reluctant to accept [increased responsibilities in the church]...The emperor Nero, bent on suppressing all secret societies, and misunderstanding the nature of the Christian church, seemed determined to destroy it. Heretics appeared to be on the increase." (Stott, p.20).

For anyone who might be reading 2 Timothy along with me, for the next post, I’ll be reading through the whole letter just to get a feel for it and also for the main gist. A whistlestop tour, in other words. So I won’t be stopping to scrutinise anything in too much detail. I think what I’ll be doing in subsequent posts is to then look at it section by section a little more closely, before maybe coming back to the letter as a whole again. Something along those lines anyway.

So some questions to think about for the next 2 Tim post. What are the main themes? The concerns? How would you divide up the letter? And so on and so forth. I really do value your input! :->