Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hebrews 12:1 - "Something better..."

Am feeling under the weather this evening. Have been a little stressed trying to finish some work for stuff coming up, and I think over the last 48 hours, I've not taken sufficient breaks, and my body's reacting.

I have a weekly workshop where a few of us are learning to deliver a 10-minute talk based on one or a few verses. Today was the first one, and the bar was set really high by the guy who gave it. It's a familiar verse: Hebrews 12:1, but I was really struck as Al helped me make connections I had not previously seen, and gave me another springboard to better reflect on this passage.

In Hebrews, one of the big themes is that Jesus is the better way. So he's better (higher) than the angels, a better High Priest, a better sacrifice. But we also see this in Hebrews 11-12. Hebrews 11 is the famous Hall of Fame chapter, where we find a who's who of the Bible. One of the big temptations in reading this is to hastily head for the door marked 'Application': we should be just like these great heroes! We're not exactly off the beaten path here, but without preparing the groundwork, we'll simply be beating the moralistic stick.

I've never previously noticed the end of chapter 11, in verses 39-40, before, and the way they tie into the next chapter. "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect." * All the Old Testament saints were acting in hope, living in light of a bright future, trusting God's promises. They were witnessing to the fact that they knew a God whom they wholeheartedly believed to be trustworthy, and so they persevered. (This has more or less been the writer's main thrust even further back in Hebrews). They are the examples by which the exhortations of the writer become concrete, tangible.

Once we see this, then the "therefore" of Hebrews 12 becomes charged with significance. Just as the saints of old finished the race, looking to God, so can we, looking to Jesus! So it isn't so much "let's be like Abraham or Moses", but more of "like Abraham, like Moses, let's look to God-made-flesh, Jesus". Indeed, Jesus provides the ultimate example, since he himself also looked to the future, "for the joy set before him endured the cross...". But he isn't just an example, but also the basis for our perseverance, as we "consider him" in light of what we know about Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. Then we can "throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and...run with perseverance the race marked out for us."

So there's a subtle shift. Yes, Abraham et al. are our great examples, but they are great examples in so much as they point away from themseves to God. Finishing the race no longer depends on us mustering the same strength as some of these men, but now becomes dependent on God. I think once we see this, then we can begin to make more specific applications to our particular context and situation: how are we running the race at work and so on? But the basis for this comes, unsurprisingly, back to the gospel: our hope in Christ.

Sure there's more you can probably draw out, but this is where I got to.

*"...so that only together with us would they be made perfect" is quite a confusing phrase; I know I was confused! I think what the writer is saying here is that the saints who have gone on before would only be perfected when the new creation comes. When that day comes, all who have run the race would be perfected together. So in other words, the saints of before are waiting for us, which seems to make sense of the "cloud of witnesses" language in the next verse. It's a team game!

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Highs and lows

I was praying from upfront for the first time last week. I simply wanted to get through it enunciating my words properly and hoping that my accent wasn't too weird, but throughout the week, more than one member of the church family pulled me aside to tell me how much they found my prayers encouraging. For some reason, I never think of public prayers as one way of uplifting the congregation, but there you go!

Getting to see familiar faces, especially when I'm straining to make new friends in a new situation again. The Reasbecks, who used to pastor my home church before I was even born and whom my family has hosted on various occasions, were at that service when I prayed and gave me a very pleasant surprise when they came to say hi! And I've just returned from a lovely evening with Karen and her husband Geoffrey at the Inklings old haunt, the Eagle & Child, not having seen them for at least 4 years (maybe more than that).

Excited at watching some personal ministry modelled, and the moments where I'm grateful for this opportunity to be involved in such work myself.

I feel like I've let down some of my colleagues this week. I messed up with misplacing some items - I probably should have more willing to ask for help rather than letting pride dictate my actions, thinking I knew where those go. At least I should have kept track of where they ended up. They're being very gracious, but I probably could have done better. Ditto for being a housemate - I'm thinking I probably could be pulling my weight a little more.

Disappointed that one young international Christian didn't turn up at Bible study this week, and hoping that's just an abberation rather than a regular occurence.

[Sorry for the stream of more personal stuff for those of you who don't prefer such posts.]

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Book notes

I haven't had time to update my book list on the sidebar, so here's just a few quick scribblings on some books I read recently.

Spiritual Birthline - Stephen Smallman
A little book about conversion and evangelism. Smallman assumes a Reformed understanding of the entire process of new birth, although he isn't too particular about terms. He thinks this is a much more helpful way to think about conversion, which is a healing balm particularly for those never really had a "spiritual" or "crisis" moment which led to them being Christian. He then develops the idea of us being "spiritual midwives" in our evangelism. God may use us to help someone in various stages of their journey towards God. There's plenty of stories, and I found this helpful especially as I considered the many people I have met and their diverse responses to the gospel. Oh, and you don't have to be Calvinist in your beliefs to appreciate it. Hey, it's not everyday you find a book recommended by both Justin Taylor and Scot McKnight!

The Reason for God - Tim Keller
This wasn't my copy, so I read through it speedily. I have nothing to add that hasn't been said already. Great book, especially for educated urbanites. The first half of the book deals with common objections to the Christian faith in a winsome manner, but the second half of the book was what particularly stood out for me. There, Keller seeks to put forward a positive case for Christianity (as opposed to merely defending it), and it was very, very well-done. I will certainly consider getting my own copy.

Promoting the Gospel - John Dickson.
Again, not my copy, so read through it even more speedily than Keller above. I'm certainly keen to reread this one again. I was pleasantly surprised by it, as Dickson shows how we can promote the gospel not just with words, but with prayer, money, Christian living etc. and backed it up with exegesis. I'm rapidly becoming a big fan of Dickson, if only because it's not easy to find someone who writes with simplicity and depth.

Showing the Spirit - D.A Carson
I recently got a great deal and managed to pick up some books for £1-2 each, and this is one of them! Written in the late 80s; basically a commentary on 1 Corinthians 12-14 with an eye on the charismatic/non-charismatic debate. Carson is always even-handed and shows where both camps err. He's not afraid to take cessationists to task and often cites Max Turner, a charismatic scholar, approvingly, although he also warns against the excesses of the "signs-and-wonders" movement. The context being John Wimber and Vineyard, I think. This book, I suspect, did a good job of initially paving the way forward so that today, it is no longer oxymoronic to find "Reformed charismatics".

Death of a Red Heroine - Qiu Xiaolong
This is the first in a series featuring the poetry-quoting Inspector Chen and set in Shanghai, and won a prestigious crime novel award. So I thought I'll have a look, especially as I needed to scratch my crime novel itch. As it (unsurprisingly) turns out, this is much more than a murder mystery, it's a portrait of the changing face of modern China and the underlying tensions. I enjoyed it, and certainly wouldn't mind picking up another in this series.

Some books I'm looking forward to:
Don't Stop Believing - Michael Wittmer
Will be out in December, hopefully. Loved Wittmer's first book, Heaven is a Place on Earth, and this one looks promising, as he tackles the need for right belief and right practice.

Jesus wants to save Christians - Rob Bell and Don Golden
I haven't read any Bell, partly because I have limited time and money and so I need to proritise, i.e not be consumed with reading those whom I suspect I will fundamentally disagree with. (Btw, if you're looking for good reviews of his previous books, Ben Witherington has some good ones, just google them)

Still, I'm intrigued by his latest because I understand that he's popularising the "New Exodus" theme. I remember in my Bible studies in Mark being quite taken with how the New Testament alludes to the Old so often, and the Exodus in particular being quite a useful lens to read certain passages, but I don't know enough to comment on it intelligently. Nevertheless, I suspect some take this hermeneutical key too far in the way they apply it to our immediate socio-political concerns. Am not saying Bell does this, but it would be interesting to see his take on it.

There are others too, but will stop here, because I am aware that what I need with my reading habits is not more breadth but depth!

Btw, does anyone know of a good basic Christian book on work? Some that has been suggested so far to me include Tim Chester's Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness and John Beckett's Mastering Monday; Ian Coffey's Working it Out, new from IVP, could be worth a look as well. Thanks!

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Friday, September 12, 2008


Am not liking some of the latest reports coming out of Malaysia...

Malaysia cracks down as opposition bids to seize power

Some context: Rising racial tension in Malaysia

Nat Tan's reading of the situation.

Newsfeature on the ISA (HT: Ps. Sivin)

I can only speculate about what's going on, but this does smack somewhat of desperation. Praying that the situation does not degenerate. In the meantime, a reminder as Christian citizens: 'Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.' (1 Peter 2:12)

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

O the deep deep love of Jesus

This song is fairly new to me, but my church family has apparently been singing it regularly for a year now. It's a hymn written in 1875 but someone (in fact, I've just discovered, more than one!) has reworked it to a modern tune. We've sung it twice in staff meetings, and I personally find it to be a huge encouragement and comfort. I've been unable to find the version we sing online - it's not the one reworked by Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace, who has also written new music for it. It's more upbeat and just such a great congregational song; I find that it's great not just for singing to God, but singing to each other as well.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus
Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free
Rolling as a mighty ocean
In its fullness over me
Underneath me, all around me
Is the current of Your love
Leading onward, leading homeward
To Your glorious rest above

O the deep, deep love of Jesus
Spread His praise from shore to shore
How He came to pay our ransom
Through the saving cross He bore
How He watches o’er His loved ones
Those He died to make His own
How for them He’s interceding
Pleading now before the throne

O the deep, deep love of Jesus
Far surpassing all the rest
It’s an ocean full of blessing
In the midst of every test
Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus
Mighty Savior, precious Friend
You will bring us home to glory
Where Your love will never end

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

The way

"I feel, when I have sinned, an immediate reluctance to go to Christ. I am ashamed to go. I feel as if it would do no good to go, as if it were making Christ a minister of sin, to go straight from the swine-trough to the best robe, and a thousand other excuses; but I am persuaded they are all lies, direct from hell.

John argues the opposite way: ‘If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father.’ I am sure there is neither peace nor safety from deeper sin, but in going directly to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is God’s way of peace and holiness. It is folly to the world and the beclouded heart, but it is the way."

— Robert Murray M’Cheyne, cited in Andrew Bonar, Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960), p. 176

(HT:Of First Importance)

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Christianity is for broken people

I was quite struck by something I heard somebody say in passing yesterday, that a true Christian isn't so much someone we immediately think of as "morally upright and disciplined" and all that jazz but someone who "loves Jesus and is clinging on desperately to him". I suppose on one level, that's an obvious point, but I still think it's worth reminding ourselves again and again, because in practice, we just don't naturally think that way. We're drawn to the externals.

The point here isn't that both are mutually exclusive, as if Christians must either be morally upright and therefore Pharisees or become antinomians of some sort, using forgiveness as a crutch. Rather, it's simply that the true mark of a Christian is that he or she loves Jesus, not how well he or she is doing in life. I think Tim Keller makes this point very well in The Reason for God. The gospel we believe in is the gospel of grace, so it should not be surprising that the church is full of broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally or spiritually. So it is entirely possible for someone who has become a Christian, but who happens to have a past filled with so much heartache and sorrow and insecurity that he or she on the outside will probably still look less well-adjusted that a non-Christian who happens to be disciplined and a-ok. It could be that a church could look really dysfunctional compared to, I don't know, the NGO or something. As a Christian goes on in life, he or she is looking to be more like Jesus, but he/she also knows that it would never happen on their own. All they can do is say: "Nothing in my hand I bring / Only to your cross I cling". And so they trust that the Spirit is making them more like Jesus, bit by bit, as they behold him, and as they continually get on their knees to their heavenly Father.

That's the gospel. Even as Christians, I think we still miss it all the time. So when dwelling on my insecurities, I should taste and see that the Lord is good!

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