Sea of Galilee

Pilgrimage to Israel #1

We began our pilgrimage to Israel on a Sunday morning with a simple Eucharist service. Eucharist means “thanksgiving” I’m told, but in some churches is reference to a Communion service.

As I look around the church, I realised we were a mixed bunch. Some knew each other, while others were strangers. Some were Roman Catholic, and some Anglican, and still others claimed no faith at all. Yet we all jurneyed together, and would support one another throughout the week.

We travelled to London Heathrow, and were subject to understandably high levels of security on both sides of our flight. Touching down in Tel Aviv airport in the late evening, we then drove north to the city of Tiberius which was our base for the first part of the trip.

We awoke that first morning with a sense of excitement, and to views from our hotel of the Sea of Galilee.

During my first trip to Israel, the Sea of Galilee was a particular highlight and was again this time. We drove the short distance from our hotel and boarded a wooden boat – supposedly similar to that used by Jesus and His disciples 2,000 years ago. I suspect Peter’s fishing boat did not have a motor nor a sound system however!

Out in the middle of the lake… and it is a lake, not a sea as the name suggests, the engines were turned off and we had a few moments of quiet to take in the scene. While there has been some changes over the years, it is rather easy to imagine Jesus and His friends sat in a boat on these waters, looking out at the various shorelines.

Some places we would visit in the week to come would be memorials of things we read in the Bible. We cannot say with any certainty that things happened in some of the places where we remember them. However, this lake – this Sea of Galilee – was indeed the very waters where Christ was.

Jesus walked on this sea…

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat, and go ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he himself sent the multitude away. 46 After he had taken leave of them, he went up the mountain to pray.
47 When evening had come, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 Seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them, about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea

Mark 6:45-48 (WEB)

There was once a violent storm which rose up on this very sea, and Jesus calmed it…

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let’s go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the multitude, they took him with them, even as he was, in the boat. Other small boats were also with him. 37 A big wind storm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so much that the boat was already filled. 38 He himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion, and they woke him up, and told him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are dying?”

39 He awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? How is it that you have no faith?”

41 They were greatly afraid, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Mark 4:35-41 (WEB)

The lake itself isn’t as large as you might imagine. In some respects, it’s difficult to think that such a huge storm could sweep down on to these tranquill waters. Yet to the noth, is a set of mountains and storms can swell and drop down on to the lake with little warning. I’m pleased to report it was calm and sunny while we were there!

What many fail to realise is that most of Jesus’ ministry actually took place in and around this area. When we think of Israel, we may think of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the sites of the Crucifixion or Resurrection. Most of Jesus’ ministry did not occur there, but rather further north in the vicinity of Galilee.

The feeding of the five thousand, the deliverance of Legion, the healing of the man lowered through the roof on a mat… all of these events took place in the north. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, He met them in Galilee. Peter and the disciples were fishing again, and Jesus met them on the shore.

Later that day, we drove around the lake to Merci Christi – meaning Table of Christ. This is the site, it is thought, where Jesus met His disciples after the Resurrection and had breakfast with Him.

That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!”

So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked), and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits away), dragging the net full of fish. So when they got out on the land, they saw a fire of coals there, with fish and bread laid on it. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have just caught.”

John 21:7-10 (WEB)

Just uphill from the shoreline sits a small chapel called “Merci Christi” meaning Table of Christ.

MC

As you exit the chapel, you can turn left and go and sit on the beach. Is it the spot where Jesus and His disciples ate? Not sure, but could be. And for me, that’s the power of this place. We don’t know the exact spot of such things, but we know – for certain – that Jesus walked these shores.

Some sites we would later visit have almost been commercialised, and it can be hard to imagine Jesus in those places. Not here though, not in Galilee. This peaceful place, where you can sit on a beach and hear the lapping of the water, this place is one where Christ was.

Although the Sea of Galilee was a highlight for me, that in no way diminished the rest of the trip. Every place we visited was special in its own way, and should you ever find yourself in Israel, make a special effort to stop by tthe waters where Jesus walked.

Blessed 2x

Ephesians

Many months ago I began writing about the book of Ephiasians. You can find that post here – From an Apostle to the Saints.

For various reasons, I did not write more on the subject but I am very pleased to return to it today. I did promise you it might not be a series… and I make no further claims now!

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ”

Ephesians 1:3 (WEB)

After Paul’s introduction, he wastes no time and dives straight in! Blessed! Blessed be God! You can feel the power of his words leaping from the page as you read this. Before he says anything else on any other subject, he starts with praise.

It’s a great place to start a letter, and it’s a great place to start a prayer. In fact, it’s a great way to start anything really! Whatever you’re doing, be it work, washing up or watching TV, always start with a word of praise.

Praising God has many effects on us, which we can consider in a moment, but praise isn’t about us at all. It is about God Himself. We turn our attention off of ourselves and our own lives, and we focus as fully as possible on the One who made us. Worship is our reason for being, and on days when I feel I achieve little else, I want to be able to say I fulfilled my created purpose by praising the God of Heaven today.

Imagine the effect on us, if we uttered words of worship prior to any activity. Take the TV example above. How different might our TV viewing choices be if we were to spend a moment thanking and worshipping the Father before picking up the remote.

Paul identifies God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we rejoice in that. There’s also a nod towards the Trinity here, so see if you can spot the Holy Spirit’s presence also. If not, I’ll pick up on that in a moment.

The word “Blessed,” appears twice in this verse, although they are slightly different Greek words. The way we read it naturally in English is how it was intended. The first “blessed,” is referring to God being blessed, or praised, and the second, refers to the blessing of God or invocation of God’s blessings on people.

What Paul says next is astonishing to me. He says, “who has blessed you with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Read that again before you continue.

God has blessed us, which is wonderful. To simply say we’ve been blessed though, is something of an understatement!

God has “blessed us,” and we must first notice the tense. This is not a blessing we will get in the future, but something we hold right now.

What have we been blessed with exactly? “Every spiritual blessing,” That word translated as “every,” is the Greek word – pas – and means “every,” “any,” and “all.” That’s every spiritual blessing! Not some of them, not half, not most, but all of them!

You might not be feeling all that blessed at the moment, in fact, you might be looking at a stack of bills or a doctor’s report feeling anything but blessed. This verse shouldn’t be interpreted as “God is going to give me whatever I want…” as I don’t think that’s true. We do the Word and God Himself a great disservice however, when we diminish a verse like this and explain it away not accepting what it says.

You are more than just your body, and your life is more than just your bank balance. We must not limit the blessings of God to the physical realm. The spiritual world is far more real than this physical one, and came first. There was “spirit” long before there was any earthly matter.

Paul calls it “spiritual blessing,” and some therefore limit this to refer to things of the spirit such as sanctification, justification, salvation etc. And of course, all these are included. But the blessings here are “spiritual”, I believe, not because they are spiritual in nature, but because they are given by the Spirit of God. Christmas gifts are given at Christmas, that’s what makes them Christmas gifts, not because the gift itself has anything to do with Christmas (although it certainly might do).

Thus in this one verse Paul has pointed us to God the Father God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

My point is that this blessing given by God is no small thing. It’s not limited to things of the spirit, although we would do well to focus on the eternal things more than the temporary.

So where is this blessing exactly? We find it in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. You might be thinking you’d rather have the blessing down here on Earth than locked away in heaven with Christ. Yet if the blessing is in Christ and Christ dwells in us then the blessing is not as far away as we might think.

We are too often guilty of thinking that blessing relates to money possessions or things this world holds so dear. Paul goes on to talk about many wonderful spiritual blessings in the next few verses and we will examine these another time.

The take home message today is really to think about what we mean by being blessed. If we ask God to bless us are we asking for something God has already done?

What we have as believers and adopted children of God is far greater than anything this world can offer. Our eternal hope is held securely in Christ and God can do no more than He already has to enable us to access heaven forever.

It is truly humbling to think about what God has done for us.

But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8 (WEB)

We in no way deserve “every spiritual blessing” but it is ours because of what Jesus did at the cross. That is grace. And I join with Paul in saying “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Amen!

Where To Draw the Line

Last time, I wrote about how to defend yourself against deception. This time, I want to think about where we draw the line when it comes to Bible teachers we disagree with.

What I mean is, no single teacher has everything 100% correct. And if you are looking for a theologically perfect teacher, then you will be searching for a very long time. All of us are on a journey, including those with a gift to teach, and so there may be elements of their teaching which is not quite correct.

Myt question, therefore, is where do we draw the line?

Clearly if someone is teaching blatant heracy, we should avoid them like the plague. You probably don’t need me to tell you that! If they teach that Christ is not the only way to God, or that we can earn our way into heaven (as examples) then have nothing to do with them.

But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any “good news” other than that which we preached to you, let him be cursed. 9 As we have said before, so I now say again: if any man preaches to you any “good news” other than that which you received, let him be cursed.

Galatians 1:8-9 (WEB)

Usually however, false teaching is rarely so obvious.

I was listening to a sermon the other day and was learning from what was being said. At one point however, the speaker made a comment about God’s Sovereignty. As you know, this is something I’ve been thinking about over the last year and so I was perhaps more attentive to such a statement than I might otherwise have been.

What they actually said is not relevant here, but it suggested they had a more liberal view of what God’s Sovereignty actually meant. It was a passing remark, and not a full statement of their beliefs. What if though, they had a mistaken or false view of God’s Sovereignty? Should I abandon the teaching altogether and forget all that they said?

The doctrine of God’s Sovereignty, like some others, is a critical doctrine and so likely affects all other aspects of our faith. If we have a wrong belief about such a foundational truth, then that will likely have a knock effect on what else we believe.

There are some issues in the Bible which I think are fundamental. I mentioned some of these above, but would also include the inerrancy of Scripture and the deity of Christ. There are other matters however, which are perhaps less clear cut and there is space for believers to disagree (agreeably).

So how can we decide if we should listen to and accept one Bible teacher’s lessons over another?

There is no easy answer I’m afraid. I cannot give you a single formula where you can plug in certain factors and get out a Yes or No answer.

We must start with what I discussed last time. We must attempt to gain a systematic and complete view of Scripture. The better we understand the Bible as a complete message, the easier it will be to detect false teaching when we encounter it. And by “false teaching” it could be mistaken teaching rather than deliberately deceptive.

As I said last time, we must interpret Scripture in the light of other Scripture. We must not take individual verses and make a new doctrine out of them. Context helps us understand what the message is meant to be.

Secondly, i think we should take each case in its own right. There may be a difference between us listening to a single message from someone, and us choosing to regularly sit under their teaching. A single message may be fine, but when we sit under someone’s teaching for a length of time, we will inevitably be learning more about their perspective and theology.

While of course we need to be on guard, I also don’t think we should be closed minded. Within reason, I try to listen to a variety of teachers in order to try to gain a wider perspective. That’s not to say I swallow any and every teaching that comes along, but if you only listen to one teacher, you only get that one perspective.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must take everything back to God in prayer and His Word. If you encounter a teaching which you are not sure about, then take the time to see what the Bible says about it. Instead of just listening to a teacher, discuss it with the Teacher. Be a Berean!

Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.

Acts 17:11 (WEB)


But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and will remind you of all that I said to you.

John 14:26 (WEB)

Understanding the Bible is not an easy or simple task. It is a complex book, but it is meant for believers. If you know the Lord and are seeking to follow Him with your life, then the Bible is there for you. Speak to God about it and He will teach you from it. It may take a lifetime to learn, but it is worth every effort you put in.

I hope this has been helpful.

How To Be A Welcoming Church

I happened to catch an episode of “Veggie Tales” the other morning while my children were watching it. If you are not familiar, it is a kids show starring Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. In this particular episode, Bob had taken on a job of Chief Greeter at a local shop. He started off enthusiastically and later grew more and more weary, growing hoarse from saying “Hi!” so often and his cheek muscles no longer able to hold his smile.

It got me thinking about the subject of this week’s post on how to be a welcoming church.

It is essential that every church be good at welcoming people. It is especially crucial for those visiting for the first time. I once heard it said that people have decided whether they are coming back long before they hear the sermon or the worship music, but based on the kind of welcome they receive.

What follows is not an exhaustive “how to” guide, but rather a few thoughts on how to improve the welcome people receive when coming to your church.

Churches are never as welcoming as they think they are.

I once went to a church where, without anyone saying a word, I knew I had taken somebody’s seat. I just felt that I had done something wrong, and that I had somehow happened upon a seat which had been sat in by the same person for a very long time. As I recall, no one came to sit beside me or to welcome me.

Unfortunately, this is not as uncommon as it should be. If you are outside of the church, then you probably wonder what is so wrong with sitting in someone’s seat – and you’d be quite right! If you’ve been in church for any length of time, then you know how such habitual seating patterns can occur!

If I asked representatives of your church if they thought it was welcoming, there is a good chance they will say yes. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who said that their church is not welcoming. Yet, so many come away feeling unwelcome or even unwanted.

This should not be!

Irrespective of how good your church is at welcoming people, there is always room for improvement.

It’s not all up to the welcome team

At a church where I was once an elder, we discussed at length whether we should recruit people into a “welcoming team”. We wanted to ensure that when someone came to our church, that they felt at home, knew what to do, knew where to take their children if they wished and other such things.

Welcoming can often suffer from the bystander effect. This sometimes happens when there has been an accident or emergency, so many people are standing watching, that no one does anything to help. If we stood alone, we would know it was up to us, but it’s very easy in a group to assume someone else will do it.

On the one hand, we thought a welcome team would be a good idea as it would ensure that there was always someone there, ready to welcome and who knew it was down to them.

The problem was that those who were not on the team no longer felt it was their responsibility. “I’ll leave that up to the welcome team…” they would think. Not so!

It is everyone’s responsibility to welcome people into the church. Whether you are the pastor/minister, or on the leadership team, or a church member – it is down to you!

Discernment

The most important thing when welcoming someone is discernment.

When we approach someone to welcome them to the church, we must allow the Holy Spirit to guide us and to discern what the person may need or want.

There are times when people come to church and want someone to sit beside them, hold their hand, or guide them through an unfamiliar service. They may want to be invited for coffee afterwards, or have someone to chat to before the service begins.

On the other hand, they may be a more timid person, or someone who has come because of loss or grief. In such cases, the person may simply want to slip in, sit on the back row, encounter God and then slip away before they are “cornered” by an over-friendly Christian!

While these are perhaps extremes, the point is that everyone who comes to church is different. They may want company, or they may want to be left alone to observe. Either way, when you welcome them, try to discern what is best. If you are not sure, you can simply ask! “Would you like any help?” “Would you like to sit with me?” “Can I show you where to get a service sheet or cup of coffee?”

The answers to such questions should give you a good idea of what the person is wanting. You just need to pay attention.

Everyone wants a friendly welcome, but beyond that we need to be a little sensitive at times.

It is not rocket science

Welcoming people really isn’t rocket science! If you see someone you don’t recognise, just go over and introduce yourself. Make them feel at ease like you would any guest to your home. You don’t have to pounce on them the second they come through the door, but don’t wait until they are putting on their coat to leave either.

We often overthink these things because we know that welcoming people is important, and we don’t want to make a mistake and “scare them off!” If you are a naturally shy person, then you might find it more difficult to go over and speak to a stranger. If you are – let’s say – socially overdeveloped, then you might find it harder to not talk their ears off!

I cannot say that a bad welcome is better than no welcome at all, as I’ve heard some pretty horrendous things about the kind of welcome people receive at times. However, if you are sincere, all you need do is be friendly.

Welcome Pack & Domestics

It is sometimes a good idea to have a welcome pack handy too offer to visitors. It might include information about service times, children’s activities, home groups, details of the pastor or leadership team etc. Some churches offer a small gift, such as a book, to those who visit. It can be a very helpful thing to someone who is not familiar with your church or how it does things.

Similarly, in our effort to welcome people, we can forget the obvious things. For example, offering a service sheet so people know when to respond to prompts (if your church has a particular liturgy) or directing someone to the toilets, creche or refreshments.

For some, it is a big step to walk into a church and it can be embarrassing to not know what to do or where to go. For many people, the children’s work is critical. Introducing parents to the children’s workers is important so that they have some confidence in leaving their children in a Sunday School or junior church setting.

Some even say that the quality of the coffee is important! If a visitor is used to Starbucks, then handing them a volcano-hot, watery cup of mud may not fit the bill! Is it important? Not compared to the church’s theology say, but for someone who’s never set foot in church before, I can assure you they are not really considering the kind of theology you practice. A bad cup of coffee won’t put someone off i’m sure, but why not aim for excellence in everything we do?

At what point do people stop being visitors?

Most of what I have said so far is probably more applicable to brand new visitors. But at what point does the visitor become another member of the congregation? After three visits, are they then “absorbed” and so no longer need to be welcomed?

I recall overhearing a conversation once where someone welcomed a visitor to the church. “How long have you been coming?” They asked, “I’ve not seen you here before?” The answer was unfortunate. “I’ve been coming for 18 months…”

While many churches are good at welcoming brand new people, they are rarely good at bringing people into the congregation. My wife visited a church once and on her first morning was asked to join the AV rota! On the other extreme, I know people who attended a church for several months and knew only a handful of names and faces. At what point does such a person give up and walk away feeling like they just couldn’t crack the shell?

It is not advisable to put someone into any position of authority or responsibility until you get to know them. But sadly too many people feel like they go to church and are just never integrated – for want of a better term! Our welcome should not be limited to those “new” to the church, but to everyone.

 

As I said up front, there is no church that cannot improve their welcome. Every single one of us has a responsibility in this area, and it is not up to the pastor, leadership team or welcome team. It is up to us!

Some refuse to welcome because they feel they are not good at it. However we will never get any better if we don’t practise!

As I have written this post, I appreciate it is a lot of practical things and sharing of experience rather than my usual biblical based teaching. I hope it has still been useful to you. Have a think and a pray about you and your own church this week. What can you do to improve the welcome your church offers? Perhaps you cannot get up and greet people, but maybe you can put together a pack or welcome leaflet to give to new faces.

The church is not a building, it is a group of believers. We are all part of it, and each of us can do something to help make the church a great place to be!

Come As You Are

I saw a pamphlet recently which gave me pause for thought. It was all about welcoming people into the church, and was specifically aimed at a particular group of people. The leaflet pointed out that God loves everyone, and so everyone is welcome into the church – irrespective of their lifestyle or background. It went on to quote Jesus, and told the reader that He welcomed one and all.

I take no issue at all with efforts by the church to be more welcoming. Churches are rarely as welcoming as they think they are, nor are there any that cannot be improved. The word “welcome” has a specific meaning though, and sometimes we think to be “welcoming” we must change everything that we believe and do, so that we do not offend. Wrong!

We think to be welcoming means to accept everyone who comes through the door, no matter what their lifestyle and never point out biblical truth to them. Take a practicing serial killer who refuses to give up their lifestyle of murder – how might we welcome them? Does welcoming them mean we also welcome their life of crime?

Next week, let’s look at what it means to be a welcoming church. For now though, I want to think more about what some seem to think welcoming means.

Quoting Scripture

One issue I had with the pamphlet is that it did not actually quote Jesus properly. In fact, it misquoted Him. I am all for quoting Scripture, but not for taking it out of its context and even editing it to make it say what we want it to.

In this case, Jesus was quoted as saying, “Come to me all of you and I will give you rest.” A nice message indeed, but not strictly what He said.

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28 (WEB)

We see that actually Jesus did not say, “Come to me, all…” but “Come to me, all who labour and are heavily burdened…”

I know that some will think i’m splitting hairs here, but the danger is that we can take any Bible verse we like, tweak it slightly, apply it wrongly, and then make it say whatever we like.

Too many of us – and this can often apply to us “bloggers” – quote single verses here and there without giving sufficient thought to its wider context. We “google” a Bible verse which seems to support our point, and then paste it in. Sometimes that’s ok, but sometimes we take such verses out of their proper setting and imply a meaning that is not there.

Scripture must be interpreted by other Scripture. We must understand who is speaking and to whom, what the context of the chapter is, what the context of the book is, and finally how it fits into the whole of the Bible.

As I’ve written more lately, working on books, blogging, writing and recording sermons, I’ve felt the weight of responsibility. I do not want anyone to be misled who reads what I am teaching. No one has perfect understanding, and so we will all make mistakes along the way, but I hope and pray with fear, that God helps me to share only His truth.

Welcoming is not the same as approval

We believe in welcoming people to church, and preach the message “Come as you are!” Quite right too. No one needs to clean themselves up before they come to church! The church is full of people who know they need a Saviour! None of us is perfect, and if we were, we wouldn’t need Christ!

The problem is that many churches aren’t just saying “Come as you are,” they are adding on, “Stay as you are.”

“Come as you are” is welcoming, but “stay as you are” is not biblical.

Jesus welcomed everyone, but He taught them the right way to live. His message was not “Come as you are and stay as you are,” it was “Come as you are and repent!”

Let’s look at the woman caught in adultery from John 8.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the middle, 4 they told him, “Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in our law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What then do you say about her?” 6 They said this testing him, that they might have something to accuse him of.

But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 But when they continued asking him, he looked up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.

9 They, when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning from the oldest, even to the last. Jesus was left alone with the woman where she was, in the middle. 10 Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.”

Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.”

John 8:3-11 (WEB)

The first thing we notice is that the scribes only brought the woman to Jesus. Last time I checked, it took two to commit adultery. Where was the man?

The scribes here are clearly not trying to exercise moral law, but rather thinking they can catch Jesus out. If He condemns her, then it ruins His reputation as a Man of the people, and yet if He lets her go free without punishment, He breaks the Jewish law.

Jesus is cornered – right?

He drops down and begins to write on the ground with His finger. Many are frustrated that they do not know what He was writing. This is a mark of authenticity for the Bible, because if this story was fictional, then the writer would not have put such an untidy detail in. It suggests that the eye witness simply could not see.

Many have speculated about what Jesus could have been writing. I personally favour the idea that He was writing out the Ten Commandments. The ground where he stooped was not sandy or muddy, like we might imagine, but stony. And so the finger of God wrote on stone… remind you of anything?

He gave to Moses, when he finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets, written with God’s finger.

Exodus 31:18 (WEB)

Assuming I am correct, then as the scribes began to read the Ten Commandments on the ground, they became acutely aware of their own sinfulness. And notice that the older ones left first. Perhaps the older we get, the more aware we are of our failings.

Jesus, fulfilling the Law, says essentially that she should be stoned for her sin – but let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. The only One who could do that was Jesus Himself, and He chose not to.

Acknowledging that no one had condemned her, Jesus tells her to be on her way. But He adds something very important. “Go and sin no more!”

Jesus welcomed this woman, despite her sinful behaviour. Praise God for this! However, He did not lower His standards in order to do so. Jesus was very clear that He did not want her to carry on living as she had.

When we welcome someone into church, we should absolutely meet them where they are. I am not at all suggesting we had them a list of rules as they come in, and expect them to abide by them from then on. However, at some point, we must share what we believe. If they want to go on and become a member of the church, then they must start living their lives in line with Christ’s teaching. Refusing to do so is a refusal to submit to Christ as Lord.

Where does the welcome end, and the teaching begin? That is not an easy question. As per my silly example at the start of this post, even if we could bring ourselves to welcome a practicing serial killer, they cannot continue this way and claim to be a follower of Christ.

Likewise, whatever sin we replace serial killing with, we too must give it up to follow Christ.

Being welcoming does not give any of us the excuse to accept sinfulness and not challenge it with God’s Word.

We will think about what it means to be a welcoming church next time. For now though, consider your own life. Are there sins you continue to hold on to, despite knowing what God thinks about them? Ask for His help to change, for you cannot do it in your own strength.

Get into the Word (PoW#23)

Pearl of Wisdom #23

If you get into the Word of God, then the Word of God will get into you!

You will never be a strong or successful Christian unless you get into the Word of God in the Bible. Consider the Bible as your spiritual food!

As you begin to study the Word of God and absorb it’s truths, those truths will begin to shape your life. As you get into the Word, it will begin to get into you as well.

This means that when you need it, the Holy Spirit can bring the Word to your memory. He can bring that Word to life in any situation. The Bible describes the Word of God as a “sword of the Spirit,” and the Spirit can put that “sword” in your hand when you need it.

As you read and study the Bible, the truths you learn will change your mind – how you think. It will shine light on areas you need God’s help with, and it will encourage and strengthen you.

Get into the Word this week, and let that Word shape your life!

A (Prophetic?) Dream

I’m not particularly prone to dreaming, and when I do, I rarely remember them. Last night however, I had a very vivid dream. It concerned people I’d never seen and in a setting I wasn’t familiar with. When this happens, it could be prophetic in nature. I share it below in case it is of meaning to someone.

 

I was climbing up several flights of stairs with a group of people I didn’t know. Many of them were from various countries around the world. At a high floor, we went into something like a classroom. The tables were laid out in broad rows but there were perhaps only one or two of them.

It was a Christian meeting of some kind.

I looked out of the window, and saw people moving past on the street below.

Back in the room, a young man stood up and preached a sermon, but I have no recollection what he said. I got the impression it was his first time preaching.

Afterwards, the anointing was extremely strong and many were touched by the message the man had given. The group were discussing what they would do (individually) in response to the message.

I begin talking to a girl who had been moved to pay back a debt of around £12,000 which I believe was for a motorbike. She said that the group of people gathered here had been extremely supportive and she wanted to repay them. I think she referred to them as N.E.S. or N.E.B? Or something similar.

As we were talking, another woman took something from her hand and rebuked her for losing focus. The girl I’d been speaking to walked away, seemingly quite upset.

I followed her and began to give her words of prophecy.

“You are a consuming fire. But you are being smothered by those around you. They try to cover you in a tarpaulin to cut off the oxygen or fuel for the fire. They hope to contain the flames, but it only burns hotter inside of you. You must come out from under those who would smother you. God has put this fire in your heart for power and passion, and wants you to use it for His Kingdom.”

 

At this point, I woke up. It was so vivid that I had to write it down. As I say, I didn’t recognise any of the individuals in the dream, nor the place where we were. It could just be a random dream, or it could be something more.

If it means something to you, then I hope it is encouraging. If not, please ignore!

Willing to Pay the Price? (PoW#22)

Pearl of Wisdom #22

Don’t expect what other people have, unless you’re willing to pay the price they paid to get it.

Some say we live in the age of entitlement. People have a tendency to want or even expect what other people have – without being willing to pay the price they paid to get it.

Some newly weds or homeowners expect the same standard of living as their retired parents, not realising it took their parents their entire lives working and saving to be in a position to live that way.

We want to lose weight and be fit and healthy, but don’t want to spend the hours in the gym we need to. We want the “body” but aren’t willing to let go of the chocolate!

The same can be true of churches and ministries. We see a “big church” (which is not necessarily a measure of success) and want our church to be the same. A Bible teacher draws in a crowd of hundreds, and we feel we ought to have at least the same.

What we often fail to understand is that these things all come at a cost and a sacrifice. Whether in ministry or in business or life in general, success takes time and patience. We may be watching the end result of years of hard work, expecting to have it all in a few weeks.

I encourage you to have goals and dreams, but set realistic expectations. Don’t look at others and covet what they have. Do what they did to get it. Learn from them, and strive towards your goals.

And remember, we usually only ever see the “edited highlights” of a person’s life. Instagram and Facebook are very selective windows into a person’s world.

Be blessed this week.

Wrestling with the Sovereignty of God

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been wrestling with a tough issue of late – the sovereignty of God.

This began a while ago, when after a comment in a previous post, someone challenged my view of what sovereignty means. I am determined not to shy away from such challenges, even if uncomfortable, as it can only lead to growth of understanding to review one’s position. You either confirm what you already thought, or learn something new which changes your perspective.

In this case, I am certainly reviewing my previous view.

What does “Sovereignty” mean?

This, I think, is part of the problem. We all have a slightly different understanding of what we mean by the term “Sovereignty”.

One definition is simply that God being sovereign means He is the Supreme Being, Ultimate and without equal. I hope that no Christian can take argument with such a definition.

Going further though, some take sovereignty to mean that God controls every aspect of our lives here on Earth. Nothing happens by chance and everything happens according to God’s will.

This definition I struggled with. Like all who have faced this subject, the obvious question is “If God controls everything, then how come a) bad things happen, and b) how can anyone be held responsible for their actions?”

I previously did not hold to this view. I did not believe that God’s Sovereignty meant that He controlled every little thing in life, and that our very decisions were ordained on high by Him.

I could be wrong…

Two texts

There were two main Bible texts which challenged my view. I should clarify that I mean two main texts which I examined, rather that the big two.

The first is Ephesians 1:4-5, which says:

just as [in His love] He chose us in Christ [actually selected us for Himself as His own] before the foundation of the world, so that we would be holy [that is, consecrated, set apart for Him, purpose-driven] and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined and lovingly planned for us to be adopted to Himself as [His own] children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the kind intention and good pleasure of His will

Ephesians 1:4-5 (Amp)

This idea of being chosen by God opens up the heart of the sovereignty issue for me. Did God choose me first, or did I choose Him? Did He choose me, knowing that I would choose Him? If this doesn’t make your mind tilt, then you’re a wiser person than I!

The key here is to look to when God made the choice. “When” is a difficult one to apply to God, as He is outside of time. We think linearly, there is a start, a middle and an end, but we can’t think that way with God. He has no beginning, middle or end, and He just is.

What does the verse say? “Before the foundation of the world…” This means, put simply, before the Creation. If this is true, and as it is Scripture, it is, then it means that before you and I were born, before we did anything right or wrong – then God had chosen us.

The next obvious question is – on what basis did He make this choice? If it was before we did or said or thought anything, then it cannot be on our performance and behaviour. God did not choose you because you were “good” or “bad”, rather it was an act of His will.

We want to understand how and why God made His choice because we want to understand something fundamental. Why me and not them? A scant understanding of the Gospel should tell us that it is nothing to do with us – not our performance or how well we did or didn’t do, but completely and totally on the finished work of Christ.

The second text is from Romans 9:18-20

Therefore, God has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. 19 You may ask me, “Then why does God still find fault with anybody? For who can resist his will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God? Can an object that was molded say to the one who molded it, “Why did you make me like this?”

Romans 9:18-20 (ISV)

Here, Paul addresses what is at the very heart of this issue. Indeed, verse 19 asks the precise question we hope to answer. “If God controls everything, then how can anyone be held responsible for their wrongdoing?”

What is his answer? And I warn you, it may not satisfy…

who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God? Can an object that was molded say to the one who molded it, “Why did you make me like this?

Who are we to ask such a question of the Sovereign God? We are trying to wrap our limited minds around an unlimited concept. Human thinking cannot comprehend the sovereignty of God. Who are we to question Him in this matter?

If, like me, you feel somewhat unsatisfied by this, then I understand.

I want to give you a “better” answer here. I want to be able to explain this to you in such a way as to enable you to accept and understand it. I tried. Then it dawned on me that if the great apostle Paul can only give the above answer, then how can I expect to come up with something better?

One author suggested we approach this issue in the same way that we approach the Trinity. That is, we approach it knowing that it is true and having no human understanding of how it can be so.

I sigh at this point, realising that theologians have considered this for centuries and no “good” answer exists. God is God, and we are not. His ways are higher than ours, and this is one of those (few) occasions where we cannot explain or understand Him.

We can do nothing except humbly accept it.

Conclusion?

Hardly! I can’t hope to conclude such a topic in a few simple lines here. Like many who have gone before me, we can only walk this road our own way. At each step we must try to see the Bible as a whole in a systematic way. There will always be things, this side of heaven, that we do not comprehend.

Does it make God any less? No, if anything it highlights how “Sovereign” He is.

Does it somehow weaken our faith? It should not.

I’ve asked God the big questions as I’ve begun to examine this subject. It can only weaken our faith if we allow ourselves to engage in pride. “I should be able to understand this” or “How can God choose some and not others?” This betrays an attempt by us to somehow reach God’s level. When we question His ways, we are on some level suggesting that we know better. Such thinking is not only futile, it’s comical.

My journey has not come to an end here. I began this post by saying it had led to me to review my way of thinking about God’s Sovereignty. This is true, but I’ve not completed it yet (and I suspect I never will!)

I have questions, and I’m guessing you do too.

If what I’ve shared above from Ephesians and Romans holds true (and it does), then I prayerfully wonder how the following Scriptures fit with this. It’s a heavenly jigsaw puzzle if you will, and I’m quite certain all the pieces fit. It may simply be that only God can see the big picture.

Abraham negotiates with God

In Genesis 18, we read a story where Abraham (very respectfully) negotiates with God. God sets out His intention to inspect Sodom and Gemorah (verse 21) with a view to destroying it, and yet Abraham appeals to Him.

This is relevant to our discussion because it seems contradictory. What was God’s will in this matter? Was it to destroy Sodom and Gemorah without any regard for any righteous people living there? Was it always God’s will to save the righteous before He destroyed it? A close reading may suggest that God never intended to destroy it while even one righteous person was there.

Although Abraham very cautiously “talks God down” to withholding the city’s destruction if only ten righteous are found there, in the end we see that it only took one. Indeed, the Angel of the Lord “could not” destroy the city while Lot was still within its limits.

Hurry and take refuge there, for I cannot do anything [to punish Sodom] until you arrive there.” For this reason the town was named Zoar (few, small).

Genesis 19:22 (Amp)

So how do we determine God’s Sovereign will in this matter? The destroying angel could not do a thing until Lot was safe, meaning God had given His Word that the city would not fall while Lot remained.

What does that mean for what God had discussed with Abraham right at the beginning? – did Abraham’s intercession somehow restrict God’s will, or rather his prayers cause God to give grace to Lot who dwelt in Sodom?

It is God’s will that everyone be saved?

Likewise, these are key passages for me that suggest God does not always get His way. If He does, and He does indeed control everything as we have expounded above, then how can we reconcile these verses?

who wishes all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge and recognition of the [divine] truth.

1 Timothy 2:4 (Amp)

The Lord does not delay [as though He were unable to act] and is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is [extraordinarily] patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (Amp)

We can clearly see that it is God’s will that everyone be saved. And yet, they are not. How can we place these verses alongside the verse from Ephesians 1 (discussed above) and fit them together?

If God wants all to be saved, then why only choose some?

One way to fit them together  (and it is completely flawed) is the idea that God chose everyone, and that means all will be saved. Indeed, some teach that God will have mercy on everyone irrespective of what they did with Christ on the Earth, and therefore both verses can be true. This is false.

Such teaching does not take a serious view of Scripture and indeed cheapens the sacrifice of Christ. If all are saved irrespective of Christ’s sacrifice, then Christ had no need to come at all. Clearly this is not the case.

There must therefore be another way that these verses fit together.

Your will be done (the Lord’s Prayer)

Finally, we look to the Lord’s prayer. While it is my belief that this is a template for prayer, rather than something we should repeat over and over, one of the points is rather clear.

“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Given what we have said above about God being in ultimate control of every aspect of life, why should we pray for His will to be done? Surely His will being done is a given?

Extending this thought, why pray at all? Indeed, if God’s mind is already made up and His will already established, how can we expect to change anything with our act of prayer?

The Bible makes it absolutely clear that indeed we should pray. Moreover, that our prayers make a tremendous difference on the earth.

And finally…

We could go on. We could cite Scriptures about God controlling the weather from Isaiah, or hardening Pharoah’s heart in the Exodus, or sending a great fish to swallow the reluctant prophet Jonah. Equally, we could look to Deuteronomy 30:19 where life and death, blessings and curses are set before us, and God encourages us to choose life!

Is it God, or man, who makes such choices?

We could go on…

I can’t hope to bring answers to all of these questions here. I also do not want this to come across as a crisis of faith – far from it. If anything, my conviction about the absolute supremacy and infallibility of Scripture is even stronger. I do not doubt His kindness or love, nor do I question His intentions.

I hope this makes you think if nothing else, and it certainly helps me to lay out my thoughts before you. Thanks for reading!

I say again that I can do no better than the apostle Paul who said, “who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God?

Indeed, I am not God, but I worship the One who is.

Humble Pie (PoW#21)

Pearl of Wisdom #21

Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, rather it is thinking of yourself less.

Humility isn’t exactly something we celebrate much in our culture. When we look to celebrities, we offer see arrogance, selfishness and pride.

Many of us misunderstand what true humility is. We believe that a humble person is someone who beats themselves up constantly, who treads themselves down and thinks very little of themselves.

That is not biblical humility.

Humility is not about mistreating ourselves, instead it’s about moving ourselves out of the way and keeping God in His proper place in our lives.

A humble person is someone who is totally reliant on Jesus. They don’t think of themselves more or less than they ought, and instead keep their minds on Christ.

Pride can be seen in arrogance of course, but it can also be seen in self-loathing. Pride is simply putting the emphasis on “us” rather than God.

Try to be humble this week. Don’t loathe yourself, love Jesus!

Make me “usable” (PoW#20)

Pearl of Wisdom #20

Don’t seek to be used by God, instead seek to be usable.

Many of us want to be used by God in some special way to do a great work for Him. There is nothing wrong with such a goal, and it comes from our love for Him.

We ask God to use us, but often times God won’t answer this prayer. It’s not that He doesn’t want to, but rather He doesn’t want us to be harmed. God cares more about us, than about how He can use us. He loves us, not what we can do for Him.

Think of it this way; He will not put us into a situation we cannot handle, bringing harm to us and to others, just to get something done. He would rather help us grow to a point where we can serve Him in this world.

Don’t ask God to “use you”, instead ask Him to help develop your character so that He can use you. When we become “usable” we no longer need to worry about God putting us into positions of service. Once we are mature or have the experience we need, God will put us to work to bless others.

God loves you more than you know.