No Cheating

You study the scriptures, thinking that by them you have life… yet you refuse to come to me to have life. John 5:39-40

There are two ways in which a person can arrive at the answer to a sum: You can get it from someone who already has it (with or without his/her consent) or you can work it out for yourself.

If schoolteachers are to be believed, the latter way is by far the preferable one.

But even here conditions apply. Years ago, way back in primary school, I was awarded one point out of ten for a perfect answer to a quite complicated sum. The teacher disregarded the innovative way in which I had figured the answer out in my head, explaining that I would not be able to do the same with larger numbers. I lost the other nine points because I had ignored the tried and tested formula. I had set myself up to become a maths heretic.

I learned the lesson well in my formative years, but had to unlearn it when I finally graduated into seminary. Here everything was about answers. The sums had already been figured out and we were expected to learn the answers without thinking too much in the process.

The only problem was that another theological school, a mere few blocks away, were teaching their students different answers.

I sometimes wish my mathematics teachers taught me theology. She would have insisted that I became a thinker instead of a parrot. But she would have forbidden me to use my own independent judgment in my thinking. I would have had to think according to very specific rules and within very defined boundaries.

That’s the whole idea. The knowledge of God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ and is preserved in Scripture and the ongoing teaching of the Holy Spirit within. You cannot have the one without the other. True Christianity is not memorising doctrines or living by laws. It is not to blindly accept the conclusions of another, no matter the brilliance of his/her scholarship or any reputation whatsoever of great understanding or guru-like insight. It is to work it out for yourself: Personally, experientially, uniquely. Yet it is to do so within the clear objective boundaries of Scripture.

If you say “Lord, Lord”, but you don’t know how you got there, you are in for a surprise.

There is nothing as exhilarating as the discovery of truth. It is to find a fine balance in the midst of the mightiest bursts of revelation imaginable. It is big wave surfing in every sense of the term, an encounter with the might and beauty of God, but with a focused concentration and skill that makes the required balance possible. This skill cannot be taught in a classroom, yet the method of obtaining it can. It has to be discovered in a way that will make you feel you are the only one who has discovered it. It is an experience that is wholly unique and original, yet it is one that takes place within very narrow boundaries. It is totally original, yet the scope for innovation is extremely limited. It is your own discovery, yet it can only be discovered according to a method that is so precise that it can be described as a science.

Truth is to know Jesus Christ personally and intimately, but never apart from the clear guidelines presented by Scripture.

Where this happens, the answers will present themselves.

(This article has appeared in abbreviated form in Bloemnews.)

Thinking Soberly

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind… For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them… Romans 12:1-6

A living sacrifice is something that has died, yet it is alive.

Paul’s comment in Romans 12 is the logical conclusion of his teaching in chapter 6 of the same letter: Christ died and was resurrected, and we died with him and were raised with him. We are to “reckon ourselves dead unto sin and alive unto God” (Romans 6:11.)

We are to think of ourselves as living sacrifices, in other words.

This is what the “renewal of the mind” is all about. We need to align our minds with the historical reality of our co-death and resurrection with Jesus Christ. If we do so, our lives will be transformed accordingly.

But Paul does not stop there. This new type of thinking is further elaborated on in verse 3. We many no longer think “higher of ourselves than we ought to.” The illusions of grandeur that were entertained by the old self are no longer allowed. We are now to think of ourselves “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” to us. This measure is determined by our membership in our new family, that is, the body of Christ.

Our calling in life is not to live up to some projected image of the idealized self. Neither is it to try and eradicate the self in order to become nothing.

No, it is to understand the measure and calling of the new resurrected self, as it fits into the body of Christ, and to live according thereto.

Do Unto Others

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12

The Bible is a very thick book. With the help of some of us, it has also become a very complicated one.

God may be mysterious, but he is not complicated. His revelation to us has always been simple. There was nothing complicated about Jesus Christ, his life or his teaching. Paul wrote to the Corinthians “For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand.”

The Old Testament, commonly referred to as “the Law and the Prophets”, can be summarized in a single sentence. That is how understandable God has made it.

Every single one of my children came into the world knowing exactly what they wanted. Every person I have ever met in my life knew what he or she wanted from others. Inscribed upon human nature is a script that cannot be erased: “This is what I want.”

The central message of the Bible is remarkably simple. It does not prescribe an ascendance of consciousness that will take the participant from one mystical illumination to the next. It does not prescribe decades of academic research to discover the evasive thoughts of God.

No. It takes that which is most clear to every person on the planet and uses it as a script for our lives. It takes the “This is what I want!” and prescribes it as the basis for our actions towards others.

Inside of us are the Law and Prophets of God. We cannot shake them. They are revealed perfectly. The problem has never been with the “What?” It has always been with the “Who?”

You know full well what a human being needs. Now go and provide it.

Rethinking the Great Commission

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Matthew 28:19-20

Apart from John 3:16, the “Great Commission” may very well be the best-known and most quoted verse in the Bible. Yet it contains a startling implication that we oftentimes miss when we read it, speak about it or try and obey it.

Note that the calling is to make disciples, not converts. Also note that the way to do this is to teach them “to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Some of us stop reading when we see the word “nations”.

If you are a tent evangelist up in Africa and your fiery sermons and passionate altar calls make thousands stream to the front to say the Sinner’s Prayer and “give their hearts to Jesus”, you are doing a mighty fine job. But you are not fulfilling the Great Commission.

Others stop reading when they see the word “teaching”.

If you are a Bible teacher and you devote your life to expounding the Scriptures and teaching the great doctrines of the Christian faith to people, you should be applauded. But you are not fulfilling the Great Commission.

Note again: The great Commission is about “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”, not “lead them to me” or “clarify my teachings to them”.

Jesus Christ is more intelligible than any one of his commentators. His teachings and commandments are crystal clear and extremely simple. The difficulty has never been to understand Jesus. It is to obey him.

We are to go into the world and assist people to obey commandments that are stated in the plainest language imaginable. That’s the Great Commission.

Beholding Christ

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. 2 Corinthians 3:18

The first humans were created in “the image and likeness” of God. This image was marred as a result of the fall, but is under construction yet again due to the fact that we are new creations in Christ Jesus.

The New Testament and the Old Testament are perfectly correlated as far as our reason for being is concerned. From the beginning God’s purpose for you and I was to exist in the image of God.

But there is a catch. In order to be transformed into this image, we need to “behold” it first. The word is not one we use in everyday English, but can be roughly translated as “looking with intent”.

Why? Sociologists and anthropologists may provide the answer. The process of human growth and maturation is dependent on an intricate process of identification with a “role model”, they tell us. This may be confirmed by the fascinating studies that have been done on so-called “feral children”, that is, children whose primary caretakers, during their formative years, were animals.

Feral children take on the characteristics of the animals that raised them. They typically walk on all fours, have short lifespans, develop many of the same sensitivities and oftentimes suffer from telltale growth deformities.

We become like our role models. We become like those we look up to. We identify with them and in the process trigger a magical transference of qualities that are characteristic to them.

It is the same spiritually. We become what we behold. The most important song on planet earth may very well be the classic Irish hymn: “Be thou my vision…”

Who, or what, are you beholding?

Jesus Junk

Making a whip of cords, he drove them out of the temple… And he told the pigeon-sellers, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” John 2:14-16

USA Today reported in 2009 that American retailers “sell about $4.6 billion worth of Christian products annually.”

One cannot help but wonder how big that figure is today and how big it would be if the rest of the globe were included in the statistics.

According to the report, you can now wear a “Jesus Christ wants to be your friend” Facebook shirt and an “iPray” hat while listening to your iPod. Preachers can buy material for sermons based on the popular television reality series “Survivor”.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Christian merchandise include dolls, jewelry, stationary and a host of items sporting designs that are oftentimes trademark rip offs of well known brands like Coca-Cola (“Jesus Christ—Eternally Refreshing”).

Other designs are totally original, like the one that has Jesus dressed as a hockey goalie accompanied by the words “Jesus Saves!” And then there is the rubber Jesus duck for your bathtub, and the “Wash away my sins bubble bath” to accompany it.

I still have my three-decades-old coffee mug with St Francis’ Peace Prayer on it. And I have joyful memories of buying my first Christian bumper stickers shortly after my conversion. But I think we have lost it somewhere between the Jesus revolution of the early seventies and today. The new vision of a culturally relevant Messiah, expressed joyfully and colorfully by Hippies who had become “Jesus People”, appears to have become a corrupt money-making machine.

In fact, I am quite convinced that we would see a repetition of the events described by John above if Jesus were to return today.

Preparing for Glory

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 27

This week the words “hope and glory” flashed across my television screen. I was not watching a religious show, but a broadcast of the 2012 Olympics. Above the words was the face of a man in rapturous ecstasy. He had just won a gold medal.

I know the feeling. I experienced it for the first time after having won a yo-yo competition in the mid seventies. I was a mere kid, and that night I went to bed feeling intoxicated. The feeling could best be described as a mixture of bliss and immortality.

But it did not last. And so I had to follow it up with other victories. When victory evaded me I learned to resurrect the feeling by siding with others who were winning, such as a boxer or rugby team. The stadium atmosphere in the face of victory was equally glorious – an experience of joyful communion and collective invincibility.

It took me years to realize that these feelings were religious ones. Like a prophetic dream, they revealed a deep longing within to fight and conquer the enemy, to finish a race, to receive a “crown” (literally a “prize of honour in the public games”).

At the end of his life, Paul used these words again, this time with hindsight: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7).

In the final analysis, the Olympic Games presents us with a parable that can only be decoded in Jesus Christ, and with a startling contrast between the shadow and the real. As Paul said above: “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

Strict Training…

The verses above are important as they present one of the clearest contrasts in Scripture between true and false glory (See related posts here and here). Also, they explain why human beings are so obsessed with winning. In the absence of God we try and satisfy the demands of our spiritual instincts by fabricating lookalikes of the divine.

The greatest of human instincts, such as desire and love and fear, are manifestations of our yearning for God. Idolatry is not nearly as crude a thing as we have been led to believe. No, human beings are usually most idolatrous when most sophisticated. The act of substituting God with self is what human history is all about, and we have become extremely good at it.

It is this single-minded focus that Paul addresses in the passage above. If we miss this, we miss Paul’s central point. Whilst the passage in 1 Corinthians 9 presents a striking contrast between two types of running and fighting, and also between two “crowns”, the most important contrast drawn by Paul is between two types of preparation: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training… They do it to… but we do it to.”

It is not only the nature of the competition or the ceremony afterwards that is different in Paul’s analogy. It is the life before. The Christian fights a different enemy, runs a different race, has a different goal, experiences a different hope and anticipates a different glory. As a result, the Christian has a different training program. This is Paul’s point.

What does this program look like? “I beat my body and make it my slave”, Paul says. I subject my human appetites, desires and needs to the heavenly calling.

There is much to be said about this, and I do not wish to do so with this post. The best commentary on these verses, in my view, comes from Watchman Nee. If you are not familiar with his book The Character of God’s Workman, and especially with the section that deals with this issue (chapter 3), I would advice you strongly to read it. Simply click here for chapter 3.

Blessings to all fellow runners and fighters.

(This post appeared in abbreviated form in Bloemnews.)