Welcome!

Hello!  My name is Colin Sedgwick, and for 40 years I have been a Baptist minister.  I have also done a fair bit of writing for various papers and periodicals, both Christian and secular.  My wife is a teacher and I have two large sons.  I hope you might find something interesting in my blog – I aim to provide regular Bible-based thoughts with a short prayer at the end. Perhaps you can use them to “top up” your own Bible-study and sermon-listening.

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Live in the present – but listen to the past!

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you… I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you… 1 Corinthians 11:2 and 23

So then…stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you… 2 Thessalonians 2:15

Just occasionally you come across something someone has said and think “Ooh, I wish I had said that!” Not just because it’s clever or witty, but because it expresses perfectly an important truth – hits the nail on the head, as the saying goes.

Jaroslav Pelikan was an American church historian noted for his natty turns of phrase. Perhaps his most famous one-liner was: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living”. Not bad, eh?

What exactly did he mean?

Well, in many Christian circles – perhaps evangelical circles most of all –tradition is rather a dirty word and gets confused with mere traditionalism. We proudly imagine that we modern Christians don’t need tradition. We’re open to the up-to-date moving of the Holy Spirit! We’re not imprisoned by the customs and beliefs of the past – not like that old-fashioned lot, that bunch of traditionalists, in the church down the road…

We need to be careful of swelling our chests with spiritual pride! Who knows? – we might discover one day that that that old-fashioned lot down the road have more of Jesus in their little fingers than we have in our whole bodies.

No! The Bible encourages us to value tradition as living truth that was passed on by those now dead, not to dismiss it as stale doctrine that’s past its use-by date.

I’ve picked out three verses from Paul, in each of which he reminds his readers that they only know about Christ because of tradition: it was “passed on” to them, whether by him or by somebody else. That in fact is exactly what the word tradition means: “something that has been passed on” or “handed down”.

The idea of tradition was particularly important in those early days – for the very simple reason that at that time there was no such thing as what we now call “the New Testament”. It just didn’t exist; it was still in the process of being collected, edited and shaped into the form we know today. (It’s a sobering thought that we would never have known the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, or of Zacchaeus up his fig tree, or Paul’s wonderful hymn of love, if somebody hadn’t passed them on – turned them into traditions.)

Of course, we today especially cherish the “tradition” which we take into our hands every time we pick up the Bible; it is inspired and preserved by God himself and therefore reliable and authoritative. But we have to face the fact that, as the Bible is handed from one generation to the next, it brings along with it various interpretations that may or may not be correct; it is, if you like, a rolling stone that gathers a whole load of moss!

So we need to exercise careful – and prayerful – judgment. As the Bible itself tells us, we need to test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, 1 John 4:1) so that we don’t lose our way.

Going back to the start… what stands out from all this is a simple but vital truth: we need the past.

For us, the fact that we live in the twenty-first century means that we have two thousand years of Christian tradition to draw upon, and we are foolish and arrogant if we imagine that we don’t need it. The books those saints have written! The experiences they have recorded! The songs and hymns they have sung! Yes, we need to sift them – to test them – by scripture, but we only impoverish ourselves if we dismiss them out of hand.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the best known preachers of the twentieth century, used to urge that, after the Bible itself, the next thing to read is church history; it is a very treasure-store which can feed our minds, stir our hearts and enlarge our sympathies (who knows, we might even discover that that load of traditionalists down the road actually have something to teach us).

You hear occasionally of new churches being planted as churches “from scratch”: all we need is scripture, they claim (along with our particular interpretation, of course!). But it’s a lost cause: we all bring with us some weight of baggage, even if we don’t realise it. And so such churches either fade away very quickly, or subconsciously adopt various traditions and so cease to be “from scratch” at all.

The key is to discern the difference between healthy, nourishing tradition on the one hand, and the deadening hand of traditionalism on the other. In order to do this we need good teaching, humble hearts and minds,  the leading of the Holy Spirit, a sense of perspective, and earnest prayer. And even with all these we still won’t get everything right!

Having said all this, the main value of Prof Pelikan’s aphorism is to challenge us about our own faith… Is it a living faith passed on by generations who have gone before us; or a dead faith that’s just a bundle of accumulated customs and beliefs that really aren’t worth having?

Something to think about…

Thank you, Father, for the many generations who have passed on your word, those who have written wisely about it, those who have composed beautiful songs and hymns, those whose lives are an example of Christlikeness. Help me to benefit from all that they have left, and grant that even I, in due time, will leave something good behind me for others. Amen.

Grumbling is sin

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you…” Exodus 16:2-4

Do not grumble, as some of them did, and were killed by snakes. 1 Corinthians 10:10

Does your experience of church include people grumbling? I would be very surprised if it doesn’t for, sadly, God’s people can be a pretty whiny, grumbly lot.

I could, of course, ask another question too: have you yourself ever been guilty of grumbling? “Who, me?” we say. “Of course not! Perhaps, occasionally, a bit of constructive criticism… but grumbling, well, that’s always someone else’s sin…” I wonder, though…

If you read the whole passage Exodus 15:22 to 17:7 you find that the word “grumble” occurs no less than eight times (not to mention “quarrel” twice). What should be a wonderfully encouraging passage about God’s provision for his people – the water from the rock! the manna! the quails! – is seriously uglified by this recurring theme.

What are the main ingredients that have got mixed into this nasty stew of grumbling? I would suggest three; and I fear that each of them could apply to us…

First, ingratitude.

What’s wrong with these people! It’s only a matter of days or weeks since they have been miraculously rescued from the tyranny of Egypt: passover, exodus and the crossing of the sea. How ungrateful can you be? How quickly can you forget?

It’s easy to criticise them. But what about us? Let’s take stock of our own story. Do you remember your personal “exodus”, when, through faith in Christ, you were set free from slavery to sin? All right, it may not always have been an easy ride since then but – come on! – you have been made a child of God, saved by Christ’s blood and indwelt by God’s Spirit! Surely a sense of gratitude should be a permanent thing, not a collapse into whinging, no matter what difficulties we are experiencing.

The poet George Herbert prayed: “Thou hast given so much to me… Give me one thing more – a grateful heart”. Do some of us need to echo that prayer?

Second, injustice.

Who is on the receiving end of all this grumbling? Moses, that’s who. Now, it’s true that, great though he was, Moses wasn’t perfect: apart from anything else, there’s that little matter of a murder hanging like a cloud over his life (Exodus 2:11-15). But, whether the Israelites like it or not, he is the one God chose to lead them out of their slavery.

Yet they talk as if he is deliberately intending to bring about their death – “you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (16:3). How ludicrous! And how grossly unjust!

It reminds us how, when we’re finding the way hard, it’s so easy to lash out emotionally, making false accusations and dirtying somebody’s reputation. We probably regret it later; but by then the damage is done.

Do some of us need to offer someone an apology?

Third, self-pity.

I must admit that there’s a bit of me that has some sympathy for the Israelites. To be in the desert without drinkable water must have been pretty worrying. To have no obvious food supply likewise. And so what could be more natural than to dwell on those “pots of meat” they enjoyed in Egypt?

It seems that at the heart of their grumbling was simply a lack of faith – they couldn’t see how the God who had dealt with them in miraculous ways might do it again.

And as I look at myself I have to recognise that often I am no better. Oh yes, I know that God has done great things for me in the past, but… where is my faith for the future? And so self-pity can begin to gnaw away at me.

We need to get it clear in our minds that, while we are privileged to enjoy God’s mercy and kindness day by day, for us as Christians there is no such thing as entitlement. Yes, a day will come when all sorrows, pains and wants will be done away with. But until that day we need, with Paul, to “learn to be content” (Philippians 4:11) – and learning can be a painful, drawn-out business. O Lord, save me from faithless self-pity!

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Israelites’ attitude in this passage was a hankering for the past – those “pots of meat” (not to mention the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic mentioned in Numbers 11:5).

I wonder how they would have felt if Moses had said, “All right then – let’s just pack our bags and  march straight back to Egypt! I’m sure Pharaoh will be happy to receive us if we apologise nicely and agree to become slaves again. Is that what you want?”

If ever we are inclined (sigh, groan, grouse, grumble) to moan about our lot as Christians and the rubbishy people who lead us, or who we share our Christian lives with, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask ourselves the question: Would I want to go back?

Well?

Forgive me, loving Father, when I am guilty of ingratitude, or of judging others falsely, or of sliding into self-pity and grumbling. Give me instead a grateful heart and a cheerful, trusting spirit. Amen.

Holy people in an unholy world

Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your lives as foreigners here in reverent fear. 1 Peter 1:17

When I was a boy there was an American folk singer called Jim Reeves. He had a booming bass voice which was both powerful and gentle. I discovered that if you lay in a hot bath (no showers in those days) and sang out into the steam you could do a pretty good imitation of him. (Don’t picture me, please.)

One of his songs declared: “This world is not my home,/ I’m just a-passing through./ My treasure’s all laid up/ Somewhere beyond the blue./ The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,/ And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.”

A bit twee and sentimental? Perhaps so. But the thought behind those words is in fact thoroughly biblical.

It contains a truth that the apostle Peter was very conscious of. In the verse I’ve picked out above he tells his readers to “live out your lives as foreigners here” on earth. For “foreigners” we could read “exiles” or “temporary residents”. The same thought is there in the letter’s very first verse – “To God’s elect, exiles…” – and again in 2:11: “Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires…”

It’s not just Peter who stresses this theme. The writer to the Hebrews tells his readers that “here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:14). Paul too tells us that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

The idea has its roots way back in the Old Testament. The Psalmist tells God, “I dwell with you as a foreigner, a stranger, as all my ancestors were” (Psalm 39:12). Perhaps he is recalling the experience of Abraham, the father of God’s people: when he needed to buy a burial plot for his wife Sarah, Abraham told the Hittites among whom he was living, “I am a foreigner and a stranger among you” (Genesis 23:4).

And, of course, it all comes together beautifully in the promise of Jesus to his disciples: “I am going to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1-4).

I could heap up plenty more Bible passages like these, but I think that’s enough to be going on with! It’s certainly a precious truth.

I suspect, though, that it’s one of those Bible truths we happilyaccept in theory, but pretty well ignore in practice.

The trouble, I find, is that I feel so much at home in this world! This, after all, is the world I was born into. I breathe its air, I drink its water, I enjoy its food, I delight in its beauty – and I agonise over its pains. This world is my home: where else? Every time I buy some “worldly” object, whether necessity or luxury, it tightens its grip on me. And, of course, to have a bank account, or insurance policies, or a mortgage, or savings, or a multitude of other things, can only be to deepen my immersion in it.

There’s a difficult balance to be struck. I’m sure God doesn’t want us all to become hermits, getting rid of our worldly possessions and shunning all worldly pleasures. No: Jesus came so that we might have life “and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Our world, even in its fallen state, is a good world, and God wants us to enjoy it.

I’m sure too that he doesn’t want us to use this truth as a cop-out, withdrawing from all involvement in “worldly” affairs and refusing to accept responsibility for some of this world’s troubles and sorrows. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, after all, that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven” – and it is surely hypocritical to pray that prayer and then fold our arms and leave it at that.

At about the same time as I was doing my Jim Reeves imitations in the bath I became a Christian. One of the catch-phrases we were taught was that we are “in the world, but not of it”. Perhaps that sums up the balance pretty well.

But we need to pray regularly that that balance be maintained by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To enjoy the world that God has made is one thing; to let it sink its claws deep within us is quite another. Peter makes it clear in verses 15-16 by latching on to the idea of holiness: “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do…”. Holy people in an unholy world – isn’t that a perfect description of what the church should be?

Here’s a thought I find it helpful to challenge myself with…

My task as an exile in this world is to bring a little bit of heaven to earth every day by the way I live and by the person I am. Jesus said “You are the light of the world”, which means, staggering though it may seem, that people can look at us and see him.

Just think of that next time you walk down the street!

Loving Father, bring me to that place where I can pray with Paul – and really mean it! – “to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain”. Amen.

“You, God, tested us…”

Praise our God, all peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard;he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping.For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver.You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance. Psalm 66:8-12

The Psalmist is looking back to a bad, hard time for Israel.

In the previous verses he has the event of the Exodus in mind, when God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt – “He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot” – and it may be that’s what he’s still thinking of. Or it may be something more recent; we don’t know for sure.

But whatever, the words on which his whole psalm pivots are in verse 10: “You, God, tested us”.

We’re hearing a lot at the present time about testing, not least in relation to the pandemic. You may have said recently “I’m finding this a very testing time”, or some such words. And, of course, testing is a common theme in the Bible regarding the experience of God’s people in this world.

Well, I think Psalm 66 can be a great help to us, especially the few verses I have printed out. Here are three simple facts about testing that it suggests…

  1. God doesn’t make his people immune from testing.

The Psalmist is addressing his words to his fellow-Israelites, the people of God, and there’s no doubt that things have been hard: “You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water…” Prison, burdens, fire, water: it doesn’t sound good, does it? And it was “You”, God, that let it happen.

The barber I used to go to enjoyed taking the mickey out of me for my faith. If something bad happened to Christians somewhere he was quick to make a point of it: “Him upstairs didn’t do a lot for them, did he?” 

I tried to explain to him that being protected from every trouble common to the human race is not part of the gospel package: on the contrary, there’s a sense in which troubles and testings get even harder when you become a Christian. But I’m not sure I got through to him.

No; being a Christian isn’t an insurance policy against the world’s woes – if it were, people would become Christians for all the wrong reasons, wouldn’t they? We follow a saviour, after all, who was severely tested in his earthly life – and not only in Gethsemane and on the cross.

James the brother of Jesus went so far as to tell his readers to “consider it pure joy (!) when you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). That’s asking a lot! But I’m sure he meant exactly what he said.

This leads to…

2. God tests us for a purpose.

The Psalmist goes on, “You refined us like silver”.

There are few things I know less about than how silver – or any metal, come to that – is purified. But I do know that it involves great heat; and heat is often used as a metaphor for suffering.

As children of God we are like precious metal, and he uses testing times to burn the impurities out of us. That may seem hard, but it is in fact a sign of his fatherly love. Hebrews 12:7-13 makes this explicit: “God is treating you as children… discipline produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it”.

In a nutshell, God is busy making us like our brother Jesus, and Jesus trod the way of suffering. It’s a privilege to follow in his footsteps.

3. God will bring our testing to an end.

Psalm 66 contains one of the Bible’s great buts. “But” is a word that turns things round – “We thought we might be about to lose her, but she rallied”; “We thought rain would ruin the game, but then the sun came out”. Look out for the Bible’s buts!

In Psalm 66 the writer describes the sufferings of Israel in a kind of crescendo. Why not read these words out loud, raising your voice in pitch after each set of dots? “You, God, tested us… you refined us like silver… you brought us into prison… you laid burdens on our backs… you let people ride over our heads… we went through fire and water…” And then, after a great roll of drums, “… BUT you brought us to a place of abundance”.

Aren’t those last nine words marvellous? God hadn’t abandoned his people! He didn’t leave them languishing in suffering and misery – any more than he left Jesus to decompose in the tomb.

So, whether it’s the normal troubles of life, or the hardships of the pandemic, or sufferings encountered because you are a precious child of God… don’t lose heart! It will end.

And until it does, your job and mine is clear: to hold on tight and to reflect the beauty of Jesus in everything we do and say. Yes? Yes!

O joy that seekest me through pain,/ I cannot close my heart to thee;/ I trace the rainbow through the rain,/ And feel the promise is not vain/ That morn shall tearless be. Loving Lord and dear Father, help me, whatever the trials may be, always to “trace the rainbow through the rain”. Amen.

Verse by George Matheson, 1842-1906

Feeling a failure?

Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified…

David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.” 1 Samuel 17:10-11, 32

It was a sad conversation. I was chatting with a fellow-minister who, like me, was beginning to look towards retirement. “I have to admit that for some time now I’ve been running on empty”, he said.

He felt he had nothing left to give, and was just longing for the day when he could step down from pastoral ministry.

I didn’t know him at the time of his ordination, many years earlier. But I had no problem imagining the excited high hopes, the idealism, the years of study, the greetings and prayers of Christian friends; after all, I had been there myself.

And now… “running on empty”; or, to borrow the title of a Graham Greene novel, “a burnt-out case”.

The story of Saul and David in 1 Samuel gives us, among many other things, a fascinating study in contrasts: Saul, the burnt-out case, and David, the red-hot man of God.

It reaches its climax in chapter 17, where we read that Saul – earlier described as “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel… a head taller than anyone else” (chapter 9) – is now  “dismayed and terrified” along with his whole army.

Where did it all go wrong? This is a man, after all, who had had a special experience of the Holy Spirit, what today we might call a charismatic experience (10:9-11).

The story, starting in chapter 9, isn’t entirely easy to piece together (for one thing, the Hebrew text of a key verse, 13:1, is completely unclear), but there’s little doubt that even from very early on Saul was guilty of disobedience which sprang from a collapse of faith. In 13:7b-14 he seems to have panicked under stress and tried, in effect, to force God’s hand by taking to himself a responsibility that wasn’t his to take. In 15:1-23 he failed to carry out God’s (admittedly grim) commands.

God, through the prophet Samuel, saw fit to deal with him extremely severely. How Saul’s failures were ultimately judged by God we aren’t told, and it’s none of our business to ask. But sadly there’s no indication of a happy end to his earthly life (chapters 29-31).

The church today has its share of Sauls and Davids, and not just among ministers. What happened to Saul could happen to any of us, albeit in our far less dramatic circumstances. Even while you read this you may be thinking, “Yes, I’m afraid I’m a bit of a Saul. I’m just a shadow of the Christian I used to be. Oh, I’m still a believer, no problem there. But that deep, warm, personal relationship with God has withered – it’s all become dry, formal and mechanical”.

So the obvious question is: What should I do about it?

Let’s say, first and foremost: God forbid that we should assume that once we have been guilty of disobeying him there’s no more hope for us. No!

But certainly the key to getting back on track with God is to have a serious stock-take of where we are and where we’ve gone wrong. The key words are total honesty and heartfelt sorrow – in fact, what the Bible calls true repentance.

The story of Simon Peter, a New Testament counterpart of Saul, can give us great encouragement.

We tend to focus especially – and very naturally – on the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus before the crucifixion, which is given in all four Gospels. But it’s worth remembering too that on a much earlier occasion (Mark 8:31-33) Jesus actually called him “Satan” (just think of that!) and told him to “get behind me” (“get lost!”, as The Message puts it). What an utterly heart-breaking moment that must have been for Peter.

And yet his restoration by Jesus is clearly spelled out in John 21 – and the next thing we know is that this miserable, wretched failure of a man is standing up in the heart of Jerusalem and proclaiming the resurrection of the very Jesus he had denied (Acts 2).

So while the story of tragic King Saul is one we should take very seriously – disobedience is no light matter – we mustn’t let it drive us to despair. The God of the Old Testament, the God of Saul and David, is no different from the God of the New: a God of mercy, love and grace. He is a God who loves to forgive and to restore!

Listen too to the clear words of the apostle John: “If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

Are those words you need to take to heart today? Here’s a beautiful prayer you might like to use…

Where is the blessedness I knew

When first I saw the Lord?

Where is the soul-refreshing view

Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!

How sweet their memory still!

But they have left an aching void

The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return,

Sweet messenger of rest!

I hate the sins that made thee mourn,

And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,

Whate’er that idol be,

Help me to tear it from thy throne,

And worship only thee. Amen.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

A slingful of stones (2)

Then he [David] took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine. 1 Samuel 17:40

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. 1 Corinthians 10:4

Last time I wrote about the “five smooth stones” that David took from the brook with which to defeat the giant Goliath, and how preachers are often inclined to give these stones deep spiritual significance which doesn’t belong strictly in the text.

Such treatment may be all right to a certain extent in order to find ways of applying such details to our lives today. But my point was how careful we need to be not to misuse the Bible by reading into it things which aren’t there. Let the Bible say what it wants to say, not what we think it ought to say! Take it in its most natural sense!

But I suggested at the end that perhaps David’s stones can in fact be used, without straining the meaning, to help us in living the Christian life, and in exercising Christian ministry.

The point can be summed up: You can’t fight God’s battles with the world’s weapons.

1 Samuel 17 tells us that after King Saul – poor, burnt out, defeated King Saul, the king who himself not so many years before had won a great victory over the Philistines (chapter 14), but who was now a spent force – after this King Saul had reluctantly agreed to let David face Goliath, he tried to kit him out with the best battle equipment Israel could muster: his own royal tunic, a coat of armour, a bronze helmet and, of course, a sword.

But David rejected them: “I cannot go in these… because I am not used to them” (verses 38-39). His sling and his stones (of which in fact he used only one) were all he needed.

In the childlike simplicity of his faith, David knew two vital things…

First, he had to be true to himself.

There’s a slightly comical touch in verse 39: “he tried walking around”. Can you see him?

David would certainly have been a fit young man, but he knew that he would only ever be clumsy and clunky in this get-up. And he also knew that – well, he knew from long experience how to wield a sling!

When I was a boy we used sometimes to play with catapults – a bit like a sling – though not (fortunately!) with much success. It was hard to imagine how anybody could inflict damage with such a primitive weapon. But since then probably most of us have seen those sad television news items of rioting crowds in some middle-eastern city – including young men ferociously whirling slings with deadly power and accuracy. This was a skill David the shepherd boy must have perfected as he dealt with the wild animals that came after the family’s sheep (verses 34-37).

David knew he must be true to himself.

And this prompts for us the question: Do I ever try, or perhaps pretend, to be something I’m not? Do I ever put on a show or try to impress?

Let’s make no mistake: this world detests nothing more than the “religious” person whose way of talking, living and acting is manifestly false. They have a word for it, don’t they? Hypocrite.

But they will show respect – even if only grudgingly – to the man or woman of whom it can be said “What you see is what you get”. Honesty, integrity and transparency are hard to dismiss.

“Be like Christ – and be yourself” isn’t a bad summary of what it means to be a Christian, is it?

The other thing David knew, an even more important thing, was that he had to be true to God.

From its early days the church has always been tempted to ape the ways of the world… leaders dressed up in magnificent robes; buildings which make people gasp with admiration; impressive hierarchies of power. And you look on and ask, “What has all this to do with Jesus, the Galilean carpenter, crucified and risen from the dead?”

Even if we ourselves don’t belong to churches of that kind, let’s not be smug. We live in a world where many more “ordinary” churches have adopted the techniques of the world: management-speak, where pastors (shepherds, that is!) have become like managing directors or CEOs, where slick advertising and professionally modelled training courses (“Five steps to grow your church!”) are held up as guarantees of “success”.

Paul tells us that “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (1 Corinthians 10:4). If we feel like replying, “All right, Paul, can you be a little more explicit about what our weapons should be”, I think he would simply direct us to some words he wrote to Christians living out their lives in one of the most multi-cultural, multi-religious, corrupt, depraved cities in the ancient world, Ephesus.

Is it time to revisit Ephesians 6:10-20…? – for surely it’s no misuse of scripture to draw a clear, solid line all the way from David’s “five stones” to Paul’s “full armour of God”.

Lord God, in a world where there is so much emphasis on image and presentation, where there is so much deception and dishonesty, and where it’s so easy to get sucked into the world’s way of doing things, please help me to make it my single aim to be like Christ and be myself. Amen.

A slingful of stones (1)

Then he [David] took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine. 1 Samuel 17:40

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved… who correctly handles the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15

I recently read online a sermon about David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). One detail the preacher focused on was the “five smooth stones” which David took from the stream to go with the deadly weapon of his sling.

He obviously wanted to find an up-to-date application of these stones for us as modern Christians; so he suggested that they represent… faith, obedience, service, prayer and the Holy Spirit. To be fair to him, he wasn’t claiming “this is the one, true meaning” of the stones, but “suggesting” that they can helpfully be taken that way.

Fair enough. But others are not so restrained; they ferret out all sorts of weird and (most people would agree) not very wonderful meanings in Bible passages.

The Christian bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430) famously did this with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). You always thought this was a beautiful, simple story about compassion and generosity shown by an enemy, a foreigner, to a person in need? Well, sorry, but you got it wrong…

The “man” on the journey is in fact Adam. “Jerusalem”, where he is headed, is heaven. “Jericho”, where he’s travelling from, is the moon(!), which waxes and wanes and therefore represents mortality. The “robbers” are the devil and his angels. When they “strip him” they rob him of his immortality. When they “beat him” they persuade him to sin. The “priest and Levite” who fail to help him represent the now obsolete Old Testament covenant. The “Samaritan” (of course) is Jesus. The “wine and oil” he anoints the man with represent sin being dealt with. The “inn” to which the Samaritan takes the man is the church, and the “innkeeper” is an apostle. The “two coins” the Samaritan gives the innkeeper are the present life and the life to come.

So now you know…

I shouldn’t mock: Augustine was, by all accounts, a great teacher and a truly spiritual man. But who would dream of suggesting such an interpretation today? Can it be called an example of “correctly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)?

Where do these thoughts take us? Well, David’s five stones and Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan illustrate a vital distinction we should always keep in mind when we read, teach or preach the Bible. If you’ll pardon the technical terms (please bear with me), it’s the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis.

Exegesis is the attempt to “draw out” from the passage the meaning which is there (ex in Greek means “out of” or “from”). Eisegesis is the attempt to “put into” it a meaning which isn’t there (eis means “into”). Putting it in plain language, if you exegete a passage you aim to make its true meaning clear; if you eisegete it you foist on it your own agenda – putting it even more bluntly, you make it mean something you want it to mean, not something which is clearly there. And that’s not good.

Oh dear, I can see an objection heading my way… “Look, you said yourself that the man preaching on David’s stones was saying some helpful things, even if they’re not explicitly there in the passage. And even Augustine’s wacky interpretation can remind us of some great Bible truths. So wot’s yer problem, sunbeam?”

The problem is this: handling the Bible like this means that we can make it mean just about anything we like – including seriously wrong things. All we need is a bit of ingenuity and a willingness to twist it to suit our own prejudices.

The most obvious example is passages from books like Daniel and Revelation which describe strange visions and point towards “the last things”, the end of the world. How many sects and cults – some of them horribly dangerous and destructive – have been born from groups which treat these books for all the world like a mystical code, and which are convinced that (wahay!) they alone have cracked it?

The proper way to read the Bible is to follow the most natural sense. And if there are times (as there will be) when we are puzzled, isn’t it better, humbler (not to mention simply more honest) to say, “We really can’t be sure exactly what this passage means, so let’s rest content with that”? (1 Peter 3:19-20 or 1 Corinthians 11:2-12, particularly the bit about “the angels”, might be good examples from the New Testament.)

The Bible is God’s inspired word. But it isn’t always easy to understand, and even the parts that seem fairly straightforward are open to misuse. May we never be misled! Even more, may we never be guilty of misleading others!

Loving Father, please help me to approach your word with humility and wisdom, never reading into it ideas of my own, but always wanting, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to draw out its true meaning – and then to put it into practice. Amen.

(Having said all this, I think that David’s stones can legitimately signify  something very practical and helpful for us today – perhaps I’ll come back to it next time…)

A word about the world

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. James 4:4

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 1 John 2:15

There’s some pretty plain talking there, isn’t there?

James the brother of Jesus calls his readers “adulterous”, by which he means not that they are being unfaithful to their husbands or wives, but that they are playing fast and loose with God. Their “friendship” with the world amounts to “enmity” with God.

And John (almost certainly the son of Zebedee) tells his readers not to “love the world or anything in the world”.

In two little verses the word “world” occurs no less than five times – and not in a very good light. Christian, keep “the world” at arm’s length!

When I was a teenage Christian over fifty years ago the word “worldly” was much in use to warn us off various things. These weren’t only the out-and-out sinful things – they were taken for granted – but what you might call questionable things. Pop music was worldly; make-up was worldly; television (especially on Sundays) was worldly. Gambling; alcohol; the cinema; smoking; certain sorts of books, papers and magazines… worldly!

Things have changed. Which raises the question: have we “lowered our standards” (bad)?; or have we been released from a kind of Pharisaic legalism (good)? I’ll leave each of us to make up our minds on that…

Given that the New Testament uses the word “world” so frequently, and given that very often it gives it a bad press (as they say), let’s ask:  what in fact does it mean by the word? More to the point, what were James and John really saying in those curt little verses I have quoted?

At risk of stating the obvious, we can be pretty confident of certain things they didn’t mean. They weren’t referring to the “natural” world: the oceans and the mountains; beautiful flowers; the laugh of a baby; the glory of the night sky.

Neither were they talking about natural goodness, or “common grace”:  the love that springs up between husband and wife or between friends; acts of kindness or courage or compassion or sacrifice. Genesis 1 tells us that when God created the world it was “good”, even “very good”, and even though it soon became a fallen, sinful world – as we learn from Genesis 3 – it still contained much that is good and beautiful.

No. Usually when the Bible speaks of “the world”, it is talking about the world in its tragic corruption and separation from God. This is the world into which we are all born, and the longer we live the more likely we are to get sucked deeper and deeper into its “worldly” ways.

What James and John are reminding their readers of is that following Jesus means being drawn out of that world into a whole new dimension of reality – a dimension that is pure and holy. This, of course, is why conversion to Christ is marked by the act of baptism – a symbolic washing, a purification. This is why Jesus spoke of entering God’s kingdom as being “born again”; you are a new person who is setting out to learn what it is to live in God’s new world.

There are many New Testament passages which, so to speak, put flesh on the bones of this great truth. Here are just two…

First, Paul in Galatians 5:19-21: The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like… 

That’s quite a list!

The trouble with lists, of course, is that it’s very tempting to simply skim through them. May I suggest we take a few minutes to pray through that list, pausing for a moment on each item. We may be able to move on quite quickly, which is fine – but time spent pondering the one or two items that won’t allow our consciences to do that… well, that is time well spent.

(I would suggest too that once we’ve prayed our way through that list, we then go on to Paul’s next list, in verses 22-23, and repeat the exercise. What a wonderful contrast!)

And now here is Jesus, not enumerating individual sins, but challenging us with a simple metaphor: Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13-14).

Doesn’t that sum up perfectly what James means by “not being friends with the world”? and what John means by “not loving the world”?

And doesn’t it sum up perfectly what a privilege it is to belong to the new, pure, beautiful and holy world that God is patiently and lovingly creating?

Holy God, thank you for the wonderful, beautiful world into which I have been born, and for all the good things I can enjoy. But please help me to hate all that is corrupt and bad about it, and to grow in the purity and holiness which are in Christ. Amen.

An interesting man…

When they [the members of the Sanhedrin] heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them [the apostles] to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 

Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men… I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Acts 5:33-40

An interesting man, Gamaliel.

A Pharisee, he was highly honoured among the Jews, both as a teacher of the law and as a man of great godliness. (According to Acts 22:3, Saul of Tarsus, known to us as the apostle Paul, was a student of his.) Here in Acts 5 we see him in action…

The Jewish council (the Sanhedrin) has met to decide how to stop the apostles from preaching about Jesus. We read that “they were furious and wanted to put them to death”. But Gamaliel stands up and advises caution: “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Luke adds, “His speech persuaded them”. And so the apostles were allowed to go free (though only after being flogged).

It’s a fascinating little episode. It triggers various thoughts…

First, a warning: beware of prejudice!

Gamaliel’s intervention reminds us that while, in general, the Pharisees were very anti-Jesus (Jesus himself of course was pretty stern with them, calling them “hypocrites”) there was another side to the picture. Though Gamaliel was a Pharisee, he spoke up in defence of the apostles.

Luke also tells us in his Gospel that on at least three occasions Jesus was invited to meals in the homes of Pharisees (7:36, 11:37, 14:1). Pharisees could be friendly!

And let’s not forget Nicodemus. This man who “came to Jesus by night”, a “teacher of Israel” who addressed this Galilean nobody Jesus as “Rabbi”, as a “teacher who has come from God” (John 3); this man, who helped Joseph of Arimathea give dignified burial to the body of Jesus (John 19); this humble, teachable man Nicodemus was… yes, a Pharisee (John 3:1).

The Pharisees as a whole were indeed enemies of Jesus; but it seems they weren’t all bad!

It’s very natural to us, when we come across groups of people we disagree with, to dismiss them out of hand, to “tar them all with the same brush”. But that is prejudice. If only we would take the time and trouble to get to know them a little we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised. If only we could summon up a little of the humility of Nicodemus we might find we have things to learn from people we arrogantly thought ourselves superior to. Are we up for that?

Beware of prejudice!

Second, going back to Acts 5, a question: Should we praise Gamaliel for his wisdom and moderation, or should we criticise him for sitting on the fence? I think you can probably guess what answer I would give to that question!

I heard a well-known preacher once denounce Gamaliel for his failure to stand up firmly for Jesus. He took him as a type of a particular person – the person who wants to have it both ways and who is afraid to risk everything for Christ’s sake.

I was a very young Christian at the time – I think I may have been still in my teens. But even then I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable with this understanding of the Gamaliel story. It wasn’t until much later, with a little added maturity, that I was able to put my finger on why.

What I came to see was this. These were still the very early days of the Gospel – Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t make clear how long it has been since the events of the first Easter; but you certainly get the impression that it was only a matter of weeks, perhaps even just days.

So can we really expect Gamaliel to have already worked out his response to the preaching of Christ crucified and risen? I personally don’t think so.

So where does this lead us?

Just here: Gamaliel reminds us that every man and woman is on a journey when it comes to their thinking about God – just as we ourselves were (and still are). And journeys, by their very nature, take time. It’s true that those who know the truth of the gospel well but refuse to say yes to it are in a bad way: for Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).

Yes, indeed. But didn’t Jesus also say, “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50)? And doesn’t that fit Gamaliel’s position exactly?

The fact is that, to our very limited eyes, not everything is cut and dried, black and white. Let’s have the humility to recognise that reality – and, perhaps, see Gamaliel as a good example of it.

Thank God that he alone knows the truth about every individual, and that he alone is equipped to judge. Who knows? – we may be rubbing shoulders with Gamaliels every day of our lives…

Father, I pray for all the Gamaliels in my life – please use me to draw them to that point of putting their trust in Jesus crucified and risen. Amen.

A duty of love

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back,remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20

Meeting via Zoom or whatever isn’t great, is it? But, as we keep reminding ourselves, it’s better than nothing. At least we see one another’s friendly faces and hear one another’s voices, however briefly. So we thank God for it.

But “Zoom-fatigue” is becoming more and more of a problem. A friend said recently that he was finding it so difficult that he knew he might be in danger of drifting away from church altogether. You could, if you liked, reply without much sympathy, “Well, given that you recognise the danger, it’s up to you to make sure that doesn’t happen! Get your sleeves rolled up! We all have a responsibility to maintain and safeguard our own relationship with God.” True enough.

But that may be easier said than done, depending on a person’s prior spiritual strength and state of physical and mental health. Which means – and this is the key point – that all of us have a responsibility to look out for those we know who could be in danger.

Again, you might say “But isn’t that the pastor’s job?”, and of course you would be right. But the New Testament suggests that while churches do indeed need pastors who are specially set aside for that role, there is a sense in which we can all be pastors to one another.

James finishes his short, quick-fire letter with this reminder: we all have a responsibility for any fellow-believer who might “wander from the truth”. He suggests that “someone” (ie, not necessarily the pastor) might “bring that person back”, that “whoever” we are (again, not necessarily the pastor) we should recognise our responsibility.

A little earlier, in verse 14, he writes about people who are in need of healing, and suggests that ministering to them may well be a task for people who are specially equipped for it – “let them call the elders of the church to pray over them”. But he makes no such stipulation when it comes to those who drift away.

This raises an obvious question, especially for those of us who may feel fairly secure in our faith: Should I be doing something for people who seem to have quietly disappeared from our online meetings? If, over the weeks, they had gone missing from a normal Sunday morning service, we would probably have noticed fairly quickly. How much easier it is for them to disappear without trace from our virtual gatherings.

It’s worth remembering that appearances can be deceptive. There may be someone we have known for many years, and who we have always looked up to as a strong, solid Christian, but who now finds themselves struggling. I personally can think of someone who was truly a long-standing pillar of the church – always strong, always reliable, always cheerful – but who suddenly, quite out of the blue, slipped into a period of depression.

And while it’s very natural to expect the church’s official leaders to be getting on with the job of pastoring – well, what about the pastors themselves? Very likely they give the impression (I nearly said “project an image”) of constant cheerfulness and super-competence, but who knows if they are quietly breaking up inside?

So what’s to do?

James’s words, I think, are more about people who are consciously lapsing back into sin rather than those struggling under more neutral pressures. But the same principle applies.

So this is simply a call to each of us to keep our spiritual eyes open and to keep our spiritual antennae raised. Not, of course, that we should go grubbing around in other people’s business: God forbid. But, well – it’s all about love really, isn’t it?

Who knows what an email or message, a phone call or card, might achieve? Something as simple as that could be a turning point in someone’s life: as James puts it, “whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins”.

Jesus described himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Did he ever speak a more beautiful word? And did he ever tell a more beautiful story than that of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the open country (presumably under someone’s care!) in order to go after the one lost sheep until he found it (Luke 15:3-7)?

Need we say more?

Dear Father in heaven, thank you for Jesus, my good shepherd, who watches over me and prays for me. Thank you too for loving under-shepherds who have looked out for me over the years. Put into my mind right now, I pray, someone who I in my turn should be looking out for. Amen.