Are you beautifully dressed?

… clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ… Romans 13:14

I don’t know how fashion-conscious you are. Are clothes important enough for you to spend a lot on them? Or are you happy to rummage round in the local charity shops? (One prominent politician I read about was described as “having couture by Oxfam” – and “Good for you!” I thought.)

Whatever… It would certainly seem strange to talk of dressing in a person, as if you could “wear” somebody else.

But that is exactly what Paul does here in Romans 13. In verse 12 he has told his readers to “put on the armour of light”, and that is something we can understand quite well, even if we personally have never buckled on a suit of armour in our lives. But now in verse 14 he goes on to say: “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ”.

Taken literally it is of course nonsense; but we know perfectly well what Paul means – that we are to be men and women in whom Jesus himself is seen. I put it to myself like this: my greatest ambition in life should be that when other people look at me they actually see Jesus.

All right, they may not be aware that they’re seeing Jesus. They may just say to themselves something like “There’s something about that person”, or “He’s different somehow” (as long, of course, as what they see is impressive and challenging, not just “Mmm, he’s a bit odd”!)

Given that they probably never read the Bible or a Christian book or listen to a sermon, very likely the nearest most people ever come to seeing Jesus is when they see… you or me. A humbling thought? Yes, I think so too.

I knew somebody once who used to consciously “dress” herself every morning in the “full armour of God” that Paul describes in Ephesians 6:10-17. In a spirit of prayer she would picture herself putting on “the belt of truth”, “the breastplate of righteousness” and so on, and picking up “the shield of faith” and “the sword of the Spirit”. That may seem a little “over-the-top”; but she said she found it helpful, so who are we to question it? All I know is that she was a person who truly reflected Jesus.

I’m sure it goes without saying that Paul’s illustration shouldn’t be pressed too far – there wouldn’t be much point in clothing ourselves in Christ if (so to speak) we still have a mucky, sweaty t-shirt underneath.

Of course not. Paul’s image is flexible, and elsewhere he uses it as a once-for-all picture of conversion (take a look at Galatians 3:27). He assumes that (as Charles Wesley put it in his great hymn) we are all “clothed in righteousness divine” by virtue of our faith in Jesus. But aren’t there times when, however illogical it might seem, once-for-all events do in fact need to be repeated?

The only time I have ever worn a uniform as a regular thing was when I was at school – picture me (if you like!) in my white shirt (a bit grubby) , my tie complete with crest, my black blazer (with badge) and, of course, a ridiculously tiny cap perched on my head. This get-up declared me to be a pupil of Henry Thornton Grammar School for Boys, Clapham Common, South Side.

Oh happy bygone days! But as I think about them it occurs to me that donning a uniform like that does in a sense make you a new person. No longer just Colin Sedgwick, spotty adolescent; but Colin Sedgwick, proud student at this particular establishment and aiming for the academic heights (ho ho).

Our older son is an officer in the merchant navy, plying his trade week by week between Dover and Calais. The only time I’ve ever seen him in uniform was on his wedding day. But I have seen photos. And when I look at them I find myself thinking “Is that really Christopher! – my, he looks, well, a positively respectable and responsible young man! A different person!”

I mustn’t stretch this too far, of course. But wearing a uniform does add a significant new dimension to the person you are. And if that’s true of some earthly uniform, how much more of our “uniform” of Jesus? Just repeating to ourselves, as we go about our business, the wonderful truth “I am clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ!” should put a spring in our step, a light in our eyes, and a steel in our will. Why not try it?

Just one further thought… at the end of the school day I was naturally glad to strip off my school uniform. Back to just “me”.

But of course I must never do that with Jesus. Indeed, I can never do that with Jesus. Once you have put him on, why would you ever take him off!

Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me;/ All his wondrous compassion and purity./ Oh, thou Spirit divine, all my nature refine,/ Till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me. Amen. (Albert Orsborn)

The perfect time for baptism

As they travelled along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What’s to stop me being baptised?”… Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptised him. Acts 8:36-38

I’m sure there are times in your life when everything just seems to go wrong – plans don’t work out, people miss appointments, a car or a computer misbehaves, a child gets sick and… well, grrr!

It happens to all of us. But occasionally, on the other hand – just very occasionally! – everything seems to go right, and this time instead of grrr! it’s wahay!

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is a perfect example. The events run like clockwork.

Here is this man – something like the chancellor of the exchequer of the queen of Ethiopia. He’s sitting in his splendid cart travelling home with his entourage from a visit to Jerusalem. Though almost certainly not himself a Jew, he obviously has an interest in the Jewish faith, for he is reading the Old Testament scriptures. God’s servant Philip hears him reading (people tended to read out loud in the ancient world), so he runs up to him and gets into conversation.

In a very short time the subject turns to Jesus, the eunuch becomes a believer, and Philip baptises him. How’s that for a good day’s work?

Let’s come completely clean and say: I am hoping that somebody reading this today will do just what the eunuch did then – believe in Jesus and get baptised. Could that somebody be you?

See how perfectly the details of the story slot together…

The eunuch is in just the right frame of mind. He has been worshipping God in Jerusalem, and now he is filling his mind with the Bible.

Philip is in just the right place at the right time. He has been in Samaria, north of Jerusalem, when an angel tells him to head south towards the city of Gaza, perhaps some fifty miles away. It is there he happens (pure coincidence, of course!) across the Ethiopian’s convoy.

The Ethiopian is reading just the right part of the Bible. Not Leviticus or the Song of Solomon (fine though of course they are) but Isaiah 53, one of the most gospel-soaked passages you could imagine: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice…” The Ethiopian is intrigued by this, but puzzled too: who is this “he”? who can this mysterious person be? Is the prophet writing about himself?

Philip is just the right person to explain. He isn’t one of the twelve (that’s another Philip), but he has been appointed as one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:5-6), and has been evangelising in Samaria. So what better person to “begin with that very passage and tell him the good news about Jesus”?

I imagine the conversation must have gone on for some little time, because Philip had a lot to fit in. But not too long, because the essence of the gospel is really very simple: Jesus, God’s Son, suffered and died to bring us forgiveness of sins, and then rose again to give us new life. All we need to do is gladly receive him by faith.

Some water appears at just the right moment. Yes, right there in the desert! “Look, here is water” points the eunuch. Well, fancy that.

The eunuch asks just the right question: “Why shouldn’t I be baptised?” Why not indeed? Presumably he has picked up some understanding of baptism either in Jerusalem or from Philip.

Philip did just the right thing: he and the eunuch “went down into the water and Philip baptised him.” Can you picture the scene? – as the sun blazes out of a blue sky, the eunuch, with all his companions and servants, are gathered round to witness this strange event. Some, perhaps, were completely puzzled by what was going on; others just curious; others, perhaps, respectful and very serious. But who cared? – the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing”, for this was the day his life changed for ever (and the day too, incidentally, when the gospel came to Africa).

And why shouldn’t it be the same for you? Perhaps for a long time you have been thinking about putting your trust in Jesus and yielding your life to him. Well, why not take a leaf out of the eunuch’s note book – for he didn’t waste any time, did he?

All right, I don’t imagine it will be practical to get baptised this very day, but why not set things in motion by talking to some appropriate person in your life? You need to mean business (if I can put it that way), and you need to be clear what you are doing. But as long as you do, I confidently predict that you will do just what the eunuch did: you will “go on your way rejoicing”.

May God bless you indeed as you do so!

Here is a prayer you might like to pray…

Lord God, here and now I declare my faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, and receive him as my Lord and Saviour. I claim the forgiveness of all my sins and the gift of eternal life. Please help me, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live a life of trust and obedience until that day when I see Jesus face to face. Amen.

Enjoying God

Taste and see that the Lord is good. Psalm 34:8

If I were to ask you “Do you believe in God?”, I suspect that very likely you would say yes (I think that most people who read this blog are Christians, after all). And suppose I asked “Do you obey God?”. I guess that you would answer “Well, I certainly aim to, though I often fall short.” So what about “Do you love God?” Again, I think very likely you would say “Well, I genuinely mean to, though I wish I loved him more!”

All right. Then what about “Do you enjoy God?” Could you say that?

You might reply “But the Bible never tells us to enjoy God!” Well, perhaps not in quite those words. But there are many places where it tells us to “rejoice in the Lord” and such like. And here in Psalm 34 we are told to “taste and see that the Lord is good”, or, as the Good News Bible puts it, “Find out for yourself how good the Lord is.” That sounds to me pretty much like an invitation to enjoy God.

It has obviously struck earlier generations of Christians that way too. A summary of Christian faith from nearly four hundred years ago (it’s called the Westminster Shorter Catechism) says that “the duty of man” is “to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.” I like that!

Two questions spring to mind…

First, what does it mean to enjoy God?

It’s hard to sum up, but I would put it something like this… To live a life where every little nook and cranny of your being is soaked in the presence of God; to know that, through Jesus’ cross, all your sins are forgiven and your eternal life is assured; to have the Holy Spirit within you, prompting you to pray, worship, and live a Christlike life; to have a hope and a meaning right now in your earthly life, as well as beyond death.

Much more too, of course; but that’s perhaps the basics. Jesus said that he had come so that we might “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). So to enjoy God is to know him as Father and Friend, and to walk hand-in-hand with him day by day.

But then the second question: what factors spoil our enjoyment of God? Why do we find this aim so unrealistic?

I’ve picked out what I think are the three main problems…

  1. Sin – obviously.

This is far and away the major factor. God calls us to a pure and holy life, so if we flirt with sin – or, worse, brazenly embrace it – there is no way we will ever enjoy God.

I’m not talking about times we genuinely struggle against sin but fall short. Of course, that happens to all of us, because we are all sinners, even those who have been following Jesus for a whole life-time. No; I’m talking about the danger of allowing our hearts to become hard and cold, of putting our consciences to sleep. If that’s where we’re at, we might as well drop any hope of enjoying God. Forget it.

  1. Anxiety.

Is this our biggest enemy when it comes to enjoying God? Let’s be realistic: there’s no easy answer to it. We all have anxieties – over health or family, work or money, etc, etc – and these anxieties can’t just be wafted away as if with a magic wand.

Peter tells us (1 Peter 5:7) to “cast all your anxiety” upon God, and though that may sound very simple, in fact it isn’t. No, it calls for a real effort of will (cast is an “effortful” word!). Indeed, it’s a battle we will be fighting till the day we die. But by God’s grace it can be won. Anxiety needs to be hammered firmly on the head every time it rears up.

  1. Busyness.

This brings up the rear, but it’s also a big factor. Life is just so busy! – it’s hard enough sometimes squeezing God in at the corners of our lives, never mind enjoying him. And to make matters worse, often it’s busyness about God’s work – church matters, ministry responsibilities, meetings, agendas, committees, you name it – that prevents us enjoying God. Yes, we are so busy doing God’s work that we can’t enjoy him. How crazy is that!

The Bible tells us to “be still” and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). Jesus told his disciples to “come away and rest” for a while (Mark 6:31). Jesus commended Mary for sitting listening at his feet (Luke 10:41-42). For us, this may amount to not much more than the occasional snatched fifteen minutes; but it will be worth it.

Our promise and our hope is that we are going to enjoy God for ever. So let’s make a start now! Yes – taste and see…

To be in your presence,/ To sit at your feet,/ Where your love surrounds me,/ And makes me complete./ This is my desire, O Lord,/ This is my desire… Amen. (Noel Richards)

Childlike – or childish?

Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it”. Mark 10:15

When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 1 Corinthians 13:11

Somebody asked me recently how I would explain the “apparent conflict” between these two verses.

On the one hand Jesus tells his followers that they must “receive the kingdom of God like a little child” if they are to have any hope of entering it. On the other, Paul tells the Christians of Corinth that “when I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me”.

A contradiction? I don’t think so.

Jesus and Paul are speaking in completely different contexts and addressing completely different situations.

Talking about how men and women can enter the kingdom of God, Jesus vividly cuts the ground from under the feet of anyone who imagines they can do this under their own steam – by their own goodness, effort or “religiousness”.

No! he says. The only way to enter the kingdom of God is to receive it as a free gift, just as a small child will reach out their hand to take something from an adult. It’s all to do with innocence, dependence and trust.

Jesus, I’m sure, was very well aware that children can be quarrelsome, selfish and difficult – no way would he idealise them as “little angels”! – but the point he is emphasising is that small children can literally do nothing for themselves. And, by the same token, just as they depend utterly on trusted adults, so we can do nothing for ourselves in terms of entering God’s kingdom; we can only trust totally in God our heavenly Father.

Paul, on the other hand, is speaking into a very different situation. Putting it bluntly, he is thoroughly brassed off with the childishness of the Christians of Corinth. See what he says in 3:2: “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit, but as people who are still worldly – mere infants in Christ…”

All sorts of bad things are happening in the church, and it seems that they couldn’t care less. Skim through the letter and you find: factions and divisions; immoral behaviour (not just tolerated but delighted in); chaotic worship services; church members hauling one another up before the pagan law courts; the communion meal turned into an excuse for gluttony and drunkenness. What’s going on!

They’re no better than a bunch of children squabbling and fighting in the playground!

And it’s in this context that Paul suggests that it’s high time they “put the ways of childhood behind them”.

I think a good way to sum it all up is this: Childlike – good, yes! Childish – bad, no!

The two passages highlight a vital principle of Bible interpretation, and also pose a two-fold challenge.

The principle of interpretation is: When you read the Bible, always see the verse or passage in context. Don’t just yank verses out like a fish on a line and read into them whatever meaning you fancy. That can lead to serious error.

The first challenge is: Would you like to enter the kingdom of God? – that means, have your sins forgiven, receive the gift of eternal life, become a son or daughter of God the Father.

Yes? Then whatever you do, don’t try and do anything. Salvation is a free gift, and it cannot be earned, deserved or paid for. Just reach out your hands in simple, childlike trust and take from God what he is overjoyed to offer you. It’s that simple; it really is!

The second challenge: Are you already in the kingdom of God? Perhaps you came to faith in Christ many years ago, and still today you are part of the church. That’s good. But… how mature are you? How grown up?

Have you taken the time and trouble to deepen your faith and knowledge? Have you consciously tried to develop Christlike holiness and thoughtful discipleship?

Or (if the truth were known) are you a bit like those petty, childish Corinthian Christians to whom Paul says, in effect, “Will you please, please, please grow up!”?

Paul wasn’t the only church leader to know this kind of frustration. The unknown writer of the letter to the Hebrews had it just the same. He scolds his readers, “You need milk, not solid food!” He urges them to “move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…” (Hebrews 5:12-6:1).

It seems that spiritual immaturity has been a curse of the church down through two thousand years. Make sure you’re not perpetuating it!

Dear Father in heaven, help me to be, as Jesus said, as shrewd as a snake and as harmless as a dove. Amen.

Thinking about dying

Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Philippians 1:21

Every couple of weeks I attend a small poetry-reading group (oh, what wild, crazy, nefarious activities we retirees get up to!).

Recently someone read a poem by the Welshman Dylan Thomas – you may very well know it. It doesn’t have a title, but is known by its first line: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The “good night” referred to is death, and the person Thomas is addressing is his father. He is pleading with his dying father not to meekly submit (“go gentle”) to the approach of death: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I know nothing about the circumstances of Thomas’ father’s death, and I certainly would never pass any kind of judgment. But I couldn’t help but feel how sad those words are – and how alien to the Christian understanding of death.

Christianity is never sentimental about death. Paul bluntly refers to it as an enemy – “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

And though I love the old hymn based on words of Francis of Assisi, “All creatures of our God and King”, I must admit I’ve never felt comfortable with the verse that starts, “And thou, most kind and gentle death,/ Waiting to hush our latest breath…”

No! Death may indeed come as “kind and gentle” to a very tiny minority; but it’s not like that in the experience of most people, and that’s not how the Bible sees it: “enemy” will do for me, thanks very much!

But Christianity is all about hope, even in the face of death: at its heart is the greatest story ever told – that death, though certainly an enemy, is a defeated enemy, overcome not in some “spiritual” or “mystical” sense, but in hard physical reality on that first Easter morning. Jesus died; and Jesus rose again. Hallelujah!

Personally, I have no wish to die. I shrink from the very thought. I enjoy this life too much, and feel that there is still a lot of living, and loving, to do. No doubt I will cling to life as long as I can – that’s just a natural part of the way we human beings are made. Probably you feel the same.

But when that time comes I hope that God, in his grace, will help me not to “rage, rage”, not to “burn and rave at close of day”, but to approach death with the attitude of Paul: “to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

What extraordinary words those are! Have you ever seriously reflected on them? If they mean anything at all, they mean that, whatever he or she may lose, the Christian can only gain by dying.

Jesus knew better than anyone the horror of death. His suffering wasn’t just physical, but far worse – the suffering of being abandoned by his heavenly Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried (Matthew 27:46). But at the end he was able to pray – and “with a loud voice” too! – “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). John adds the vivid detail: “With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). Forgive the cliché but… what a way to go!

Paul brings his great resurrection chapter (1 Corinthians 15) to a climax with words of victory and triumph, some of them echoing Old Testament passages: “ ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ … But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” No burning, raging or raving there!

Why don’t we proclaim this breath-taking, life-changing, joy-giving truth more loudly? We need it for ourselves – oh, how we need it for ourselves! – for, unless Jesus returns first, we are all going to die. But, still more, our sad, troubled, frightened world needs it too – yes, your friends, your family and your neighbours, and mine. Trumpet it to all and sundry – and not just once a year when Easter happens to have come round!

I’ve quoted a hymn that I can’t really sing with conviction. But here’s another one that, so refreshingly, faces death head on. By Matt Redman, it’s being sung everywhere – and deservedly so, I think…

And on that day when my strength is failing,/ The end draws near and my time has come,/ Still my soul will sing your praise unending,/Ten thousand years and then forevermore…

I can sing that all right! – with the unspoken prayer at the same time “Yes, Lord, may it indeed be so!”

What about you?

Lord God, help me to live fully in Christ – and then to die triumphantly in him. Amen.

The trouble with vacuums

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour… Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work… so that they may have something to share with those in need. Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up… Ephesians 4:25-29

A vacuum is defined, apparently, as “space devoid of matter”. To you and me, in plain terms: emptiness.

Vacuums can be used by scientists – which is why, when I was a child and we went out for the day, we were grateful for a wonderful invention called a “vacuum flask” to keep our tea hot. And why, to this day, we still clean our homes with a “vacuum cleaner”. (What these devices have to do with vacuums I haven’t a clue, but who cares? – they work, and that’s what matters, so three cheers for vacuums, say I.)

But there is a saying from the ancient world which points out a problem: Nature hates a vacuum. Which means, presumably, that a vacuum is not likely to stay empty for long – all sorts of things, presumably nasty things, will come muscling their way in to fill it (a bit like a garden-shed, I suppose, or a top drawer, or a spare room, or a loft).

But if nature hates a vacuum, it’s also true that the devil loves a vacuum. Which is why, as Christians, we are called to fill our lives with good things, not just empty them of bad things. The negative must be replaced by the positive.

See what Paul says to the Ephesian Christians…

They must “put off falsehood”, ie, stop lying and deceiving. But Paul doesn’t stop there: they are also to “speak truthfully to your neighbour”. Thieves must “steal no longer”. But again he doesn’t stop there: they are also to “work, doing something useful”, and, even more, to “have something to give to the poor”. Again, they are not “to let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths”, but “only what is helpful… that it may benefit those who listen”.

In short, while it’s obviously good to stop lying, stealing and speaking badly, etc, it’s vital then to replace these bad practices with good and wholesome ones. If you don’t, you’re inviting all sorts of nasties to fill the vacuum. An alcoholic may succeed in stopping drinking: great. But they need then to find other things with which to fill the emptiness.

Think Zacchaeus (Luke 19). He was, it seems, a greedy little thief, using his official role as a tax-collector to defraud people and line his own pockets. But then he met Jesus, and his life was transformed as he felt the warmth of his purity and love. So what did he say – “All right, Lord, I promise not to steal and defraud any more”? No: “Look, Lord, here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” Luke 19:8) Wow!

Zacchaeus made that extravagant promise out of the sheer joy of being loved and forgiven. But perhaps he also instinctively sensed that the new vacuum in his life needed to be filled with good things.

Or think of Jesus’ strange parable of the “impure spirits” (Matthew 12:43-45). A man is cleansed of a wicked spirit’s presence; which is great. But the spirit cannot find alternative accommodation, so decides to “return to the house I left”. This he now finds to be “unoccupied [note that], swept clean and put in order”; so, thinking “Yay, this is my lucky day!”, he runs off and collects “seven other spirits more wicked” than himself to live there – “and the final condition of that person is worse than the first”.

I don’t claim to know the full meaning of that story (Jesus seems to apply it to the nation of Israel as a whole, not only to individuals). But it certainly confirms the thought that the devil loves a vacuum, and is very adept at filling it.

How can we avoid this danger? How can we act to replace the negative with the positive?

It calls for clear thinking, God-given discernment, and strict self-discipline – not to mention also the support of fellow-Christians and other friends. It’s a long-term project, not a quick fix.

But what a sense of achievement and satisfaction it brings! It means that we are becoming the kind of human beings God created us to be: being re-made, in fact, in the likeness of Jesus.

Paul himself puts it clearly a little earlier: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

To change the picture: gardening can be hard work – but who doesn’t prefer flowers to weeds?

Fill thou my life, O Lord my God,/ In every part with praise,/ That my whole being may proclaim/ Thy being and thy ways. Amen. (Horatius Bonar)

Unconditional love and uncompromising holiness

For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5

The famous Victorian preacher C H Spurgeon once told his students, “Preach much upon the love of God; more flies are caught by honey than by vinegar.”

What Christian could possibly disagree with that? God is love! – and people need to have this great truth repeatedly rammed home.

Christians often add another word and speak about “God’s unconditional love”, highlighting the fact that nothing we have done and nothing we have been, however wicked, need shut us out of God’s love.

This is why the word “gospel” means “good news”. (Good news indeed! – I do hope you have grasped it and found in it peace and joy.) God loves sinners, even the very worst of us.

But why then is it that certain passages in the Bible seem, on the surface at least, to be very lacking in God’s love? Where is the love, especially the unconditional love, in Paul’s shocked, angry, indignant words to the church in Corinth?

Paul has heard that there is a sex scandal in the church. He therefore tells the church in strong terms to get rid of the guilty person: his behaviour is a disgrace, and is bringing the church into disrepute.

Unconditional love? Everyone welcome?

The passage bristles with difficulties. Let’s quickly try and unravel one or two…

First, what does Paul mean when he says “… when I am with you in spirit”? Usually when he talks about the spirit he means the Holy Spirit. But here he seems simply to mean his influence, even his authority, as if to say, “You know perfectly well what I think about this unsavoury business, so just keep it in mind, will you, when you come together to decide what to do!”

Second, how can he say “I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this”? Didn’t that very same Lord Jesus say “Don’t judge” (Matthew 7:1)?

The best explanation is that Jesus meant  that we shouldn’t slip into the habit of condemning and criticising other people – looking down on them, despising them – for that is God’s business alone.

But there are extreme circumstances where, in order to safeguard its purity and integrity, the church has to act in effect as a court of law, and, like it or not, a verdict needs to be passed. And Paul leaves them in no doubt that this is just such a situation – nor what, as far as he is concerned, that verdict should be. (When you stop and think about it, what would the alternative be?)

Third, what does he mean when he tells them to act “when the power of our Lord Jesus is present”? How do Christians know when Jesus’ power is present? Something obviously supernatural happening? A display of the more spectacular spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues?

I doubt it. The simplest explanation is that he means an occasion when the church has gathered in a very solemn and serious frame of mind, and taken great care to commit their meeting to God. Jesus promised to be with his people “whenever two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20), and Paul is saying that this is to be a meeting where his presence is taken with deep seriousness.

Fourth, what can Paul possibly mean by “handing this man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh”? (If ever something sounded drastic, that surely is it!)

In essence, Paul is simply repeating his command from a little earlier, to “put this man out of your fellowship”, but he is phrasing it now in such a way as to bring home the spiritual significance of this.

The church is the realm that is in the process of being delivered from the power of the evil one, while the unbelieving world remains in the grip of Satan. So Paul is telling the church to expel this man – send him back into the darkness where he belongs.

It’s not entirely clear what he means by “the destruction of the flesh” – perhaps quite simply his death, or possibly some sickness or other physical affliction. But he clearly regards this treatment as, so to speak, intensive spiritual surgery.

But now we must come back to where we started. For yes, the man’s flesh may be destroyed, but then, says Paul… only “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord”.

Ah! Paul’s draconian verdict is intended to bring the man to his senses, to bring him to humble repentance, and so back into his relationship with God. It isn’t only to safeguard the purity of the church, but also to ensure the man’s ultimate salvation.

In a word, it is an act of love – all right, “tough love”, no doubt about that; but love all the same.

So… Is God’s love “unconditional”? Yes, it is. But let’s get it into our heads that he also calls for unconditional holiness among his precious people.

No messing; no compromise…

Lord God, give me a fresh vision of your perfect holiness, so that I will not tolerate sin and wickedness, whether it be in me personally or in the church of which I am a part. Amen.