Every Spiritual Blessing (Ephesians 1:3-14)

Last week we saw that the Book of Ephesians was actually written by Paul, to a group of discouraged Christians on the verge of giving up on their faith, and assimilating into the surrounding culture (Ephesians 3:13).

The Apostle Paul is hence writing to encourage them, and he starts by worshipping God! Ephesians 1:3-14 is actually one long sustained sentence of praise, sans punctuations in the Greek, starting with “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…”[1] This was Paul worshipping in prison! And he was inviting the Ephesians to join him in worship, in spite of their circumstances. But, this was not some vacuous call to worship. Paul gave solid reasons for why he and they could worship in difficulty. God has “blessed” them, with “every spiritual blessing” (Ephesians 1:3).

This blessing was Trinitarian in shape. It came from the “Father” (1:3), was “in Christ” (1:3, 4, 7, 13) and was from “spiritual” (1:3, πνευματικοσ), meaning that it came from the Holy Spirit. And, they were experienced in the “heavenly places” referring to a dimension of existence”, that is unseen, but no less real, where God, and the spiritual powers of evil dwell (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12)[2].

All three persons of the eternal Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are working harmoniously to make sure that God’s people received the blessings he intended for them!

But, what are these blessings? They come in three parts.

Firstly, the blessing of being chosen by the Father (1:4-6, 11). God the Father, “chose us… before the foundation of the world… to be holy and blameless” (1:4), “predestined us for adoption” (1:5), and we have “obtained an inheritance, having been predestined” (1:11) or, even better, we have been “made heirs, because we were predestined” (1:11). Now, these raise a number of questions, but it does seem to be exactly what the Bible teaches. And, we aren’t at liberty to change that. At the same time, should it really surprise us that the Bible would say things that might perplex us, even frustrate us? If God really is who He says He is, the highest being in the universe, infinitely more wise and intelligent than anyone, and the Bible was His word, would it not be obvious that it said some things that seem strange to us? Incidentally, this isn’t an issue unique to Christians. Other religions also have their version of the freewill versus predestination debate, and even secular philosophers debate determinism. And the debates will continue. Interestingly, in this context, Paul did not bring this issue up to confuse the Ephesians, and us he brought it up, to encourage them! Rightly understood, predestination and election should be immensely encouraging.

Why?

Because it shows that God is intentional and purposeful in blessing His people (Ephesians 1:5, 11). Though life may seem random, chaotic and out of control at times, for the believer, he or she can draw comfort from the fact that it is not. God has intentionally, purposefully, and wisely chosen to bless. Additionally, what is often missed is that the goal of predestination is familial. You are chose in “in Him”, Christ his Son (1:4), predestined “for adoption” (1:5), and “made an heir, having been predestined” (1:11). Adoption was common in the Greco-Roman world. It referred to the legal practice by which a father of a family accepted as his heir a child that was not his own[3]. And, this adopted child would enjoy the full rights of a natural born child! To be “holy and blameless” (1:4) was to share the family likeness! God is a loving Father, choosing someone, intentionally and purposefully to be His child! 

Secondly, the blessing of being redeemed by the Son (1:7-10, 12). This theme of “redemption” actually comes from the slave markets, where in those days someone could buy the freedom of a slave or a captive by paying a ransom price[4]. As the text implies, people have “trespassed” against God, and become captives or slaves to sin. And the ransom price is infinitely high because the trespass is infinitely heinous. Sin is trying to be God, to take His place, to grab His honour. It is very serious, and hence the penalty is high. Yet, God paid the penalty, He paid the ransom! It was costly. The “blood” of Jesus, that is the death of Jesus, was the price that had to be paid! This is a lavish blessing (Ephesians 1:8). God wasn’t being incredibly generous! He paid for you with the death of his very own Son! This is also an expansive blessing. Ephesians 1:9 says that in this redemption, God has made known to us the “mystery of his will”, that is, that God had “a plan… to unite all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10), through the Cross. Not only has Christ paid for individual sinners, His death has also paved the way for the entire universe, “all things in heaven… and on earth” to be restored! Through Christ’s blood, this broken world is being restored!

Thirdly, the blessing of being sealed by the Spirit (1:13-14). The third blessing is to be “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (1:13). Now, seals were used in those days, to guarantee the quality, authenticity or ownership of property or a legal document. It gave protection against tampering, and evidence against forgery[5]. Believers have been “signed, sealed, delivered” by the Holy Spirit who lives in them! They were sealed for their “salvation” (Ephesians 1:13). This means they are being preserved from the coming judgement. They were sealed, kept safe, permanently, from God’s coming judgment, or as Ephesians 4:30, puts it “sealed for the day of redemption”. God is going to make sure, that they will make it to the end. He guarantees it, by His Spirit! It also means that they have been given a “downpayment” of their “inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14). The Holy Spirit is like a foretaste of what is to come. What is this “inheritance”? Nothing short of the entire world, and its structures, restored and renewed. Romans 4:13 says that “Abraham and his offspring”, would be heirs of “the world”, of the restored creation, of the new world! You see the Holy Spirit comes into your life, and he gives you a taste of what God’s restored creation will be like. It’s a down payment, it’s not the whole thing yet, but it resembles it. One way we can see this tangibly is how the Holy Spirit works in the church to create an alternative society, alike, yet different from the world, where her members treat each other like they would in a world free of sin! It’s not going to be perfect before Christ comes again, but He has promised a taste of it, a guarantee of it!

But, why has God blessed them the way He has?

It is “to the praise of his glory” (1:8, 12, 14). God is blessing so that God looks good, so that He is shown to be glorious, gracious and amazing! So that He gets the glory! Now, doesn’t that sound a bit narcissistic and self-centred?

Well, it would be for anyone other than God. He really is worthy of all honour because of who He is. Created things have been designed to give glory to God, while God, by His nature is worthy of glory. So, you and I are designed to give glory, not grab it! That’s why we have the urge to go “Wow”, when we see a glorious sunrise, or a vast mountain, or a fantastic piece of art. What are we doing? We are giving glory away. And what do we get? Joy and enjoyment. That’s how we were made!

And, God being the ultimate being in the universe, when He gets glory, the universe works, as it should! When some else grabs His glory, that’s when things get really bad! And that is why, the answer to Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” is “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. We were made to give God glory. And, we get our fullest joy when we give God glory! We “enjoy Him forever”!

When God gets the glory, His attributes, what His character is like, is magnified. And one of the main attributes that is magnified, is the one that we most need from Him… 1:8 says that it is “to the praise of his glorious grace”. It’s his grace!

He chose you, redeemed you, and sealed you, not because you were very good, but precisely because we were so very bad! He did not choose, redeem and seal on the basis of your goodness, but on the basis of his grace!

God has blessed you with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” by His grace alone. He gets the glory. You get the joy. Amen.

 

References

[1] Frank Thielman Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids, M.I.: Baker Academic, 2010), 39.

[2] Thielman, 47.

[3] Thielman, 51.

[4] Thielman, 59-60; and John Stott The Message of Ephesians (Bible Speaks Today) (Downers Grove, I.L.: IVP, 1979), 34.

[5] Thielman, 80.

Christ Changes Everything (Ephesians 1:1-2)

 

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 1:1-2

In our very first weekly Launch Session, we looked at Ephesians 1:1-2, and considered why a letter written in AD62 is so important to church planting, and why we’ll be working through the whole letter in our times together.

All about Change

Ephesians is a letter written by a man changed by Jesus, to a group of people changed by Jesus, about the message of change through the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was Paul, a former persecutor of the church (Acts 9) who, “by the will of God” (Ephesians 1:1) became an “apostle”, a “messenger” of “Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1), “by the will of God” (Ephesians 1:1). And, he wrote to the “…the saints who are in Ephesus”, the church in Ephesus, that was a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22), of “wives”, “husbands”, “children”, “parents”, “slaves” and/or “masters” (5:22-6:9). They were “saints”, or “holy”, “set apart” for God. While in the Old Testament, that term was reserved for Israel (Exodus 19:5-6), here, anyone who is “faithful” (Ephesians 1:1), or, more accurately “believing” in “Christ Jesus” is a “saint”[1].

And, he asks God to give them “grace” and “peace”, God’s free and undeserved mercy, alongside the cessation of hostility. This is shorthand for the gospel. Through God’s “grace”, they were no longer enemies of God, but His friends[2]. The rest of the letter is a fleshing out of how this same gospel affects individuals, communities, and even the cosmos.

Change, the Church, and Discouragement

So, why is it important for church planting?

John Stott points out that Ephesians is the “gospel of the church” and shows that Paul is painting a glorious picture of “God’s new society”. One that “stands out in bright relief against the sombre background of the old world.” A society “characterised by life in place of death (2:1-10), by unity and reconciliation in place of division and alienation (2:11-22, 4:1-16), by the wholesome standards of righteousness in place of corruption and wickedness (4:17-32, 5:1-21), by love and peace in place of hatred and strife (5:22-6:9), and by unremitting conflict with evil in place of a flabby compromise with it (6:10-23)” [3]

And, very interestingly, Paul is actually giving this vision, to a group of incredibly discouraged Christians! In Ephesians 3:13, Paul tells them, “…I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you…” Paul had spent 3 glorious years at Ephesus (Acts 19:10; 20:31). He planted the church there (Acts 19:17-20, 26; 1 Corinthians 16:9), taught them, trained them, and appointed leaders for them[4]. Those were exciting times. But, at time of writing, 7 years had elapsed. And, Paul was in prison for 5 of those 7 years (Acts 28:30-31)![5]

At the same time, they were also feeling tension from their surrounding culture[6]. Ephesus was the headquarters of the cult of the goddess Diana (or Artemis). Her temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world[7]. The religious culture of Ephesus was saturated with idolatry, and obsessed with demons and magic. There was also the “imperial cult”. Everywhere in Ephesus, there were visual depictions of the emperor Augustus and his family. The people loved and worshipped them! There was also a complicated relationship between the Jewish and Gentile Christians[8]. And, in Paul’s absence, these groups had gone in all kinds of theological and social directions[9].

Everything in Ephesus reeked of power and influence. And here they were, poor Christians, worshipping a tortured, crucified saviour and following a jailed apostle. No wonder they were discouraged, and tempted to give up! Perhaps, we too might be tempted to be discouraged? Our idols may not be so physical, but they have no less a grip on the human heart – wealth, fame, power, sexual fulfilment etc. Who needs God and Christ and the church in such an environment?

Paul will show us that in God’s economy, true power comes through weakness. And, it is precisely through the weakness of a crucified saviour, that God is reconciling the world to Himself, “uniting all things in Christ” (1:10), putting “all things under his feet” (1:22).

Diana and Rome are long gone today, but Christ remains the one who has captured the hearts of millions and millions and millions and millions of people all around the world. And His reign is the only everlasting reign, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:21).

He is the one we seek to exalt, worship and proclaim through this new church. Join us this Saturday, 24 September 2016, 4-6pm as we look at “Every Spiritual Blessing” from Ephesians 1:3-14.

References

[1] The word πιστός can either mean, “having faith”, or “being faithful”. In Ephesians 1:13, the Ephesians are described as those who had “believed” in Jesus Christ. And so, contra the ESV, it seems that this word is better translated, “believers in Jesus Christ”. See, Frank Thielman Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids, M.I.: Baker Academic, 2010), 34; and John Stott The Message of Ephesians (Bible Speaks Today) (Downers Grove, I.L.: IVP, 1979), 22.

[2] Stott, 27.

[3] Stott, 9.

[4] Thielman, 16.

[5] Thielman, 28.

[6] Thielman, 28.

[7] Stott, 23.

[8] Thielman, 20-24.

[9] Thielman, 28.

Launch Sessions: Next steps in church planting

As a first step in our church-planting journey, we started in late-June 2016 with a series of prayer meetings, praying through The Lord’s Prayer. We started this way to acknowledge our complete dependence on God: “unless the Lord builds the house”, the Psalmist says, we “labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Along the way, we were challenged to both pray and organise, by the, probably overstated words of Presbyterian seminary professor and author, Richard F Lovelace:

Evangelicalism is in danger of becoming a tame lecture circuit, a kind of sanctified show business. Here is where Pentecostals and Charismatics reflect the authentic revival tradition of Protestantism. When they commence a venture, it is with hours of prayer, while with ordinary Evangelicals it is with hours of talk and organisation. The result is often that the Charismatics achieve supernatural results, while the rest of us obtain what is organisable [1].

We concluded our last prayer meeting last Friday, 2 September, and it was an encouragement seeing so many come out to pray with us. There is so much to give thanks for: Someone noted the blend of “structured prayer”, and “unstructured time” in our meetings. Another shared that praying through the Lord’s Prayer had been a “good reminder of the goodness and greatness of God”. Yet another said that praying through the Lord’s Prayer “line by line”, highlighted the “context and importance of each line”, and “framed the missional focus” of the church plant. Yet another felt “personally refreshed”,  became aware of “how much this must be God’s work, and not man’s”, and was challenged to be “disciplined in praying for the church plant” moving forwardThe prayer meetings might be over, but the focus on prayer will continue!

So, what’s next?

We will be starting weekly “Launch Sessions” from Saturday, 17 September from 4-6pm. These sessions are a place where people can “taste and see”, find out more and join the conversation, as we envision and establish this new church. We will sing, pray, and work through the “Book of Ephesians” together.

launchsessions

Concurrently, we’ve also been focusing on a lot of one-to-one discipleship, where we are reading the Bible, or a good book together. This helps us to deepen our knowledge of God, build stronger relationships, and develop potential leaders. In their book, “Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts”, Jim Griffith and William Easum tell us that “one of the recurring symptoms in failed church plants is premature birth”, by which they mean a church that has launched without “sufficient infrastructure and development to survive”[2]. One of the most important components of this “infrastructure” is leaders. Leaders who love God, and love others (Mark 12:30-31). Imperfect leaders, who have been changed and shaped by the gospel. Leaders who have experienced the grace of God, and who can then show grace and care for others. Among other things, we want to make sure these are in place before we launch Sunday Services.

Would you continue to pray for us as we move forward?

References

[1] Richard F Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, I.L.: IVP, 1979), 237.

[2] Jim Griffith, William Easum, Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts (St. Louis, M.O.: Chalice Press, 2008), 34.

Repentance, change & the Westminster Confession

Do you have habits and behaviours in your life that really want to change? At the same time, do you feel powerless to bring about that change? Do you even doubt if it is really possible to change? Does God provide a way for you to change?

The short answer is, “Yes”, and the means that He has provided is “repentance”. “Repentance” is such a key feature in the Christian life. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah declared, “in repentance and rest is your salvation” (Isaiah 30:15). Jesus’ first words as he begins his ministry is “Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Luke 24:47 declares, repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations”.

But, what exactly is it?

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) dedicates Chapter 15 to this very topic. Following Acts 11:15, it calls it “Repentance unto life”. In other words, repentance is an act that leads to spiritual life. WCF 15.1 says that that this repentance is an “evangelical grace”, or a “gospel grace”. Robert Shaw explains that this is to distinguish it from a “legal repentance”, which “flows” from “a dread of God’s wrath”. “Repentance unto life”,  flows, instead, from “faith in God’s mercy”. Robert Shaw goes on to say that in legal repentance, “the sinner is chiefly affected with the punishment to which his sin exposes him”, while in true repentance, “he mourns for his sin as offensive and dishonouring to God”.[1] This is reminiscent of Romans 2:4, where Paul says that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance”.

In his guide to the WCF, Chad Van Dixhoorn helpfully points out that,

“Sinners may sink into great depths of sorrow for sin, but we need to understand that remorse is not the same thing as repentance. What Paul calls a ‘godly sorrow’ is distinguished from ‘worldly sorrow’ by a Godward change (2 Cor. 7:11). True repentance not only sorrows for sin but sees a Saviour. This is so important to grasp. As we consider what God thinks of sin, we must also consider his mercy to sinners.”[2]

 Where do we find a good and robust definition of “repentance unto life”?

The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) gives a fairly good one:

Question 76: What is repentance unto life?

Repentance unto life is a saving grace[3], wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit[4] and Word of God[5], whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger[6], but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins[7], and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent[8], he so grieves for[9] and hates his sins[10], as that he turns from them all to God[11], purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience[12].

It is a free gift of God. It is brought about by God’s Spirit and God’s Word. It happens when sinners see not just the danger and filthiness of sin, but also the mercy of God in Christ. It produces a real grief, and hatred for sin. It results in a heartfelt turning to God, with a firm resolve to obey Him because of how good He is.

That’s God’s way of change. Shall we not embrace it?

References

[1] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (Inverness: Christian Focus Publications, 1973), 154-155.

[2] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), 195.

[3] 2 Timothy 2:25

[4] Zechariah 12:10

[5] Acts 11:18, 20-21

[6] Ezekiel 18:28, 30, 32

[7] Ezekiel 36:31, Isaiah 30:22

[8] Joel 2:12-13

[9] Jeremiah 31:18-19

[10] 2 Corinthians 7:11

[11] Acts 26:18, Ezekiel 14:6,1 Kings 8:47-48

[12] Psalm 119:6, 59, 128, Luke 1:6, 2 Kings 23:25

What faithful ministry looks like

In Acts 20:17-35, Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders/pastors to be faithful in discharging their duties. It is the mid-50s AD, he is on his 3rd missionary journey and on his way to Jerusalem, and takes a break at Miletus[1]. Paul had previously spent time in Ephesus, preaching the gospel and appointing elders for the church there. Miletus was only a day’s journey from Ephesus, and so he asked the Ephesian elders to take a trip to meet him there. It would turn out to be a tearful, poignant meeting as Paul urges them to be faithful in his absence[2]. There are at least five things that he puts forward about what faithful Christian ministry is like:

Firstly, ministers need to be examples to their people. In Acts 20:18 and 34, Paul declares that the Ephesian elders “know” how his manner of life. In Acts 20:28; he exhorts them, “Pay careful attention to yourselves…” Paul is urging them live a life worthy of imitation. They must serve humbly (Acts 20:19a), endure suffering (Acts 20:19b), eschew covetousness (Acts 20:33), work hard (Acts 20:34-35a), and help the weak (Acts 20:35b). As the 17th Century Puritan, Richard Baxter soberly put it:

“It is a palpable error of some ministers, who make such disproportion between their preaching and their living; who study hard to preach exactly, and study little or not at all to live exactly”[3].

Secondly, ministers need to preach all of God’s Word to all people. Paul did not “shrink (back) from declaring” (Acts 20:20,27) “anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20), but rather declared the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27b), that is “all that is part of God’s plan as it is tied to the preaching of the gospel”[4]. He called them to “repentance toward God” and “faith in our LORD Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21b), and preached “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), commending them to the “word of his grace” (Acts 20:32). He did so to “Jews and Greeks” (Acts 20:21a), to the extent that he can say he is “innocent of the blood of all” (Acts 20:21).

Thirdly, ministers need to recognise God’s call upon them. In Acts 20:22-24, Paul gives a glimpse into the inner workings of his spiritual life. He speaks of being “constrained by the Spirit”, and how the Spirit “testifies to Him”. He experienced a kind of “divine constraint” in his ministry[5]. Charles Bridges calls this a “special kindling”, “burning fire in the bosom” that causes one to “rise above difficulties”, “take pleasure in sacrifices” and “quicken to a readiness of mind”[6]. Ultimately though, Paul saw ministry as a gift, “received from the LORD Jesus…” (Acts 20:23), not an entitlement.

Fourthly, ministers need to genuinely care for God’s people. The mutual affection between Paul and the Ephesian elders is palpable. In their parting, they weep, embrace and kiss (Acts 20:36-37). Likewise, Paul exhorts them to “care for the church of God” because they are “obtained with his (God’s) own blood” (Acts 20:28). If God loved His church enough to shed His blood for them, the church is precious to Him. If so, the church should be precious to God’s under-shepherds too.

Fifthly, ministers need to refute false teaching. Finally, Paul urges the elders to be alert of false teaching, and to warn the flock. They “will come in among you”, “among your own selves” (Acts 20:29), and will speak “twisted things” to “draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Paul speaks with an air of certainty: they will appear, and they will draw the disciples away from Christ[7]. False teaching is subtle and dangerous. And so, the minister must teach God’s Word, and warn against error[8].

Paul presents for us what seems to be the very high and difficult call of a minister of God’s church. The stakes are so high – the concern the very souls of people. The great consolation we can have is to be assured that God does supply what the minister needs to be faithful. And He does this through the Gospel. That “gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), and “word of his grace” (Acts 20:32) that they are to preach is the very same message that they need themselves! Ultimately, they are commended to God not by the faithfulness of their ministry, but by the sheer grace of God. And it is through that sheer grace that they are then able to carry out a ministry faithful to God, according the God’s Word.

References

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Acts (BECNT; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 589.

[2] John R W Stott, The Message of Acts (BST; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 323.

[3] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (edited William Brown; East Preoria, IL: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 63.

[4] Bock, Acts, 629.

[5] Bock, Acts, 628.

[6] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry with An Inquiry into the Causes of Its Inefficiency (Edinburgh, UK; The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 95.

[7] Bock, Acts, 631.

[8] Stott, Message, 328.

The Lord’s Prayer & Our Needs

This Friday, 12 August, 7:30-9pm, we’ll be gathering for our 5th Prayer Meeting, and praying through the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).

Prayer Meeting 5

This is part of what has come to be known as “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:8-13), a prayer that Jesus taught His disciples. We’ve been praying through this prayer phrase by phrase, and have 3 prayer meetings, and 3 phrases left to go. Then we move to the next exciting phase of the church planting journey in September (watch this space!).

Why?

As we noted previously“The Lord’s Prayer” gives us a paradigm for how Christians people should pray. For example, Richard F Lovelace points out that the prayer begins “first with worship”, and then moves on to “the doing of his [God’s] will on earth”, the “coming of his kingdom”, and then, and only then does it turn to “immediate personal concerns”.

Some teaching on prayer today almost exclusively focuses on our “immediate personal concerns”, as if God’s will and God’s Kingdom is only ever to meet our needs. Other teaching may come across disdaining any hint at all of personal concern, as if it is somehow evil to ask God for what we need. “The Lord’s Prayer” is remarkably nuanced, and hence very instructive for us. It couches our personal concerns within the context of worship, of God’s will, and God’s kingdom. We are guided to “seek first the kingdom of God” (as it is put elsewhere, Matthew 6:33), before we are led to ask for our needs. That way, we ask for what we truly need, rather than what we think we need. So, the Scriptures ask us to ask God for what we need: “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7), “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God” (James 1:5) etc. And the Scriptures promise that God “gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5) and that He will give us, “everything we need for a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3). 

And so, we’ll come together to take God at His word this Friday, and ask Him for what we truly need as a community, and as His dearly loved children. Won’t you join us there?
Note:

Please do note some slight changes to the schedule for the 3 remaining prayer meetings. The last 2 will be on consecutive Fridays (26 August and 2 September) rather than every other Friday.

Changes to Prayer Meeting Dates

Lessons from the life of John Stott (1921-2011)

Last week, 27th July marked the 5th anniversary of the death of the influential British Anglican Evangelical leader John Stott (27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011). Less known to the current generation of evangelicals, his legacy has nonetheless left an oft-hidden mark on much of the evangelical Christian world we know today.

I had the privilege of listening to him while at university in London in the late 1990s. He was in his 70s by then, mostly retired, but still a member of his life-long church, All Souls, Langham Place. His messages were never flashy, but always clear. And, the church would be packed to overflow. However, I don’t think I understood the extent of his influence then. It was only later, when I went into pastoral ministry, that I found his books to be a thoughtful guide to both Scripture, and contemporary culture.

So, who was John Stott?

He was born on 27 April 1921, the youngest son of Dr Arnold and Emily Stott. The elder Stott was a Consultant Physician at Westminster Hospital, and the London Chest Hospital. He was known to be a meticulous teacher, feared examiner and stickler for accuracy of language[1]. He was also a humanist, with a strong social conscience, a genuine commitment to philanthropy, and a fervent belief in education[2]. Emily, on the other hand, had ambitions to become a medical missionary, but gave that up to care for her mother and younger brother. She was strong, highly principled, competent, and creative. She too had a strong social conscience. And so, Stott’s ministry would also be marked by a strong social conscience.

Emily was raised Lutheran, and so taught the children to go to church, read the Bible and pray[3]. She was also the one who took the family to All Souls, Langham Place[4]. And then there was Nanny Golden. She was a devout Christian, and taught the children hymns and choruses. She was of course very happy to hear, many years later, that John had converted to Christ[5]. And so, not unlike the biblical Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5), Stott was nurtured in the Christian faith from a very young age.

Stott went to Oakley Hall, a prep school in Gloucestershire[6]. He was not always happy there, by the time he left, he had excelled academically, become head boy, and won a scholarship to Rugby School[7].

It was at Rugby that Stott was both converted, and sensed a call to Christian ministry[8]. The Reverend E J H Nash, a Scripture Union staff pointed Stott to Revelation 3:20, Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me God used this passage, to convert Stott[9] [10]. Bash also took a special interest in Stott and corresponded with him weekly, nurturing him in the faith[11]. He also quickly gave Stott opportunities to speak, and Stott soon mastered the ‘camp talk’[12]. Barely six months from his conversion, at age seventeen, Stott became sure of his calling to ordained ministry[13]. Nash was a single man, never married, and a key influence on many of the evangelical leaders of Stott’s generation. Stott himself also never married, dedicating himself wholeheartedly to the ministry.

Stott studied modern languages at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he was involved in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU)[14]. Graduating with a double first in French and Theology, he transferred to Ridley Hall to train for ordination. The theology at Cambridge was “liberal”, but this drove Stott to examine the original sources, and to dig much deeper into detailed Bible study[15]. As he gave the “Bible readings” at CICCU groups, he began to develop his understanding of expository preaching[16].

Stott was ordained in 1945 in the Church of England and became a curate (1945-1950) at All Souls, then Rector (1950-75)[17] [18], and Rector Emeritus (from 1975)[19]. From this base, he would exercise a long, wide-ranging and influential ministry until his death in 2011.

What can we learn from him?

His influence is so expansive, that it is hard to answer this question thoroughly. However, looking at him through the lens of a preacher, there are at least four things that stand out to me:

Firstly, he had deep conviction. In a context where it was difficult and unpopular, he was a man deeply convicted about the fundamental truths of Christianity[20]. With regard to preaching, he stressed that preachers had to be firmly convicted that God is light, and had acted and spoken[21]; Scripture is God’s Word, through which He speaks powerfully[22]; God created and keeps the church with this Word[23]; Christ still gives overseers to his Church, with the chief responsibility to teach[24]; and true preaching is expository preaching[25].

Secondly, he was committed to preaching. He once described himself as, an “impenitent believer in the indispensable necessity of preaching both for evangelism and for the healthy growth of the Church”[26]. In particular, he was committed to Bible exposition, which he described as follows:

To ‘expound’ the Word of God is so to treat a verse or a passage from the Bible as to draw out its meaning, its application and its challenge. Exposition is the direct opposite of imposition. The expository preacher comes to the text not with his mind made up, resolved to impose a meaning on it, but with his mind open to receive a message from it in order to convey it to others[27].

The preacher was hence a “herald”, given a message to proclaim; a “sower”, who broadcasts the precious seeds of God’s Word; an “ambassador”, commissioned to serve as God’s envoy; a “steward”, put in charge of God’s household and entrusted with the provisions they need; a “shepherd”, whom the Chief Shepherd has delegated the care of his flock, charged to protect them from false teachers and lead them to sound teaching; and a “workman”, skillful in his treatment of the Word[28] [29] [30].

Thirdly, he built bridges. In the 1960s, Stott had a curate from New Zealand by the name of Ted Schroder who challenged him to “relate the gospel to the modern world”[31]. Stott described him as someone “determined to relate the gospel to the modern world”, although he “wasn’t much good at biblical exposition”[32] In his four-years with Stott, Schroder would encourage Stott to enter the mind-set of contemporary society, and relate the gospel to youth culture[33]. It was then that Stott clarified his practice of ‘double listening’[34] [35]. He sought to pay close attention to both the biblical text, and to contemporary culture, for relevant application. Two observers, returning to All Souls in 1970 after two years away noted the change in Stott:

Previously in sermons… John would use contemporary world events by way of anecdotal illustration; after the period of the late 60s he addressed himself more thoroughly and fully to some of the items on the world agenda, with a full, biblical and theological interface[36].

Stott saw that preaching was not just exegesis and exposition, but conveying a God-given message to living people. He saw it as “bridge-building”[37]

“Conservatives”, he observed, tended to be biblical, but not contemporary, and prone to irrelevance[38]. “Liberals”, wanted to restate the Christian faith in intelligible, meaningful and credible ways, but were not Biblical[39]. Stott did not see why the two concerns could not be combined. He wanted “liberals” to conserve the historic, fundamental truths of Christianity, and for “conservatives”, to relate those truths “radically and relevantly” to the real world[40] [41].

Fourthly, he was committed to study. The organisers of the Keswick Convention noted that Stott “spent much of his time in Keswick in his room, writing on this improvised desk, and was very little seen in the public rooms of the hotels[42]”. Prior to that he had worked “furiously in the back seat of the small car” while being driven to Keswick.[43] Underlying all this, was a deep sense of the importance of study:

If we are to build bridges into the real world, and seek to relate the Word of God to the major themes of life and the major issues of the day, then we have to take seriously both the biblical text and the contemporary scene… Such exploration means study. There is no doubt that the best teachers in any field of knowledge are those who remain students all their lives[44].

To him, the preacher’s responsibility to study was twofold: Firstly, the preacher’s responsibility was to study Scripture. This study had to be “comprehensive”, knowing the diverse particulars of the Scriptures; “open-minded”, with a genuine desire to hear and heed God’s Word; and “expectant”, trusting that God would indeed speak[45]. Secondly, Scriptural study had to be supplemented with contemporary studies[46]. Stott recommended reading a daily or weekly newspaper, watching some television, perusing secular book reviews in order to discover the most influential contemporary books to read, and seeing some of the most notable films and plays[47].

Stott prescribed a “minimum” time of study of one hour every day; a morning, afternoon or evening every week; a day a month; and a week a year[48]

He also ran “monthly reading groups” with a dozen young graduates and professionals who met to share their reactions to a book they had read to develop a Christian response[49]. Stott also had “ad hoc resource groups” of specialists who were willing to spend a few hours with him. He would identify key issues, and formulate questions to ask them. He also obtained well-informed, up-to-date literature with accurate facts and figures[50].

Stott was a “one of a kind” churchman, prepared well in advance by God for a unique and lasting global impact. He leaves an intimidating legacy. But most of all he leaves the vision of a man wholly dependent on God, ever mindful of His grace, and in pursuit of His glory. Hung on the wall of Stott’s study was this prayer:

When telling Thy salvation free

Let all-absorbing thoughts of Thee

My heart and soul engross:

And when all hearts are bowed and stirred

Beneath the influence of Thy word,

Hide me behind Thy cross.

1 Cor. 1:31[51]

When asked, what he thinks about as he prepares to mount the pulpit to preach, Stott replied,

“As I make that journey to the pulpit I say over and over again, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit.’”[52]

Stott once prayed that God would,

…Raise up a new generation of Christian communicators who are determined to bridge the chasm; who struggle to relate God’s unchanging Word to our ever-changing world; who refuse to sacrifice truth to relevance or relevance to truth; but who resolve instead in equal measure to be faithful to Scripture and pertinent to today[53].

May God be pleased to answer his prayer. Amen.

 

References

[1] Timothy Dudley-Smith John Stott: The Making of a Leader A Biography of the Early Years (Leicester, England: IVP, 1999), 24-25.

[2] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 41.

[3] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 44.

[4] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 29.

[5] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 40,44.

[6] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 53-54.

[7] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 55-56.

[8] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 67.

[9] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 92-93.

[10] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 94-96.

[11] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 97.

[12] Timothy Dudley-Smith John Stott: A Global Ministry (Leicester, England: IVP, 2001), 333.

[13] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 87.

[14] Roger Steer Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 48-49.

[15] Steer Basic Christian, 56-59.

[16] Dudley-Smith, Global Ministry, 333.

[17] Dudley-Smith, Early Years, 205-208.

[18] Dudley-Smith, Early Years, 244-253.

[19] Dudley-Smith, Global Ministry, 148-149.

[20] Dudley-Smith, Global Ministry, 31.

[21] John Stott I Believe in Preaching (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982), 93-94.

[22] Stott, Preaching, 96-109.

[23] Stott, Preaching, 109.

[24] Stott, Preaching, 116-125.

[25] Stott, Preaching, 125-134.

[26] Stott, Preaching, 9.

[27] Dudley-Smith, Global Ministry, 333.

[28] Stott, Preaching, 135-136.

[29] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 333.

[30] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 129.

[31] Stott, Preaching, 12.

[32] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 27.

[33] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 27.

[34] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 29.

[35] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 290.

[36] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 29.

[37] Stott, Preaching, 137.

[38] Stott, Preaching, 140-143.

[39] Stott, Preaching, 143-144.

[40] Stott, Preaching, 144.

[41] Stott, Preaching, 144.

[42] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 35.

[43] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 36.

[44] Stott, Preaching, 180.

[45] Stott, Preaching, 187-188.

[46] Stott, Preaching, 190.

[47] Stott, Preaching, 192-193.

[48] Stott, Preaching, 203-204.

[49] Stott, Preaching, 194-195.

[50] Stott, Preaching, 198-199.

[51] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 336.

[52] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 156.

[53] Stott, Preaching, 144.