Vision Evening, 10 December, 4-6pm

Hey all, it’s been some time since I last blogged. Rest assured we are still going strong, and the church planting journey continues! It has been a busy and exhilarating time.

Since mid-June 2017, we’ve had a series of 7 prayer meetings, and then started meeting weekly for ‘Launch Sessions’ at our home. We’ve had 11 meetings so far. We’ve gained some momentum, and gathered some good people into our Launch Team. We’ve also got a name for the church. We will be known as One Covenant Church, a name that reflects the unity and equality we have in Christ (Ephesians 2:15, 4:4-5); and the one plan of redemption that God has for all humanity running through the pages of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. We pray that we will be a united community, proclaiming that one message.

Come January 2017, we have the option of moving our weekly meetings to a public venue, on a Sunday evening.

And so, this Saturday, 10 December, 4-6pm, we’re gathering for a very important event. It’s our Vision Evening,  an evening of worship, prayer, interaction and vision casting. We’ve booked the Heritage Room at the Link Hotel in Tiong Bahru for this. Light refreshments will be served!

vision-evening-cropped

We’re hoping to gather our friends, supporters, and anyone with an interest in this new church to chart the way forward. It’ll be a good chance to hear from different people on our team, ask some good questions, have a feel for what the new church will be like, pray, and also explore how God might be leading you to support this new church plant.

We’d love to see you there! 

 

 

Unity In A New Humanity (Ephesians 2:11-12)

 

Unity is an elusive thing. Many yearn for, often desire it for the world at large, for our families etc. but can’t seem to find. In 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote “Imagine”, a song that captured this longing for unity. It touched a chord in many hearts. Former US President Jimmy Carter, after visiting 125 countries found that in many of those countries, “Imagine” was sung, “almost equally with national anthems”:

Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try
No hell below us, Above us only sky
Imagine all the people, Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion, too
Imagine all the people, Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will be as one

But 45 years on, we are no closer to “the world that lives as one”. Hate crimes have gone up 42% in England and Wales since Brexit. We are seeing one of the most, if not the most vitriolic and divisive US Presidential elections unfolding. There’s conflicts in the Middle East, aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, and closer to home, like it or not, ones race still matters whether you want to be President, or rent an apartment.

Is unity really something that is achievable, or is it just a pipe dream? Some say that the path to unity is to focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us, that is our sense of “shared values”. The problem is, even these “shared values” seem to be evolving all the time. And, even if we did come to a consensus, on these “shared values”, how can we uphold them without smothering distinctives of other groups, especially minorities? And, even after having achieved unity, it takes a lot of hard work to keep that unity.

Turning to the Christian Church, in Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul the Apostle asserts that unity between different cultural groups in the church is not only a possibility, it is a necessity. Speaking to Jewish and Gentile Christians, he tells them that their unity in Christ must be the most fundamental thing about them. It must surpass any cultural differences, no matter how deep-seated they may be.

He tells them that this unity is not only possible, but also necessary, because God Himself is at work uniting his people to each other, just as he has united Himself to them. God has established a new basis for unity (Ephesians 2:11-13), broken down the barrier to unity (Ephesians 2:14-18), and is building a new humanity in unity (Ephesians 2:19-22):

 

1. Established a new basis for unity (2:11-13)

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 

Paul begins by addressing the Gentile Christians, you Gentiles in the flesh”, and he highlights the ethnic tension that exists between them. The Jews, the “circumcision” called the Gentiles, “the uncircumcision”. Circumcision was a sign that God had given the Jewish people in Genesis 17 to mark them out as belonging to Him. The Jews were proud of their circumcision, to the point of turning up their noses at non-Jews. And calling them “Uncircumcision”, which literally meant “foreskins”! And, as if to rub salt into the wound, Paul reminds them further that as non-Jews, they, the Gentiles were “separated from Christ” (2:12), that is separated from the promised Messiah. They were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel”, i.e. separated from Israel’s way of life. And, they were “strangers to the covenants of promise”: they were no party to the oath-bound relationships that God had established with Israel. As a result, they were “having no hope”, and were “without God in the world”. Do you see what Paul is saying here? He’s saying to them, that if they wanted God, they had to become like the people that had labelled them “foreskins”!

But, Paul’s rebuke wasn’t confined to the Gentiles. He addresses his fellow Jews too. In verse 11, Paul says that the Jews are “called the circumcision” and he specifies that it was only, “made in the flesh by hands”? In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul shows that true circumcision isn’t just about the human body, it’s about identifying with Christ by faith. Physical circumcision merely pointed to the inward reality that God demanded. And just because they were physically circumcised, it did not mean they had God. They needed to press on to the reality for which circumcision and the covenants pointed; they needed to see this reality in Jesus Christ.

In fact, Gentile Christians, Paul said were now party to the covenants of Israel, “in Christ Jesus” (verse 13). They had been “brought near”, to God, and each other, “by the blood of Christ”. And, the Jews needed that the same blood to be brought near to God, to be truly circumcised. That’s why in verse 14, Paul changes the pronoun from “you” to “our”: “For he himself is our peace”. Jesus, and his blood are the common basis that God has established for Jew and Gentile, from people of every culture to be reconciled to God. This shows us that people are fundamentally the same, in that they are sinners before a Holy God. And, God has in turn supplied one solution to this fundamental problem: the blood of Jesus. Every person on earth is given the same basis to be made right before God.

 

2. Broken down the barrier to unity (2:14-18)

Secondly, not only has God given us a new basis for unity, he has also broken down the barrier to unity.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility

There is a “wall of hostility” dividing Jew and Gentile, and Jesus has broken it down “in his flesh”, and “through the cross”.

What is this “wall of hostility” that Jesus has broken down?

Verse 15 says the wall it is “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances”. Some think that this is the entire Mosaic Law, the 10 commandments and everything related to it. That somehow, by the coming of Christ, the Mosaic Law in its entirety is being set aside. The problem is, Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:17 that he did not come to “abolish the law”. Also, Paul still quotes the “law” as if it were applicable today (Romans 3:31, Galatians 5:14, Ephesians 6:2, 1 Corinthians 5:13, 9:8-9, 10:1-22, 14:33b-34, Romans 13:8-10). So, it doesn’t seem that the entire Mosaic Law is being set aside.

What exactly is being set aside then?

Traditionally, theologians have divided the Old Testament law of God into 3 categories: the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial law. The moral law, as exemplified in the 10 commandments are applicable to all people at all times: it represents the very character of God. The civil law governed how Israel specifically was to function as a nation, and is not directly applicable to other nations. Finally, the ceremonial law had to do with religious ceremonies or rituals that were symbolic and, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it “prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits”. These included the temple sacrifices of bulls and goats. Hebrews 10:1 says that they are ‘only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves’.

Only the Jews could worship in the temple. The Gentiles were excluded. But, these “ceremonial laws” were symbolic, pointing forward to a greater reality, the sacrifice that could really remove sin, that of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Through his “flesh”, and on the “cross”, he abolished once and for all, all the ceremonial laws that the Jews had kept, the ceremonial laws that had kept the Gentiles out.

With the ceremonial laws done away with by Jesus, they could now be, verse 15, “one new man”; and verse 16, both reconciled to God in “one body”. And this has “killed the hostility”, that is the hostility between them and God, and the hostility between themselves! That is why verse 17 says that “peace” has been preached to those who are “far off”, the Gentiles, and those who are “near”, the Jews. And, verse 18, they both have “access in one Spirit to the Father”!

 

3. Building a new humanity in unity (2:19-22)

Finally, God is building a new humanity in unity.

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit

Gentiles are, 2:19-22, “no longer strangers and aliens”, but “fellow citizens”, “saints”, “members of the household of God”, “build together into a dwelling place” for God. They are a new humanity in God’s eyes!

Paul employs three metaphors here to describe what God has made them: they are a “household”, a “building”, and a “dwelling place for God”. Using the “building” metaphor, Paul wants to show them that this new humanity is built on firm and solid foundations: verse 20, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ himself being the cornerstone”. Paul is saying that you can be sure of this new unity between Jew and Gentile because it is built on a solid foundation made up of two solid elements: apostles and prophets, and Christ himself, the cornerstone.

What exactly does it mean that Christ is the “cornerstone”?

The “cornerstone” is either a stone that crowns the building at its top when the structure is finished, or, more likely the stone that is at the foundation’s most distant corner and put in place during the initial phase of construction.

Since Paul is talking about the “foundation”, it is likely that the second option is what he is referring to. This “cornerstone” sits low in the building structure, and provides strength and guidance to all that is built upon it. Jesus himself is providing the strength and the guidance necessary to build the church.

Why then “apostles and prophets”?

While Jesus is the one providing strength and guidance for the building of the church, the message of Jesus, the gospel, was proclaimed by the apostles and prophets. The apostles were the first ones to take the gospel to the Gentiles. And the prophets were the ones that proclaimed this same message incisively, and at critical moments in history. This tells us that it is this gospel that forms the foundation of the church, establishes the church, grows the church and strengthens the church!

And, as Paul continues, he reveals that this building is a “holy temple in the Lord”, where God himself dwells. There is no longer a need for a physical temple in Jerusalem, because God’s united people is the place where he now dwells.

Conclusion 

So, here it is, God’s comprehensive plan for unity in his new humanity the church. He gives them a basis for unity, removes the barriers to unity, and finally is at work building them together in unity.

How can you be sure that God is committed to doing this?

Notice how it is all done “in Christ Jesus”, by “the blood of Christ”, “the cross”. Jesus is the one who not only enacts; he enables this kind of unity to take place! On the cross, he was alienated from His father so that you could be brought near. On the cross, he fulfilled all the requirements of the law for us. And, did he not say, in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, which John tells us, in 2:21, that he was speaking about the “temple of his body”. On the cross, He, the true temple was torn down, so that you and I ill deserving building blocks could be built up into a household, a dwelling, a temple for our God to dwell.

Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try
No hell below us, Above us only sky
Imagine all the people, Living for today…

Is that the true path to unity?

No. Rather,

Imagine there’s a heaven, It’s easy if you try
True hell below us, Above us God on high
Imagine all the people, Living for His name…

You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will truly be as one

Amen.

 

 

 

 

The Plight of the Powerful Powerless (Ephesians 2:1-10)

In Ephesians 1:15-23, one of Paul’s main concerns was to let Christians know that God has made, at their disposal, the same power that He used to raise Jesus from the dead, and give him victory over every rule, authority and power that there is (Ephesians 1:19-23). This was especially significant to the Ephesian Christians who felt powerless in contrast to the worship of the goddess Artemis, and the worship of the Roman Emperor Augustas that was prevalent in Ephesus. Paul wanted them to know that Jesus was the truly powerful one, and they, being in Him, had the same power working through them.

But, what was this power for?

Paul tells them, in the rest of the book of Ephesians that it is for (i) serving others (3:17), to (ii) have inner fortitude (3:16), to (iii) accomplish God’s purposes (3:20), and to (iv) resist evil (6:20).

 

In Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul continues to persuade the Ephesians that they have this power at their disposal. And he does so by showing them that as believers in Jesus, they have already experienced this power at work in their own personal lives.

To do this, he shows them that they need to look back at their life apart from Christ (2:1-3), and then to look here at the life that they now have in Christ (2:4-10), and the difference between the two has been brought about by none other than the mighty resurrection power of God.

1. Look back (2:1-3)

Verse 1-10 is actually just one long sentence in the original. And, the main verbs, the heart of what Paul wants to talk about, are in verse 5: “made alive”, “raised… up”, and “seated… with Christ”. Hence, verse 1-3 are “adjectival clauses”. They are there to prepare for what Paul wants to drive home.

There are some horrifying things in verses 1-3: some things that might shock, and some things that might offend. Paul pulls no punches. But, this is necessary because without this bad news, we won’t see the stark contrast between the dire straits were in, and where we are today, and we won’t really appreciate the power of what God has done.

So, bear in mind that as you hear some hard things in verses 1-3, this is there so you can truly appreciate the good things that are to come.

So, Paul tells them that apart from Christ, people are “dead” in their “trespasses and sins” (2:1). They are dead because of their rebellion against the God who made them. Genesis 2:16-17, and Romans 6:23 say that the result of our “trespasses and sins” against God, is death. In God’s original good creation, death was not in the equation. But, when humanity sinned and trespassed against God, they didn’t just reject God’s laws; they rejected God himself (Isaiah 59:2). And since God is the very source of life, by cutting ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from life itself. Death is the inevitable outcome.

We might want to resists it, forget about it, ignore it, medicate it away, but we know that at the end of the day, no one escapes death. And so, everything we do is tinged with the stark reality that one day we will all die. You might distinguish yourself from your fellow human beings, by some special talent or effort, but at the end of the day, you meet the same fate as anyone else. Princes and paupers find common ground, six feet under.

People without Christ are dead people walking: alive, but with the sentence of death hanging over them.

And, where are they walking?

2:2 says that they “walked”, “following the course of this world” (2:2), “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (2:2b), and “carrying out the passions (or the desires) of the body and mind” (2:3). They were actively pursuing a life based on a value-system, a societal norm that is devoid of God. And, as Paul peals back the layers, he shows that the true source of these god-less values is the devil himself, the “the prince of the power of the air” (2:2b). And, they were doing so, willingly. They were “carrying out the passions (or the desires) of the body and mind” (2:3). And, Paul goes on to show that as a result, they are, “children of wrath” (2:3). For their chosen course of life, they will face the wrath of God, what John Stott calls, “God’s personal, righteous, constant hostility to evil, his settled refusal to compromise with it, and his resolve instead to condemn it.” There is nothing they can do to change their destiny: they are powerless. They are “by nature children of wrath” (2:3). Sin is in their very nature. And this is true of everyone, all humankind are “by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (2:3).

Interestingly Paul hasn’t really described any particular lifestyle. He’s basically just laid down the basic principals of a godless life, but there are more ways than one to be godless: You could live a crude, immoral and debaucherous person and be godless, but you could also be very moral, by your own effort, do a lot of good things, but be totally self-sufficient, proud and devoid of God in your life! Both these lives, though they look very different on the surface, both meet Paul’s criteria of a godless life under the judgment of God.

2. Look here (2:4-10)

While all this may be true of you, Paul wants to show you that God is not like that at all. In fact, he is “rich in mercy”, he has “great love” (2:4), and he is incredibly “gracious” (2:5).

And, purely because of who He is, 2:5, “even when” you “were dead in” your “trespasses”, God’s miracle working power “made you alive”, “saved you”, “raised you up”, and “seated you… in the heavenly places”.

Now, this language of being “made alive”, “raised up”, and “seated”, is a mirror of Ephesians 1:20-21 where Jesus is described as being “raised from the dead… seated… at the right hand in the heavenly places”. You see, it is only “together with Christ”, “with Christ” that we are made alive, raised up and seated. What God did for you and me, He did by uniting us with Christ! He didn’t just give you some neat gifts. He took a dirty rotten sinner and put him or her into Christ, so that all your sins get transferred to Him, and all the benefits of his obedience to God get transferred to you!

And, he did this, by his grace: “by grace you have been saved” (2:5); “in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (2:7); and “by grace you have been saved through faith” (2:8). It was not because of any goodness that he saw in you that made him do what he did. 2:8b, “this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God”, 2:9, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast”. God saves you entirely by grace, leaving you with completely nothing to boast about in your salvation. You did absolutely nothing to merit his saving work in your life. The only thing that you brought to the table was your sin. No, your salvation was entirely a work of God from beginning to end. Yes, you need to respond in faith (2:8) in order to be saved, but the way the sentence is constructed, even this faith is a gift from God! Faith is not a “work” that you can “boast in”. It’s a response to amazing grace. John Calvin once said that your faith is like a meagre vessel that you hold up to God, as he pours out the endless fountain of his amazing grace.

From beginning to end, your salvation is a work of God’s mighty power.

You could do absolutely nothing to change your nature. But God did the impossible. He gave you a new nature, he made you a new creature. That’s why 2:10, you are “his workmanship”, “created in Christ Jesus”. That’s the extent of your change: you are a new creation.

And, what is the result of this new nature?

You have a new course in life. You were, 2:10, “created in Christ Jesus for good works”. So, although good works do not save you, they are evidence that God has indeed worked in your life by his mighty power! They are the only right response to such amazing grace. But, there’s more. These “good works” that you now do as a Christian, as someone in Christ, was “prepared beforehand”, so that you would “walk in them”. And here, Paul has come full circle. While in 2:1, they “walked” in their “trespasses and sins”, now, they “walk” in the “good works” that God has prepared beforehand.

That friends, is the mighty power of God that you have already experienced in your life! He gave you a new nature, made you a new creation, completely changed you inside by putting you into Christ, and now is changing the very things in life! God, by his power has made you see that you are truly loved, and that he is making you truly useful. Not serving yourself, but doing the good works that he has planned in advance for you! To serve him, and to serve others!

If that power has already been at work in you, don’t you think he would not give you the same power to serve others, have inner fortitude, accomplish his purposes and resist evil? Of course he will.

Conclusion

But, God gives us more to fully persuade us. There’s actually something implicit in this passage that will give us great certainty that God has indeed made his power available to us. Remember that there is a parallel between what God did in raising Jesus from the dead (1:20), and with God making believers alive (2:5)? Commentators point out that very curiously, what’s not mentioned at all is the death of Christ.

How could they live out something so important to the gospel?

They haven’t. It’s there in the passage. Remember that we said that we receive the benefits of being “made alive”, “raised up” and “seated” because of our union with Christ? That whatever he did accrues to us? Well, the other side of the coin is, that whatever we did accrues to Him! You were dead in your trespasses and sins. You were following the world, the flesh and the devil. You were under the wrath of God. You deserved death.

How could God make you alive?

Because, the only one who did fully follow God and not the world, the flesh and the devil, the only one who truly deserved to live, Jesus, He died for you! He took the wrath of God for you! The one that God had loved from all eternity, God sent to the cross for you! God demonstrated the power of His great love for you, so that you can be assured that powerless as you feel and are, you can be confident that His power has been at work in your life, and His power will be at work through your life.

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