Wednesday, March 31, 2010

March 2010 Review

22 posts this month (including this one), which again is down on last year, but things have been busy, and I'm not blogging just as frequently as I did last year. All in all, we've had 77 posts so far this year, which isn't bad, out of 90 days.

March is (becoming) traditionally our holiday month, so once again it was nice to have a little holiday last week over in Lanzarote to catch up on some warmth, sun, and reading. So while the posts were down (with a pleasant and almost complete break from the internet), the books read were up - some reviews still to come, but so far this month I've reviewed Journey by Alec Motyer; The God I Don't Understand by Christopher Wright; Scandalous by Don Carson, Dissolution by CJ Sansom; and The Trellis and the Vine by Col Marshall and Tony Payne.

Also, partly due to holidays, youth weekends, and a visiting preacher, I didn't actually preach in St Elizabeth's for the whole month of March. Remarkable! Yet I was still preaching and teaching, with several funerals conducted (the sermons of which I don't publish online as some may be recycled), and one of the Bible overview sessions, which I didn't put up, and this sermon from James 1:18-27 from Mindset, the Youth Leaders' Training Network (next meeting on 13th April).

In other news, there was some schools' cup rugby action (with saddening results), and some scattered thoughts on greetings and fellowship from Romans, some contrasts between Demas and Mark from 2 Timothy, and some Holy Week thoughts from Dundonald Bible Week.

My favourite post of the month is on which Bible version.

The 365 photo of the month was:
084/365:2010 Under the Sea

Book Review: The Trellis and the Vine

If there's one book that should be read by all in ministry (apart from the Bible, of course), it is definitely this book. Drawing on thirty years of ministry and training gospel workers, Colin Marshall (affectionately known as Col Marshall) and Tony Payne, present a parable of church life in The Trellis and the Vine.

Drawing on John 15, the vine is the church, the people of God. Jesus, the vine, is growing his church, as more people are drawn into relationship with him, and they become fruitful in the kingdom. Vine work is to preach the gospel and bring the people of God to maturity. Vital stuff - there's something wrong if churches and ministers in particular aren't doing this.

But at the same time, the vine needs to be supported. This is where the trellis comes in - the trellis supports the vine, and so we have the necessary factors of finance, organisation, a meeting place, leadership, denominational structures etc. Yet it's so easy to get diverted away from Vine work into Trellis work - to be very busy, yes, but to completely neglect the very purpose the church exists for: vine work.

Having identified the 'root' problem, Marshall and Payne help ministers to work out their working out, and how to get the church back on track to the primacy of vine work. To get there, we need a change in ministry mindset, as well as identifying the leaders to train up, and help others get involved in vine work (which is for all Christians, not just 'ordained' people).

As I've said, this book is vital for church leaders to consider their priorities and to help them get back to vine work, which is the reason we're in church leadership in the first place. Lots of challenges in the book, but that's no bad thing, so there's plenty to think through and work through both now, and in the next x years of ministry. This might even be a good book for church committees / elderships / Select Vestries to work through together, discussing the issues that are raised. Get it from the Good Book Company. Check out the recommendation by Mark Dever:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Three Ways To Live

The second night of our Holy Week meetings in Dundonald, this time in St Elizabeth's, and we had an interesting night with the rough weather blinking the lights on and off through the sermon. Andy Lines was speaking from Mark 10:32-45. Here's an outline of what he said.

1. The way of the Son of Man - the way to the cross, to be rejected and killed, serving and giving his life as a ransom for many. This way f living has been taken, and we can't live this way.

2. The way of the world - self-interest, we see this in James and John asking for the places of honour in the kingdom, and the ten being indignant because they didn't get in there first. Gentile rulers live this way, and everyone lives this way, out for themselves and what they can get.

3 The way of the cross - the followers of Jesus, those who are served by the Son of Man, who has died for them. The way we live is the way Jesus lived, not to be served but to serve, to take up our cross as we follow him.

So, are you being served?

Book Review: Dissolution

I have, it must be admitted, come to this series quite late! I noticed the fifth in the series when it recently came out, and then realised I should start at the beginning, a very good place to start. So off I began on one of my favourite adventures, to find the books in secondhand bookshops or charity shops, and have now accumulated the first four books in the Shardlake series. This one, the first in the series by CJ Sansom, was taken on holiday, and speedily enjoyed.

Shardlake is a lawyer in Tudor England. At times, he is called on by Lord Thomas Cromwell to do some investigations, and so off he goes to a monastery in Scarnsea where a foul murder of a King's Commissioner has taken place. This is a murder mystery set in a traumatic and exciting period in English history, as Henry VIII is breaking with Rome and setting himself as Supreme Governor (on earth) of the Church of England.

As well as the unfolding murder mystery (with plenty of surprising twists), the book also charts the opinions of 'ordinary people' on the ideas surrounding the Reformation, as well as presenting the gruesomeness of life in the 1500s, through the sights, smells and situations that Shardlake finds himself in.

Yet at times, Shardlake seems very politically correctly modern, for example in driving a wedge between the church and Jesus: 'Christ himself had comforted me against the words of the Church that was supposed to be his.' (p. 40). Or similarly, as the dissolution of the monasteries is being accomplished, Shardlake seems to become weary of the whole reform project, becoming disillusioned with it, and declaring 'in my willful blindness I had refused to see what was before me eyes. How men fear the chaos of the world, I thought, and the yawning eternity hereafter. So we build patterns to explain its terrible mysteries and reassure ourselves we are safe in this world and beyond.' (p. 382) Or again, on the reform party, 'There Bible says God made man in his image but I think we make and remake him, in whatever image happens to suit our shifting needs.' (p. 439)

Dodgy religious commentary aside, the book is great, both at raising the issues of the reformation, but much more at the straightforward murder mystery in a historical setting - a difficult genre to get just right, but something that Sansom has definitely succeeded in doing! The second in the series, Dark Fire, is in my to-read pile already...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Who is Jesus?

That was the question being asked tonight in Dundonald Baptist Church as the week of special meetings for holy week began. It's the midpoint of Mark's Gospel, the disciples have been getting to know Jesus over two years or so, watching him teach and heal, drive out demons and raise the dead, feed the crowds and calm the waves. Earlier, they were asking who Jesus was, but now he turns the tables.

Who do the crowds say I am? And who do you say I am? An important question to answer. Peter gets the right answer, but also the wrong answer. He says the right words, that Jesus is the Christ (God's anointed King), but gets it wrong as he can't understand a crucified Christ, a suffering Messiah. From hero to zero as Peter goes from top of the class to the bottom of the bunch.

Jesus spells out the necessity that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected and be killed. It is God's way, the way of the cross, but Peter can't see it. Not then, not before the event. He would, of course, but not there, at Caeserea Philippi.

There are many opinions in the world about who Jesus is and what he does. Many wrong ideas. But this Holy Week, let's listen to Jesus' own words. He is the Christ, the Son of Man, the ransom.

So what about you? Who do you say that Jesus is?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Home Again

Well, you might have noticed the silence on the blog over the past few days. A week off, in Lanzarote, and mostly away from the Internet. So there were no updates. However, there were plenty of books read - 7, to be precise, which will be reviewed (or at least mentioned) in due course. Makes me wonder just how many more books I could get read if some of my free time wasn't spent on Facebook and such like.

As well as reading the books I also made sure that my photo a day was taken so I'll need to update those as well this week. In due course I'll blog a bit more about the holiday, but for now I'll relax and take it easy!

I'm back to work on perhaps one of the busiest weeks in the church year - Holy Week. We're doing things differently this year, with St Elizabeth's, Dundonald Presbyterian and Dundonald Baptist coming together for the week, meetings rotating round the various churches. Tomorrow night is a Youth Night, and meetings each evening are at 8pm. The speaker is Andy Lines from Crosslinks, taking us through the account of the Passion from Mark's Gospel. You'll be most welcome to join us for any or all of the meetings!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Book Review: Scandalous

Don Carson has long been one of my favourite Bible teachers, preachers and authors. This year I've been wading my way through his epic commentary on the Gospel according to John. At times, it must be admitted, he can be hard going to read, such is the depth to his thinking and writing. Yet his latest book is not one of those occasions. Scandalous is a simple to read thorough explanation of five key Bible passages on the theme of the Lord Jesus' death and resurrection.

The chapters were previously presented as a Day with Dr Don at Mars Hill Church - I had listened to the sermon audio perhaps a year ago, so recognised some of the illustrations. Yet even so, it was a great and valuable introduction to the cross and resurrection, and all the more so to have it in book format to return and savour many times.

The main themes raised are the ironies of the crucifixion from Matthew 27 (the way he divides the passage is something I wish I had spotted!), the very centre of the Bible in Romans 3, the strange triumph of a slain lamb (Revelation 12), the surprises of the raising of Lazarus (John 11), and the role of 'doubting Thomas' and how helpful he is.

I've already quoted one section of the book in a previous posting, and could provide many
more quotations from the book! What was particularly interesting was to read his sermon on John 11 having previously read the huge section on John 11 from his commentary, to notice what is left in and what isn't shared in order to pursue the precise explanation and apply it to the readers or hearers.

A brilliant book, and well worth reading, particularly as we approach Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Staggering Substitution

'Two thousand years later, we who read John's words observe not only the mind-bending notion of the incarnation, God becoming a human being, but the utterly shattering fact that this God-man died a substitutionary death, the death of a redeeming lamb. It is staggering to contemplate the God of the Bible becoming a man; it is even more staggering to contemplate him as he dies our death - and is then vindicated in resurrection. Yes, yes, no lesser words of acclamation will do: "My Lord and my God!" The confession is scandalous; the confession is glorious.'

- Don Carson, Scandalous, 2010, p 162.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Review: The God I Don't Understand

Previously, Christopher Wright has written books on Knowing God (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) through the Old Testament. His latest book might come as a surprise - as he confesses that he doesn't always understand God. Yet what might be a surprise is also a comfort, as we realise that because God is so majestic and glorious, we don't always understand everything about Him.

Wright helpfully identifies various different ways of not understanding God - for example, non-understanding which leads to us being angry or grieved (as a result of suffering), morally disturbed (for example the treatment of the Canaanites in the conquest of the promised land), puzzling (in relation to the last things, and how so many misunderstand and promote false ideas of raptures etc), and gratitude (for the cross, even though we can't fully understand how it works). These four areas are the four major divisions in the book, with each topic thoughtfully dealt with in turn.

Wright is painfully honest that there are things we just can't understand - but at the same time he engagingly and fully asserts that there are things that we definitely can know, which God has revealed to us. Therefore, while we're faced with uncertainties, there are nevertheless certainties which we can hold on to and trust in.

All in all, this is a great book for those who sometimes struggle with doubts, or face tough questions from friends. Well worth reading and remembering some of the arguments presented, as well as the affirmations of faith in God and his sufficient word.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Useful Mark

Yesterday's posting might have been a bit negative, focusing on the desertion of Demas. However, as Paul continues to mention people by name in 2 Timothy 4, there is a bit of encouragement and comfort.

In the next verse, Paul writes to Timothy: 'Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.' (2 Tim 4:11) This sentence, I reckon, is very significant, and marks a development in a relationship, and indeed, a reconciliation from earlier in Paul's life and ministry.

Who is this Mark? It appears that he lived in Jerusalem, and is first mentioned in Acts 12:12, having two names, 'John, whose other name was Mark.' As Paul (then known as Saul) and Barnabas returned to Antioch, they took 'John whose other name was Mark' with them (Acts 12:25).

John Mark then left them when they had arrived in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13), while Paul and Barnabas continued their gospel work in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and other places. However, when the time came for their next journey from Antioch, Paul and Barnabas actually fell out over whether they should take John called Mark with them.

Barnabas (son of encouragement) wanted to bring him along, but Paul wasn't having it, so there was 'a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.' (Acts 15:37-40). Can you imagine it - two church leaders arguing over whether to give Mark another chance? Paul doesn't take Mark with him, it seems that Paul didn't think much of Mark.

But now, at the end of his life, in his final letter, Paul has a different opinion of Mark. 'Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.' From useless to useful, from deserting to devoted.

Perhaps we shouldn't write people off too soon, giving them a chance to mature and prove themselves, rather than blackballing someone straight away. A sign of grace and reconciliation, with Mark seen as vitally useful for ministry by the aged apostle.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Deserting Demas

Over the weekend, we were studying Paul's second letter to Timothy with Trevor Kane. Four great sessions on discipleship: living out and passing on our faith. One bit stands out, a worked out example of what Paul has been urging Timothy to do and avoid.

Throughout the letter, the call is for Timothy to keep going, to continue in godliness, continue in preaching and gospel, and continue in the word. The call is needed, because many are (and will) turn away from the truth. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 is an illustration of what ungodliness looks like in the last days - that is, from Jesus' ascension until his return. Three loves are mentioned: 'people will be lovers of self, lovers of money ... Lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.'

Paul is a positive example for Timothy, he is at the end of his life, he has run the race and fought the good fight. But negatively, Demas stands as someone to learn from and not copy. 'For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.' Demas was one of Paul's close companions, a fellow labourer in the gospel (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24). He had started so well, made a show of being a fellow worker, but he has misplaced love. Love for the wrong things, for the world rather than for God, so he has abandoned the work of the gospel.

What a sad testimony, to be recorded in Scripture as a deserter. Demas the deserter stands as a warning for us all, a warning to keep loving God, to keep serving and preaching. Sadder still, to be found like that on the Day of the Lord.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Le Weekend

Tired tonight after the church youth weekend in the Crosspoint Centre in Dundrum. A great weekend with about twenty young people and leaders sitting under God's word being taught by Trevor Kane from 2 Timothy. The craic was mighty and a great time was had by all. Yesterday was spent in Castlewellan Forest Park with some orienteering and raft-building. I was the photographer!

Not much sleep was had - not the fault of the young people, but because there was a lot of talking, sleep talking and snoring in our room... No names to save any embarrassment! It'll be nice to be in my own bed again and get a good sleep.

The blog has been light on entries recently so hopefully we'll be more regular again in the coming weeks as we approach Easter.

For now, it's sleep time!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

In The Valley

Two funerals in two days. A busy time, as well as everything else that goes on in the parish. But it's a privilege to be allowed into peoples' homes in their times of grief (as well as the happy times on other occasions). At most funerals, I'll read the 23rd Psalm. A very fitting psalm for people in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death.

A dark place, with grief at the loss of loved ones, the sadness and shock and mourning that comes when confronted with our great enemy. But death will not win. There is no fear in the valley. Why?

'You are with me' (Psalm 23:4)

You - the Lord himself, the one who knows the valley of the shadow of death, who walked this path himself, who has passed through and triumphed over death by being raised to life in the resurrection. YOU are with me.

Are - present continuous tense, not just in the past, not just in the future, but now, in my hour of need. You ARE with me.

With - present alongside, accompanying on the pathway, so that I am not alone, not abandoned. You are WITH me.

Me - the one who deserves death, the one who should fear, but also the one who has been saved, rescued, freed, given life and assured of eternity with God where there is no death. You are with ME.

What a great phrase and a great truth to hold on to at all times, but especially when facing death and bereavement.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sermon: James 1: 19-27 Don't Be Deceived!

No one wants to be deceived. Whether it’s a David Blane street ‘magician’ doing tricks with coins and watches, or Derren Brown with his weird deceptions. Just think of the uproar recently when it appeared that Tony Blair and the government had deceived the nation about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the necessity to invade. The truth is covered or masked, the eyes are averted, but everything seems to be fine.

It’s possible that we could be deceived by politicians or entertainers. But it’s also possible that we could also be deceived about our Christian life. Scripture tells us to watch out for false teachers, and reminds us about how Satan, the devil, is the grand deceiver. Yet the remarkable thing that James is teaching us tonight is that, yes, we may be deceived - but that it could be us deceiving ourselves!

Last month Johnny helped us to think about rejoicing in trials, because of the positive effects they bring - steadfastness, and eventually the crown of life (12). We can rejoice because God gives us wisdom to see things as they really are, living for Christ in this fallen world. Tonight James is going on to think about what the Christian life looks like, introducing the themes that he will later pick up on. For tonight, though, we’ll focus on the three ways that we can deceive ourselves: we can be deceived about anger; deceived about the word; and deceived about being religious.

So first of all, deceived about anger. Remember, these are Christians James is writing to (‘my beloved brothers‘), so this is about living as a Christian, not becoming a Christian. The warning comes from verse 16 right through to 21, but particularly in verse 19: ‘let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.’ I don’t know about you, but these are the exact opposite to what I want to do. I want to be slow to hear, quick to speak, to jump in with my opinions and views, and quick to be angry. Particularly when I’m driving.

Isn’t that common? We’re quick to be angry, to be annoyed and upset because things aren’t done our way, concerned about our rights, standing up for ourselves. But James tells us to reverse those things - because ‘the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God’ (20). We can’t live in a way to please the Lord if we’re so concerned with ourselves. It’s like the production line in a factory - if they put anger in, then they can’t produce the life of righteousness. Instead we need to stop deceiving ourselves about our anger and do something about it.

Look at how James puts it: ‘Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.’ Instead of deceiving ourselves about our anger (and the other evil that remains in our lives), we need to receive something - the implanted word. This is the word that brought us into being as Christians according to verse 18, and which, as the image suggests - the seed planted in us - bears fruit in us and is able to save us.

Notice also that we have to receive it with meekness. Anger is the expression of our rights, opinion, agenda. We turn that on its head, to meekly submit and receive God’s word.

Deception number one - that our anger and filthiness and wickedness is fine in Christian living. The solution is to receive the implanted word.

Yet our flesh isn’t going to give up that easily. Even as we receive the word, there’s a danger that we can deceive ourselves. James is very blunt about the danger, so let’s look at verse 22: ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’

May I suggest that this is the particular danger for evangelical churches and Christians? We know that the Bible is God’s word, we honour it, we make much of it, we may read it morning and evening, or have it on our mp3 players, and know what it says, we could rhyme off memory verses or even whole chapters - but it could all be us deceiving ourselves.

James is saying that it is not enough to just hear God’s word - we also have to do it, to put it into practice. Otherwise, we’re deceiving ourselves and it’s just a show. To illustrate, James shows us the image of a man and a mirror. (You’re probably already thinking of that Michael Jackson song!). For us, mirrors are very common, I was looking round our house earlier, and we have at least four. But for James and his contemporaries, they were rare.

I don’t know how long you spend in front of a mirror in the morning, but the man here is looking intently at his face in the mirror. Maybe he sees he needs to wash his face or comb his hair. But his looking into the mirror was, in the end, pointless: ‘For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.’ He might as well not have bothered, as he forgets what he needed to change.

In contrast (there’s the but again - 25), those who put into practice what they read in God’s word are pictured in verse 25: ‘But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing,’

God’s word, the Bible, is described as the perfect law, the law of liberty - the teaching of true freedom, the instruction for the path. But just like a mirror, it also shows us what we’re really like, and what we need to change. The straight contrast is there: the man in the mirror looks, goes away and forgets; whereas the doer looks, perseveres and acts.

Is our Bible reading just a bookmark moving exercise? Do we speed through the reading to get it done and then forget about it? Or do we take time to hear, and put it into practice? The blessing is there for the one who hears and acts.

Deception number two - that hearing the word is enough. The solution is to put it into practice.

In the final two verses of chapter one, we come to our final deception. But as we come to it, you might wonder what James is talking about when we says about being religious and about religion. After all, when we think of religion these days we want nothing to do with it. Just yesterday I was doing a funeral visit and the wee man said that there’s too much religion and not enough Christianity in our society. So why does James go on about religion? Surely we want relationship, not religion, we want Jesus, not outward conformity to rules?

All that is spot on, but the religious thing that James is talking about here isn’t the outward rules, but rather is more like spirituality - a relationship to God rooted in the heart and shaping the life. It’s not the way to be saved (by following the rules) but about living because you are saved. So here, when James says about someone thinking they are religious, it’s that they think they have a relationship with God, but their life doesn’t match their profession.

The deception for the supposedly religious person is that their life doesn’t fit - they don’t bridle their tongue (which reminds us of the anger we encountered at the start). They think they’re religious, but actually, they’re deceiving themselves and their religion, their witness, their Christian walk is worthless.

How is our witness? Are we walking what we’re talking? Or are we deceiving ourselves in this regard? We might deceive ourselves, but the watching world can easily spot an inconsistent walk - maybe we know this from work - how can he shout at his employees like that and him a Christian?! She’s meant to be a Christian but she gossips like anyone else...

As in the previous warnings about deceiving ourselves, James gives us the solution, the antidote, the way to change. Verse 27: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’

Now I don’t know about you, but that is perhaps a surprising list. Put it together with bridling your tongue (26), and you have a list of acceptable religion of watching your tongue, visiting orphans and widows, and keeping unstained, or to put them another way, your words, the needy, and holiness. James isn’t saying that this is all there is to being a Christian (nor is he saying that you don’t need to pray/repent/read Bible/meet together in church etc). But why has he picked these three things as the marks of pure religion, of living out the relationship with God in our heart?

If you’re observant, or have read James before, you might notice that these are the topics that are addressed through the rest of the letter. So if you flick forward, you’ll notice that caring for the needy is addressed in chapter 2, particularly 2:5 - our faith in action; then in 3:1-12, the focus is on our tongues, for good or ill; and 3:13 introduces the theme of holiness - ‘good conduct’ which runs through to the end of chapter 5. Verses 26 and 27 are therefore the ‘launchpad’ into the rest of the letter, calling us to live out our relationship to God in these areas.

But there’s more. Do you notice how God is described in verse 27? God, the Father. James is urging us to live out our relationship, because these things are modelled on what God our Father has done - we’re called to demonstrate the family likeness. Look back to verse 18: ‘Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’

Can you see these three same things in this verse? ‘Of his own will be brought us’ - guilty, helpless lost were we - God’s concern is for the poor and needy, an accurate description of us before Christ died for us, before we were saved. God’s concern for the needy should therefore be seen in our lives too, as we help the widows and orphans (those without support / provision if the father and husband has died).

‘he brought us forth by the word of truth’ - God’s word gave birth to us, if I can put it like that, and therefore we need to watch how we use our tongues.

‘he brought us forth... that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures’ - God who is holy wants us to be holy as he is holy, to share the family likeness, in contrast to the world (anti-God, opposed to God and fallen, steeped in sin).

James has been warning us about the dangers of being deceived - about anger, about the word, and about being religious. It’s a serious challenge to how we live the Christian life. Yet we are graciously given every good gift, and exactly what we need to live for God, to live truly and purely religiously (in the right sense): the seed of God’s word which is able to save us, which we need to obey (and be changed by), to live it out in the family likeness.

In a sense, tonight’s passage is an excellent illustration of what James is saying. If we’re in danger, someone will shout a warning - if we’re about to be run over, or fall off a cliff. The warning is only useful for us if we take heed and change in response to it. It’s the same with God’s word. Will we merely agree and say yes to it, or will we change?

‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’

This Bible Talk was given at Mindset, the Youth Leader support and training network in Dundonald on Tuesday 9th March 2010.

Monday, March 08, 2010


When you think of the Apostle Paul, what comes to mind? A harsh, fierce missionary, confrontational, misogynist? Someone who would be hard to like? Perhaps at times Paul comes across as fearsome. Just think of his strong renunciations of the legalists and circumcision group in Galatians. Or the robust theologian defending the gospel in Romans

Yet we also find in Scripture the tenderness of the pastor Paul, as he writes of his love and concern for the Christians in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians) or his warmth for his young colleague Timothy (1&2 Timothy).

Today I was listening to Romans, and the last chapter struck me in a new way. Paul hasn't been to Rome, but he's eager to come to preach there also. Paul wants to come so that he and they can be mutually encouraged by each other's faith. Yet even though he hasn't been there, he knows the people.

In just 16 verses (Romans 16:1-16) there are at least 29 individuals mentioned, as well as at least one church (in the home of Prisca and Aquila) and two families (of Aristobulus, and Narcissus). A nightmare passage for the Bible reader, with
lots of unfamiliar and tricky names to stumble over, but what does this passage tell us about Paul's relationship to the church in Rome?

The fact that he's able to greet so many people by name, and in many cases say something about them too shows that for Paul, the church really is the family of God. These are his brothers and sisters, and he knows them by name.

What about us? The church is absolutely where two or three gather in Jesus' name. A congregation is the church (not a part of it). But can we get so caught up in me and my small corner that we neglect or ignore the wider church? Do we know Christians in the next town, let alone the next country? Could we name Christians on the other side of the world? Do we really know what the Lord is doing there, being involved through prayer and support?

On Sunday past we were blessed to have Australians present, as well as our mission partners who are preparing to return to Afghanistan. Up until Sunday, our mission partner was just a name on a sheet, but now I know Martin and the family. Our prayer interest definitely grows as we know and love and care for the people we're praying for. The church is the family of God, spread across the world, but united in Christ.

Will you take up the challenge to know your brothers and sisters across the world? Perhaps you can support a mission partner through Crosslinks or CMSI or some other agency. We'll spend eternity together, why not start getting to know each other now?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Ephesians Training Day

Today we were pleased to host an At The Castle training day on the Letter to the Ephesians with New Testament scholar and commentary author, Peter O'Brien. About 100 people attended, with three sessions presented by O'Brien. The first was on finding the key verses of Ephesians, which O'Brien argued were 1:9-10. He talked us through this, and then showed how the theme fits the rest of the book. Session two concentrated on unpacking the richest sentence of the Bible. In the Greek, 1:1-14 is one sentence, taking us from eternity past to eternity future, which sets out the glorious and gracious purposes of God's plan being revealed in the world and the blessings lavished through Christ Jesus. The final session was on the armour of God from 6:10-20, which are the very characteristics of God himself, the armour of our mighty warrior God in the battle against the devil.

The day wasn't overly scholarly, though, with accessible material, useful illustrations, and pastoral preaching, applying the message and full force of God's word to our situations. The audio files from the three sessions will be shortly available over at the At The Castle website.

If you happen to be in Belfast tomorrow, Peter O'Brien will be preaching in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Ephesians 2. Our service is at 10.30am and you'll be most welcome!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Book Review: Journey: Psalms for Pilgrim People

Alec Motyer has now published his second devotional commentary on a section of the Psalms. Journey, on the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) follows on from his Treasures of the King (Psalms from the Life of David). Motyer brings a great love for God's word, and a passion for communicating its message, which has been his characteristic mark through a long ministry in parish ministry as well as being Principal at Trinity College, Bristol. However, retirement hasn't stopped him, and his post-retirement books are truly treasures to be savoured.

Sadly for me, this book came out just slightly too late to be of maximum value. Last summer we preached through the Songs of Ascents on Sunday evenings, and the book came out in September/October time. Of course, the next time I preach them I'll have the help of this book for added guidance!

Motyer is a master of Bible study, noting the patterns, repeated phrases, drawing out the correct emphasis of the Psalm, and identifying the key verses. The Psalms in question are truly exposited - Motyer drawing out what the text is actually saying, and not imposing from outside what he wants it to say. In this, it's a great working example of exegesis with some textual comments and helpful notes at the end of each chapter.

Motyer also excels at putting the Psalms in context, both within the Songs of Ascents, but also within the wider Bible context, illustrating the points made with helpful and appropriate pictures from other parts of the Scriptures. There are some memorable turns of phrase, the best one coming from his comment on Psalm 132:

"David's sworn promise to the Lord (verses 2-5) is transposed by grace into the Lord's sworn promise to David (verses 11-14)."

Transposed by grace - how magnificent!

As noted in my previous post, Motyer is fairly critical of the NIV and the way it can sometimes obscure what the Hebrew text is actually saying. This however is a helpful thing, I think, as it again communicates Motyer's passion for God's word being transmitted and understood properly.

All in all, a great book, and one that could helpfully be used as an extended devotional, taking a chapter per day for at least a fortnight.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Which Bible Version?

The array of Bible versions on offer these days is staggering. Before the Reformation properly kicked in, William Tyndale was martyred for publishing parts of the Bible in English. The battle to keep the Scriptures away from the common people was fierce, but the cause of reformation triumphed, and the word of God could be understood by the people in their own language.

We easily forget what our ancestors had to go through, particularly since there are so many different Bible versions and translations. A quick sampling over at Bible Gateway provides at least 19 English versions, as well as many in other languages. From having no Bible at all, we're now drowning in a sea of choice. There are nearly too many to know which is the best. How do I pick a Bible?

He Restores My Soul

It's at this point that two things I read yesterday converged. Two helpful contributions on the Bible debate, if we really want to hear what God's word actually says.

First of all, I've been reading Alec Motyer's most recent book 'Journey: Psalms for Pilgrim People' - a devotional work on the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120 - 134) as well as 135-136 thrown in for good measure. Motyer, a Dubliner, was Principal at Trinity College Bristol, and has written many excellent books on his specialty, the Old Testament.

Throughout, Motyer in the notes at the end of each chapter (and sometimes also in the main text) is critical of the NIV, due to its being a dynamic equivalent translation. This means that the thought is captured and transmitted, rather than the actual words being actually translated. So, for example, two comments on Psalm 134 characterise his opinion of the NIV:

First, on the omitting of the 'Behold' in the text at the start of Psalm 134, Motyer writes 'Omitted in the NIV. Why? It is an important word used by the inspiring Holy Spirit to call attention to something he wants us to be sure not to miss.' (p. 149). Or again, as the NIV waters down 'bless' to 'praise': 'It is hardly surprising that the NIV hesitated to translate the verb as 'bless' - indeed it is a matter for gratitude that other translations did not lose their nerve in the same way.' (p. 146).

The crowning moment of his criticism comes in the notes on Psalm 126, on the inconsistency of translation: 'The NIV, unforgivably obscures this [link of verses 1 and 4 in 'bringing back captives']. Whether the Hebrew is understood as 'bringing back captives' or 'restoring fortunes', the translation of verses 1 and 4 should be identical, as the Hebrew requires, otherwise how can English readers engage in serious Bible study?' (p. 79).

Having read these criticisms of dynamic equivalence in obscuring the actual text and what it says, I then read what Wayne Grudem has said about it:

“I cannot teach theology or ethics from a dynamic equivalent Bible. I tried the NIV for one semester, and I gave it up after a few weeks. Time and again I would try to use a verse to make a point and find that the specific detail I was looking for, a detail of wording that I knew was there in the original Hebrew or Greek, was missing from the verse in the NIV.

“Nor can I preach from a dynamic equivalent translation. I would end up explaining in verse after verse that the words on the page are not really what the Bible says, and the whole experience would be confusing and would lead people to distrust the Bible in English.

“Nor can I teach an adult Bible class at my church using a dynamic equivalent translation. I would never know what words to trust or what words have been left out.

“Nor can I lead our home fellowship group using a dynamic equivalent translation.

“Nor would I want to memorize passages from a dynamic equivalent translation. I would be fixing in my brain verses that were partly God’s words and partly some added ideas, and I would be leaving out of my brain some words that belonged to those verses as God inspired them but were simply missing from the dynamic equivalent translation.

“But I could readily use any essentially literal translation to teach, study, preach from, and memorize.”
(H/T Adrian Warnock)

What do you think? What version of the Bible do you use? I've set up a wee one question survey, which will take ten seconds. Which version are you using?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Christ's Death: Example or Substitute?

"The words 'for (hyper) the sheep' suggest sacrifice. The preposition, itself ambiguous, in John always occurs in a sacrificial context ... In no case does this suggest a death with merely exemplary significance; in each case the death envisaged is on behalf of someone else. The shepherd does not die for his sheep to serve as an example, throwing himself off a cliff in a grotesque and futile display while bellowing 'See how much I love you!' No, the assumption is that the sheep are in mortal danger; that in their defence the shepherd loses his life; that by his death they are saved. That, and that alone, is what makes him the good shepherd."

- Don Carson, The Gospel According to John, p. 386, commenting on John 10:11.

Wallace Busted by BRA

This year is not to be The Wallace High School's year for the Schools Cup, despite a brave show in today's semi final against Belfast Royal Academy. The game ended 16-12 in BRA's favour, with an exciting finish as they ran out worthy winners.

Playing into the sun in the first half at Ravenhill, Wallace gained a surprisingly large lead, with two tries and one conversion. Despite BRA looking the stronger side, they only managed one penalty to end up at halftime with Wallace leading by 12-3.

Those twelve points were all Wallace would score as the second half appeared to be mostly encamped in the Wallace half, their defence under siege for most of the time, and the BRA pressure paid off. BRA's strength was on show, whereas the Wallace players seemed to struggle with cramp later in the game. Another two penalties meant that it was 12-9 in the last five minutes, but BRA always
looked like scoring. The pressure paid off with a converted try with two minutes left on the clock. Wallace failed to regroup and push for the needed try in those last two minutes, and BRA gained their ticket to the final on St Patrick's Day with a solid performance. Their supporters, who had been silent all day finally came to life right at the end, but still they were fairly quiet.

All in all a good game of rugby, a fair performance by Wallace, but BRA deserved to win. All the best to them in the final against either Methody or Ballymena Academy.


That word is the school motto of my old school. It was emblazoned on our blazers, just one word: hope.

Hope is high today. It's the Semi-Final of the Schools' Cup at Ravenhill later this afternoon. Wallace take on Belfast Royal Academy (BRA). Let's hope the lads from Lisburn can make it through to the St Patrick's Day final. Could this be our year?


Monday, March 01, 2010