Over the last 8 weeks or so, my brother and I have had the privilege of engaging with a number of guys on an Alpha Course organised by my church, taking place at my house. I have appreciated the insights, honest questions and reflections by all in the group. Two guys in particular, who would describe themselves as non-believers and, in one case at least, would have described himself as a 10/10 atheist at the beginning of the course, have been prepared to come week-in week-out and ask awkward, honest and searching questions.
At the close of Alpha, both gentlemen emailed the group with their reflections on the course and raised some challenging questions that deserve to be taken seriously. I’ve included one of the questions below, and hope to give some indications of my views here and in subsequent posts. On a personal note, I’d like to thank them both for the pleasure of getting to know them and for the stimulating and thought provoking discussion.
The following question, by way of a analogy, in his own words:
Somewhere in Pakistan there are two brothers. These two brothers have faith and believe in God. They believe that Mohamed was a Prophet and that he received words directly from God which his followers recorded and then used and went on to create the Quran. The brothers believe that, during his lifetime, Mohamed went on a journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then up to heaven. This journey was made possible by the use of a winged horse. The brothers completely believe that this event took place, even though during their lifetimes they have no evidence, whatsoever, of another similar occurrence. Their ‘principles’ tell them that it is true and that it happened. These two brothers were born and raised in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country. For whatever reason, at some point in their lives, they became believers, they became men of faith and being men of faith they needed and need, a ‘platform’ a well-defined story, a belief, an organised religion with a clearly defined structure and a local building where they can meet like-minded believers on a weekly basis, in this case a Mosque. Given the fact that the brothers were born in Pakistan, is it any wonder that they became Muslims? No, absolutely not. If they were men of faith that is exactly what they would become.
In order to spread the word they actively organise and take part in courses for individuals who are curious about their particular religion. Some people who attend these courses become believers, whilst others continue to question that particular brand of religion together with all of the other brands of religion.
Somewhere in England there are two brothers. These two brothers have faith and believe in God. They believe that Jesus was the Son of God and his words and travels, during his lifetime on Earth, were recorded after his death and included in the Bible. The brothers believe that after his death, he rose from the dead. The brothers completely believe that this event took place, even though during their lifetimes they have no evidence, whatsoever, of another similar occurrence. Their ‘principles’ tell them that it is true and that it happened. These two brothers were born and raised in England, a predominantly Christian country. For whatever reason, at some point in their lives, they became believers, they became men of faith and being men of faith they needed and need, a ‘platform’ a well-defined story, a belief, an organised religion with a clearly defined structure and a local building where they can meet like-minded believers on a weekly basis, in this case a Church. Given the fact that the brothers were born in England, is it any wonder that they became Christians? No, absolutely not. If they were men of faith that is exactly what they would become.
In order to spread the word they actively organise and take part in (Alpha) courses for individuals who are curious about their particular religion. Some people who attend these courses become believers, whilst others continue to question that particular brand of religion together with all of the other brands of religion.
This would be the case, of course, for any world religion or belief system.
I consider that I have the opportunity to stand back and view all of the various brands of religion with a certain amount of curiosity and question “why”?… [Such accounts could be listed that] would be a great deal longer than my arm, of other stories from other religions from around the world, over the centuries. I don’t see a problem with you having your faith, I just don’t see what you see and hopefully this email will assist you to understand what goes through a non-believers mind.
I think it’s fair to summarise these words as asking: “As a ‘man of faith’, if I had been born in a predominantly Muslim country would I now be a Muslim?”
This is a very good question, and cuts to the heart of what it means for me to be a follower of Jesus.
Jesus’ day and ours
We are privileged to live in a country in which many of our laws, customs and social norms have been heavily shaped by Judaeo-Christian world views. I believe UK subjects are the better for this. The UK is also today a multi-cultural, ethnically and religiously diverse place to live – we are also the better off for it. In my view, we can no longer describe the UK as a ‘Christian’ country, and could rightly be described as living in a ‘post-Christendom’ society.
This means that the choice to be a follower of Jesus is a conscious choice and not something we ‘fall into’ in our culture. If anything, followers of Jesus are under increasing pressure and attack from all angles – legally, socially, etc.
Our experience in twenty-first century UK is not unique.
First-century Palestine was different in many ways to our own culture. Jesus grew up as a Jew is a deeply religious society. But he also grew up in a cultural milieu of inter-connected and opposing world views politically, socially and religiously. Following Jesus, in Jesus’ day, was a conscious – and dangerous – choice. It was also a choice that countless thousands chose because they claimed to have found something in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus worth giving up everything for. What they had found in Jesus was worth pursuing with reckless abandon.
I have a choice. I could follow the teachings of Buddha, I could follow the teaching of the prophet Muhammad and Islam. So why do I follow Jesus?
I want people to follow Jesus, not to change their culture or reject their heritage. I want people to put their faith in Jesus – not in ‘Christianity’ per se. A follower of Jesus will look very different in Pakistan than it will in the UK – that’s ok with me. I stand with those who suffer for their faith in that country as in countless others across the globe because I want to stand and be counted as being willing to give up anything else in my life to be counted with Jesus.
I suspect that the prophet Muhammad did not intend to ‘start another religion’ any more than Jesus did – he considered Islam1 to be a return to the God of Abraham.
Our view of what God is like will shape the whole character of our faith. If God exists, how can we truly know what he is like? My answer is Jesus. Only Jesus fully reveals God the Father. Jesus is unique. I believe world history hinges on him. He was there at the creation of the world and that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have been conspiring since the beginning of time to bring us all to a place of experiencing and participating in the love of God.
I don’t have a crystal ball and cannot automatically assume that if I had grown up in another time or place that I would have met Jesus – but I do know from my experience that Jesus found me where I am right now, and know that he’s finding people across the globe who are willing to seek him. He’s shown me perfect love. And he’s showing countless millions of others, right now, what God the Father looks like. What I do know is that as I seek to pattern my life after Jesus I am becoming more loving, kind, joyful, hopeful and peaceful. I know God. And that matters whether I live in the UK or Timbuktu.
Jesus makes sense of my relationship with others and my relationship with God. Jesus is helping me more loving towards my wife and son. Whether in Pakistan or in the UK, that makes the world of difference.
The question for me is not whether I would be a Muslim if I had been born in another time or place, but whether I would be following Jesus. I respect the faith of others who do not share my own beliefs – but I can’t get away from the fact that it is Jesus that makes the difference.
I’m conscious that that may sound like foolishness to you – and that’s ok.
I respect people of faith, and those who have made a conscious and conscientious choice to claim none, as fellow seekers of true meaning in this life.
From this non-believer to you two believers, of whom I have the upmost respect, thank you for giving me an opportunity to ask why.
I know I will continue to keep questioning, and I have the utmost respect and thanks for your input and questions over the course of this Alpha. I encourage you to read that Bible you have been given and to keep asking why. I know I will.
- Islam means ‘submission to Allah‘ (Arabic for God). Translations of the Bible into Arabic use the term Allah for God. ↩
Matt Appling writes a letter to his not-yet-born children:
But despite that fear, we keep persisting, keeping our hearts open for the day you show up. It’s a fearful persistence. We’re not angry or sad that other kids got to be born first. They are beautiful little miracles too. How could we be mad about those miracles?
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer… Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
“Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud.
In Christian theology, such phrases regularly act as “portable stories”—that is, ways of packing up longer narratives about God, Jesus, the Church and the world, folding them away into convenient suitcases, and then carrying them about with us. Shorthands enable us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should never forget that the point in doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in the new location.
Too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in a suitcase may have made some of the contents go moldy. They will benefit from fresh air, and perhaps a hot iron.
Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by N. T. Wright
… we read Romans 13:1-7, Jesus remains the one in whom the nations place their hopes. Third, we have read Romans 13 in light of Paul’s apocalyptic narrative about the overthrow of all authorities at the return of Jesus. Paul declares the ‘powers,’ be they political or spiritual, have been disarmed and are impotent before Jesus’ lordship (see Rom 8:38-39; 1 Cor 2:8; 15:25-26; Col 2:15).
Christians did not affirm Roma aeterna (eternal Rome), but neither did Christians intend to overthrow any government themselves. Rome would be judged by Christ one day, so there was no reason to accept Rome’s claims of eternality or divine favor, but the Kingdom of God would be established by God in God’s time, so there was no need to attempt to overthrow Caesar to install Christ.
We can’t overplay the significance of Paul’s understanding of the interplay between the ruling powers of his day and the eschatological hope found in Jesus Christ. One is not divorced from the other – whether Paul thought the eschaton was imminent or not, the ‘spiritual’ is not separate from the political and social order. Paul and these early followers of Jesus did not walk around blindfolded, unaware of the daily challenges of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in an outright pagan society that demanded the obedience of the Empire to another ‘Son of God’ and ‘Saviour’.
Reading the Bible in the New Testament in this way infers that imperial politics was merely an interesting backdrop against which the first-century followers of Jesus conducted their affairs. As I’ve stated before, the Roman Empire “… was not the background, but the foreground of Paul’s world.” Paul’s monotheistic critique of pagan rule may not have been the primary purpose of Paul’s writings, but it is a theme we cannot ignore.
Brian LePort’s challenge, however, is well made. We don’t need to assume that this automatically meant that to install Christ as Lord automatically meant working towards the ‘overthrow of Caesar’ in any overt way. It did mean to live in such a way that recognised who was truly sovereign over history, and to trust that the “kingdom of God would be established by God in God’s time.”
At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.
For us in the twenty-first century, our very obedience to the governing authorities, our choice to pay taxes, to honour and respect those who have been placed by God in positions of power and responsibility is a recognition that God knows what he is doing. Being salt and light in our communities and working for the good and blessing of our cities is a godly calling. It is one that requires active engagement with the politics of our day – in the things we say and the way we live. But where change is not as forthcoming as we would like, and things seem to be going from bad to worse, we know that he is control. His timing is perfect. His ways will prevail.
- Michael Bird, “‘One Who Will Arise to Rule Over the Nations’: Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Roman Empire” in Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, 159. ↩
The burden of having a mental illness is at times very hard to bear. Christians must learn to ease that weight for others. Too often churches will instead add to sufferers a sense of guilt that they “ought not” to be feeling that way….
The Bible is not ignorant of depression. It is not embarrassed to speak of it. God understands. For the one who inspired every word was tempted as we are. And, as we are reminded every Good Friday, Jesus himself on the cross became familiar with sorrow. He carried our depression, so that we would be delivered. In the meantime, although our troubles may be severe, he promises to be with us in them.
We need to get to a place where we can talk as freely about depression and other mental illnesses as we would about a physical illness. Where we recognise it needs non-stigmatising medical attention, but also a context in which Christians lovingly pray and seek breakthrough in the midst of confusion and pain.
John Stott was well known for his perspicuity and always practical teaching ministry. I’m seeking in this post to summarise some of the salient point that I’m taking away from reading a transcript of his excellent sermon on The Marks of a Renewed Church (brought to my attention via Jason Clarke).
Stott attempts to address the question: What are the chief distinguishing marks of the Christian community? To put that another way, what does a Spirit-filled church look like? I’m choosing to not pick bones about the continuing role of the Holy Spirit that Stott presents in this article, choosing to affirm some of the really helpful teaching and perspicuity that John Stott always brings.
Stott draws upon four key markers of a renewed church from Acts 2:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2).
These four markers are:
- A learning church
- A caring church
- A worshiping church
- An evangelizing church
1. A learning church
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.
These Spirit-filled converts were not enjoying some mystical experience which led them to neglect their intellect or to despise theology or to stop thinking. On the contrary, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. Moreover they didn’t imagine that the Holy Spirit was the only teacher they needed and could dispense with human teachers. Not at all. They sat at the apostles’ feet. They acknowledged that Jesus had appointed the apostles as the teachers of the church, and they submitted to their authority, authenticated to them by miracles.
When we look at our local churches, we should see more than just the Word of God being preached ‘from the pulpit’. We should see parents teaching their children to sit under the Word. We should see every Christian demonstrating a deep commitment to reflecting upon the Scriptures daily and applying what we are learning to our lives that we might think and behave differently, becoming more and more like Jesus.
The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.
2. A caring church
Second, a renewed church is a caring church, a loving church, a supportive church. Its members love and care for one another. If the first mark of a renewed church is study, the second is fellowship. “They devoted themselves to … fellowship.”
Koinonia – fellowship – comes from the adjective koinos that means “common.” Our Koinonia bears witness to what we have in common. What we share as followers of Jesus. There are two complementary truths contained within this:
First, koinonia expresses what we share in together, what we have received together, what we participate in together. That is the grace of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So the apostle John, at the beginning of his first letter, says, “Our fellowship [koinonia] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” The apostle Paul adds the phrase “the fellowship of the Spirit.” So authentic fellowship is Trinitarian fellowship. It is our common participation in the grace and the life and the mercy of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We come from different nations, denominations, and cultures, but we are unified by our common share in the grace of God.
What we commonly experience in our hearts must also find outward expression in how we live, and in what we share outward together:
… not only what we receive together, but what we give together.
Authentic fellowship is Trinitarian fellowship.
As I have pointed to before, κοινωνία is the noun that Paul uses of the collection that he was organising from the Greek churches for the benefit of the poor churches in Judea. It was this kind of generosity that Paul was so keen demonstrate and to expend so much time and effort on. The collection featured prominently in Paul’s strategy to demonstrate, in immensely practical ways, the rule of ἀγάπη and the unity of Christian κοινωνία amongst the early Christ movement. It must have been intended to be far more than a token gesture.
The Holy Spirit at work in the hearts of these early believer led to loving and generous action. The exceptions to this rule prove the point:
… when we come to the story of Ananias and Sapphira in , the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not that they kept back part of the proceeds of the sale of their property, but that they kept back part while pretending to give the lot. Their sin was hypocrisy, deceit. It was not meanness or avarice. The apostle Peter said to them in , “Before you sold your property was it not your own? And after you sold it was it not at your disposal?” In other words, your property is your own to make a conscientious decision before God for its purposes.
Does it mean that every Spirit-filled believer will follow their example literally? Does it mean that we should all sell everything we own and give the proceeds to the poor? Clearly not everyone in Jerusalem sold their house, because we know that the early church in Jerusalem met in one another’s homes. But what we do see is that these early Christians loved one another. They cared for those in their number who were less fortunate than themselves. They shared their goods. They shared their homes. We should do no less.
That principle of voluntary and generous sharing with one another is permanent and universal… the New Testament calls us to simplicity, contentment, and generosity.
3. A worshiping church
Stott points to the worship of the early church being formal and informal; it took place in the temple and in their homes. They supplemented the services in the temple with their own simple, informal, unstructured, spontaneous meetings at home. It was also joyful and reverent. Our worship should be neither lugubrious nor licentious. A worshiping church should experience fear, awe and wonder in its gathered worship.
4. An evangelizing church
We learn three important lessons from vs. 47: “The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
First, the Lord Jesus did it himself: “The Lord added to their number.”
He did it through the preaching of the apostles and through the witness of the ordinary members and through their common life of love, but he did it.
Second, he did two things together: “He added to their number those who were being saved.” He didn’t save them without adding them to the church, and he didn’t add them to the church without saving them. He did the two together, because salvation and church membership always belong together.
Third, he did it every day. Day by day he added to their number those who are being saved.
I wish we could get back to that expectation. Evangelism is continuous outreach into the community seeking to bring people into Christ and his community.
No more hit and run. Expect Jesus to be at work. Expect growth.
These four markers of a renewed church are all about relationships. It’s God’s loving purpose to build his church. The local church is the hope of the world – it’s God’s idea.
Our responsibility is to seek the power, the direction, and the fullness of the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit is given his rightful place of freedom in the Christian community, then our churches will approximate this ideal—biblical faith, loving fellowship, living worship, ongoing evangelism. God, make our churches like that today… we pray for our churches on earth, that they may approximate ever more closely this beautiful ideal that you have given us in your Word.