Barabbas means ‘son of the father’

cross-silhouette1I’m not sure if the saying ‘you learn something new every day’ is infallibly true but I certainly saw something new yesterday. Our senior pastor Ray Evans was teaching on our Explore Christianity course. As we were talking about what Jesus death on the cross achieved for us, he went back to the story of the trial before Pilate. As you might recall it was customary to release one prisoner as chosen by the crowd. Pilate asked whether the crowd wanted Barabbas (a notorious criminal and insurrectionist) or Jesus released to them. They asked for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. Now to the interesting bit I hadn’t seen before. Barabbas name means ‘son of the father.’ Jesus is the Son of the Father. Barabbas is a rebellious runaway son who has turned his back on his heavenly Father. It is the Son of the Father, Jesus, who takes the punishment he (and we) deserve so that he might truly be a son of his heavenly Father again. It’s a great picture of what Good Friday is all about. We, like Barabbas, are all sons (and daughters) of the heavenly Father who have turned our backs on him. God sends his unique Son, Jesus, to bear our punishment in our place that we, like Barabbas, go free and might once again be sons and daughters with relationship restored. The Bar-Abba dies so that rebel Bar-Abbas’ can go free. Amazing grace!

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What’s worse than the plague, world wars, and holocaust put together?

foetusHere’s a story that might have passed you by in the last couple of weeks. I only noticed it through another blog. It hasn’t been on the BBC, nor has it made any of the front pages. Yet it is a story of human loss worse than the bubonic plague, WWI and II, and the holocaust all put together. It’s the story of China’s one child policy over the last four decades. Since 1971 China have conducted 196 million sterilisations and 336 million abortions, many forcibly. That’s about 1500 abortions per hour every hour for forty years. Almost as bad as the crime itself is the fact that nobody seems particularly outraged. Many reports simply observed the negative effects the policy has had on China’s economy. Perhaps we’ve become so conditioned to seeing foetus’s as somehow less than fully human that we’ve failed to see this for what it is. May God have mercy.

A free giving resource for churches

rocketThe lovely folk at The Rocket Company are providing yet more useful free resources. Here’s the latest stuff they’re offering. It’s essentially some really practical tips for church finance teams on how to steward giving more intentionally and efficiently. It’s only a 6 page pdf doc and will repay the few minutes it’ll take you to read. Hope it helps a few of you.

https://s3.amazonaws.com/FreeStuff-TheRocketCompany/Free+Report+-+Five+Systems.pdf?inf_contact_key=2937798202ab746574199c8773b8d072602d5fbc6a71f62a0d76eea884d75cfd

Barth on the Church

barthThere’s no denying it – Karl Barth is hard reading. And there’s also no denying that ol’ Karl’s work courts its fair share of criticism. But having worked my way through vol 28 (IV.3.2) of Church Dogmatics there’s definitely some gold in them there hills. Here’s just a handful of nice quotes:

“As Christian existence is not a mere compliment of existence in the Church, so existence in the church is not a mere complement of Christian existence” (1)

“In Christ the covenant between God and man has not merely been kept by God and broken by man, but kept by both, so that it is the fulfilled covenant” (31)

“[The Church] cannot possibly receive the particular grace freely addressed by God to it, nor rejoice in nor boast of this grace, without being at once aware of the prophetic task therewith implied, without taking up this task, without giving itself wholly to it.” (48)

“It is rather strange that Calvin’s meritorious and significant rediscovery of the prophetic office of Jesus Christ did not work itself out either in his own doctrine of the Church or in that of his followers.” (84)

“those who are genuinely righteous are not ashamed to sit down with the unrighteous as friends; those who are genuinely wise do not hesitate to seem to be fools among fools” (91)

“Only the praying church will be the effective church” (95)

On the irony of separatism … “the community would be guilty of too close conformity to the world if it were to exist within it for its own sake” (95)

On diaconate service . . . “In the diaconate the community makes plain its witness to Him as the Samaritan service to the man who has fallen among thieves . . . and woe to it if it does not, if its witness is not service in this elementary sense! For if not, even though its proclamation of Christ is otherwise ever so powerful, it stands hopelessly on the left hand among the goats.” (205)

On the fellowship of people from all sorts of backgrounds . . . “the community owes to the world a witness, not to the equality, but to the mutual fellowship of men, which in its final and decisive foundation only the community can give” (213)

“baptism and the Lord’s supper are not empty signs … they are full of meaning and power. They are thus the simplest, and yet in their very simplicity the most eloquent elements in the witness which the community owes to the world, namely, the witness of peace on earth among the men in whom God is well pleased.” (214)

There’s great depth in many of these quotes which repay careful reflection. I know Barth has some quirky stuff to say that many would disagree with, but let’s always be gracious, charitable, teachable, and not chuck baby out with the bath water.

10 Misuses of Calvinist Theology

Good Calvinists have always understood that God is sovereign. But sometimes the doctrine of God’s sovereignty can be used to defend all sorts of silly ideas. Here are 10 of the dumbest misuses of what it means for God to be sovereign:

1. God’s sovereign so I don’t have to pray like crazy for my friend/neighbour/kids/spouse etc. Yes, yes you do.
2. God’s sovereign so I don’t have to make the most of every opportunity to witness to my friend/neighbour/kids/spouse etc. Yes, yes you do.
3. God’s sovereign so I couldn’t help that I sinned. Yes, yes you could.
4. God’s sovereign so I don’t have to work hard at my preaching. Yes, yes you do.
5. God’s sovereign so it’s not my fault my ministry is small and ineffective. Yes, yes it could well be.
6. Strategy and leadership shows you don’t trust in God’s sovereignty. No, no it doesn’t.
7. A pension or savings show you don’t trust in God’s sovereignty. No, no it doesn’t.
8. Being an overseas missionary or pioneer planter shows you really trust in God’s sovereignty. Nope, not necessarily.
9. God’s sovereign so I can avoid medical intervention. No, not really.
10. God’s sovereignty means we should never need to ask for money or stuff. No, no it doesn’t.

All of the above are examples not of Calvinistic theology but hyper-Calvinistic theology – Calvinism gone mad and pushed to a logical extreme which Calvin never intended. Calvin understood the paradox between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility – a paradox we’re not called to neatly resolve. Calvin understood that God uses instrumental means to achieve his ends – means like prayer, people, evangelism, medication, skill, money etc. So beware of using Calvinistic theology to justify mediocrity – it wouldn’t impress Calvin and it doesn’t impress God. [now re-read and imagine Mr T. saying it]

6 reasons to keep your small groups lean and keen

puzzleWe’ve discovered that the best way to retain and integrate visitors is via our mid-week small groups. If we can get newbies in a small group and in a service team quickly they velcro in and begin to grow. However, this only really works if the small groups are just that – small. We’ve found 10-12 to be the optimum. As soon as they get above that they get flabby with the following results:

  1. They stop actively recruiting. New people are no longer seen as potential small group members. Rather they are ignored in the hope that someone else will pick them up.
  2. They become inward focused. Rather than focusing on new people they really become more like an exclusive social club. Outsiders are a problem not a blessing.
  3. People stop contributing to discussion in a large group – it becomes too difficult for every one of the 18 to have something to say. The quiet ones remain quiet; the vocal ones talk more.
  4. People stop praying earnestly, passionately, and desperately. For many praying in a large group is too intimidating so they clam up.
  5. People stop sharing life’s burdens together. There’s simply too many people to share and bear with in any deep or meaningful way.
  6. People stop committing to the group. When there’s only 8 of you your attendance matters – you’re valued and it matters that you’re there. When there’s 18 of you no-one will really notice if you miss occasionally.  More and more people become more and more infrequent.

Large groups harm discipleship, recruiting, commitment, discussion and prayer. What can you do? The old wisdom used to be split them up. But the truth is groups get pretty cheesed off if you keep dividing them in half every time things are growing well. A better approach is to encourage groups to have a culture of commissioning. Once the group gets up to around 14 commission just a couple to start a new group around a new leader. Hopefully you  may have a couple of groups who could do this at the same time, plus a few newbies who need a group. Hey presto you may be able to start a new group with 8 or so people. This requires deliberate structural and strategic planning – probably sitting down every sixth months and evaluating where all the groups are at. It’s work that pays off – keeping the groups lean and keen will provide a sustainable route for discipleship of new and old alike.

[ps. here’s what not to do with groups that are lower on numbers. Don’t send them more and more new people. If the group is tanking after a couple of years it’s because the leader isn’t recruiting or leading the group well. Sending more people won’t fix that. Better to start new groups with new people and leaders.]

Tim Keller’s Center Church

kellerHere is a once in a generation book that will be undoubtedly formative for a whole generation of young pastors. Tim Keller’s Center Church is the great man’s magnum opus bringing together a life-time of learning and thinking. It would be impossible for me to give you all the bits I underlined or highlighted, but the basic flow of the book is as follows. It’s broken down into 8 parts (with a total of 30 chapters) looking at gospel theology, gospel renewal, gospel contextualization, city vision, cultural engagement, missional community, integrative ministry, and movement dynamics.

His work is careful, considered, and balanced throughout. His chapters on defining the gospel, contextualization, cultural engagement, and church as organism and organisation were real highlights. In particular his understanding of the various models of cultural engagement (recall Neibuhr), and their respective strengths and weaknesses, was quite simply the best stuff I’ve read on this.

It is clear to me that this is the kind of book that I’m going to end up returning to again and again. If you haven’t already, buy it, read it, enjoy it.

Does God Regret?

regretThis is a question I’ve been asked a couple of times in the last couple of weeks. What does it mean when it says that God regretted or repented (eg. Gen 6:6 or 1 Sam 15:11). It’s not an easy question to answer succinctly but here’s what I normally say:

  1. Language – there are three ways you can talk about God: Univocal predication (God is literally a lion, or lamb); equivocal predication (God is nothing like a lion or a lamb); analogical predication (there is some quality we see in a lion which is maximally present in God). The first option would leave us with irreconcilable contradictions; the second option would leave us with nothing meaningful to say; the third option properly describes how language works when talking about the attributes and actions of God.
  2. Accommodation – since God is infinite and eternal when he reveals himself to us he has to accommodate that revelation to our finite understanding. We could never comprehend the full wonder of his infinite being. He speaks truly but not exhaustively, as do we.
  3. Because God is infinite that is true also of his emotions or passions. God is maximally alive and his passions are perfect and eternal. He doesn’t chuck a strop or get excited about chocolate like we do. It’s important to realise that God is not a really big super strong man. Eternality and infinitude are not finitude and temporality extended really really big – they are a different mode of existence. This is why it’s hard for us to fully understand some of this stuff. We know truly but not exhaustively.
  4. So, when we talk about God regretting or repenting we speak truly but not exhaustively. We speak analogically not univocally. He accommodates the revelation of himself to us. His passions are perfect, maximal, and eternal. If you want to meditate on something that’s perhaps more edifying think about this. Is God grieved over sinners? Yes, maximally and eternally – far more than we could ever comprehend. Does God rejoice over saints? Yes, maximally, perfectly, eternally – far more than you or I could ever begin to comprehend. Far from being intellectual, cold, or sterile, this stuff should move our hearts as we meditate upon his greatness.

Anything else you’d add or I’ve missed?

Hellenism Help from Hengel

HengelIn 1974 Martin Hengel wrote a seminal book on NT background entitled Judaism and Hellenism. It traces the story of Greek influence on Jewish culture in the period following Alexander the Great. Here’s some of the stuff he notes:
– Hellenistic rule, trade, economy, politics and education all pervaded Palestine in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid periods creating a tension required for later revolt.
– By the third century BC all Judaism was to some degree Hellenistic Judaism, even where foreign influence was repudiated by Jewish writers.
– In response Judaism became increasingly nationalistic as a way of self-preservation. Eschatological hope was political and the Torah was central to national and religious self-identification.
– Things came to a bit of a head with the attempt at “Hellenistic Reform” – basically an attempt to get rid of Jewish religious expression through the Torah. A guy called Judas Maccabeus (and his chums) kicked some feta-loving heads and Judaistic nationalism, bound up with the cult, the law, and a political eschatological hope, reached new heights.
– From this point on (c. 150BC and following) any criticism of the law or the cult was seen as analogical to the attempted “Hellenistic Reform” and was met with severe opposition.
– All of this inevitably inhibited any sort of universal missionary consciousness.

So what? Well, it certainly adds some more colour to the backdrop of the ministry and mission of Jesus and the early Christians. Remember, speaking out against the law or the cult or the temple or political hopes put you on a par with the Hellenistic ‘reformers’ and, as such, would get you killed. Interesting to note that both Jesus and Stephen are killed for speaking against the temple. Perhaps there’s also something to be gleaned when thinking about the challenges the early church faced in reaching out to Samaritans and Gentiles, and the battles fought over the observance of the law (particularly food, festivals, and circumcision). With all of the background that Hengel so helpfully sketches one can begin to see the strength of feeling and cultural values that would have provoked such strong emotion. A bit of NT background helps our reading of the Bible to come alive in new and dramatic ways; it also points to the staggering courage of Christ and his followers as they engaged a hostile culture with the good news.

[NB: For the informed reader I’m not really a NPP kinda guy but I do think this background stuff brings new life to the narrative of the Gospels and Acts.]

When Leadership is Hard

painfulHere’s a nice book by Jeff Iorg entitled The Painful Side of Leadership: Moving Forward Even When It Hurts. It’s only a few quid on kindle at the moment and has some helpful nuggets on the reality of leadership. Here are some highlights:

“The realities are sheep bite, run amok, get diseases, wander into trouble, and are attacked by wolves . . . Shepherds are also less than perfect . . . They drive their sheep, lash out at they, yell at them , and even hit a few with their staffs. And, worst of all, shepherds sometimes flirt with other herds, hoping to find greener pastures and better sheep than the ones they are stuck with.”

“Leadership is often painful because leaders are change agents . . . and real change can mean real pain.”

“Success means change, and change usually means pain for someone . . . We must lead even when it hurts.”

“When you slap a pig you get muddy”

“Every critic can’t be right; every suggestion can’t be heeded. If you attempt to adjust your organization to accommodate every critic, all momentum will be lost.”

“Good leaders absorb criticism, deflect and deflate its influence away from team members, passionately pursue their mission, and lead their organization to do the same.”

“If your critics are frequent subject matter for your meetings, conversations, and organizational communication – you can expect your followers to divert attention to them rather than focusing on the mission”

“Effective leadership is largely about timing”

“People follow people more than ideas or proposals”

“Leadership isn’t the role you play; it’s the life you lead”

Sometimes leadership books can feel a touch idealistic or triumphalistic exacerbating my own sense of inadequacy. Here’s one which lives in the real world filth and mess of church life. It’s a worthwhile and ‘encouraging’ read in its own way.