Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Human Genesis

With advances in mapping human genome and continuous findings on ancient human fossils (even extract DNA sequences out of them!), the question on human origins has never been more complex or urgent. New theological lines are being drawn: Must there be historical Adam and Eve? How do we understand "image of God"? What about "original sin" if we are not descended from a historical pair? How do we read Genesis along with God's book in nature?

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Kingdom Outposts In a Broken World

We spend most of our waking hours in the marketplace (schools, factories, offices, hospitals, homes, farms etc). How could we encourage fellow followers of Jesus to connect our faith with our work?

How can we help our faith communities see that marketplace living for the kingdom is key to people seeing and hearing whole life discipleship being lived out in front of them?

Well, the church service is the gathering of God's people around the gospel for worship, nourishment, instruction and then... they are sent out out as ambassadors of the Kingdom in the marketplace. If these values are not integrated into what happens during the worship service, it would not be perceived as a priority. 

Here is a practice that we have found helpful: 

We conduct a Faith and Work conversation with various members of the congregation on a regular basis with these simple questions:

- What is Monday (or a work day) like for you? What is your role /responsibility in the office/family/factory/school?

- What are some opportunities/challenge that you face?

- How does your faith in Christ help you address these issues?

- How can we pray for you?

(Usually it is done at the same time as the announcement/church news/events segment of the worship service but it doesn't really matter if a different slot works better for you )

Over the years, I had the privilege to hear powerful stories of God's kingdom outposts in the world. How discipleship works out in the world when people are transformed by the gospel.

For example, a neurologist who chooses to work in a public hospital rather than the more lucrative private practice because here, he can serve a multi-racial community especially those who cannot afford going to a private hospital. Or a psychologist graduate who went on to Teach for Malaysia because of her hope in a better Malaysia by educating the next generation.

It's costly, of course but they don't complain because love is an even greater motivation. They are purposeful because of their calling. And their call drives their mission(s).

From a small congregation of about 70 people, it's encouraging to know and to pray for a sister who, as part of her work, is researching for ways to treat cancer or a brother driven by creation care convictions chose to work for World Wildlife Fund. If only we could see that their "job" is part of God's creation mandate for humanity - to be faithful stewards and compassionate rulers of the created order.

Sometimes, you hear raw and honest stories of struggles and doubt... And that's perfectly beautiful as they are occasions to show pastoral care and a safe space to bring these questions before God. For example, it is a privilege to pray for a pediatrician struggling over the death of her patients or a teacher facing ethical issues in his school.  

These are opportunities for the whole congregation to stand in solidarity and pray for God's help in dealing with these challenges (which we probably see reflected in our own lives as well), seek Scripture for guidance on ethical issues that confront us and commission these followers of Jesus as signs of God's presence in our community.

Songs that we sing during worship also shape our thinking and feeling profoundly. Here are my favorite examples of songs that have a deep theology of creation mandate and work as spiritual formation i.e. The Worker's Prayer and God of the Poor

Would love to hear from you if there are other songs and practices that integrate faith and work!

The Worker's Prayer

Before You I kneel, my Master and Maker
To offer the work of my hands,
For this is the day You've given Your servant;
I will rejoice and be glad:
For the strength I have to live and breathe,
For each skill Your grace has given me,
For the needs and opportunities
That will glorify Your great name.

Before You I kneel and ask for Your goodness
To cover the work of my hands,
For patience and peace to shape all my labour,
Your grace for thorns in my path.
Flow within me like a living stream,
Wear away the stones of pride and greed,
'Til Your ways are dwelling deep in me
And a harvest of life is grown.

Before You we kneel, our Master and Maker;
Establish the work of our hands,
And order our steps to seek first Your kingdom
In every small and great task.
May we live the gospel of Your grace,
Serve Your purpose in our fleeting days,
Then our lives will bring eternal praise
And all glory to Your great name,
And all glory to Your great name.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Decade of Blogging

I have been blogging for ten years! The unsettling events of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 had so distracted me that that I almost let such an important anniversary slipped my mind! I started this blog on 21 January 2006. I posted my 1000th post on 20 July 2008, 2001st post on 1 Jan 2010, and 3000th post on 11 Feb 2015. One of the features I like about blog is that I can easily retrieve previous posts, unlike Facebook or twitters. Blogging is part of my digital Great Commission activities.

My very first post Why I begin blogging in 2006 states the reasons why I started the blog.
• With the numerous viewpoints available, I want to add a distinctive Christian one
• I support the open access of knowledge that the Internet offers
• Use Web 2.0 as a platform to sharing our learning experiences
• Be part of an online community

In time, my blogging activities expanded and so did my number of blogs. Aside from this blog, I also administer the following blogs, reflecting my diverse interests.
• Random Writing from a Doctor’s Chair
• Random Sermon from a Doctor’s Chair
• Random Spirituality from a Doctor’s Chair
• Random Photos from a Doctor’s Chair

My postings in the blogs have lessen in the last few years because of my increased involvement in FacebookTwitterLinkedinPinterestGoogle Plus and Youtube. This does not mean that I think that the importance of blogs has decreased. In fact, I believe that blogging has settled into the distinctive niche it was meant to be. Where Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest and Google Plus deal with the daily, social online interactions, blogs offers a place for longer, more reflective and reasoned articles to be posted.

I will continue to blog 

  •  Spiritual disciplineBlogging is a spiritual discipline as I try to write at least 1,000 words daily. Not all of what I have written will be posted. Some will be published elsewhere. I find writing helps me to think and understand myself. It also helps me to experience God and engage with his creation.

  • Teaching. The Internet has grown tremendously in the last two decades. It has become the largest depository of knowledge mankind has ever created. It is also the largest collection of hubris. I will continue to present a Christian viewpoint from as far as I understand it. I do not pretend to know it all but I see the need for Christian counterpoint especially from an Asian perspective.

  • Recommending. I will continue to recommend good books, blog postings and websites. I find open sharing is very useful as others may also come across articles or post I am not aware of.

  • Interaction. I value interactions on my blogs and other social media. I value open minds and fellow seekers. However, I will not waste my time with biased, opinionated, rude bigots. We learn more in our interactions. 

  • Community. My readers and friends are my online tribe and community. I value every one of them. Their comments and likes are much appreciated. I love the friendships we have formed online and in some cases in the physical world. It is always a pleasure to meet someone in the flesh whom we have met online. I am slowly going down the list and praying for each of my Facebook friends.

Dear friends, thank you for reading this far and being part of my life. God bless you all. 


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Overcoming Discouragement: The Best Is Yet To Come

We are into the 2nd chapter of Haggai. In the previous episode, we saw how God brought the nation of Israel out of exile in Babylon after 70 long years. Those who survived the exile (the remnant) uprooted themselves and returned to their homeland around 538 BC. 

Everything was in ruins. They tried their best to pick up the pieces and rebuild up their nation once again.

Now, how does this story connect with the bigger unfolding story of God’s kingdom?

Well, we can trace through the Bible how God longs for His people to live in God’s place under His presence and rule. God’s presence was with Adam and Eve (his people) in the Garden of Eden (God’s place) and they live under God’s rule (to commune with Him, to be fruitful and multiply and to care and rule over the earth).

Then God made His dwelling in the temple at the heart of Jerusalem where His people, the nation of Israel, lived under His law given to Moses. The temple was where heaven and earth met. It’s the place where people make sacrifices and have their sins forgiven.

Now, a remnant of God’s people returned from exile. So they are back in God’s land. But where is God’s reign and presence? His temple still lies in ruin. That’s the missing piece that the message of Haggai seeks to fix.

As Tom and Steven said earlier sermons, it’s not that they didn’t want to rebuild the temple. 

They are saying, “The time is not yet.” Imagine them sitting around a table in the local coffee shop: “You know, it’s a shame that the temple lies in ruins. But the economy is not doing so well. The Jerusalem Composite Index is on a bearish run. We are just so busy building our own houses that we can’t find the time to do it. Give it some time and we can build a bigger, better temple when we are ready”. It sounds very reasonable.

But one year passed… then another year… then another… This went on for 16 years. The project was postponed for 16 long years before Haggai came with a wake up call. This is not just an innocent timing issue. Behind that procrastinating ‘not yet’ is sinful disobedience. It’s a heart problem because God’s presence is simply not their priority. As a result, they are never satisfied. It’s like keeping money in a purse with holes.

The message of Haggai is one that we desperately need to hear here in CDPC Puchong. 1 Corinthians 3:16 says: “ Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” Today, the body of Christ, the church is the temple of God where the Holy Spirit dwells. Are you investing your life in building the people of God, the church? Will you seek first the kingdom of God and trust that all these things shall be added unto you?

We can understand that there may be certain seasons in life where you can’t invest as much time or energy into ministry as you would like i.e. maybe a baby just arrived, or you are tired and need a rest or you need to be equipped… Whatever it is, but be careful that your ‘not yet’ is not just another excuse that goes on forever, that the right time never comes. Be careful that procrastination doesn’t hide distorted priorities in our hearts.

John Piper says this: If you devote yourself to sowing and eating and drinking and clothing yourselves and earning wages, but neglect building and growing the body of Christ (the temple of God), you will live in constant frustration. If you spend your time and energy seeking comfort and security from the world, and do not spend yourself for the glory of God, every pleasure will leave its sour aftertaste of depression and guilt and frustration.

Then the amazing thing happened, the people actually responded to God’s word. They started working on the temple. They got excited about God’s presence. Their spirits were stirred and roused to action. That’s where we left off two weeks ago.

Which brings us to today’s episode in Chapter 2 and this is what Scripture says:

Haggai 2 

On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

Now, about a month has passed since the people of God started rebuilding the temple. Things had been going well until now. They would have removed plenty of rubbles and have some idea of the scope and size of the new temple.

It’s also the seventh month (17 October 520 BC). Around this time 400 + years ago, King Solomon had dedicated his magnificent temple to the Lord with a great celebration. It’s near the anniversary of that great day when the glory of the Lord filled the temple (2 Chronicles 7). On this very spot had stood the temple where heaven and earth met.

Do you remember the splendor of that original temple?

In case you forgot let me remind you that it took 70,000 laborers, 80,000 stone cutters and 3,300 supervisors to build that amazing piece of architecture. It was made of costly stones. From the floor to the walls of the ceiling, expensive intricately carved cedar wood covered everything so that no stone was seen. Then the entire house was overlaid with gold. Can you imagine how glorious it was?  (1 Kings 6-7)

Some old-timers who survived the exile may still vividly recall how it once looked like. You can imagine a young Jewish builder proudly saying to his grandfather: “Look, I want to show you our work in progress. What do you think of the new temple?”

And the old man tactfully said, “Oh… hmmm… that’s very smart of you. It’s very compact this new temple design, isn’t it? You can walk from end to end without getting tired. And the yellow paint you used on the walls looks like gold… Ahh, very clever.. You know what, back in the good old days it’s so different.”

Nothing they are building now compares with that. There’s no hope of beating the original. The difference between the glorious past and the insignificant present is so sad.

So Haggai said out loud what they are already feeling inside (look at verse 3): 
‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?’

Instead of being inspired remembering the temple dedication anniversary, they looked at the relatively pathetic and tiny structure in front of them… And they felt paralyzing despair. They are crippled by discouragement. They have lost heart and their hands turned weak. The work has slowed down or come to a complete stop.

Today, as Christians, our focus is not on a temple made of bricks and mortar. We don’t look at this passage and say: Let’s build a new temple for Jesus! Because we now understand that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. God is now present in our lives:

Paul wrote: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19)

The church (the people of God) is now the temple in which the Spirit dwells today.

And if you have invested your time, energy, sometimes blood and sweat into building a church (I don’t mean the building, but investing your life in people, to make disciples and help them grow as followers of Jesus), you are building the temple of God today.

If you’ve ever done that, you know how easy it is to feel discouraged and frustrated. You can identify exactly with what these remnants of Israel were feeling.

Sometimes, our efforts seem so pathetic and our ministries seem so insignificant that you just wonder: “What’s the point? Am I wasting my time? It’s like throwing pebbles into the ocean. It’s not changing anything.”

Have you ever felt that before? I can honestly share with you that there are days when I wonder if all of this is worth it.

Yes, there are wonderful times when you see signs of spiritual growth. Recently a brother shared with me how after years of asking questions and exploring the Christian faith that he’s now ready to stake his life on Christ and give back to society. And how different people in church have walked with him in this spiritual journey…

Such stories can encourage and motivate me for months, but they don’t happen overnight. They are few and far in between.

Sometimes, our words and efforts seem to bounce off without making a dent in people’s lives or in the wider culture that you just feel like giving up. People may be so responsive to God’s word in this area of their lives, but in some other areas, they are so stubborn and slow to change. (LRT will so many people in KL?)

Gospel ministry is not for the faint hearted. It is hard work.  

And such frustration with the fruit of our ministry is made worse if we compare our present, feeble efforts with a golden age in the past. Back in the good old days (“seong tong nin”)… “Wow! Look at the church during the Great Awakening revival. Thousands of people were converted. The gospel was preached so powerfully. What we do now seems like nothing in comparison.”

Some of you may still recall the golden era of CDPC where we had three full time pastors on top of experienced preachers like Soo Inn and Peter Rowan. Later, we also had Pastor Kay Hoe on board. Back in the good old days… things were really happening! And we may be tempted to look at the present and feel discouraged.   

When we feel like that, we may not to drop out from church altogether. But we may be tempted to scale back on the time and energy we pour into serving others and making disciples. Just do the bare minimum, warm the seats and focus our energy elsewhere.
As a result, the church of God is not being built up and the work is abandoned.
That can be true in other areas of our lives too: in our parenting, in our marriages, in our work lives, we can often find ourselves comparing ourselves to others and feeling discouraged as a result…
That’s why we desperately need to hear the message of Haggai today.

If we are to press on and to persevere in building God’s temple today, to make disciples and invest our lives in the lives of others, we need to know two things:

1)      Can it be done? Can we do it? If it’s a wonderful project but we can’t do it, then what’s the use? Is it feasible or is it an exercise in futility?

Look at verse 4 onwards:
But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

The Lord is saying to His people: Be strong and work! Why? “For I am with you”…
When you came out of Egypt, I promised that I would always be with you. I am still with you, so do not be afraid. I will not break my covenant. I will be faithful even when you were unfaithful. That’s why I have brought you back out of exile into the land again.”

Is there anything that gives you more courage and strength than the presence of God? Would you rather hear God promise that He will send resources, expertise and angels to help us do the job? Or that He himself will be with us and walk with us all the way?

If you’ve ever taken your child to the doctor’s office, or to the dentist, then you understand how encouraging this promise is.  Your child is sitting there in the doctor’s room and what does your child say to you? 

“Don’t leave me, daddy!  Stay right here with me, mommy!”  Now why is that encouraging to the small child?  You see, there’s just something about knowing the parent is there that calms the child. If things get bad, the child knows the parent will step-in there and take charge of the situation.  

And that’s what is so encouraging about the presence of God in our lives.  God says, “Be strong and work, for I am with you.”  I am in control. I’m right here by your side. You will never walk alone. I will never leave you nor forsake you. I will keep my covenant with you. My Spirit remains with you.

Look back to how God’s presence has been with you through history.

The history of the people of Israel (how He brought them out of Egypt and then again out of Babylon) proves His constant love. In the seventh month, around this time, the nation celebrates the Feast of Tabernacles where everyone stays outside of their homes, as if they camp out in booths or tents out in the open. It reminds them of how God has brought them out of Egypt and their forefathers stayed in tents like that. It’s a testimony of how God has been faithful in their history.

When we look back through our own lives, perhaps we can trace that God is with us all along even we didn’t sense it at that time. Even when times have been difficult, God’s presence is in our lives.

And that’s exactly the promise of our Lord Jesus when He gives us the Great Commission. As we obey His call to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything He has commanded us, Jesus says: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

You can do this. Because I am with you and I have poured out my Spirit to empower you, fill you and guide you. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord.

So be strong and work at making disciples and building God’s temple. Because you know Jesus will be with you as you obey his call.

2)      Is it worth doing? If we can do it but it’s not worth the effort, then why bother? Is it something significant worth the trouble?

Look at verse 6:
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

What Haggai is saying here is: “Don’t look down on this humble temple that you are building. The best is yet to come! The glory of this present house which seems mundane now will be greater than the glory of the former house. You build more than your eyes can see!”

In a little while, sometime in the future, the Lord will once more shake the heavens and the earth… there’s apocalyptic language here that move from the immediate present to the future. It means that God will do something earth-shattering, something planet-shaking, paradigm-shifting so to speak… He will shake the nations and what is desired by all nations will come.

There have been discussions among students of the Bible about: “What is “the desire of all nations’ about? Is it referring to the coming of Christ?” Some beautiful hymns were written referring to Christ as the desire of the nations (which is true).

But it seems unlikely that’s what Haggai is referring to because the “desired” of all nations is in the plural… so it probably refers to the precious treasures that the nations desire will one day come to the temple… That makes more sense of the following verse: ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 

Although the builders lack resources now, Haggai prophesies of a glorious day when the nations’ treasures will be brought into the temple as tribute in honor of Him.     

But how was this prophecy fulfilled?

Like most prophecies, it was fulfilled in stages, and the final fulfillment is yet to come.
There are multiple shakings, multiple interventions of God in history in its fulfillment.

At one level, we can see this happening when the Persian King Darius ordered those who opposed the temple building to pay the costs of this project from the revenue of their own money. The treasures of the nations were used for the temple project. You can read this in Ezra 6. A few centuries later, King Herod would extend and heavily renovate this temple so that it became a truly glorious piece of architecture during the time of Jesus. That’s another possible level of fulfillment of Haggai’s prophecy.

The glory of the Lord came upon Solomon’s temple in a spectacular fashion – fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifices. But an even greater glory entered the second temple when Jesus the Messiah, God incarnate himself, walked in it and said in John 2:19, 20, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up . . . By that he was speaking of the temple of his body." In effect, Jesus is making a direct continuity between the temple and himself: once God met his people in the temple, now God meets us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Some students of the Bible believe a glorious temple will once again be built in Jerusalem and stand through 1000 years as Christ rules on earth (Ezekiel 41ff.; 2 Thessalonians 2:4). And the nations will indeed bring their tribute to Christ. If you are premillennial in your eschatology, that might be another level of fulfillment.

That may be the case, but the ultimate fulfillment of the temple is described in Revelation 21:22. In the new Jerusalem (when the city of God descends on earth as it is in heaven), John says, "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb."

There won’t be a temple anymore because God and Christ will be our temple. We won’t need a temple because we will dwell directly in God’s presence, in the holy of holies. God’s people will finally be in God’s place (new heaven and new earth) under God’s rule forever.  

The point is this: God had a purpose for this humble temple. The Israelite builders in Haggai’s time could not see all of this, and what they could see seemed so small.
So God’s promise came to them loud and clear: Be strong. You build more than you see. I will take the fruit of your little labor and make it glorious beyond measure, no matter how trivial it may seem to you now.

The covenant group, the youth group or Sunday school class or English program students you are working with may seem small and ordinary today… you may feel discouraged comparing with others or with the past. 
But God takes small, imperfect things and turns them into public displays for his glory. Nothing you do is insignificant if you do it in the name of Christ, for His glory and conscious of His presence with you. He will shake heaven and earth to fill your labor with glory. 

So take courage, church, you build more than your eyes can see.

If we stay focused on God and trust in his presence with us, he will shake things up in our lives. And the glory of the future temple will be greater than the past.

 So in conclusion, God knows that we all face discouragements in life and in gospel ministry.

But He says to us through Haggai:

If you are feeling discouraged, reflect back on the past and see that God is faithful. He’s a covenant keeping God. If you are feeling frustrated, reflect on the presence of God with you now, in the present by his Holy Spirit. If you are feeling disappointed, trust in the fact that God has a beautiful future for you filled with his glory and peace.

Let us pray.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Romans 16: The Goal Of The Gospel

Romans 16:
17 I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. 19 Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.
21 Timothy, my co-worker, sends his greetings to you, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my fellow Jews.
22 I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.
23 Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.
Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings. [24] [e]
25 Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from[f] faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

Earlier this month, the local social media was abuzz with news that Putrajaya has purchased a new private jet for our Prime Minister’s use. It costs tax payers RM 109 million. Many people wonder if the money could be put to better use at a time when people are tightening their belt with rising costs of living. But even Putrajaya was outdone by a pastor who caused an even bigger uproar by asking 200,000 supporters to donate $300 each to his ministry. You may ask why would a mega church pastor need to raise 60 million dollars? (> two times more expensive) Is it for a noble cause like providing education and medicine to poor children? Or feed starving people around the world? Well, sadly no.

All that money will go to buy Pastor Dollar a brand new luxury private jet so he could "continue reaching a lost and dying world for the Lord Jesus Christ." A few people dug deep into their wallets to send him the cash. The rest of us started feeling sick in our stomachs at so many levels. Why can’t he just fly commercial planes? Which Jesus is he preaching anyway? The real Son of God arrived on the back of a humble donkey. He didn’t require a first class, luxury chariot. A prosperity preacher who gets rich off the offerings of poor people is not only exploiting/oppressing the church, he is denying everything that the gospel stands for. There is a word for it: He is fleecing the sheep for his own selfish profit.

That’s why the apostle Paul warns us to watch out for false teachers in the passage we read just now. He says: Be alert of what they are up to. Be on the lookout for their scams. He tells us to keep away from them. There is no getting close to them with a holy kiss. Instead, turn away. Separate yourself from their lifestyles and teachings. Because if we remain silent and pretend that everything is hunky dory, we are in effect giving them legitimacy and opportunity to cause further damage and harm. At the very least, we are showing consent by our silence and close association with them.

Look at verse 17-19: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” 

There is a sharp transition from greetings to warnings here.

Why? Because unity of the church (expressed by the holy kiss) has its foundation on Christ. We share the same faith in the gospel of His kingdom. That is the basis for our fellowship and partnership. In Christ, we transcend all cultural, social, ethnic barriers.

That is the reason Paul now warns them to be on guard against false teachers who threaten to divide their community. His anger was aroused by their attempts to cause disunity in the church by contradicting apostolic teachings. Contrary to the claims of books like Da Vinci Code that everything is up for grabs until the church tradition defines what orthodoxy is hundreds of years later, Paul is referring to an already established body of apostolic tradition that is normative and binding even at this very early stage of the Christian faith. Truth unites God’s people. Heresy separates and divides us.   

Now look at verse 19: *Everyone has heard about your obedience*, Paul says, *so I am full of joy over you*. But there are two kinds of obedience – blind obedience or discerning, eyes-wide-open obedience. Yes, I’m happy to hear of your obedience *but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil*. To be wise and discerning is to recognize what is good, to love it and follow it. But when it comes to evil, be innocent like a child.

Now, how do we discern truth from error? Paul gives us three litmus tests that we could apply in the form of questions to any kind of teaching we come across.

Does it agree with Scripture? (The biblical test – is it contrary to the apostles’ teaching?)
Does it glorify our Lord Jesus? (The Christological test – does it serve Jesus or someone else?)
Does it promote goodness? (The moral test – be experts in good, and not even beginners in evil)

Recently, I had the chance to speak to some of our guests here and find a recurring theme: one family drove here from quite a distance because they are looking for a church that teaches the Bible consistently and faithfully. They said it’s hard to find one. One sister was greatly helped by solid Bible teachings she found online that made her to question and seek for a similar church. Yet another family shared with me that they were frustrated when teachers do not faithfully interpret what Scripture says, but go off tangent on their own favorite topics that had no connection whatsoever with the text.

Although I don’t know if they will eventually find CDPC Puchong a suitable home church or not, I want to commend them for their commitment to take the trouble to discern the truth from error. I want to encourage you to continue your hunger for faithful preaching of God’s word. Because for some people, it is simply not a priority…

Once I heard a guest preacher from the UK came to a local church and he taught from the pulpit: “There are many ways of salvation apart from Jesus. As long as they are sincere, it doesn’t matter what they believe”. Only a few people picked it up (maybe about ten), and we had a conversation with him after the service. What surprised me was that most people didn’t even realize that what the preacher taught was far from biblical. They just continued with their normal Sunday activities without a hint. Either they didn’t understand his British accent or it simply didn’t matter to them.

But it does matter. It matters whether we are divided by error. It matters for the glory of Christ. It matters for the well being and unity of God’s people.

That is why as part of our Church membership requirement we go through a few sessions on our Basic Beliefs on: What is the gospel? What are some of our core values we hold in unity? Because if we are divided, fragmented and we do not even agree on core doctrines like who Jesus is and what the gospel means, then it would be an obstacle for the church to grow and serve together. In the essentials, let there be unity. On the non-essentials, let there be diversity. We can agree to disagree on lots of other things (which are important to us, and we may have strong views about speaking in tongues or end time scenarios) because the unity we share in Christ and in the gospel transcends all these differences.
In all things, let there be charity, gentleness and respect.

That’s also why I need you to help our team of preachers who serve you by teaching God’s word. Pray for us. Discern with us. Check out our pulpit calendar and study the Scripture text in advance. Help each other to grow in discernment. I always welcome your feedback to help me to be more faithful to the text and more effective in teaching it. If I ever teach things that seem contrary to what the Bible says, you’d do me a great favor by gently pointing it out and correcting me from the authority of Scripture. Maybe that would help me improve. Maybe that would give me a chance to clarify. Whatever it is, our teachings matter so that we give Christ the glory He deserves and to maintain unity in His body.

Behind these false teachers and divisions and factions, Paul sees the work of Satan, the enemy. So look at the promise in verse 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. God’s peace is not compromise with evil. It is not through appeasing Satan but the defeat of evil that true peace is attained. For that, we need the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

With these warnings, Paul continued with a shorter list of names and greetings. Here we go again in verse 21-23 other fellow workers and friends of Paul who were with him in Corinth show up to send their greetings to the church in Rome. Timothy is his famous son, protégé in the Lord. Do you notice something interesting here verse 22? “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” The ideas and words in this letter were all from Paul but he was technically not the person who wrote it down. He collaborates with a scribe named Tertius. And if I could meet him personally, I want to thank Tertius for writing one of the most influential and important letters ever written. It was a momentous task, a difficult mission to keep up with Paul’s complex thoughts especially when he gets excited, but he has done a wonderful job so we can read it today.  

With that we come to the appropriate conclusion, the grand finale of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here he breaks forth into praise: “To the only wise God be glory forever“! There is a reason for this and it’s simply this: Theology is for doxology. After reflecting and explaining who God is and what Christ has done to effect our salvation at such length and depth, it is time to bow down and worship Him for all that He is, for all that he has done. Because the goal of all Bible studies, of all Christian education, of all Sunday school catechism, of all youth group Systematic theology, of all Alpha course, of all doctrinal reflection is ultimately for the glory and love of God. They are like fuel that feeds the fire of our worship. That’s why in our worship songs we put a high premium on solid, truthful and biblical lyrics and express that in song, with emotion.

Because the purpose of studying about God is not to just stop at satisfying our curiosity or some sort of intellectual exercise. God is not to be merely analyzed and discussed, He is to be adored, marveled at, obeyed, exulted in, to be reveled in and magnified for all that He is. If theology stops short of worship/doxology, it is stunted and incomplete. Do you see and do you love it? You were made for this. Something deep in your soul is saying to you: I was made for this—to behold the glory of God and to reflect that glory. 
What does Paul praise God for? Interestingly, God is glorified for 3 things… Three major themes in the entire letter of Romans captured in a nutshell. These are the same themes found at the very beginning of this letter’s introduction (Romans 1).

1) Earlier, he speaks of the power of God to save sinners. Now, he speaks of God’s power to establish saints. He not only brings us to faith, He also strengthens and nurtures us to grow in faith. When we see that spiritual progress is getting hard and seems hopeless, that’s not a reason to give up… All the more you should press on because God is able to establish us against errors, He is able to make us stand firm against temptation. He is able to grant us courage against dangers.

No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till he returns or calls me home
Here is the power of God I stand.

2) Paul speaks of the gospel of Christ as something promised and revealed progressively “through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God” (verse 26). It is a mystery that beyond the powers of the human mind to discover on its own, a secret that is hidden for long ages past in symbols, hints and clues in the Old Testament. But now it is revealed fully in the person of Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection as recorded in the NT.  

Spurgeon has this to say about how we read all of Scripture, especially the OT: “Don’t you know, young man, that from every town and every village and every hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London? So from every text of Scripture there is a road to Christ. And my dear brother, your business is, when you get to a text, to say, now, what is the road to Christ? I have never found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if ever I do find one, I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savor of Christ in it.”

Christ is in the OT concealed, and in the NT revealed.

3) Thirdly, God is praised for *the evangelization of the nations*. Not only is the gospel revealed, it must also be made known *all nations might believe and obey him* (verse 26). Again, this is a major theme at the beginning of Romans 1:5 – Paul received his calling as an apostle to *bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of Christ’s name among all nations*.

And this is not a divine suggestion. This universal, all inclusive commission to bring the gospel to all nations is by *by the command of the eternal God* to unite Jews and Gentiles, bumiputra and non bumiputra as one people in Christ. And the only proper response to the gospel is faith alone, but it is not just merely lip service (I believe, and then live just like everybody else). That faith is itself an act of obedience to what God has revealed and demanded… and that genuine faith will result in a life of obeying Christ as Lord and King.  
So, God is praised and worshiped for His wisdom and power in making known the gospel through Scripture, by God’s command, so that all nations may believe and obey.

Let us worship him for his power and wisdom displayed in the gospel.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Marks Of Healthy Ministry Team

Romans 16:1-16

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae (SEHN-kree-ay ). I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
Greet also the church that meets at their house.
Greet my dear friend Epenetus (a-pen-nee-tus), who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.
Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
Greet Andronicus and Junia (dzhou-nih-uhs), my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Greet Ampliatus (am-plee-AY-tuhs), my dear friend in the Lord.
Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys (STAY-kihs).
10 Greet Apelles (uh - P el - les), whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test.
Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus.
11 Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew.
Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.
12 Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.
Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.
13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them.
15 Greet Philologus (phil O' log us), Julia, Nereus (NEE-roos) and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them.
16 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the churches of Christ send greetings.
This is one of the most difficult Bible passages that I’ve ever had to read. There are just so many unfamiliar names that I had to spend an hour just trying to Google for the right pronunciations. And it makes you wonder (doesn’t it?): What is a list of names and greetings like this doing in the Holy Scriptures? And how in the world are we gonna do a sermon, much less a Church Anniversary sermon based on this text?

Truth be told, many of us reading this would be tempted to just skip all that and focus on something more interesting, isn’t it?

Unless of course, you are going to have a baby and would like to choose a biblical name for him or her… if that’s you, today’s passage is very relevant. It’s a treasure chest full of very original and exotic names you can choose from! Tryphosa Tan? Philologus a/l Victor? Sosipater bin Indra? How about that for a name?  

But I guess this is not the main reason why this passage is included in the Bible. Nor is its purpose in the canon just to fill up space. If other name lists in the Bible such as the genealogies of Jesus contain important precious nuggets of truth, I think this list of greetings at the end of Romans deserves our careful attention too.

But how are we going to do this?

Firstly we need to realize that when the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to write this portion of Scripture, He inspired Paul to write an epistle. By the way, an epistle is not the wife of an apostle. An epistle is basically a letter. It is not just a private letter, so it is not as if we are not intruding into somebody else’ private email.

It is an open letter to be read out in public (perhaps in a congregation as people gather to worship like what we do this morning).

And it is usually at the end of his letters that Paul does something special, something very unique that he doesn’t usually do elsewhere and it’s simply this: Paul talks about himself.
He gets into some personal details.

Of course, he did mention about himself elsewhere but it is usually at the end of his letters that Paul takes time to really ponder and reflect openly about the relationships that matter to him, about his own personal feelings, his friendships, his aspirations and plans for ministry… of what God can do and might do through him… It’s usually here that we get an insider’s look (almost from the back door) into what drives Paul or makes him tick… What frames and shapes his ministry?

Here at the end of Romans, we have a personal insight into the relationships that mean a great deal in his life and ministry.

That’s what we desperately need to hear here at CDPC Puchong on our 5th anniversary.

And there’s a reason for this: All of us gathered here as God’s people this morning are gifted to serve and minister in some capacity as Christ calls us to. It’s hard to get rid of the old idea that pastors/elders are the ones actively doing ministry and the members are the ones receiving the ministry. But that’s not the model that the Bible expresses. The biblical model is for leaders to equip all of God’s people for the works of ministry. The various gifts and abilities Christ has blessed us with are not without purpose: they are meant for something, to make disciples and grow the Body of Christ.

If all of us are doing ministry, then do you know what we need? We need someone like Paul to sit down with us and help shape our ministry and grow our spiritual friendships.

So we are invited this morning to catch a glimpse of Paul’s life, relationships and ministry aspirations and see what we can learn for our own lives, to apply to our own relationships as a church and our ministry aspirations. We are invited this morning to hear him saying to us: “Follow me as I follow Christ”.

That means we need to read Romans not only for its theology. We need to read it for the autobiography as well. We have already read it for the profound truths of the gospel.  Now we need to read it for the life examples, for the personal stories, for the meaningful friendships that grow out of the gospel.

So, what are the relationships that mark and shape a fruitful and healthy ministry team? What kind of friendships grow on fields nourished by the gospel of grace?

In chapter 15, we know that Paul has big plans to preach the gospel in places where Christ is not named. He has a macro-strategy to launch out from Rome and plant churches in cities where no one has gone before. He is like a general who can’t sit still, always restless with the world map laid out before him. He has a huge vision of gospel ministry. Next stop: Spain.  

But here in Chapter 16, we see Paul sending warm greetings to his dear friends in the Lord. He affectionately calls them his fellow workers in Christ. They are his family - notice how he calls these people: sister, brother, household, kinsmen, fellow prisoners, beloved, mother to me. And this is even more remarkable considering the fact that Paul has never been to Rome. Somebody else planted this church. But from these greetings, we get an insider’s look that actually he knew quite a lot of people here. And he knew them personally by name.

There’s a paradox here: Paul is not just a big picture kind of guy, he’s also a “people person” kind of guy. He has a global vision for mission yet he knows that you need to get involved in the personal lives of people in order for ministry to really work. He thinks global, but he acts local. He can see the forest and the trees at the same time.

And that is so rare but that is the mark of a healthy ministry. You need to commit yourself, invest time and energy in people. You dive into the messy details of each other’s lives. Gospel ministry is always enacted in the personal stories of people.  

It is not like signing up for a pyramid scheme. It is not about just downloading accurate information from a podcast. Gospel ministry is profoundly relational. Although it can be very inconvenient, our Lord Jesus did make a personal appearance and dwelt among us. He didn’t just Skype us from heaven.  

So relationships are not just the tools, not just the platform by which you get the real work of ministry done. Spiritual friendships are at the very heart of what ministry is all about.

You think fondly of your “dear friend in the Lord” (verse 7). You write long letters (or emails) to them when you are apart. You miss them. You remember what they have done for you. Look at verse 4: “Priscilla and Aquila: They risked their necks for me.”

And you show your affection to them. In those days and even today in the Middle East, you do that with a kiss (look at verse 16). In our Malaysian context, you might do that with a holy handshake. Never underestimate the significance of greeting each other with a smile and handshake.

Think for a moment  about the relationships you have formed in this church. For some of us, we are just getting to know people. Maybe for the first time, in fact... For others, we have probably known each other for many years. Maybe we have been coming to the same place for worship every Sunday for the past 5 years or perhaps even longer if you came from CDPC Subang. Maybe some of us have known each other for 10 years +.

Whether it is one month or one year or five years or more, when you look back on all the relationships you have built in and through this church, what do you find? What is significant? What is memorable? What is precious and meaningful?

I hope that when I look back, I don’t recall nothing but the quality of donuts, nasi lemak and coffee we shared (though that’s important). I hope it’s not the case that I don’t even know the names of my brothers and sisters whom I have met week in week out for 10 years. And it can easily happen if we don’t think about these things. I certainly hope that our relationships go deeper than “Hi and bye!”

Looking back on these years, I can be grateful for when Grace was hospitalized for high blood pressure, members of the church came and prayed for her. I hope I can recall having meaningful conversations and prayers over meals at each others’ homes. I can think back and remember all the ups and downs we share (especially the ministry leaders) as we stand shoulder to shoulder in laboring for God and His people. Yes, I wanna look back and remember the delicious food that many have prepared for Kopitiam too… but I see beyond the great food to the meticulous love that it represents.

Who can say what will happen to CDPC Puchong in another 5 years or 10 years?

But what I do hope is when we do look back at our relationships, we can say this together:

We are fellow workers in the gospel. We are not just friends, but friends in Christ.
You have been a sister to me. You are an elder brother to me. A mother to me.

That’s the first thing we see: Ministry is relational because God is interested in people.

He is working through his word and by his spirit to adopt sons and daughters into His family.

2) The second thing we need to realize from Paul’s greetings is this: Ministry is about doing things as a community, as a team.

If you remember, Paul is a trained and certified scholar from the Ivy League of his day. He studied law and theology from the best teachers. He can go toe to toe with the best philosophers out there. On top of that, he is authorized as an apostle of Christ. He heals the sick, casts out demons, performs signs and wonders in the name of Jesus. If anyone can pull off ministry all by himself, it’s got to be Paul.

But you can see here that Paul is not a one-man show. He’s not a lone ranger. He serves alongside a great company of friends and “fellow workers” in the Lord.

Who are these people? We begin with a sister Phoebe who was a deaconess of the church. Paul commended her to the church in Rome, asking them to receive her “in the Lord” in a way worthy of His people. Why? For she has been a benefactor, a patron to many people including Paul himself. She may have been a wealthy lady who supported the ministry.  

Then we find a husband and wife teaching team in Priscilla and Aquila. They worked as tent makers and servants of the gospel together with Paul in Ephesus. They even instructed Apollos a well known teacher in the early church (Acts 18).

There is possibility of another man and woman team in Andronicus and Junia, who had suffered alongside Paul in prison. We can’t be 100% sure whether the name Junia was male or female though. And the text could either be understood as “they were esteemed outstanding by the apostles” or “they were outstanding amongst the apostles”. In any case, if the second meaning is correct, that probably means that they were outstanding frontier missionaries or church planters in the early church.

We also see a number of women that Paul singled out for praise. He thinks highly of these hard workers in service of the Lord: Mary (v6), Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis (in verse 12). Far from being a male chauvinist, Paul’s ministry team is actually very gender inclusive. That’s quite counter cultural in a male-dominated society.

Apart from gender, we can see that the Roman church is also racially inclusive. Paul mentioned some of the names as fellow Jewish Christians (see verse 7 and 11). And many others on his list were Gentile Christians. That’s why the church in Rome had to deal with the issue of eating ‘halal’ food, observing festivals and things like that.

Last but not least, you notice in verse 5, 14 and 15 that there are groups of people that meet in different homes. Greet so-and-so and the saints who were with them. Greet so and so and the church that meets at their house. So the church in Rome was really several churches that meet in various homes. See verse 23: Paul himself was enjoying the hospitality of Gaius who opened up his home not only for him, but the whole church.

Do you see a beautiful picture of saints working in networks, in partnerships, in collaboration? This list of seemingly mundane greetings actually give us a clue into what makes Paul’s ministry tick: He works in diverse, inclusive teams. He journeys with the fellowship of the King.   

What can we learn from that?

From Day 1 (March 21, 2010), CDPC Puchong is a collaboration of males and females of different ethnicities centered on Christ.

Like the Roman church, we can be thankful for all the women here who work very hard in the Lord – you know who you are, behind the scenes, teaching the children, decorating the church premises, running the library, English program or cleaning up after kopitiam. I can easily identify a dozen ladies who invested the lion’s share of creativity, energy, time and passion in these areas. But I’ve also learnt the ladies here prefer to remain low key: in fact I’d get scolded if I single them out for praise. Because they would say: Why didn’t you also mention so-and-so? If you mention me, you should mention everybody-lar. Anyway, ladies… we know who you are and thank you for your labor of love.  

Like the Roman church, CDPC Puchong has a great opportunity to be welcoming so that Malaysians of all ethnic groups can worship and work together with brothers and sisters from Egypt, Korea, Indonesia, the United States and beyond. We work at being racially inclusive and gender inclusive because of the gospel. There are practical reasons for that but fundamentally, the reason is theological.

In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentiles. In Christ, there is neither bumiputra or non-bumiputra. By our love, by serving and suffering together, we show what it means to be the only community in the world in which Christ has broken down all dividing walls.

We can also be thankful for risk-taking patrons, benefactors and partners who contributed generously to the founding of this church and the children’s library.

Let’s consider how doing ministry as a community looks like. Our priorities in CDPC are: Reach out, making disciples, growing leaders who in turn make disciples. I was like Frodo: I know I must be on this mission, to go to Mordor, but I don’t know the way. And this husband and wife team was among the first to say to me: We will help you! We believe in this vision.

They have been such an encouragement to many young disciples, reaching out to students. We would put a high level idea on the board, and every one just jumps on it, adds to it or subtracts from it. And the final result ends up so beautiful that none of us working alone would have done it.

Sure, we don’t always see eye to eye on all issues but we share a common vision to see gospel growth in people. We have come to trust in their wisdom, commitment and love for the church. So we are free to speak openly and frankly to sharpen each other or give push backs or fine tune our decisions.  It’s so beautiful. If you are available, come and sit in and observe one of these meetings. I often leave afterwards feeling so energized and hopeful because we reflect and act in community.

So a special thank you, Tom and Janet. You are our very own version of “Priscilla and Aquila”.

On behalf of all the ministry leaders, I want to say to this: We can’t do this alone. We need help to build this community. We need you in the game. Come talk to me. Talk to any of the leaders – “David, I may not be the best player, but I want to be in the game. Where can I plug in?”

If you think greetings and name lists at the end of Paul’s letters are boring, think twice. They actually reveal lots about what matters most in his ministry, about the character of the church that speaks powerfully to our own ministry, and the ethos of our church today. We need to follow him as he follows Christ as we celebrate the 5th anniversary of CDPC Puchong.

Let us pray.