Sunday, December 21, 2014

What Gift Shall We Bring That’s Fit for A King? (Matthew 2:1-12)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;for out of you will come a ruler    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Disclaimer: Credit goes to Soo Inn's Ecommentary for much of the materials in this message. 

Christmas is feel good time.

And it’s starting to look a lot like Christmas when shopping malls and radio stations start to play all time favorites like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light…” or you hear kids singing: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”… Nostalgic music that brings back sweet memories … You know Christmas is near when TV stations begin to show Christmassy scenes of gently falling snowflakes, romantic kisses underneath the mistletoe, children opening presents in front of a Christmas tree.

Christmas is feel good time. It is time out from our busy work schedule as we holiday for awhile in the world of carols, family dinner, gift exchanges and of course, a shopping spree. For a little while we turn our eyes away from the pains of the world and the pains in our own hearts.

Indeed we feel we deserve a little break, don’t we? There is so much wrong that is in the world. There is so much grief in our lives. 2014 has not been an easy year at all for most of us. Some of us have lost a mother, a father or a dear friend this year. Our national airline has tragically lost two planes with passengers and crew on board. The Sedition act is not going to be repealed after all, but instead it will be strengthened according to our Prime Minister. And we have seen how this piece of legislation can be used to suppress academic freedom and dissenting voices in the opposition.

Yup, 2014 has not been easy. And we really need a break. Because the New Year will be upon us soon enough with its rude call to get on with life. By the way, welcome to the world of GST in 2015.

So Christmas is a much needed emotional break. Christmas is feel good time.

But not for this guy King Herod. When he heard that Jesus had been born, he didn’t feel good at all. Indeed the Scripture records for us that:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed...” (Matthew 2: 1-3)

But hold on for a second: Why should he be frightened? He was so paranoid and insecure that he tried to kill Jesus by slaughtering all boys aged two and below in Bethlehem. Similar violence against children happened again last Wednesday when the Taliban murdered more than 130 children in a school in Pakistan

So on one side of the ring, you have king Herod armed to the teeth with soldiers, weapons and unimaginable wealth. On the other side, you have a small, vulnerable baby. It was a no-brainer who would win this showdown.  

Except that this is no ordinary baby.

Herod was afraid because he was just a puppet king. He was appointed by the Roman empire. He didn’t have the support of his people.

Christmas meant that the rightful King of Israel has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. So Herod’s cruel reign was under serious threat. No wonder he was fearful.

Because the coming of the Messiah means that liberation has begun. The return of Israel’s king is at near. He is not far away, looking down from the outside. The Son of God is fully involved. He has entered our world. He has moved in to our neighborhood.

And because of that, every oppressive tyrant is in grave danger. Herod, the Taliban, Satan, sin, death, racism, disease, greed, bigotry - every oppressive value system is at risk. The King has returned. The rule of God had once again broken into our story, bringing its promise of healing and hope, of light and life, of holiness and love.

Why do Christians celebrate Christmas? Is it just a feel good time? It feels good but not that “escape from reality” kind of good. We celebrate the birth of Jesus because we remember the beginning of God’s campaign to reclaim the world for Himself. It is worth celebrating because Christ’s cosmic invasion to overthrow evil has started.

And every Christmas is a reminder that there is a war going on in our broken world.

It began with the birth of Christ. The decisive victory was won at the Cross when Jesus died to take away the sins of the world and rose to life again three days later. But the final victory over evil will be achieved one day when Christ returns. Far from feel-good escapism, every Christmas then is a renewed call to battle for us as followers of Jesus.

There is so much wrong in the world. There is so much that is broken in our own lives. The battle rages on!

And sometimes, following Jesus means not doing what feels good, but what is right even if it costs us something. You probably know that our brother Hwok Aun works as an economics lecturer in UM. Interesting things have happened in the university recently with Azmi Sharom a law lecturer being charged for sedition for giving his legal opinion in the media. And I’m very encouraged to see Hwok Aun doing what he can to stand in solidarity with Azmi for academic freedom and support student activism even though it might be seen as a career-limiting move. And I saw his Facebook status the other day: “Folks, you can stop asking whether I am in trouble. Of course I am. If we do not stand up against injustice, we are all in trouble. I've stopped wondering if I'm doing anything to jeopardise an academic career.”

His story is another real life example that reminds us of the fact following Jesus in a broken world is not always happy and clappy. It could be costly to do what is right. But it is even costlier if we do not stand up against injustice. What happens in Pakistan this week could one day happen in Malaysia if we allow religious extremism to shape our nation.

So Christmas is a wake up call that God is with us. He is among us. Stand firm through prayer, through love, through the gospel. Be salt and light in every sphere of life through the power of the Spirit and the Word. As we enter the year 2015, there are new opportunities to serve in the Name of Christ.

Now contrast Herod’s response with the Magi or wise men that came from afar to pay respect to the newborn King. Who are these people? They are most likely Gentiles, eastern astrologers who look for signs in the alignment of stars, planets and comets not unlike the ones we have today. For them, the birth of important kings is often associated with heavenly omens. That’s cutting-edge science and technology in those days. These star gazers are non-Jews wise and knowledgeable in astrology. And you might expect them to be opponents of the newborn King of the Jews like magicians and sorcerers who once opposed Moses and Daniel in the Old Testament scriptures.

But the most unexpected thing happens: They came from afar, risking their lives and possessions. They didn’t know much about Jesus, but they sought Him out anyway. Jesus was probably one year old when they finally presented him with expensive gifts befitting a king. They searched for him at great cost and worshipped Him. There’s a very ironic thing going on here: In Matthew’s Gospel, the Gentiles are now “his people” whom Jesus will “save from their sins”. He will be king not only of the Jews, but of all nations. This is the hope of Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” This is a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the nations will come bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

This is not an endorsement of astrology, of course. The bible clearly forbids that. But the point is: God met these Gentile Magi precisely where they were, using whatever access to knowledge that they had – in the form of a star. Should we be surprised that God leaves us a witness in the starry sky above and the moral law within our hearts? Witnesses that point us back to the wisdom and power of the Creator? God has left us traces of general revelation in every culture, sign posts that point us back to Himself.   

At the end of the day though, that Christmas star could not lead the Magi all the way to their final destination. They needed to stop and ask for directions: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” And it is only in Scripture, God’s written word, His final and ultimate revelation, that they found the way to Jesus. Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Micah (5:2) has left them with the most important clue that the Christ will come from the town of Bethlehem, from among the clans of Judah. And this ruler is no ordinary king because his origins are from ancient times.

Friends, we can’t find Jesus on our own terms. We need God’s own self-revelation to find the way to salvation.

Some years back, we did our first Alpha course in CDPC Subang. It’s just an opportunity for people (skeptics, seekers, new believers, even long time believers) who want to explore the Christian faith to come together and have a safe space to ask questions. It’s a friendly place to have a conversation about the big questions – is there more to life than this? What is our final destination? Where do we come from? Who am I – really? The meetings start with a simple meal, then we watch a video presentation where these topics are discussed, and the highlight is small group discussions where people feel free to ask and talk about anything and everything. If that interests you, I would like to invite you to come for the next Alpha course on 17 Jan 2015. Sign up with me or google CDPC Puchong online.

Anyway, I was leading a small group with some very eager seekers who ask tough, challenging questions. Three of them left behind a high paying, prestigious consultancy career to go on a spiritual journey, backpacking in China for months. A mountain climbing friend invited them to come for Alpha. We had a really engaging time sharing our views of life and the question of God from various angles. We didn’t pretend we have all the answers. We could laugh at ourselves. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Eventually, we realized that our discoveries in science and technology, our knowledge and rationality could only take us so far. It’s the same with our personal relationships. You can only guess what’s on my mind until I truthfully reveal it through spoken words. In the same way, we can only get so far following the star of human wisdom. To understand God’s mind, we need Him to reveal Himself to us through His inspired word. And that sparked a hunger in us to dig deeper into the Bible, ask God to speak to us through it and see what He has to tell us.

Friends, it is only in God’s revealed word that we come to a real encounter with Christ this morning. So may I invite you to explore together what God’s word has to say about the big questions in life? Talk to us about the Alpha course. We’d be delighted to hear from you.

A little boy was sitting quietly, deep in thought one Christmas morning. His family was busy unwrapping presents that they have given each other. Then, he said: “Everybody gets a present on Christmas day, but what about Jesus? Why didn’t He get a gift? I thought it was His birthday!”

Funny isn’t it? Every one gets a gift on Christmas day except the birthday boy.

The Magi came and presented Jesus a tribute fit for a king. Say, what gift will you bring to the King of kings? Perhaps, the best tribute we can bring Him today are not gold, incense or myrrh. There is a nice Christmas song that goes like this (I’ll Give My Heart):  

Whose is that star
We've seen in the
You're not the least

Who is this Child
This Baby Boy
Who but the Son of God
Could bring so much joy

What can I give
What can I bring
What is a gift
That is fit for a King
I'll give my life
Not just a part
I'll give my all to Him
I'll give my heart

The best gift we can give to King Jesus is not gold but our lives! Not just a part, but our whole hearted devotion to Him and His kingdom. He is not a tyrant like Herod who lies and kills in order to keep power. Jesus is the kind of King who gives up power and becomes vulnerable in order to serve. He’s the kind of King who would sacrifice His own life on the cross to save us from our sin, guilt and condemnation. And He rose again in victory three days later so that He can make all things new.

Which King is ruling your life right now? Is your heart controlled by pride, self-promotion, lust and greed this Christmas? Do you think more about yourself than others? Do you crave for wealth and control over the people around you? If so, then sin is in the driving seat of your heart.

If you have never followed Jesus or recognized Him as King and Saviour, would you hear the call of His kingdom this morning? He’s calling each and every one of us here to follow Him, to join this kingdom of peace and justice that will one day overthrow all evil and wipe away all sorrows. Give your life to Him so He can cleanse it, renew it and purify it. 

As we gather this morning, we also come as a community of diverse people from various cultural, socio-economic, ethnic backgrounds gathered around the King and His kingdom. And there’s nothing that Jesus loves more than His bride, the church that He gave up his life for. 

So I think the best birthday gift we can give Him is to present ourselves as His people purchased by His own blood, as the bride whom He loves. Some of us have made a commitment to follow Christ and express that decision publicly through baptism. Some of us have been baptized as infants and today publicly confirm their faith before God and His people. Some of us have experienced what it means to live and grow together in a community, to serve God together with our unique abilities and to be spiritually accountable to one another. There’s a beautiful depth in relationship and growth in discipleship that is only possible when we commit and covenant with one another to serve the King as a body.  

What can we give, What can we bring
What is a gift, That is fit for a King
We'll give our life, Not just a part
We'll give our all to Him, We'll give our heart

Picture of the Magis bringing tribute to Christ by HeQi 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Exploring Life's Big Questions!

 All are welcome. A safe space for exploring Life's Big Questions. Fantastic food. Engaging conversations. Happening on 17 January 2015 (Saturday) 6.30 pm at City Discipleship Presbyterian Church (CDPC Puchong)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Community Of Truth & Love: Growing Together In The Gospel

Ephesians 4: 11 – 16

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Today, there are lots of discussions on how we can grow the church. Some say you gotta know your market segment and meet their felt needs. Others say the key is to have a network of cell groups where real community happens. Some say forget about church, just meet at Starbucks and have spiritual conversations. Others say lets bring back ancient religious symbols to give people a sacred experience. Still others say: If it brings people to church, does it matter how you do it as long as it’s ethical?

I’m not saying all of them are wrong. In fact, we can learn lots from them. For example, we have a children’s library because we discern that people in Puchong have young families and there is a need we can meet. And we do have covenant groups where close bonding and relationships are formed, sometimes over Starbucks or Coffee Bean. During Good Friday/Easter, we do appreciate time-honored tradition of The Stations of the Cross filled with sacred symbolism.

But having said that, it would be silly to start construction on a building without first knowing what kind of structure we plan to build. An apartment is different from a bungalow. They all have different blueprints, different materials, uses and shapes. The process of building will depend on what you want to build. (Picture courtesy of He Qi Art)

The same goes for building a church. Because a church is not a profit making entity. It’s not a multi-level marketing company. It is not a social club. It’s not a Rotary Club where people come together to provide social services. In fact, a healthy church is unlike any other human organization because it’s not devised by men. 

The church is God’s idea. It is a central theme in the biblical salvation story – the church is a new humanity created by God the Father, she is the Bride loved and redeemed by God the Son and she is the new temple in whom God the Holy Spirit dwells.

So it only makes sense to see what God’s word has to say about how He wants to grow His church. We should look to God’s instruction manual to build His church since it’s His design. Otherwise, looking back in 10 years’ time, we may end up building in vain. So that’s what we will look at together as we consider church membership today.
1) How does the church grow?

The Greek word for church is ekklesia, a gathering or a congregation of people for displaying God’s glory and sharing His gospel in the world. And the Scriptures use various metaphors to describe her: We are branches of the same vine, sheep of the same flock, brothers and sisters in the same family, stones built in the same building and, from the passage we read just now, we are members together of the same body.

It means all of us are connected to the Body of Christ though we have different functions, abilities and roles. And the entire body grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (v16). If any member is cut off from the body, it will shrivel and die. Every member is joined and held together by every supporting ligament. We are all needy people. And we are needed. Our lives are inter-dependent. We rely on each other to grow. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you”. And we receive instruction and nutrition from Christ himself, who is the head.

Now, how does the body grow? How do we grow into Christ-likeness? Paul tells us in verse 11: Christ himself gave us leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) to equip his people for works of service, so that the body may be built up. Verse 15 says: “speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Christ”. Speaking the truth in love is HOW we build the body up.

But what does “speak the truth in love” mean? Is it like when your wife asked: “Do I look fat?” you will tell it as it is, but gently: “Well, dear, let’s just say you are horizontally endowed. Don’t worry, there’s more of you to love.” You tell the hard facts, but do it in love. That’s partly true, yes. But crucial to spiritual growth of the church is we need to speak biblical truth to each other. We need to feed each other with truth about God. Spiritual truth of His promises. Encouragements from what Christ has done on the cross. Confront sinful patterns with the truth in love.

You can tell by looking at the context: In verse 11 all the leaders that Christ has given to equip us are all truth agents: apostles and prophets are the authoritative, foundational witnesses to the truth (their teachings are now preserved for us in the Bible), the evangelists (who do the work of evangelism with the truth of the gospel), the pastors and teachers (who take the truth and use it to feed and protect the flock of God). Every one of them equips us with God’s truth. They are truth agents who equip us for ministry.
We can also see in verse 14: “speaking the truth in love” is put in contrast with childish thinking, being easily deceived and swayed by every wind of false teaching. As we speaking God’s truth in love, it transforms us, strengthens us, comforts us and gives us a stable anchor and unity in sound doctrine. That’s how we grow.
Another way to put it: The core business of the church is to grow people into mature, disciple-making disciples of Christ by teaching them to obey everything that He commanded. We are talking about people growth and gospel growth. God’s word is like seeds that we sow. It’s like rain that nourishes us and makes us bear fruit.

If this is not happening, it doesn’t matter how much programs, how many members, how big is the budget and how grand a building we have – there is no spiritual growth.

How do we help each other grow into the measure of the fullness of Christ? Answer: by speaking truth about God and about Christ in love. Both are crucial: Truth and love. Truth without love is judgmental and puffs up in pride. But love without truth is confused and compromising. We need to learn the art of listening well in order to understand, not judge and feel what others feel. We also need to learn the courage to speak a word of truth in love even when it may get uncomfortable. God’s truth comforts and assures us. It can also challenge and call us to change.
This can happen in many wonderful ways in CDPC Puchong:
1)      It can happen in small groups when we gather for covenant groups, youth groups, Sunday school, ministry meetings and one-to-one Bible study.
2)      It can happen when we read prayers and the Bible with our children and spouse. Or in daily conversations as we eat and drive to school.
3)      It can happen during water cooler conversations at the work place with colleagues.
4)      When people prayerfully speak God’s truth in love from the pulpit, in class rooms and training workshops. When worship leaders lead us in worship grounded in Scripture. When pastors, teachers and evangelists model how to faithfully read and apply the Scriptures, we are equipped to serve others.
5)      Or when we follow up with new comers at the children’s library over lunch or invite guests on Sundays to our homes. Perhaps just over Kopitiam, when we discuss what we learnt during sermon and invite God into our conversations.

There are endless possibilities but what happens is the same: God’s people prayerfully speaking God’s word in love to someone else… That’s what the Holy Spirit would use to cause people to grow and bear fruit. That’s our core business. Everything else supports it.

Who will do the works of ministry?

If a guest walks in here and asks you: “Who is the minister around here?” How would you reply? What’s the correct answer: Rev Wong? Pastor David? But the biblical answer to “Who is the minister around here?” is: “All of us are. All of us do the works of ministry. All of us speak the truth in love”.

Yes, God has given some members of the church with the gift and responsibility to lead and equip God’s people. But look at verse 11: Equip them to do what? For works of ministry… For works of service… So who are the ministers? Only the pastor or teachers who do the equipping? Nope, a minister is a servant so all of us serve by doing ministry.

There is a die-hard belief that only full time, paid people have a ministry or only what happens on the pulpit on Sundays count as ministry or only “specially-called, specially-trained” people have a ministry. The main function for the rest of God’s people is to assist a few who can do “real ministry”. We support with our time, energy, prayer and finances so that full time, ordained pastors-teachers can do the really important thing.

But that’s not the model given in God’s word. Leaders equip God’s people to minister. God’s people do the ‘real ministry’ of speaking the truth in love to each other. Of encouraging and comforting each other. Of challenging and correcting each other. As members of the Body of Christ, we all have various spiritual gifts and roles that would enrich and are needed by others. The hand cannot say to the foot, “You don’t need me anyway so I can sit back, relax and enjoy the show”. The apostle Peter says: You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people so you could show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. We all are called and have ministry as prophets, kings and priests in the world.

For example, let’s imagine a discussion about the Children’s Library. Some people would look at it and say: “I’ve been around for four years. It’s wonderful to see so many families come to read and borrow books. But how do we reach them with the gospel? It’s just not happening yet.” Others look at it and say: “You know what we need first of all. We need to encourage and mobilize more people to support the work. Strategically, we need more librarians, story tellers and befrienders.”  Still other say: “But you know what’s even more important: Have we thought about children who cannot read or come from poorer families or with special needs? How can we serve them too?”

If we are not careful, we may misunderstand each other: “That fella is always thinking about evangelism, what about serving the poor?” or “That fella is always thinking about social justice, but who’s going to do the work?” But in truth, each one has a unique perspective because the first person has a prophetic ministry (how can we evangelize?), the second person has a kingly ministry (how can we get organized strategically?) and the third person has a priestly ministry (how can we sacrificially serve others?) And we need all of three contributing to the same Children Library so it can be more effective in serving others and evangelize. And we need each other to make the best decision (blind spots). That’s why as part of the church membership class next month, Tom will discuss about how we can serve and use our spiritual gifts to build up each other.

If prayerfully speaking God’s word in love is what brings spiritual life and all of us are ministers called and gifted by God, how would that change the way we think about church growth?

Here are important mind shifts: It means our priority is in equipping people for evangelism and to make disciples, rather than running events, attending committee meetings, managing property or organizing programs. Yes, we do need to be responsible stewards of our resources and finances. But we cannot be so caught up in running programs and committees that we lose sight of our core business in making disciples. Rather than to start with gaps in our ministries and programs and see how people can fit into them, our priority is to start with people and where they are at; and then consider how we can help them grow in spiritual maturity and what gifts and ministries look like for them.

A newcomer (let's say, Wendy): She is a solid Christian, a teacher and has a passion for evangelism in her network of colleagues and students: “David - how can I serve?” Do we look around and see a gap in the worship/music ministry: “OK, you can plug the gap here?” Or do we see her gifts and encourage her to pursue evangelism? That’s the test. (Ministry Mind shift ppt

Lastly what is the goal of our ministry in CDPC Puchong?

Every process has an end product. So what is the result from our process of speaking the truth in love with each other? What is the goal of our ministry?

The first goal of our ministry is the building up of the body of Christ. Verse 12: Christ gives leaders to the church "for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ."  It means we are in the business of raising up mature Christians - equipping disciples who do interpersonal ministry wherever they are. The fruitfulness we are after is that people are trained and sent out to make disciples, plant new churches and make an impact in the work place. In this hectic and mobile world, people don’t remain in the same place for very long… There will always be people who come and go for work, for studies, for relocation. And that’s ok… The priority is not that this church will grow in size and budget. That’s secondary. The priority is that we want to produce and export mature disciples who speak the truth in love wherever they are – to Australia, Vietnam, Norwich and beyond. The church should function like a body where every member serves in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The second goal of our ministry is the unity of faith and the unity of the knowledge of the Son of God. Verse 13: "until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God." That’s why in November (as part of church membership) we will have conversations on “Basic Beliefs”. There are lots of things that Christians can agree to disagree about (small or big government, GST or no GST, different opinions about rap music, organic food, football teams etc). But at the same time, there are historic doctrines of the Christian faith shared by believers across the ages – we need to have unity of faith, unity in knowledge of Christ and what he has done for us in the gospel.

Why is such a unity and foundation important? Look at v14: So that we will no longer be infants. We should be humble and be child-like in faith. But we should never be childish in our thinking. We should not be tossed back and forth by winds of popular opinion or cultural fads: “It’s not cool to preach about sin and judgment in this day and age. Relax and forget about it”. The opposite of having unity in faith and knowledge is to be naïve and easily conned by craftiness of people in deceitful scheming. I do consider myself a ‘charismatic’ Christian – I believe God works miracles, heals and delivers people from bondage today. But I don’t think it’s spiritually healthy for us to chase after signs and wonders, to be obsessed with the latest phenomenon that comes to town like holy laughter, holy bark, holy roar, gold teeth/gold dust. Some of these movement leaders were exposed with marital and financial scandals. Don’t be naïve. Be centered on the gospel.

The final goal of our ministry is that the church becomes mature like Christ. Verse 13: Build up the body "until we all attain… to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ." A common feeling among Christians is that they only get prayed for and visited by when they’re sick or in trouble. Of course, we are all people in need of help, friendship and prayer. It takes courage to be open to share needs and find help. But we shouldn’t have a culture where people pray only when reacting to crisis. The goal of ministry is also about pro-actively encouraging people to move forward in holy living and spiritual maturity whether they have problems or not. We want to be comfortable teaching and praying for one another even when things are going well that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)

We aim for the body of Christ to grow into the full grown stature of Christ, the mature man. We are not yet there. It’s work in progress. We want unity in faith, we want to equip the saints for ministry so that the church reflects in our character, our spiritual life, our service, our relationship the fullness of our Lord Himself. We want to the world to see Christ magnified and lifted up through us. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jesus Christ In The Quran

A comparison of the portraits of Jesus as described in the Koran and in the New Testament. The audio download file may be found here

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Scripture Forum 1: Its Dependability

Today we had a lively and engaging forum on Scripture's infallibility and trustworthiness. It reflects our church's values of learning together as a community, being open to hard questions and faith seeking understanding.   

Lots of interesting questions were raised. Understandably it is impossible to do justice to all of them in less than 15-20 minutes. Feel free to approach any of the leaders if you like to continue these conversations. 

Here are some blog posts that I have dug up from the Agora blog which may hopefully help us step back and get some background into the discussions:

1) We talk about an infallible, inerrant original manuscript which is no longer with us. So how do we know what was in that original manuscript (autograph) written by the biblical authors? And what about various translations of the Bible? (KJV, NIV, ESV etc) 

Check out this article published in Kairos magazine: (also available on the book table)

With that background, we can appreciate why some ancient texts/manuscripts i.e. Alexandrian, Byzantine, are considered technically more reliable or not. 

2) Belief that “the Bible contains no error” (inerrant) is not an inductive conclusion arrived at after examining all the passages of the bible or years of studying textual criticism. It springs deductively (top-down reasoning) from the “first principle” that Scripture has been inspired by God who does not make mistakes. 

And that theological belief needs to be informed by what we actually read and find in Scripture itself. And that’s where questions arise where Christians continually try to match this top down conviction with their discoveries from an inductive, bottoms-up close reading of the Bible itself. 

Without that top-down conviction, we may fall into the trap of not seeing the Bible as a coherent, trustworthy whole with a single purpose of revealing Christ. Without a bottoms-up approach, we may fall into the trap of ignoring evidences of how God chooses to actually inspire very human authors with very human languages to deliver that message. 

We need both systematic theology AND biblical theology. Not either-or. 

3) Here is a great question from Alvin: How do you even define 'error'? What about ‘discrepancies’ we find in the Bible?

Being clear on what “inerrancy” means and does not mean would help. Here is a definition (italics mine):
“The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time of writing, in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.”

For example, if the Bible never affirms that the “Good Samaritan” is historical, then it is not a problem if we realize that it is a not a historical story. A story does not have to be historical to give us a true, radically life-changing message. Or if the Bible never affirms that Moses wrote every single word in the Torah, why should we be troubled if we found out that scribes in later generations faithfully updated these books?
When approaching ‘discrepancies’ ask these questions: What is the intention of the author? As Phil pointed out, we need to interpret the text not with our own standards of scientific accuracy but with the purpose of the author. 

Is the list of numbers of chariots and horsemen supposed to have exact, scientific precision? 83,712 horses?

Or did the author mean to give us an idea of how big is the army i.e. in approximations? 80,000 horses?
Giving approximations is a common practice even in our own culture. If I earn $2712.33 a month (after deducting tax), it would be correct to round it up to $2700 if my purpose is just to give someone an idea of how much it is. 

But if the purpose is to report it Jabatan Hasil Dalam Negeri, I'd have to be more exact!

Another question to consider: Is this to be interpreted metaphorically or literally?
Some numbers are symbolic like the number 14 in Matthew's genealogy. 

Sometimes we speak of things as we see it. Like the sun will rise at 8 am. Now we know that actually the earth moves. But even scientists talk about sunrise regularly, they do not take it literally but as how they see it. It is not a scientific “error”.
These references are phenomenal, as they appear to human eye, approximations yet they are correct. 
Lastly, sometimes, the bible reports statements made by ungodly persons. For example, the fool who says there is no God. It doesn’t mean these statements are true, inerrancy only guarantees that they are correctly reported.
4) I also made a similar observation as that of Suren’s question on Messianic prophecy here (Isaiah’s prophecy on the cross/resurrection) and here (other OT prophecies). But often times, biblical prophecies that are ‘fulfilled’ in the Gospels are not always predictive in nature.

For example, Matthew records that Jesus escaped from Herod and sojourned in Egypt before He returned to Israel. That is in fulfillment of prophet Hosea said: “Out of Egypt I call my son”. When you flip back to Hosea, the ‘son’ was the nation Israel delivered out of Egypt rather than a Messianic prediction. Matthew sees a pattern: God brings Israel out of Egypt is a type of Him bringing His Son (Christ) out of Egypt. The new exodus has begun.

That means when the biblical authors use the word ‘fulfillment’, it is much broader than what we normally associate as future predictions. They operate an understanding that God works in history (i.e. raise up a king, deliver his people in Exodus, return from exile, setup a priesthood), and that historical person/institution/event serves as a pattern or typology for how He works in the future. When that pattern gets repeated in future events/persons, it is considered as ‘fulfilled’.

Some plausible treatment of Judas Iscariot’s death and its’ fulfillment here:

Please note that we have two more Q&A sessions 
- 21 Sept (The Canon of Scripture)
- 28 Sept (Jesus in the Bible and Koran) 

Bring your friends (skeptics, seekers, curious) and your questions! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Announcing upcoming ACT Online course on spiritual theology - act

Academy for Christian Thought
Belief with Integrity

The Eight Deadly Thoughts - Spiritual Discipleship of the Mind

Learning objective: To practice the medieval spiritual discipline of meditating upon the Lord.

Scope: We begin with a brief history of spiritual theology, followed by a discussion of Evagrius’ eight deadly thoughts, and conclude with the practical application of assessing the kind of person you are and think about the kind of person you ought to be.

Key terms: Spiritual discipline, habit-formation, nolition (the intentional opposition to our wills), compassion, generosity and God’s habitual presence.
Spiritual discipline refers to the proactive decision to exercise metaphysical self-control over physical emotions, passions and temptations of the mind. In each instance, we will consider how science, technology and medicine has transformed the way we think and live. Our goal is to understand the power of nolition by spiritual habit-formation, to override the default volitions of out in-built competitive survival instincts.

Obstacles: Today, much of academic thinking suffers from a theological amnesia about the purpose of theology – to nourish our spirit beyond just wishing it so. Worship without theological integrity can result in ritualistic slavery and theology without the goal of worship can result in dry religious philosophy. Responsible spiritual theology combines a desire for devotional experience alongside rigorous assessment of every truth claim about God. The works of major spiritual theologians: Evagrius of Pontus, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor of Constantinople (all from modern Turkey) have been sidelined, not by secular voices but by Church teachings themselves. Those of us of the Reformed Tradition inherit a strong censorship of writings and thoughts that became victims of the 16th century European religious wars, which were more economic and political than theological.

Conflict: The battleground was the role of nature in learning about God. Ancient prescientific theologians had always understood nature as God’s creation and an important source of God’s revelation, i.e., natural revelation, one that modern science can explore and celebrate even more. But the sola scriptura movement claimed that only the supernatural revelation as presented in the Bible is trustworthy. Nature, and by association, modern science, was a temptation to be resisted. Past theologians taught that the created order we call the universe reflected God’s wisdom and majesty, but by the 20th century, nature and the scientific investigations came to be seen as threats to the closely-guarded magical status accorded to the gate-keepers of spiritual knowledge. As it turned out, science did become a threat. Along with technological innovations and medical advances, science became a serious threat not to faith or belief in God but to the perception that God can only be known and cherished through the words of the Bible. This gagging of God and limiting God to human words of testimonies betrays both the wonder of nature and the beauty of the Bible as written testaments of divine encounters by ancient God-fearers.

Practical actions: Live every moment of your life with an awareness of God, even if God seems remote in you daily life. As we grow in wisdom and experience of life, we tend to desire something more than what seems to be our lot in life. Desire God’s habitual presence. How? By shifting our attention from merely being vaguely aware of God’s presence, we can intentionally seek to be in the presence of God. At any moment in our lives, we pay attention to things that we care about – priority determines ranking. But we are free to make the desire for God’s habitual presence our center of attention even as we do the mundane things in our daily lives. The key to success is habit-formation, the formation spiritual habits that is. In this seminar, we will consider how we might form communities among trusted fellow pilgrims of faith, to celebrate the gift of life to the fullest while delighting in God’s grace by practicing the discipline of compassionate generosity.

In this seminar: We shall consider the eight deadly thoughts as starting points to help us navigate the theological cobwebs that plague the Church with increasingly longer lists of do’s and don’ts. We shall examine medieval insights into the nature of the human mind alongside modern neuroscientific understanding of how the brain works. Then we will be better equipped to assess the competing truth-claims of religious and scientific voices, some of which are helpful but many of which distract us from knowing God and learning to harness the most powerful gift of being the imago Dei – the capacity and persistence of love.

The 8 Deadly Thoughts

1. Gluttony: Attempts to get satisfaction from things rather than from God. Examples include over-indulgences in the three basic wants of the human mind; food, shelter, and love (significance).

2. Lust: Attempts to get satisfaction from the sexual use of bodies rather than love of people. This is not a critique of sexual instinct, which is part of God’s creation. Rather, it is a warning that desires for the bodies rather than the persons themselves depersonalize and objectify the persons.

3. Avarice: A defensive greed for self-provision that kills generosity by filling us with anxiety and insecurity, e.g., "I can’t be generous because I have to think of my own future”. The quest for security keeps us from generosity.

4. Sadness: A form of self-pity and disappointment that rejects what God has made in you. It arises from comparison with the material achievements or inheritances of others. Thoughts of “if only I were a different gender or race, then...; If only God had made me different...”

5. Anger: The unrestrained, cumulative anger that ultimately destroys. An example is the anger that God might bless your enemy – think of Jonah.

6. Sloth:  It does not refer to laziness but rather, indifference to the presence of God in our lives that leads to despair. I call it spiritual paralysis. The Greek word Accidia is to "not care." It may arise from discouragement over the apparent lack of spiritual progress in our lives. We blame church politics, fallen leaders, unfriendly, unloving or hypocritical Christians, gossip, etc,

7. Vainglory: A desire for attention that you want everybody to know of your success in life. It is the vain desire to fill the minds of others with yourself, as Doctor Johnson said.

8. Pride: The decision to take full credit for our achievements and progress in life. "God is not my helper." This results in a deep sense of superiority that hinders any spirit of generosity and compassion for others.

The outcome of each deadly thought is a reduced capacity to love your neighbor with compassion and generosity. They are called thoughts rather than sins because in themselves, they do no harm. It is only when these thoughts are nurtured and executed upon that they can created situations that stop you from fulfilling your potential as a person created by and loved by God.