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Why was Judah the most prominent tribe of Israel?

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Consequences 401pxAfter he was out drinking with some mates one night, Jonothan Beninka tried to walk home along a railway track. But he fell and knocked himself out and finished up in hospital after being hit by a train. He lost an arm, a leg and some fingers. Every day he feels like crying because of the impact of his injuries on the relationship he has with his family. He can’t pick up his children like most dads. One decision changed his whole life forever.

When we look at the lives of the sons of Jacob in the Bible, we see that our choices have consequences. In particular, sinful behavior has negative consequences.

Judah’s prominence

The nation of Israel was named after Jacob whose name was changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28; 35:10). Jacob had 12 sons and in those days the position of leadership of the family clan was usually passed on to the eldest son. And the eldest son’s birthright was a double portion of the inheritance (Dt. 21:17).

But we see from the Bible that the tribe of Judah (4th son) became prominent instead of the tribe of Reuben (1st son) – king David was a descendant of Judah (10th generation, 1 Chron. 2:1-15), Jerusalem the capital of Israel was located in their territory and they were the last tribe to be conquered and taken into captivity. This was unusual because Judah was the fourth oldest son of Jacob and not the firstborn.

Of Judah’s descendants, the most prominent in the Old Testament is king David and the most prominent in the New Testament is Jesus Christ. Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah (Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 23:5-6), the “son of David” (Mt. 1:1; 22:42; Lk. 1:32, 69; Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16).

After the Babylonian exile, the Israelites were called “Jews”. This name is derived from the word “Judah” and was used because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were descendants of the kingdom of Judah (the rest had assimilated into other nations). Also, the Jewish religion was known as “Judaism”. So Judah’s prominence is reflected by these words.

Jacob’s last words

When he was on his death bed Jacob gave a farewell message to each of his sons (Gen. 49:1-28). Beginning at the eldest and progressing to the youngest, he predicted what was in store for their descendants.

Although he is the firstborn, Reuben is told he is unstable and will not excel because he slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:22, 49:4). In those days it was customary for new kings to assume the harem of their predecessors (2 Sa. 3:7; 12:8; 16:21; 1Ki. 2:22). So this was an arrogant and premature claim to the rights of the firstborn. Because of his sin of incest, Reuben lost the rights of the firstborn. His right to extra land was given to Joseph (1 Chron. 5:1-2) and his leadership right was given to Judah.

If the eldest son lost the rights of the firstborn, we would expect these rights to be transferred to the second-born son. Simeon was Israel’s second son. Israel tells Simeon and Levi (his third son) that their descendants would be scattered and dispersed within the nation of Israel. This was fulfilled when the Levites weren’t given an allocation of land like the other tribes and Simeon’s allocation was surrounded by Judah’s – the tribe of Simeon was assimilated into the tribe of Judah. (Josh. 14:4; 19:1-9). The reason given is that they were angry, cruel and violent (Gen. 49:5-7). For example, after their sister Dinah was raped by Shechem (Gen. 34:1-7), Simeon and Levi killed all the men of the city and plundered their women, children, and possessions (Gen. 34:25-30). Also, this increased the threat of the Canaanites attacking Jacob’s family.

Jacob’s greatest and longest blessings are given to Judah and Joseph (Gen. 49:8-12; 22-26). Judah is promised leadership over the other tribes, which was fulfilled by king David. Jesus Christ was also a descendant of Judah (Mt. 1:3; Lk. 3:33). Judah would be praised for victories over their enemies. Their supremacy is symbolized by the lion’s supremacy in the animal kingdom. Some of Judah’s descendants are also promised peace and prosperity (Gen. 49:11-12).

So, there are two main reasons why Judah was the most prominent tribe of Israel. First, Reuben forfeited his rights by his incest and Simeon and Levi forfeited their rights by their cruelty and violence. They were disqualified for misconduct. Judah was the next in the order of birth and that is why he received the blessing. Second, it was prophesized by Jacob before he died.

But the brother’s treatment of Joseph also offers some insight into this topic.

Treatment of Joseph

Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. After Joseph dreamt that his family would bow down to him, his brothers were filled with jealousy and hatred toward him (Gen. 37:4-5, 8, 11). When Joseph was sent by his father to visit his brothers, they plotted to kill him. Judah’s leadership potential is shown when they agree to his suggestion to sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him (Gen. 37:26-27). Joseph is taken to Egypt where he rises to a prominent position before there is to be a famine. During the famine, his brothers travel to Egypt seeking food.

When Joseph commanded his brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt, Reuben told his father that he would put both of his sons to death if he didn’t bring Benjamin back (Gen 42:37). On the other hand, Judah said that he would guarantee Benjamin’s safety and be personally responsible for him (Gen. 43:8-9). If he didn’t bring Benjamin back, then he would bear the blame all his life. Here we see that Judah was willing to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety, whereas Reuben offered his sons to take the consequences instead.

When the brothers returned to the city because Joseph’s silver cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, the Bible says that “Judah and his brothers” went into Joseph’s house (Gen. 44:14NIV). And then Judah responded on behalf of the brothers when Joseph said “What is this you have done?” (Gen. 44:15-34). So Judah takes a leadership role amongst his brothers. He also offered to stay at Joseph’s in Egypt instead of Benjamin so that Benjamin could return to his father (Gen. 44:33-34). This is in accordance with his previous offer to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.

When Jacob’s family moved to Egypt during the famine, “Jacob sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to get directions to Goshen” (Gen. 46:28). So Jacob recognized Judah’s leadership role in his family.

So we see that before Jacob made his predictions, Judah took a leadership role in his family and took personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety. His conduct qualified him for this role.

Lessons for us

The choices made by Reuben disqualified him from receiving the rights of the firstborn. These rights weren’t transferred to Simeon or Levi because of the choices they made. But the rights were transferred to Judah because of how he chose to behave. So, our choices have consequences.

Reuben, Simeon and Levi experienced negative consequences because of their sinful behavior. So sinful behavior has negative consequences.

What has changed since then? We aren’t Israelites living under the law, but Christians living under the new covenant instituted by Jesus. Our eldest sons don’t inherit leadership of the family or a double portion of our wealth. Instead, humility is important and we receive spiritual rewards after death at the Judgment Seat of Christ. So, our choices do have consequences – in this life and after death.

Sin separates us from the God who empowers us. It weakens us. So our sinful behavior does have negative consequences. It can also have some lasting consequences as Jonothan Beninka found out. But when we confess and repent of our sin, our relationship with the Lord is restored (1 Jn. 1:9).

Written, July 2015


Fast and slow

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fox & dog 390px“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. It has been used to practice writing and typing and to display the characters of computer fonts. The hare and the tortoise is a story where the slow tortoise wins a race with a fast hare. This sentence and this story both contrast something that is fast with something that is slow. James also contrasts the fast and the slow when he writes in the Bible,
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (Jas. 1:19-20NIV).

The context of this passage is that the book of James describes how the Christian life is to be lived. After addressing external trials and internal temptations, he turns to obeying God’s word.

Are we “quick to listen” to what God tells us in the Bible? Are we ready to listen to godly advice? This is the first step to accepting God’s word and obeying it (Jas. 1:21-22).

Are we “slow to speak”? Do we keep a tight rein on the words we say (Jas. 1:26). Or do our words give us away? Are we hypocrites who both praise God and denigrate other people (Jas. 3:9-12)?

Are we “slow to become angry”? Do we lose our temper?

Are we “quick to listen” to other people or are we long-winded (Job 16:3)? If we listen attentively to what people say, then we will come to know what life is like for them. Who speaks the most during our conversations? Is it more about us or more about them? If it’s us then we are probably not listening enough. Let’s be ready to listen so we can reflect the person’s feelings and summarize what they are telling us. Then listen again to their response and see if we were right. Don’t assume we know what life is like for them. It we haven’t understood properly, they can correct us. Such listening is a vital skill in caring for each other.

As Jesus said a tree is recognized by its fruit (Mt. 7:20), the state of our spiritual life is evident from our attitudes and behavior. Do we show the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23)?

So there’s a time to be fast and a time to be slow. As followers of Christ, let’s be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”.

Written, July 2015


Good news and bad news

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good & bad news 400pxEvery day we experience good news and bad news. Life is a mixture of both. But the news media often gives us more bad news than good news. Did you know that the Bible contains both good news and bad news?

The main message in the New Testament is called the “gospel”, which means “good news”. It’s good news about bad news. To understand it we need to understand the bad news first.

In the beginning of time, God made everything. It was very good. Everything was as God intended and people were in harmony with God. It was good news at the start.

But it didn’t stay that way very long because the first people rebelled against God. Their rebellion affected all God’s creation causing suffering, problems, disease and death. Things were no longer as God intended and people weren’t in harmony with God. That’s bad news. It’s our greatest problem.

So we live in a world that has been influenced by both good and bad news.

Jesus came to bring good news once again. To right the wrongs and solve the problems. But He does this in two stages and we live between them, between His first visit to earth and His second visit. He is the central theme of the gospel (or good news). The verses of Scripture that mention “Jesus” or “Christ” and “gospel” or “good news” are about Christ’s death, resurrection, glory (His second visit), His promise (of eternal life), the peace He brings, the fact that He can replace death with life and immortality, and His judgment of our lives.

That’s the message of the Bible. It’s the whole gospel. It’s not a human idea, but it’s God’s idea (Gal. 1:11).

The Bible says that the gospel is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16NIV). This power comes from God when people repent by turning towards God. God has already done His part, but we can only experience it if we do our part. It’s of no value to those who don’t accept it (Heb. 4:2).

So, let’s remember the whole gospel story. Why it’s good news about bad news. This is important because many people don’t know about the early history of our earth and humanity given in the Bible.

Written, July 2015


Why didn’t Jesus respect His family at Capernaum?

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Recently I was asked this question by a person who said, “In our (Chinese) culture we always respect our family”.

The town of Capernaum on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee was the headquarters for Christ’s ministry in Galilee (Mt. 4:13; Mk. 2:1). Once when Jesus was teaching a crowd of people in a house in Capernaum, He was so busy that He didn’t have a chance to eat. (Mk. 3:20). The event described below is recorded in three gospels (Mt. 12:46-50; Mk. 3:31-35; Lk. 8:19-21).

mk 3-35 400px“Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call Him. A crowd was sitting around Him, and they told Him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’
‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ He asked.
Then He looked at those seated in a circle around Him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mk. 3:31-35NIV).

Why didn’t Jesus obey the request from His family? To answer this question we need find the purpose behind it.

The news about what Jesus was doing “spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee” (Mk. 1:28). After it reached His family at Nazareth they became concerned and travelled about 50 km (30 miles) to reach him at Capernaum. His mother and brothers were outside the house where He was teaching but they weren’t able to get near Him because of the crowd (Lk. 8:19). So they sent a message saying they wanted to speak with Him. The reason for their visit is given as “When His family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of His mind’” (Mk. 3:21). The Greek word translated “out of His mind” is exeste (Strongs #1839). In the other verse of the Bible that uses the word in this sense (2 Cor. 5:13), it means the opposite of a “right mind” (NIV, ESV) or of a “sound mind” (HCSB, NET). When they heard about the crowds that gathered around Jesus, they thought He was insane. As the brothers didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God (Jn. 7:5), they may have thought He was a religious fanatic, or deluded or had a mental illness.

The fact that Joseph is not named possibly indicates his death. This means that at this time Jesus, as the eldest son, was the head of the household and expected to care for His widowed mother. Instead of this He was away from the household and crowds followed Him everywhere.

In that culture someone who was insane or out of their mind would bring shame and disgrace on their family. So they probably believed that the leader of their family was bringing shame and disgrace on them. Therefore, the family wanted to “take charge of Him” (NIV), or “to seize Him” (ESV), or “to restrain Him” (HCSB, NET). So they wanted to take Him away from society so that crowds couldn’t follow Him.

But Christ’s mission was “to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). He was sent to earth by God to save the people of the world from the penalty of their sinfulness (Jn. 3:17; 1 Tim. 1:5). This was done by preaching and dying. He came to preach by calling sinners to repent (Mk. 1:38; 2:17). He also came to die sacrificially for the sins of mankind (Rom. 5:8).

So the purpose of His family’s visit was to stop Jesus preaching by taking Him back to the family home. They were seeking to stop Jesus’ ministry. As this was against God’s will, Jesus didn’t comply with their request. Instead He used this situation to teach a spiritual truth.

Instead of heeding the family’s request, Jesus changes the topic from the small biological family to the large spiritual family. He says that whoever obeys God is part of His spiritual family and that this spiritual family is more important than our human family. When there is a conflict between the two families we are to obey God. Like Jesus, we should respect God’s will more than we respect our family.

This doesn’t mean we are not to provide for our family. After all, Paul wrote “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). And when He was being executed, Jesus introduced John to His mother Mary as a surrogate son to take care of her (Jn. 19:26-27).

Fortunately at a later time the family had a change of heart as Mary the mother of Jesus and His brothers were amongst the believers after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:12-14).

Have we changed by turning around to follow Jesus? When there is a conflict between something in our life and God’s will for us, which do we give priority to? Do we put God’s interests above those of our family? Do we love Jesus more than our family (Lk. 14:26)? Are our relationships with fellow-Christians stronger than with unbelieving relatives? Do we also care for and not neglect our family?


Go(o)d fear and bad fear

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IMG_3871 cropped 448pxTourists often fear dangerous animals in Australia, such as venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, crocodiles, sharks, killer jellyfish, and the blue ring octopus. On a recent hike we were surprised by a black snake. Most of us were afraid, but someone wanted to pick it up!

Fear can help us respond to a dangerous situation. This is protective fear. It’s why I told them not to go near the snake. It’s foolish to ignore real danger.

But constant fear is debilitating and can lead to anxiety that immobilizes and paralyzes us. This is chronic fear.

The fear (reverence and respect) of God is a feeling of awe and praise of a small creature before their immense Creator. This is respectful fear.

Let’s look at what the Bible says about these three kinds of fear. We’ll see that through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful, can avoid the bad fear and practise the good fear of reverence and respect for God and Christ as our Lord.

Method

There are at least 10 Greek words that are used in the New Testament to describe “fear”.
The two most common ones are:
phobeo (Strongs #5399) is a verb which means either to fear and be afraid, or to reverence.
phobos (Strongs #5401) is a noun which means either fear, or reverence and respect for authority.
This article is based on verses with any of these 10 Greek words for “fear” in the books of the Bible written to the early church from Acts to Revelation. We begin by looking at protective fear.

Protective fear

When Paul was a prisoner he was sent to Italy by ship. A storm with hurricane force winds struck when they were near the island of Crete and the ship was driven towards Malta for 14 days. During the storm, the sailors were afraid the ship would run aground, and near the island of Malta they feared the ship would be dashed against the rocks (Acts 27:17, 29). This is a fear of danger, when our body reacts with a boost of adrenaline and we prepare to fight against or flee from the danger.

People are also afraid when they face punishment. When a Philippian jailer thought all his prisoners had escaped after an earthquake, he was about to kill himself because he would be punished (Acts 16:29). When we do wrong we are afraid of those in authority because we can be punished (Rom. 13:4). Those living under the Jewish law feared God’s judgment, but believers don’t live in this fear, as sons shouldn’t fear their father (Rom. 8:15).

The Bible says that unbelievers will be afraid when they face God at the Great White Throne to be judged because their names are not in the book of life. Apostates who abandon the Christian faith will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31). When Paul spoke about the judgment to come, the Roman governor Felix was afraid (Acts 24:25). This is a real fear because there is no protection for those who ignore Jesus Christ.

People are also afraid of dying. The Bible says this fear is like slavery (Heb. 2:15).

These are examples of fearing danger, punishment, and death. Protective fear can be an alarm that arouses us to protect ourselves.

Sin is another danger we should fear. We should be afraid that some people haven’t yet accepted God’s plan of salvation and so they aren’t going to heaven (Heb. 4:1). If an elder sins in such a way as to harm the testimony of the church they are to be rebuked publicly so the others may fear falling into sin (1 Tim. 5:20). And when responding to victims of apostasy, we should fear being trapped by the allure of sin (Jude 1:23). As Christians, do we fear sin and its consequences, which is a healthy fear that helps us live godly lives?

In First Aid when there is an accident or emergency we are told to follow DRABC. The first response is D for Danger. We protect ourselves, the casualty and other people from danger. After we have done this we can help the casualty. It’s risky to ignore this step, but it is also risky to not proceed on to the following steps. Likewise for us it’s good to have safety in mind by responding to reasonable fears.

If we obey the law of the land, there is no need to fear punishment from authorities. But do we fear danger or death? If we have no external resources to help us, it’s natural to fear these possibilities. But through faith in Christ, these fears can be replaced with courage, security, protection and peace when we realize two things. First, God and Christ are with us in the form of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 13:6). Paul was told, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you” (Acts 18:9-10NIV). God is always with us. Second, prayer is helpful in overcoming all types of fear (Phil. 4:6-7). “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Pt. 5:7). God always cares for us. Prayer draws us near to God. That’s how to deal with protective fear without lapsing into chronic fear.

But if fear persists it becomes anxiety.

Chronic fear

In the case of chronic fear, people are too anxious and doubtful to respond appropriately. This is an unhealthy kind of fear, which keeps us from doing things we should do. It’s bad fear, which is based on one’s perceptions and assumptions. Such anxiety can lead to depression and possible mental illness (such as phobias, which are persistent fears of objects or situations).

In this case fear stops us from developing our spiritual gifts, from loving and serving God and loving and serving one another. Instead of being focused on God and others, we become self-focused. We worry about our needs instead of trusting God to take care of them.

Christians have a great foundation for overcoming fear and anxiety. All of our sins have been paid for. God isn’t angry towards us, and He will never punish us because His Son took our punishment. God has forgiven our sins, His Holy Spirit lives in us, and we will spend eternity with Him.

It is reported that about 40% of Australian police business involves domestic violence. During my last shift of telephone counselling, I spoke with three women who were constantly living in fear. They felt isolated and controlled by their partners. They were anxious not knowing when the next episode would occur. But they were seeking help.

If we are fearful and anxious do we seek help? Anxiety has various physiological, emotional and spiritual causes. As childhood experiences can have a big impact on personality development, are parents aware of their children’s needs? They need to be loved and wanted. To belong. And to feel worthwhile. Addressing these needs in childhood can help avert adult anxiety.

Overcoming anxiety - Jun 2015 448pxThe process for overcoming anxiety is the same as for addressing any sin in the life of a Christian. The steps are:
• Identify what we are worried about.
• Identify our sin – what we doubt about God’s care for us.
• Confess and repent of our doubt.
• Remind ourselves of the truth about God and His promises in the Bible.
• Thank God in prayer for His care of us.
• Then we can have peace because we are trusting in God’s promises once again.

Courage is the opposite of fear; it’s the ability to face danger without fear. Next we look at when those who trusted in God demonstrated courage instead of fear.

Courage

The apostles were courageous when they faced the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 4:13; 5:29). This courage came from the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8). Christians are commanded to be courageous against dangers and difficulties (1 Cor. 16:13). They were not to fear threats or be frightened when persecuted, and not retaliate, but endure it patiently and be kind to their persecutors (1 Pt. 3:14). The church in Smyrna was told not to be afraid of persecution and to be faithful even to the point of death (Rev 2:10). All this is possible because the Holy Spirit makes believers courageous and not timid; “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid (fearful), but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

When Paul visited Corinth during his second missionary journey, he preached to the Jews. But when they opposed him and became abusive, he moved and preached to the Gentiles. But Paul would have been discouraged and may have worried he would have to leave the city as had been the case in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 16:39-40; 17:5-10, 13-14). One night the Lord told him “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). As Paul knew that God was with him, he kept teaching them the word of God for 18 months.

During the storm mentioned earlier, an angel told Paul to not be afraid of shipwreck because he would stand trial before Caesar (Acts 27:24). So God encourages us to be courageous.

Christians don’t fear death because it brings them closer their Savior. In fact, Jesus frees believers from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15).

Christians don’t fear God’s judgment because Jesus has already paid the penalty. John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn. 4:18). Christ’s death on our behalf is the “perfect love” that “drives out fear” of God’s judgment.

These are examples of courage and not fearing trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, and God’s judgment. This courage is healthy because it is associated with godly living.

A young father was having a difficult time convincing his son to go to bed. “I don’t want to go to bed. I’m afraid of the dark!” the five-year-old exclaimed. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” his father said reassuringly. “I sleep in the dark and I’m not afraid.” “Sure,” the youngster replied, “you’ve got Mom lookin’ out for you!”. He wasn’t alone. And that’s true for Christians as well – they have God the Holy Spirit with them.

Are you alone or have you turned away from sin and towards Christ as your Savior? That’s the only way to receive the Holy Spirit who can help us have courage instead of fear. In Revelation, unbelievers are described as being cowards because, they are afraid to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Rev. 21:7-8).

Do we have courage instead of fear when we face authorities, trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, or God’s judgment? This courage comes from the Holy Spirit who empowers believers for godly living.

When facing our fears, do we act in the strength of the Holy Spirit? Are we motivated by love for God and love for one another? Are we self-controlled?

The second meaning of “fear” in Scripture is to indicate reverence and respect for authority.

Respectful fear

Believers are commanded to give respect and honor to those owed respect and honor (Rom 13:7). This includes revering and respecting God and worshiping Him with reverence and awe (2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:28; 1 Pt. 1:17). “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Pt.2:17). They were not to fear persecution, but revere Christ as Lord (1 Pt 3:14, 15).

Paul respected the Lord as He is the one to whom Christians are accountable when they are rewarded at the judgement seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10-11). Similarly, we should fear displeasing the Lord.

Slaves (employees), children, and wives are to submit to their masters, parents and husbands out of reverence to Christ (Eph. 5:21). Respect is part of a healthy marriage. While the husband is to love his wife, the wife is to respect her husband (Eph. 5:33). Slaves (employees) should respect and obey their masters with reverence to the Lord (Eph. 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Pt. 2:18). Similarly, as God’s slaves/servants, our attitude towards Him should be one of reverence and respect (Rev. 19:5).

These are examples of reverence and respect for God who we wish to please as our Lord. Such respectful fear is healthy because it is associated with godly living. It’s good fear.

This is opposite to unbelievers, who don’t revere or respect God – “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18).

After a cop shot and killed a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri last year, potential US presidential candidate Ben Carson claimed that young males living in inner cities need to be taught how to respond better to authority. He said that a major problem that faces many who grow up without fathers or other authority figures in their homes, is that they don’t learn the right way to respond when confronted by law enforcement. They never really learn how to relate to authority in the proper way. If you take a group of young men and you raise them with no respect for authority, not learning to take on personal responsibility, having easy access to drugs and alcohol, they are very likely to end up as victims of violence and imprisonment. When it comes to God, are we like the teenagers?

A child’s view of God is usually similar to their view of their father. So Dad’s, be awesome, not angry or absent. If they can’t respect you, they will struggle to respect God. Pray for the children of single parent and step-parent families and homosexual marriages. What will their father image be like?

Do we reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord? Do we fear displeasing Him?
Do we respect His message for us in the Bible? Do we respect our employer, parents, spouse and our church elders?

Less respect of God means more trust in humanity, which leads to more anxiety and chronic fear. It also leads to less respect for authority in families, schools, and society. When parents don’t respect God, children don’t respect parents. When teachers don’t respect God, students don’t respect teachers. When our leaders don’t respect God, people don’t respect the police, the judiciary or the government.

Fear diagram Feb 2015 400pxConclusion

While we are all products of our past to some extent, we don’t need to be fearful and anxious. God is always with us. He always cares for us. We can turn to God, and we can also have the help of friends, family members, or Christian counsellors.

Let’s confess and repent of our anxiety and bring all our fears to the Lord in prayer so we can exercise protective fear when we are aware of danger and not lapse into chronic fear. And most important of all, let’s be aware of God and Christ so we can practice respectful fear until it is part of our character.

Through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful. Above all, let’s reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.

Written, June 2015


How to choose the best introduction to Christianity

Christianity explored

Christianity exploredThe Christian faith is based on teachings in the Christian Bible, which are mainly about Jesus Christ. After all, the Greek noun Christianos translated “Christian” (Strongs #5546) means a follower of Christ (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pt. 4:16). The steps to become a follower of Christ include: a preacher is sent by God, they proclaim the good news given in the Bible, a person hears this message, and they believe it (Rom. 10:14-15). Sometimes it is helpful to use experienced preachers to help proclaim the good news to others.

Over the past decade, several courses have been used to help introduce people to Christianity. The following such courses are reviewed below: “Simply Christianity” (2003), “Alpha” (2005), “LifeWorks” (2005), “Christianity Explained” (2006), “Christianity Explored” (2013), and “Introducing God” (2014). Each of these courses has several sessions which are intended to be done on a periodic basis. Some of the courses have extra sessions, which aren’t included in this review. So the review is based on the core sessions. “Towards Belief” (2013), a course which addresses the belief blockers of our time, was also viewed but isn’t discussed below.

All these courses have been developed and delivered by those with the gift of evangelism and with theological training. They are skilled and experienced presenters with appropriate demeanour, body language, and attire. The messages are encouraging and challenging with the major application being that unbelievers would trust in Christ as their Savior. In each session they keep to the subject and have a clear outline, key points, introduction and conclusion. They use appropriate illustrations and visual aids, which are generally better in more recent videos (see “Video age” below). The Scripture passages used are relevant to the message and they are interpreted and applied as in mainstream Christianity, except for in one Alpha message (see “Doctrinal aspects” below).

How can we choose which of these courses is best for us to use? To help make this decision, we will look at several categories.

Course length

Because people are often busy, it can be difficult for them to persist through a long course. Also, the time period available may be limited by other factors such as a person’s availability.

Simply Christianity is the shortest course with 5 sessions, but it requires more preparation as it doesn’t have a video version of these sessions. Of those with videos, Christianity Explained is shortest with 6 sessions, while Christianity Explored and Introducing God have 7-8 sessions. On the other hand, Alpha is the longest course with 11 core sessions.

Message length

The longer a message, the more difficult it is to maintain the audience’s interest and their recall of the content. If one’s attention span is limited, this can be an important factor.

Christianity Explored has the shortest video messages (about 15 minutes). Most of the other courses are about 30 minutes (Christianity Explained, Introducing God, and LifeWorks). On the other hand, Alpha is the longest at about 45 minutes. It is noted that a shorter version of the Alpha messages is also available (about 25 minutes).

Video age

Because of changes in technology and culture, videos tend to represent the year they were made. Generally, recent videos use more appealing graphics and visual aids. Their illustrations are also more current and less historic.

The most modern videos are Introducing God and Christianity Explored (2013-2014). A modern video will also be available for LifeWorks by December 2015. On the other hand, Alpha and Christianity Explained are older videos (2005-2006). alpha course 400px

Understandability

Spoken English can be difficult to understand for those with English as a second language. For example, Chinese students who visit Australia need to do English language courses in order to improve their understanding of the English language and so be able to complete their course of study.

Christianity Explained is probably the easiest course to understand because it uses the Good News Bible, which has simple language. The level of English in the other courses is similar as they use the NIV, ESV and HCSB translations of the Bible. Also, the Alpha course includes some English church terms such as “vicar” and “church warden”, which would need to be explained.

Pre-evangelistic or post-evangelistic

Today some people don’t know much about the Christian God or the terminology used in the Bible. This means that such knowledge shouldn’t be presumed.

The course with the largest proportion of time spent on pre-evangelism is Lifeworks, which is at least 50% pre-evangelistic. On the other hand, the course that assumes the most knowledge of the Bible and church life is Alpha. Alpha also provides the most post-evangelistic content (at least 60%).

Expositional or not

As the Christian message involves the death and resurrection of Jesus, some courses are based on biographies of His life. Christianity Explained and Christianity Explored are based on the book of Mark, which is the shortest biography of Jesus. Simply Christianity is based on the book of Luke. These courses are expositional, while the other courses draw on passages across the Bible.

Doctrinal aspects

All of these courses cover the basics of the Christian faith; including the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the good news of salvation through faith in Christ.

However, Alpha deviates from mainstream Christianity in its session on “Does God heal today” where there is questionable exegesis with regard to “Words of knowledge”. It claims that Matthew 28:19 is a command for Christians to heal the sick, and endorses the Pentecostal preacher John Wimber. Also, the extra Alpha sessions on the Holy Spirit assume that the coming of the Holy Spirit to first Jewish, Samaritan and Gentile Christians, and when John the Baptist’s disciples and Paul became Christians, described in Acts 2, 8, 9, 10, 19, are all normative for today. But each of these describes the Holy Spirit coming in a different sequence of events. As today the good news is going out to all nations (Acts 15:10), the pattern for us is that the Holy Spirit indwells someone as soon as they believe in the message (Acts. 10:44). So these sessions on Healing and the Holy Spirit should be omitted if you don’t want to include Pentecostal teaching in your course. introducing god

Discussion questions

Most of the sessions in these courses are designed to be a presentation followed by a discussion. Discussion questions are provided by Christianity Explored, Introducing God, and LifeWorks. The discussion questions are in the Workbook for Christianity Explored, in the video for Introducing God, and in the Group leader’s toolkit for LifeWorks. Discussion questions for the Alpha Course are available on the internet. In the other courses, the discussion questions need to come from either the audience or those facilitating the discussion.

Without video

Sometimes it may not be convenient to use a video, although this is less likely with the advent of tablet computers and smart phones. Also, you may wish to present to message yourself so it can be tailored to the audience. Someone told me they would prefer that the audience read the Bible instead of watching videos.

LifeWorks provides the most information for the presenter, including speaker’s notes and PowerPoint slides. On the other hand, for the other courses this information would need to be derived from the message summary in the Workbook and from the video messages. All the courses have Workbooks or Notes which contain a summary of the messages. The Workbook for Simply Christianity also has “Extra information” for each session.

So, what’s the best course for introducing people to Christianity?

Best of all

Which course is best for you will depend on the relative importance of each of the categories considered above. Like various translations of the Bible, they all tell us what God wants us to know about Jesus Christ and what we should do about this. They are merely tools to help people understand the most important message in the Bible.

If you want to use minimal preparation and contemporary style, the options are Christianity Explored (with shorter messages), Introducing God, and LifeWorks (after December 2015; with a longer course).

Although no course is perfect, they all clearly present the good news of salvation for sinners through Jesus Christ. Let’s all communicate this message, whether we use a course or not.

Written, May 2015


How to please God

Bridge climb 2 400px

Bridge climb 2 400pxChecklist in Hebrews 13

Before you climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge there’s a checklist that covers your: age, height, blood alcohol reading, pregnancy status, essential medication, and health. To climb the bridge, you need to satisfy all these requirements.

Today we are looking at a checklist given at the end of Hebrews that helps us to keep following Jesus and not turn back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.

Context

Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish religious customs. Hebrews tells them what God wanted them to know and to do. They were to know three things. First, that Jesus is greater than all their Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses, and the priests (Ch 1-10). Second, that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race (Ch 10-12). As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us. Third, the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins (Ch. 1-12). Once they knew these truths the final chapter tells them what to do about it.

As Hebrews was probably written to a church about AD 68, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.

Hebrews 13 begins with three outward things.

Love one another (v.1)

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.

The Greek noun used here is philadelphia (Strongs #5360), which is love among brothers and sisters in a family. It describes the connection and relationship that should be felt with all true Christians. Because God is now like our Father and we are like His children, all who have trusted in Him are like siblings in a spiritual family. That’s why we often call each other brothers and sisters. These metaphors should influence our thoughts and behavior towards each other. Paul wrote, “Be devoted to one another in love (philadelphia)” (Rom. 12:10NIV).

Do we feel the family connection with believers in our church? Do we feel the connection with other believers in our area? In our city? In our state? In our nation? In other nations across the world?

Practice hospitality (v.2)

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

The Greek noun translated “hospitality” (#5381) means friendliness shown to strangers. It’s providing them with food and shelter. The Bible also says “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” and “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pt. 4:9). Christians who were fleeing from persecution certainly needed hospitality. Jesus commended those who showed hospitality, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Mt. 25:35).

By showing hospitality, we can support God’s people and God’s servants. Abraham (Gen. 18:1-15), Lot (Gen. 19:1-17), Gideon (Jud. 6:11-24 and Samson’s father Manoah (Jud. 13:9-23) each showed hospitality to angels although they didn’t know who their visitors were at the time.

Do we show hospitality to Christians who are in need? Have we taken the initiative and invited them into our home? In this way we can share in their Christian lives and our family can benefit from the interaction. Do we show hospitality to non-Christians? Have we invited a non-Christian into our home over the past year? This can be a blessing to both families.

Practice empathy (v.3)

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Christians were imprisoned and mistreated during this time of persecution. Their colleagues were told to remember them in a particular way. The Greek text says “as being bound with them” in prison and “as also yourselves being in their body” when they are mistreated. This is empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Paul expressed it as, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Previously they had “stood side by side” with those who were persecuted and “suffered along with those in prison” (Heb. 10:33-34). Also, Jesus commended those who visited prisoners, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt. 25:36). Ancient prisons didn’t give prisoners any food, so visits from friends were essential.

Do we have empathy for Christians who are suffering? Can we imagine what it is like walking in their shoes?

Hebrews 13 then addresses two inward things.

Be sexually pure (v.4)

wedding 2 400pxMarriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
Before sin came into the world, God created marriage between a man and a woman. He wants us to hold it in high regard. On the other hand, the Bible says that sexual immorality is a sin against God (Gen. 39:9). Besides the problems it causes in this life, it brings God’s judgement unless one is pardoned through Christ’s death as our substitute.

A reason to honor marriage is because it is to be an example of the loving relationship between Christ and His bride the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Marriage is dishonoured by adultery and sexual immorality, which is having sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. Sexual sin impacts one’s relationships, family and Christian witness. It has more influence on one’s life than other sins (1 Cor. 6:18). God’s people need to exercise self-control in this area. After all, one of the gifts of the Spirit is self-control.

How are we influenced by the loose sexual standards in society today? What about pornography? If we are married, are we faithful to our spouse?

Be contented (v.5-6)

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

These Christians were tempted to want more money and what it can buy. Paul used the same Greek adjective (#866) to say that a church elder shouldn’t be “a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:3). He also learnt “to be content whatever the circumstances” and taught that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”, which brings griefs and causes people to wander from the Christian faith (Phil. 4:11-13; 1 Tim. 6:6-10). Instead they were to be content with what they had, which was Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Verse 5 quotes Moses at the end of his life telling the Israelites that God would help them possess the land of Canaan, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt. 31:6). This strong promise is the key to being freed from the love of money. It’s realizing that God is always with us; we’re never alone.

Verse 6 quotes the Israelites giving thanks to God for deliverance from their enemies “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? The LORD is with me; He is my helper” (Ps. 118:6-7). Nothing can separate us from God and His love and His promise of eternal life. Likewise, Christians can trust God for their safety, protection and economic welfare. They shouldn’t fear financial loss or poverty. Instead trust God to take care of you.

If we believe the promise that the Lord is always with us and empowers us, then we will love one another, show hospitality and empathy, be sexually pure, and avoid the love of money.

Are we contented with what we have in life? Or are we discontent and influenced by materialism? Are we greedy? Are we afraid of the future? Or do we trust that the Lord is with us?

Hebrews 13 then looks at how we live our spiritual lives, beginning with a source of strength to live a Christian life like this.

Follow godly church leaders (v.7-8, 17)

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

They are given the example of godly church leaders to follow and imitate. In the past these leaders had taught them God’s word. The leaders kept following Jesus throughout their lives – they were faithful despite the difficulties, and they finished well. They didn’t go back to their previous Jewish ways of worship. That’s the kind of faith to follow and imitate.

These leaders’ teaching and faith was based on the fact that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (v.8). This means that His character is the same, not that He does the same things in every age. As God, He has the same love, wisdom, righteousness, power, knowledge and plan. He never changes His mind because of unforeseen circumstances.

Church leaders are also mentioned in v.17.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Church elders are to care for (“keep watch over”) the spiritual welfare of the congregation. Elders are accountable to God at the Judgment Seat of Christ for this pastoral care. This is serious business. They will be asked, what did you teach? How did you live? How did you care for the lonely, the suffering, and the disobedient?

The congregation is to respect, trust and follow such godly leaders (elders) because of the work they do. This gives them joy and the congregation benefits.

If we are an elder are we a godly example for the congregation? Are we keeping watch over them? Do we pray for them regularly? Are we interested in their spiritual growth? Are we ready to give an account of our time and effort used in this task? If we are in the congregation, do we respect the elders? Do we pray for them? Are we willing to let them take an interest in our spiritual growth?

Next they are urged not to return to the false teachings of Jewish legalism.

Follow Jesus (v.9-12)

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat (v.9-10)

Holiness doesn’t come from following rituals and food laws, which were some of the false teachings they were being tempted to follow. Only God’s love and kindness shown to us by Jesus can empower believers to live holy lives through their relationship with God. It takes inner strength to live the Christian life as it is described in Hebrews 13.

Then it says “we have an altar”, which is a figure of speech (metonymy) for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Through it we can have forgiveness and hope. Instead of Jewish rituals and rules, we have Christ’s supreme sacrifice and the blessings it brings. All those involved with the Jewish religion had no right to the better things of Christianity (because they rejected Jesus as their Savior). They must first confess and repent of their sins and accept Him as Lord and Savior.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood. (v.11-12)

Under the Jewish sacrificial system, certain animals were killed and their blood was brought into the most holy place of the temple by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin. The people’s sins were symbolically transferred to the sacrificial animal. The body of the animal was disposed of away from the temple (or “outside the camp”) (Ex. 29:14; Lev. 4:12, 21; 9:11; 16:14, 27). Likewise, Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem at a place where criminals (those rejected by society) were punished (Jn. 19:17). His death enabled us to have our sins forgiven so we can be holy before God. It says that God can make us holy through the death of Jesus (“His own blood” means His death).

Are we tempted like the Jewish Christians to go back to our old ways of life? To the things that occupied us before we changed to follow the Lord.

Because of Jesus, Christians don’t need to sacrifice animals. Instead they offer different sacrifices.

Suffering, praise and good works (v.13-16)

Let us, then, go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (v.13-14)
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (v.16-17)

Instead of offering sacrifices at Jerusalem, as Christians they were to offer three other kinds of sacrifices. The first is a sacrifice of suffering for Christ (v.13-14). Because Jesus suffered outside the city of Jerusalem to meet our need (v.12), Christians are urged to join Jesus in His sufferings (v.13). “The camp” represented their old Jewish religion centred at Jerusalem (for us it can mean our previous way of life before we followed Christ). The Jewish believers escaped from Jerusalem because they were persecuted and ridiculed by the Jewish religious leaders for following Jesus (Acts 8:1-4). They suffered insults and shame. As disciples of Christ they denied themselves, took up their cross and followed Him (Mk. 8:34). Likewise, to meet the needs of this world we need to leave our comforts and security. Instead of putting our efforts into building our lives in this world, which won’t endure; we should be putting them into heaven, which is everlasting.

The Jewish religion was centred on the city of Jerusalem. That’s where the temple was.
But Christians don’t have a special city on earth. Instead, they look ahead to the new Jerusalem (the coming city) where God and Jesus are enthroned (v.14). Unlike earthy cities, this city is permanent and secure. They long for heaven and its joy and eternal pleasures (Ps. 16:11). Because they are satisfied with all that God has done, they long to be with Him. They value the Creator above the creation. They’re only visiting this planet, it’s not their home.

The second is a sacrifice of words of praise offered to God through the Lord Jesus (v.15). It’s “through Jesus” because that’s the only way we can approach God (Heb. 7:25; 10:19-21). He’s our mediator. This is to be “continual” verbal praise, not just on Sunday. Every day of the week and in good times and bad times (Acts 16:23-25). It flows from our satisfaction with God and longing to be with Him (v.14). How can we creatively mention our faith in Jesus and God’s greatness and goodness in our conversations? Are our meetings God-centred?

The third is a sacrifice of good works (v.16). It says “to do good and to share with others” who are in need. This would include the things mentioned earlier in the chapter, such as using our time and possessions in loving one another, and showing hospitality and empathy. Living for others. Doing the good works that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10). Then a reason is given for doing this “for with such sacrifices God is pleased”. God is pleased with this sacrifice because when we live like this, we show that He is more valuable than the things of this world. If God is our treasure, we’ll serve Him by helping others instead of being devoted to the things of this world.

How do we rate on these sacrifices? Are we willing to suffer and be ridiculed because we are a Christian? What about moving outside our churches to evangelize our neighbourhoods, our cities, our nation and the nations of the world? Do we have a heart of praise? Do we live for others?

Up to now the book of Hebrews has been like a sermon, but it finishes like a letter.

Keep praying (v.18-19)

Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.

The writer appeals for their prayers. Because he says he has a clear conscience and desires to live honorably in every way, he may have been attacked by Jewish critics. As he also asks them to pray that he might be able to visit them soon, it seems as though he had been delayed. Perhaps he was in prison (v.23). Prayer is another way to seek God’s help to live a life that pleases Him.

Do we pray for others?

The writer now expresses his final desire and prayer for those he is writing to.

Recognize God’s work (v.20-21)

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing His will, and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

He calls God the “God of peace”, because through Jesus we can have peace with God. Our sins separate us from God, but through Jesus we can be reconciled and draw near to God.

The fact that Jesus was raised back to life after being in the tomb showed that His mission was accomplished – His death paid the penalty owing for the sin of humanity. Because of this we can share in God’s eternal covenant, which is also called the new covenant. A covenant is a promise, and because of what Jesus did, we know that God keeps His promises.

Jesus is called the “great Shepherd of the sheep”, which is a metaphor for a great leader of all the redeemed. Sheep need guiding to fresh pasture and protection from predators. Because He is alive, and because by His Spirit He is always with us, He can guide and protect those who follow Him.

His prayer was that God would give them the desire and resources to do His will and the power to carry it out (also see Phil. 2:13). Doing God’s will is what pleases Him. Then they could be faithful and keep following and serving Christ and have inner strength and faith to persevere to the end (Jer.32:40).

All this equipping believers and pleasing God is achieved “through Jesus Christ”. It’s the same explanation as given for how Paul learnt to be content in all circumstances: “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). That’s why Jesus deserves glory and praise for ever and ever.

Do we give Jesus glory, honor and praise as our great spiritual leader? Do we realize that God equips us and works in us? Are we like Paul whose goal was to please God (2 Cor. 5:9; Col. 1:10; 1 Th. 4:1)?

Conclusion

Hebrews 13 400pxWe have seen that an understanding of the greatness of Jesus, the importance of perseverance and the danger of unbelief needs to be expressed by loving one another; showing hospitality and empathy; sexual purity; avoiding the love of money; following Jesus and godly church leaders instead of false teachings; persevering in the Christian faith by accepting suffering, by continual praise and by doing good works; prayer; and by letting God work though us.

In 1935 a Boeing B-17 aircraft crashed when being evaluated by the US Army. The crash was caused by pilot error. When they realized that flying the plane was too complex to rely on the pilot’s memory, they developed checklists to make sure nothing was forgotten.

Let’s use this checklist in Hebrews 13 to keep following Jesus and not turning back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.

Written, May 2015


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