Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Spiritual

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

February-18_BuyMeAMercedes_400pxWhen Christian hypocrisy is so bad it draws public rebuke in the form of a parody song – there is a deep problem. In her song, ‘Mercedes Benz’, American rock singer, Janis Joplin sarcastically prays to God for a luxury car so she can compete with her friends, “who all drive Porsches”. Next she asks for a color TV, followed by a night on the town. “Prove that you love me, and buy the next round” she sings.

The mind space of some Christians is hard to fathom. Speaking about Himself, Jesus said, ‘Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man (Jesus) has no place even to lay His head‘ (Matthew 8:20). Yet the advert on the back of one Christian magazine boasted, ‘Our pastors all drive late model Mercedes Benz cars’. The point was clear, ‘You can see how much God loves our church, because we’re all so rich!’

But Jesus said that if anyone wanted to be His disciple they should, ‘give up their own way, take up their cross, and follow Him’ (Mark 8:34). Sadly, in the rich West, Christians struggle to give up their own way. It’s so easy to justify the quality lifestyle products, expensive holidays and renovations. Would you rather be noticed as the one who has the most or the least? So Christians join the endless, upgrade cycle of every other Western consumer.

Meanwhile in other parts of the world – or just your own neighborhood – there are people without. The release of Joplin’s song in 1970 coincided with a terrible famine in Nigeria caused by the Biafran civil war. One reason the famine shocked the world is this photo taken by Peter Williams in 1969 showing three young boys looking hauntingly at the camera. Their unflinching gaze asks so many hard questions. In obvious need of urgent food and safety, it’s not clear who will help.

Yet the Bible challenges anyone reading it to help those who are less fortunate. The logic is simple… if God is prepared to love us by sending His son to die for us at the cross, then how can we also, not be generous to others?

The author James in the Bible wrote this about prayer.
“You don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:2-3).

It’s right to pray for our daily bread. But let’s also pray for opportunities to be as generous to others as God has been to us.

Bible Verse: 2 Corinthians 9:7 God loves a person who gives cheerfully”.

Prayer: Dear God, please help me to be more generous to others.

Images and text © Outreach Media 2018

Posted, February 2018


Basic Christianity

#follow Jesus 400pxWho do you follow on social media? We can choose between lots of people and causes to follow. And everyone follows something: friends, popular culture, family, selfish desires, or God. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord. But You’re gonna have to serve somebody”. Christians follow Jesus Christ.

Christianity is the largest religion in the world. It is the predominant religion in Europe, Russia, North America, South America, the Philippines, East Timor, Southern Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Oceania. It is declining in developed countries and growing in under-developed countries.

This post is one in a series on major religions. It shows that Christianity is a way of life that involves beliefs and practices that are taught by Jesus and His apostles as recorded in the Bible.

Definitions

The largest branches of Christianity are the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox church, and the Protestant churches.

Roman Catholic churches believe that scripture must be interpreted within the tradition of the church. Their Bible includes an extra 7 deuterocanonical books. And Mary the mother of Jesus is considered an object of devotion and veneration. And the Pope may pronounce dogma (doctrine required to be obeyed by all members) infallibly. Seven sacraments are believed to convey saving grace. And baptism and communion are believed to be necessary to gain eternal life.

Orthodox churches believe that scripture must be interpreted by sacred tradition. Their Bible includes an extra 10 deuterocanonical books. Icons (images of Christ, Mary, or the saints) are objects of veneration through which God is to be worshipped.

Protestant churches believe in scripture alone (and not tradition), justification by faith alone (and not works) and the universal priesthood of believers (because Christ mediates like a high priest).

The “Old Covenant” is God’s agreement or treaty made with the nation of Israel about 3,500 years ago.

History

Christianity is named after Jesus Christ. It began in Jerusalem (on the Day of Pentecost) after Christ’s death. The first Christians were mainly Jews. It developed under the leadership of the apostles. Christianity is based on the teaching of Christ and the apostles, which is recorded in the Bible. As a result of persecution, Christians moved away from the Middle East across the Roman Empire.

The early followers of Jesus were called “disciples” and followers of “the Way” and “Christians” (Acts 9:2; 11:26; 19:9, 23; 22:4, 14; 1 Pt. 4:16). His followers are now known as Christians.

Armenia was the first nation to accept Christianity in AD 301. And in AD 380, Christianity was made the religion of the Roman Empire. Since this time, Christianity has played a prominent role in the shaping of Western civilization.

In the 11th century AD, there was a division between the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox church in the east. In the 16th century the Protestant churches separated from the Roman Catholic church.

Here are some of the major Christian beliefs according to the Bible. They are core beliefs of Christianity.

Seven major beliefs

The Bible

We learn about Jesus in the Bible, which is God’s special revelation to humanity. The Old Testament describes history up to the time of Christ and the New Testament describes the time of Christ (in the Gospels) and then the early church. In fact, Jesus is the key person in the Bible.

Creation shows that God is intelligent, powerful and supernatural. But the clearest way that God has revealed Himself to us is in the Bible. It’s God’s record of history because He miraculously guided the authors of Scripture to correctly record His message to humanity (2 Pt. 1:21). “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17NIV). Because the Bible is “God-breathed”, it’s completely reliable.

Paul said, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Christian faith is based on the message about Jesus Christ which is recorded in the Bible. It gives us everything we need for a godly life (2 Pt. 1:3).

When many followers were deserting Jesus, He asked His disciples “Are you also going to leave?”. Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life” (Jn. 6:67-68NLT). The Bible contains words that give eternal life. That’s what makes it different to other books and other messages.

Hebrews says, “The word of God is active and alive … it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible judges us. We need to respond faithfully to its message, because the Bible exposes unbelief.

So, the Bible is our authority for belief (faith) and practice. And it’s the best source of our knowledge about God. That’s why we are looking at Christianity according to the Bible and not according to a particular church. All the beliefs and practices described below come from the Bible.

Overall history 1 400pxOverall history

Overall history is visualized in this schematic diagram. In the beginning God created a perfect world where there was no sin. But this world was changed and spoiled when humanity sinned. From that time there is sin, suffering and death. But God promised deliverance and salvation from this. When this is finalized in the future, God’s perfect world will be restored. We now live under the curse of sin between the Fall and the restoration.

History is linear. It’s sequential from a beginning to an end. The end is the new creation where Jesus rules in the kingdom of God. Here’s the events in the previous diagram rearranged in a line.

Basic Christianity 2 800px

God’s plan of salvation has two parts, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant and introduced the New Covenant. That’s why His name appears between them in the diagram. He marks the center and turning point in history. The purpose of the Old Covenant was to accomplish a rescue plan for the world: God becoming a Jewish man and dying for humanity’s crimes against God. The Old Covenant no longer applies because its purpose was achieved. It has been replaced by the New Covenant. Christians are those who have trusted in God’s rescue plan and they live under the New Covenant. They are part of His coming new creation.

So we live in a world where there is tension between sin and salvation, between the past fall and the future restoration, and between following Satan and following Jesus.

The triune God

The Bible teaches that there is only one God, yet it calls three Persons “God” – the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. The word “trinity” explains the eternal relationship between them. This form of monotheism is indicated in the diagram by the green circle.

Beliefs aboutr God 400pxOther beliefs (or worldviews), such as those indicated in the diagram by a blue circle, differ from the Bible. These are:
– There is no God (atheism). There is no spiritual world – it’s only physical. Like humanism and naturalism.
– There is one God (monotheism), but no trinity.
Jesus was a great teacher, but he wasn’t divine. Like lslam.
– There are many gods (polytheism). Like Hinduism, and the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
– Everything is god (pantheism). Like New Age spirituality, and animism.

These are different worldviews. Christianity is the Biblical worldview. It teaches that God is a spiritual being without a physical body who is eternal (has no beginning or end). God is great – He created the universe out of nothing. And God is good – although we rebelled against Him, He offered salvation to humanity. He is personal and involved with people.

How do we get to know God? Only through a relationship with Jesus Christ that involves believing and following Him.

The problem

Are people basically good or evil? Adam and Eve were created good in the beginning, and in the image of God, but they disobeyed God. Because of this, humanity and the rest of creation were cursed with sin, suffering and death (Rom. 5:12-15). The Bible says we are all sinners who are spiritually dead and separated from God (Isa. 59:2; Rom. 3:23, 5:12). And Satan is a spiritual being who tempts us to sin. Humanity now has a fatal flaw. We need help. Unless we do something about it we face eternal punishment in hell (Mt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 19:20). It’s more important than global warming or poverty or inequality or terrorism or the Middle East conflict or anything else you can think of. So, we have a big problem. And only God can fix it. We need outside help. That’s where Jesus comes into history.

Jesus

Jesus is fully God and fully human (1 Jn. 4:1-3). As God, He always existed and was never created. And He created the universe (Col. 1:16). His conception was unique. He lived a sinless life. He was executed on a cross, was buried, but He rose back to life and is spiritually and physically immortal. When He ascended to heaven, He promised to return to earth again.

Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of humanity as described in the New Testament, whose coming as the Messiah (the Christ) was prophesized in the Old Testament.

Jesus was sent to earth to solve the big problem of our hopeless situation of sinfulness and separation from God

The solution

God had a plan to forgive sinful people like us. Because God is loving and just, His plan was loving and just. The idea was that Jesus would be our substitute. He would take our punishment (that’s justice), and we would be offered forgiveness (that’s loving). So, Jesus died as the sacrifice and payment for our sins.

God’s plan of salvation was offered to people as a gift (Eph. 2:8-9) that could be accepted by acknowledging our sin and the fact that it separates us from God, and believing that Jesus died for our sins and physically rose again. We just need to trust in Jesus alone as the way of salvation because He has done all the work for us. There’s two aspects:
– Admit you are a sinner – that’s the problem (Rom. 3:23; 1 Jn. 1:9)
– Believe that Jesus died for you – that’s the solution (Acts 16:31).

Bridge to life 400pxJesus is like the bridge to eternal life in this diagram. Unbelievers are separated from God and on the road to hell. If they trust in what Jesus has done for them, they cross over the bridge to the road to heaven. That’s the only solution. The only rescue plan.

That’s how God made a way for people to have a relationship with Him. Paul said, “Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin (Jesus) to be sin for us, so that in Him (Jesus) we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20). What a great exchange of our sin for Christ’s righteousness!

Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Peter preached, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts. 4:12). That’s why Christians follow and worship Jesus and not someone else who is a sinner like us.

The future

Those who follow Jesus are promised a wonderful future. At death their invisible soul is separated from the body. That’s when believers go to be with Jesus. Later at the rapture their bodies are resurrected and reunited with their souls. So believers will live with Jesus for eternity (Jn. 11:25, 26; 2 Cor. 5:6). They will also reign with Jesus in His coming kingdom.

If you want to drive a car in Australia you need to pass a knowledge test to get a learner licence. Then you need to pass a driving test for a provisional licence. You can’t get a learner licence without passing the knowledge test. And you can’t get a provisional licence without passing a driving test. There’s information to know and things you need to be able to do. Likewise to follow Jesus, there are both beliefs to know and practices to do.

Now we have looked at the major beliefs of those who follow Jesus, here are some of their major practices. All these practices can be applied in a Christian’s individual life, in their family life, and in their corporate life (as in the church). And they were practiced by the early church (Acts 2:42; 4:33).

Five major practices

Bible reading

It’s important to connect with the Bible every day as it is God’s main message to us. Christians read it to understand the message and to apply it to their daily lives.

Regularly reading the Bible is one of the most important things they can do. It can influence their lives and help them develop godly attitudes and behavior. And they can learn more about God and draw nearer to God. Victory over sin comes from the Bible (Mt. 4:4). As physical food gives us energy, the words of scripture give us spiritual energy and power. Devotions like “Our Daily Bread” and Bible Apps can help.

Christians should study the Bible because there is so much false teaching around. Test any teaching against what the Bible says (Acts 17:11). Be careful to correctly interpret scripture (2 Tim. 2:15). There are many poor interpretations on the internet. Some things that can help to keep you on the right track are – Study Bibles and the “Believer’s Bible commentary” by William MacDonald.

Prayer

Christians are commanded to pray regularly and when facing trouble (Col. 4:2; 1 Th. 5:17; Heb. 5:13). It’s important to connect with God every day. Jesus prayed regularly and not just on special occasions (Mt. 14:23; Mk. 1:35; Lk. 11:1). He “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Lk. 5:16).

Many of Paul’s prayers are recorded in the New Testament. He prayed for things like godly living, his ministry, strengthening, increased knowledge, more love, grace and peace, Israel’s salvation, Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith, more hope and for the fullness of God.  A Christian’s prayers are offered to the Father through Jesus because Jesus is the only mediator between people and God the Father (1 Tim. 2:5).

James said, “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (Jas. 4:8). If Christians come to God in prayer with humility, He will answer their prayers. God is accessible to those in fellowship with Him. They can stay right with God by confessing our sins (1 Jn. 1:9).

People are encouraged by knowing that others are praying for them. Peace is another benefit of prayer, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

Praise and worship

God alone is worthy of our devotion, praise and worship. He is our Creator and our Savior. Praise is linked with thanksgiving, while worship is linked to surrender.

Christians should praise God for His goodness even when life is difficult. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess His name” (Heb. 13:15). The joy of salvation can be expressed in songs of praise (Acts 16:25; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 5:13). Their praise is offered to the Father through Jesus.

Jesus said that His followers should “worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23-24). Worship is different under the New Covenant. The location isn’t important anymore. But who and how Christians worship is important. They worship the Father for sending the Son and Jesus for carrying out God’s plan of salvation. Its God centered. One’s attitude needs to be right (in spirit; engaging our hearts). And it needs to be consistent with Scripture and the kind of God we worship (in truth; engaging our minds).

Serving God is a form of individual worship (Rom. 12:1). It’s a response to all that God has done for them. And the Lord’s Supper is an expression of corporate worship.

Sharing the good news about Jesus

Before Jesus ascended back to heaven He told the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). He also told them, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In the book of Acts there are many accounts of people sharing the good news of God’s plan of salvation though Jesus. This began in Jerusalem and extended to elsewhere in the Middle East and across the Roman Empire to Rome. Paul and Silas were so passionate about telling people about Jesus that they continued sharing even when they were imprisoned.

Godly attitudes and behavior

Children grow up to be like their parents in many ways. Christians are called “children of God” (Jn. 1:12)

The Bible says, “His (God’s) divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pt. 1:3-4).

The power of God gives Christians new life (Col. 2:12-13; Ti. 3:4-5) and the power of God gives them the ability to live godly lives (Phil. 2:12-13; 4:13). The better they know God’s Word the better they can apply God’s principles in their lives. The Christian lives by the promises of God in Christ.

Christians have two natures. A selfish sinful nature like unbelievers and a new divine nature, which transforms them to become more like Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). This process isn’t complete until they get to heaven when they “see Him (Jesus) as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). The divine nature is God’s provision to counteract the sinful nature.

Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:31 – 11:1). He put the welfare of others first. God should be glorified in all that Christians do. He didn’t want to stumble anyone so that unbelievers may be saved.

Following Jesus is a transformation from within. Paul changed from being self-centered to being Christ-centered (Phil. 3:4-16). His mind was set on heavenly things, not earthly things (Phil. 3:17-20).

The godly attitudes and behavior mentioned in the New Testament include:

Active
Bold
Compassionate
Considerate
Consistent
Contented
Dedicated
Encouraging
Enthusiastic
Evangelistic
Faithful
Forgiving
Generous
Gentle
Good
Gracious
Helpful
Holy
Honest
Hospitable
Humble
Impartial
Joyful
Liberty
Longsuffering
Loving
Obedient
Opposed to sin
Patient
Peaceful
Persevering
Praising
Prayerful
Reconciling
Repentant
Respectful
Reverent
Self-controlled
Submissive
Thankful
Unifying
Visionary
Wise
Wonderful

What a wonderful list of attributes! Wouldn’t it be great to be more like this?

Culture

The Bible encourages Christians to meet together regularly for mutual encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25). Collective worship and service is one of the characteristics of Christianity. This is difficult in countries where Christians are persecuted. Groups of people that meet together are referred to as a local church and the building they meet in can also be called a “church”. Since the middle ages some grand churches have been constructed, particularly in Europe. These were significant landmarks because of their great size and splendor. Cathedrals are impressive church buildings that symbolize the glory of God. In an age when the vast majority of the people were illiterate, the images on the stained-glass windows were like an illustrated Bible.

Christianity had a significant impact on education, science and medicine. And it has also had an impact on art, music and literature. The contents of the Bible influenced artists such as Michelanglo and Leonardo da Vinci, composers such as Bach and Handel, and writers such as Shakespeare and CS Lewis.

Christians usually celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas and Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter. These are cultural and traditional events as neither of them is mentioned in the Bible.

Comparison with Judaism

Jesus, the apostles and the majority of the early church were Jewish. As Judaism is based on the Old Covenant (Old Testament), it’s a precursor of Christianity. Because Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the Old Testament about 2000 years ago, Christianity is the successor of Judaism.

The Jewish faith is monotheistic, but not trinitarian – they don’t accept that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah awaited by the Jews, while the Jews believe that the Messiah will come in the future. The Jewish Messiah is a person (who isn’t divine) who will restore the physical kingdom of Israel, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and bring earthly peace.

Both Judaism and Christianity teach that God has a special plan for the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. But Christianity does not accept that Mosaic Law has any authority over Christians, while Judaism does not accept that the New Testament has any religious authority over Jews. Besides the Old Testament, Judaism also considers the Oral Torah (written in the Mishnah and the Talmuds) to be a sacred text. Christians generally worship collectively of Sunday while Saturday is the day of worship in Judaism.

Conclusion

Christianity is a way of life that involves beliefs and practices that are taught by Jesus and His apostles as recorded in the Bible. This post has summarized aspects of the history, major beliefs, major practices and culture of the Christian faith. These beliefs, practices and culture impact everyday life for about 2 billion people across the world.

Written, January 2017

Also see: Basic Islam
Basic Hinduism
Basic Buddhism
Participating in the divine nature


Who are you following in 2018?

January-18_FollowTheChrist_400pxWe can follow people on social media like Facebook. And we are influenced by the people we follow and listen to. For example, social media influences our relationships, shopping, and education.

Like most people living in the post Christian 21st Century Joe had heard of Jesus. But he didn’t know much about him. So, deciding to educate himself, he Googled some answers. Here’s what Joe said afterwards.

“He’s probably Scandinavian… from Norway or Denmark. You can tell by his pale skin, long blonde hair and blue eyes. But he’s definitely not a Viking. He’s more like a guru. In all the movies and old paintings he looks really chilled. In fact, ‘Chilled Nordic Jesus’ seems to be the most popular kind of Jesus.

“But there were others. I also found, ‘Religious Jesus’ or ‘Church Jesus’. He’s in paintings and stained glass windows everywhere. And he loves medieval Gothic churches. He’s closely related to, ‘Out of this world Jesus’ or ‘Ethereal Jesus’ who you can also find in churches – usually looking right past you. It’s hard to tell if he’s super focused or stoned or just not very interested.

“When I read articles I came across different reasons for why Jesus came. So, ‘Great moral teacher Jesus’ joins a succession of teachers down through the ages who taught us how to live better lives. On the other hand, ‘Killjoy Jesus’ is always watching and ready to condemn us when we stuff up. But ‘Genie Jesus’ is really great. He’s available for party tricks and special rescues – unfortunately only prayers from the super spiritual seem to work.

“The last Jesus I found was ‘Political Jesus’ – he was a bit of a failure. He wanted to cut a better deal for poor people with the Roman and Jewish leaders. But he didn’t succeed. Instead he was killed. There really does seem to be a lot of confusion about why Jesus died.

If only Joe had listened to what Jesus said about himself instead of the opinions of others. If he’d only looked in the Bible instead of online he could have skipped the clichés and found the real, authentic Jesus of history… born in Palestine… who probably had brown skin… who lived well before stained glass and gothic church architecture and who challenged religious hierarchies. Joe could have heard Jesus say that he “came to seek and to save the lost” and that his plan was to give his life, “as a ransom for many”. And he could have read these immortal words…

I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life (John 8:12).

So, don’t follow a cliché. Follow the Christ revealed in the Bible.

Bible Verse: John 8:12 I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life”.

Prayer: Dear God, please help me to follow Jesus in 2018 and to understand more about Him as I read about Him in the Bible. Amen.

Images and text © Outreach Media 2018

Posted, January 2018


The strange sign

Wedding car 400pxAt a recent wedding the bridal party arrived at the church in a Lamborghini and stretch limousine. And they arrived at the Reception to fireworks and frenetic music and drumming. It was a grand entry. In contrast, although Jesus was announced by angels, His was a humble entry.

At Christmas we remember the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. This was announced when an angel told some shepherds that the Jewish Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. That’s amazing because shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder. And Bethlehem was only a small town. But how would the shepherds find him? And how would they recognize him? So they were given a sign from God to help them.

What’s a sign?

The Greek word semeion (Strongs #4592) means a “sign”. In this context it’s the means by which a person is distinguished from someone else. For example, Judas Iscariot identified Jesus by kissing him (Mt. 26:48). And circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites (Rom. 4:11). Miracles signified an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12). And Paul’s handwriting showed that his letters were authentic (2 Th. 3:17).

The sign

They were given an unusual sign to identify the Messiah. Important people like royalty, and a President or Prime Minister are usually characterized by pomp, ceremony, security and publicity. That’s the kind of sign we would expect for the Messiah.

But the angel said, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:12NIV). So the sign was a baby lying in a cattle feeding-trough! What a humble birth.

So the shepherds were to look for a baby lying in a cattle feeding-trough. Although there would have been other babies in Bethlehem, it would be unusual for one to be lying in a cattle feeding-trough. It was a strange sign.

A baby

Jesus was born into the world just like all of us. It was a normal birth (following a supernatural conception). He was a tiny helpless baby. Nothing would have seemed supernatural. Why did God choose to enter the human race like this? So that He could provide for our salvation. Jesus had to be fully human so He could die for our sins (Heb. 2:14-17). He had to become like us in order to save us.

Jesus manger 400pxA baby lying in a cattle feed trough

The reason that baby Jesus was lying in a manger was “because there was no guest room available for them” (Lk. 2:7). The last supper was held in the guest room of a house in Jerusalem (Mk. 14:14; Lk. 22:11). According to scholars, the most likely place for a manger in Bethlehem was in a one-roomed peasant house with two levels. People occupied the upper level (Arab. mastaba) and animals the lower one (ka’ al-bet). The animals are housed overnight and fed from mangers built into the floor of the upper terrace or mounted to the walls near the lower level. Presumably there was no cradle in the house, but a manger could perform the same function.

The shepherds were told that they would find the baby in a manger. Shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder and in many homes they would feel their poverty and be ashamed of their low position in society. But in this case, they faced no humiliation because it was probably a simple peasant house like their own with mangers for the animals. That’s why they said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Lk. 2:15). And they hurried off to find Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus.

What a strange way for a Messiah and Savior to enter the world. Even the poorest child would not be found in a manger.

Lessons for us

The Bible says that Jesus gave up His divine glory when He came to earth “by taking the very nature of a servant (slave), being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). And “that though He was rich (in heaven), yet for your sake He became poor (on earth)” (2 Cor. 8:9). He did this (was born, lived, died and rose again) in order to die the death that we deserve. Through what Jesus has done, we “might become rich”. The promise is not for physical earthly riches, but spiritual heavenly riches. It’s forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and eternal life. What Jesus did was like an “indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15). As a gift, it has not benefit to us unless we accept it. That’s why the Bible says. “might become rich”, not “will become rich”. Have you accepted God’s gift? Not many Jews recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. Why not recognize Him as your Savior?

Those who follow Jesus are to imitate His humility (Phil. 2:1-8). Our attitude is to be one of unity. mutual love, harmony, humility, sacrifice, and service, rather than being self-centered. Saul was recognized for being tall, Zacchaeus for being short and Jesus for being humble (1 Sam. 9:2; Lk. 19:1-4). But what is our characteristic attitude?


When Santa learned the gospel

santa gospel 3 400pxA poem by Simon Camilleri

When Santa learned the gospel, he first heard it from an elf.
This tiny Santa’s helper had just learnt of it himself.

A child had asked for Christmas to receive a Bible book.
This elf had made one in the shop, then paused to have a look.

He read all about Jesus and the call to follow Him.
He learned how Jesus lived and taught and died to pay for sin.

He learned how Jesus rose again and how He will return
And then this elf read how he should respond to all he’d learned.

He shut the book, put down his tools, then closed his eyes and prayed.
Right there and then this little elf trusted in Christ that day.

The next day he told Santa. It was awkward, unprepared.
He knew he didn’t know that much, but what he knew he shared.

He told Santa the gospel. It was simple. It was short.
But a seed was sown in Santa’s heart, which grew into a thought.

Santa reflected on his life and the message he supported,
Then compared it to the gospel that the elf had just reported.

He’d always thought that everyone was naughty or was nice.
He had them all on two big lists. He even checked it twice.

He’d always thought that you got gifts only if you’d been good.
The naughty kids got lumps of coal. That’s what he understood.

They’d all line up in shopping malls and sit upon his knee
And claim that they were always nice. As nice as nice can be.

Of course, he saw them when they slept and knew when they awoke.
He also knew their nice attempts were pretty much a joke.

Their heads were filled not with nice thoughts of kindness, peace and joy,
But with the never-ending list of their desired toys.

He knew their hearts, but he had thought, “They’re trying to be good.
That’s good enough to make the list. Otherwise no one would!”

So every year their “good enough” with toys would be rewarded.
And every year (he realized) this message he supported:

THE “GOOD” WILL GET THE PRESENTS.
THE “BAD” WILL GET THE COAL.
AND TRYING TO BE GOOD ENOUGH
IS GOOD ENOUGH A GOAL.

That was the message that he knew, but now he knew another.
He had just heard the gospel. So he compared them to each other.

The message of the gospel turned his message upside down.
The good, the bad, naughty and nice, it switched it all around.

“There’s no one good but God alone” he’d heard Jesus concluded.
And those who claim they’re “good enough” are simply just deluded.

If there’s a list of who is “good”, the standard we’ve all missed.
And Santa saw that even he was on the naughty list.

That shook his world. That rocked his boat. That gripped him in his soul.
To think that even Santa Claus deserved a lump of coal.

But that was only half of what the gospel message said.
It also flipped what happened to the naughty on its head.

Instead of being written off as just not good enough.
The message to the naughty list was one of grace and love.

The gospel offered mercy to all those deserving coal.
The gospel offered forgiveness and cleansing of your soul.

The gospel told how Jesus died our death to pay the price
To reconcile us all to God – both naughty and the nice.

This offer was a real gift, unlike presents ‘neath the tree.
It was not earned by being good. It was offered for free.

For all his life Santa had claimed that if you had been bad
Then you would not get presents and your Christmas would be sad.

Santa compared his message with this new one he had learned.
His message said you get the presents your good deeds had earned.

The message of the gospel offered something so much greater…
Jesus had come to reconcile the world to their Creator.

When Santa grasped the gospel, he did not know what to do
And so the elf said nervously, “How ’bout I pray with you?”

Then that night at the North Pole, by the fire in his den,
With a simple prayer led by an elf, Santa was born again.

And now, in Christ, forgiven, free – his new life had begun
and Santa had a new message to share with everyone.

© Simon Camelleri

Posted, December 2017


What Jesus wants for Christmas

December-17_AllJesusWantsForChristmas 400pxWhat a precious thing is a baby! The news that a little tiny human has safely made its way into the world is such a miracle, such a cause for celebration. Even when there is mourning or hardship, a new baby can bring hope.

On the first Christmas when baby Jesus arrived there was the usual joy and celebration. But there was so much more than that. Angels sang in the sky, shepherds dropped everything and came, wise men followed a star… all to honor and worship this new baby.

When God sent His Son into the world, in the form of a baby boy, He did it for us. In John’s gospel it says,
For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life“.

This is one of the most famous verses in the Bible, perhaps because it states so simply the most important things. God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to help us. This is why Christmas is special! It’s a time to celebrate the gift God gave to us long ago that shows how much He wants us to join His family. What we need to do is believe in Him.

There is a beautiful Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti that was put to music and became the carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”. It tells of the unlikely and difficult place where the baby Jesus was born, of angels singing praises to welcome the new King, and of shepherds visiting and bowing down and of wise men who traveled a great distance to honor Him.

The author wonders what she could give to Him as a tribute.
“What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part,
Yet what can I give Him,
Give my heart.”

The Wise Men brought gifts fit for a King to honor the newborn Jesus, but there is nothing that we can give that is enough. All Jesus wants for Christmas is YOU!

Bible Verse: John 3:16 For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for loving me so much. Thank you for the precious gift of your Son. Please forgive me and help me to worship and honor you all year long. Amen.

Images and text © Outreach Media 2017

Posted, December 2017


Lessons from Egypt

Mena Egypt - 1915 400pxAll families have stories to tell, regardless of their culture or their circumstances. When parents share family stories, their children benefit in many ways. They demonstrate better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions. And they more often have higher self-esteem, more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety.

In Psalm 78 the Israelites are reminded of lessons from their history so they could to tell the next generation about what God had done. The main historical event recalled is the exodus from Egypt (Ps. 78:13-13; 42-53).

Egypt reminds me of two great characters in the Old Testament. Joseph and Moses both rescued God’s people. Joseph rescued them from a famine and Moses rescued them from slavery. Joseph led them into Egypt and Moses led them out of Egypt.

The events in Egypt described in the Bible range from the safety of a refuge to the tyranny of slavery.

A refuge from danger

Famine was one of the dangers in the ancient world. Both Abraham and Jacob’s family (the Israelites) travelled to Egypt to avoid a famine (Gen. 12:10 – 13:1; 46:1-7). Although Abraham’s visit was short, the other visit was for about 400 years. The longer visit was enabled by Joseph who rose to a position equivalent to that of Governor or Prime Minister.

There are some similarities between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus. They were both rejected and betrayed. But their suffering saved many (Gen. 50:20; Jn. 3:16). And they were about 30 years of age when Joseph was put in charge of Egypt and when Jesus began His ministry (Gen. 41:46; Lk. 3:23).

Others fled to Egypt to escape danger. Jeroboam fled to Egypt because Solomon wanted to kill him (1 Ki 11:40 – 12:2; 2 Chron. 10:2). After the invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, some Jews fled to Egypt (2 Ki. 25:25-26; Jer. 41:16-18) and later a group of Jews forced Jeremiah to go with them to Egypt (Jer. 43:6-7). And Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt because Herod was killing all male Jewish infants. Joseph was divinely directed to take Mary and Joseph to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Mt. 2:13-20).

On these occasions Egypt was a safe refuge that people could run to for protection.

Oppressive slavery

Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. But he rose to be second to the king and his family thrived in Egypt. Later they were subject to slavery when a new Pharaoh cruelly used them for slave labor. They were only delivered from this under the leadership of Moses after the miraculous ten plagues. The Bible says, “the Lord at one time delivered His people out of Egypt” (Jude 1:5NIV).

There are some similarities between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus. They both narrowly escaped being killed by a king who was murdering baby boys. They both performed miracles. They both led God’s people out of captivity, being from slavery to Egypt in the case of Moses and from slavery to sin in the case of Jesus. They both mediated a covenant between God and humanity. And the Bible says that Jesus is a prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22; 7:37).

The exodus was a great victory of the God of the Israelites over the gods of Egypt, which was to be remembered in the annual Passover Festival. After the exodus, Egypt came to represent all that is opposed to God. After the decline of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon become the main distant enemies of the Israelites.

On this occasion Egypt was an oppressive place of punishment that people wanted to run away from. But during the journey from Egypt to Canaan the Israelites were tempted to return to Egypt.

An idolatrous nation

The Egyptians worshipped many gods (polytheism). And their Pharaohs were considered to be divine. Whereas the Israelites worshipped the true God and they were forbidden to marry idolatrous and immoral foreigners because they would cause them to be unfaithful to God (Dt. 7:1-4; 1 Ki. 11:1-13; Ezra 9:1-2, 10-12, 14).

When Moses was on Mount Sinai during the exodus, the Israelites built a golden calf idol (Ex. 32). So they disobeyed God and worshipped Egyptian gods instead.

Later when Israel was settled in the promised land, King Solomon married an Egyptian princess and many other foreign women who turned him to idolatry. Because of this disobedience, God caused the nation to be divided into two kingdoms (1 Ki. 11:9-13).

And when Jeroboam returned from Egypt to establish the northern kingdom of Israel, he set up calf images in Dan and Bethel (1 Ki. 12:26-33). These may have been Egyptian gods (or those of the Canaanites). Jeroboam’s sin was idolatry (1 Ki. 14:9). And subsequent kings of Israel followed his wicked example. Finally, God allowed the kingdom of Israel to be invaded by the Assyrians because of their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23).

Likewise, many of the kings of Judah also worshiped idols. And finally, God allowed the kingdom of Judah to be invaded by the Babylonians because of their idolatry (Jer. 44:1-6). When some of these Jews fled to Egypt they were warned of disaster because of their idolatry (Jer. 44:1-30).

So Egypt was one of the nations that influenced the Israelites to worship idols instead of the true God. This idolatry led to the downfall of the Jewish nation when they were driven from their lands just as they had driven the Canaanites from their lands 770-900 years earlier.

Lessons for us

What can we learn from the role of Egypt in the history of the Israelites? They lived under the old covenant of Moses, whereas Christians live under the new covenant of Jesus.

First, God cares for His people. As He cared physically for the Israelites, so He cares spiritually for those who trust in Him through Jesus today. Their salvation is assured.

Second, God is powerful. As miracles accompanied the Israelites deliverance from Egypt (ten plagues; crossing the Red Sea), so miracles accompanied Christ’s act of salvation (Christ’s resurrection) and will accompany Christians deliverance from the presence of sin (their resurrection).

Third, God’s people needed to obey Him in order to benefit from His care and power. Obedience leads to blessing. To be delivered from Egypt the Israelites needed to obey God’s instructions given by Moses. Likewise, to be delivered from sin, we need to accept God’s gift of salvation through Jesus. Have you done this?

Fourth, disobedience and idolatry (following something or someone else than the true God) leads to God’s judgment. God wants His people to be faithful. Are idols keeping you from living for Jesus?

What can we tell the next generation about what God has done for us? That’s the best kind of family stories to tell.

Appendix: Egypt

Egypt is mentioned in the Bible more times than any other place outside Canaan/Israel (in 673 verses of the ESV). Egypt and Israel shared a border in antiquity as they do today. And Goshen in Egypt is about 400km (250 miles) from Jerusalem. Egypt (Mitsrayim in Hebrew, Strongs #4714) is named after the grandson of Noah (son of Ham) who settled there after the global flood (Gen. 10:6).

Israel is located between the Nile river (to the southwest) and the Euphrates river (to the north east). Nations thrived in these fertile river valleys and they were great powers in the ancient world. And it’s not surprising that the inhabitants of Israel were influenced by superpowers such as the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians.

Written, December 2017

Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Where’s Zion?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism