Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “celebration

The elephant in the room

Four days ago Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison for sexual misconduct involving two boys in the 1990s. After terms as the Archbishop of Melbourne and the Archbishop of Sydney, he held senior positions at the Vatican. Pell was the treasurer of the Vatican and the Holy See in Rome, a high-ranking position that makes him among the world’s most powerful Catholics. He is the Roman Catholic Church’s most senior official to be convicted of child sexual abuse.

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was dominated by abuses perpetrated in the Roman Catholic Church. The scale and nature of abuse uncovered in Catholic institutions was staggering. Between 1980 and 2015, 4,444 people reported allegations of child sexual abuse to Catholic authorities. There were 1,880 Catholic leaders subject to allegations of abuse in over 1,000 separate institutions. In total, 7% of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 were accused of child sexual abuse.

Furthermore, Pope Francis has acknowledged that the sexual abuse of nuns was an ongoing problem. In Australia, reports suggest the number of Catholic women abused by priests vastly outnumber the survivors of child sexual abuse uncovered by the Royal Commission into the issue. And Catholic women are speaking out under the #NunsToo hashtag.

One of the recommendations the Royal Commission has made related to the Catholic Church is that they “consider introducing voluntary [rather than compulsory] celibacy for diocesan clergy” (Recommendation 16.18). Another was to “implement measures to address the risks of harm to children and the potential psychological and sexual dysfunction associated with a celibate rule of religious life” (Recommendation 16.19).

Clerical celibacy

The Roman Catholic church has a tradition that its clergy be unmarried and celibate. The earliest record of this practice dates from about AD 300. It’s considered to be an act of self-sacrifice.

But the Protestant Reformers disagreed with this requirement arguing that it was contrary to Biblical teaching (1 Cor. 9:5; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; Heb. 13:4) and implied a degradation of heterosexual marriage. They also blamed it for the widespread sexual misconduct within the clergy at the time of the Reformation.

When Paul stated the rights of an apostle, he included “Don’t we [apostles] have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [Peter]” (1 Cor. 9:5NIV). This implies that some of the apostles, including Peter, were married. And they had the right to take their wives on ministry trips and both receive financial support from the church. The apostles were leaders of the first church (Acts 6:1-6), which was in Jerusalem, and were evangelists that spread the good news about Jesus in Judea, Samaria, and across the Roman Empire (Acts 1:8). So heterosexual marriage wasn’t forbidden for the apostles.

Near the end of his life, Paul warned against false teachers that taught that the material world was evil (a form of Gnosticism). “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1-5). The false teachers were forbidding heterosexual marriage and forbidding eating certain foods. But before sin entered the world God instituted heterosexual marriage for the propagation of human life (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:22-24). There is nothing unholy about heterosexual marriage. So the Bible teaches that it’s wrong to forbid heterosexual marriage.

The final chapter of Hebrews begins with some general instructions for Christian living. The fifth instruction is that “(heterosexual) marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). So heterosexual marriage must be valued as God’s design for humanity (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:4-6; Eph. 5:22-33).

Nowhere does the New Testament explicitly require church leaders to be unmarried and celibate. In fact, it indicates that they were usually married because being “faithful to his wife” was one of the qualifications for each church leader (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6).

What else does the Bible say?

There are two biblical passages that advocates use to justify clerical celibacy (Mt. 19:10-12; 1 Cor. 7:25-38). In the first passage, after Jesus answered a question about divorce, the disciples said “it is better not to marry”. When Jesus described the cases when this applies, he said, “some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Mt. 19:12NLT). Jesus recognizes those who have voluntarily adopted an unmarried (celibate) lifestyle in order give themselves more completely to God’s work. They voluntarily adopt a single life “for the sake of the kingdom”. But it’s not mandatory to be unmarried to serve the Lord. Married people can serve the Lord as well.

“Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this” (1 Cor. 7:25-28NIV).

Jesus Christ wasn’t married, but the apostle Peter was married. Under certain circumstances celibacy is recommended in scripture (1 Cor. 7:25-38), but it is never presented as superior to heterosexual marriage. According to the NET Bible, this passage is addressed to “young, engaged women who were under the influence of various groups within the Corinthian church not to go through with their marriages. The central issue would then be whether the young men and women should continue with their plans and finalize their marriages”. And the situation in which this advice applies is “the present crisis” (1 Cor. 7:26). According to the NIV Study Bible, this is probably a reference to the pressures in the Christian life in an immoral and hostile society (1 Cor. 5:1; 7:2, 28; 1 Tim. 3:12). Also, Christians were being imprisoned and martyred at this time. And persecution is more difficult for married people than for single people. Paul said that if a person is single during persecution then it’s better to remain single (1 Cor. 7:27). But it’s not wrong to marry if they must (1 Cor. 7:28). The principle is that it’s not good to marry in times of distress.

“What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31).

Paul also says that, when in crisis, we need a radical perspective about proper priorities in life (1 Cor. 7:29-31). That’s when husbands and wives must focus on the Lord, rather than on each other. Marriage can be a distraction in times of trouble.

“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32-35).

Paul says that unmarried Christians can focus more consistently on the Lord’s affairs (1 Cor. 7:32, 34b). Married Christians must be concerned about the affairs of this world, such as their spouse and children (1 Cor. 7:33 34a, 34c). Their interests are divided between their family and the Lord. They can’t give “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). And because Christ’s coming is near, husbands and wives should put their relationship with the Lord above their relationship with their spouse (1 Cor. 7:29). So, the unmarried generally have more time available to serve the Lord. Single people should view their singleness as a special opportunity to serve the Lord. But people are free to choose between being married or remaining unmarried. There should be no compulsion to forbid heterosexual marriage.

Conclusion

According to the Bible, heterosexual marriage must be valued as God’s design for humanity. Because of this, heterosexual marriage wasn’t forbidden for the apostles. And leaders in the early church were usually married; they had wives. But it’s not good to marry in times of distress.

Unmarried people generally have more time available to serve the Lord. And Jesus recognized those who voluntarily adopted this lifestyle. But it’s not mandatory to be unmarried to serve the Lord. Married people can serve the Lord as well. So it’s wrong to forbid heterosexual marriage for those involved in Christian ministry. For them, whether to be single or married should be an optional choice, not a mandatory rule.

So the rule in the Roman Catholic church that its clergy be unmarried is unbiblical. It has no biblical support whatsoever. But is the Catholic church willing to follow what the Bible teaches on this topic? And will they be willing to implement the recommendation of the secular Royal Commission on this topic? Or will the elephant remain in the room?

Postscript

Because of the legalisation of homosexual marriage in our society, I have generally used the term “heterosexual marriage” in this post. Whereas in the past I would have used “marriage” because, until recently, “marriage” was always assumed to be heterosexual.

Written, March 2019


True Christmas: Sacrifice and Celebration

birthday-jesus-4-400pxAt a birthday party we celebrate a person’s life. But what if a person isn’t mentioned at their birthday party? That would be embarrassing! Christmas can be like that, because Christmas is when our culture chooses to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, but not everyone does this.

We usually celebrate Christmas with family and friends. But I was reminded recently that Christmas is not only a time of celebration. It also involves a lot of sacrifice; because it took sacrifices to get Christ here into this world. A sacrifice is something that’s given up (forfeited or surrendered) for the sake of a better cause. This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.

Christmas is not just holidays, or food, or drinks, or decorations, or Santa Claus or gifts, or greetings. That’s the celebrative part of Christmas, which is an outcome of the real Christmas. But celebrating without recognizing the birthday person (Jesus Christ) is embarrassing and tragic.

The first Christmas

There was a great celebration that first Christmas. When the shepherds were told the good news about the baby Jesus, the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Lk. 2:14-18NIV). And the shepherds were very excited when they saw the baby Jesus.

But what about Mary’s family? Because of their shame, they probably weren’t celebrating. Her pregnancy would have been known in their local community. But no-one would have believed that she was carrying a holy baby. Like everyone else, her family would have thought she was carrying an illegitimate child, which brought shame and disgrace on the family and into the community. Even her fiancé (Joseph) planned to divorce her quietly (Mt. 1:18-25). But he changed his mind when an angel told him that Jesus was indeed a holy baby.

Did God celebrate at the first Christmas? Probably not. That was when God lost His Son, giving Him to the world as a human being to stand forever with people who were sinners. So behind the scenes there is a sacrificial aspect to the first Christmas.

Christmas was God’s idea

Jesus taught Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). There are four things in this verse: God’s love, God giving, an invitation to believe, and an invitation to live. The first two and the last two are linked together. God so loved that He gave. For God, to love means to give. And He gave the best He could give. That is Himself. And then He says “whoever believes”. Nicodemus is urged to believe that Jesus is the Son of God in order to have eternal life instead perishing. Giving is always sacrificial, while receiving (in this case, believing to receive eternal life) is a reason to celebrate.

At Christmas we remember that God gave Himself, which is a sacrifice. Sending Jesus to earth was God’s idea. In this sense, God invented Christmas. And when we receive God’s gift (of forgiveness, love, joy, peace, and eternal life through Jesus), that’s a reason for celebration. Let’s look at four things that God sacrificed on the first Christmas so that we can celebrate.

The sacrifice of God’s glory

On the night before He was executed, Jesus prayed to God the Father, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (Jn. 17:5). Before Christ came into the world, He lived in heaven with God the Father. He had the glory and splendor of deity. But on the first Christmas Jesus sacrificed (gave up) His glory. Instead of being visible, it was hidden (or veiled). In John 17 Jesus is praying that His visible glory might be restored in heaven.

Paul explains why Jesus sacrificed His glory, “What if He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:23-24). God is preparing some people for glory. Jesus had to sacrifice His glory at the first Christmas so that we can regain our glory (which was lost by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden) by trusting in Jesus Christ.

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory; He also sacrificed His riches.

The sacrifice of God’s riches

Paul said that Jesus was the greatest example of generosity: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus was enormously rich because He was God. But at the first Christmas, He became poor. So He went from wealth to poverty. Jesus gave up everything so poor sinners like us who were under God’s judgment can become rich in Him. We are rich “in Christ”. This has been expressed in verse as:
Let the weak say “I am strong”,
Let the poor say “I am rich”,
Let the blind say “I can see”,
Because of what the Lord has done in me.

We can’t understand Christmas without reference to the crucifixion and the resurrection, because the incarnation (Christ’s birth) became a saving event through the crucifixion.

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory and His riches; He also sacrificed His nature.

The sacrifice of God’s nature

Paul said that Jesus was the greatest example of humility: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8)

God is a spirit who is immortal, eternal, and beyond our world of time, space, mass, and energy. But on the first Christmas, God shattered Himself and became a human being. The Creator of the universe transformed into a servant. A dependent baby. In this way, His divinity was hidden (or veiled).

Paul said that Christians had “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). God had to shatter Himself at the first Christmas so that sinners like us can be recreated. When we trust in Christ as Savior, we put on a new self, which is created in the image of God (just like God).

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory and His riches and His nature; He also sacrificed His life.

The sacrifice of God’s life

Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:15) and “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).

When Jesus came as a baby the first Christmas, He came to sacrifice His life. So Christmas cost God’s life. Why? So that we may have His life. Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). The “life” referred to here is spiritual life. This life is given by God upon trust in Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39-40; 1 Jn. 5:11-12). Because we have spiritual life, we can celebrate at Christmas by celebrating Jesus who is the source of spiritual life. Christmas is a time to encounter this life in Christ Jesus. As we saw in John 3:16, He loved to give, and we believe to live (spiritually). But if we are spiritually dead, our Christmas is meaningless.

Summary

True Christmas is not just a time of celebration. It involves much more than celebration. Christmas is a time to:
– Reflect on God’s sacrifice (what He has done for us),
– Recognize Jesus our Savior,
– Reconnect with Christ (God’s Christmas gift to us), and
– Rejoice.

Let’s celebrate Christmas meaningfully by remembering God’s sacrifices. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s glory. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s riches. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s nature. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s life. And let’s be willing to sacrifice for others just as God sacrificed for us.

Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on “True Christmas: Sacrifice and Celebration”. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.

Written, December 2016


A place for you

According to the Bible, an inheritance awaits God’s people in heaven. Are you looking forward to it?

Our physical world has four dimensions, three in space and one in time. As a scientist, I sometimes visualize the spiritual world as having extra dimensions that are not visible to us. Scientists use such techniques to describe the properties of fundamental particles such as atoms.

The Bible provides glimpses of the spiritual world, including the eternal destiny of the believer. But our language and experience mainly relate to the physical world, so these glimpses appear in figures of speech, such as metaphors, to help us visualize our eternal destiny.

The Place

Christ told His followers that He was going to His Father’s house to prepare a place for them. This promise was given so that they would not worry about the future (Jn. 14:1-3).

Paul says he was “taken up to paradise,” but was unable to express more specifically what was revealed to him (2 Cor. 12:4 NIV). The word “paradise” conveys an image of the Garden of Eden – a perfect, sinless place that is better than anything that we could ever imagine. Utopia!

God’s people are destined to be with Him in heaven and they are described as having their “citizenship in heaven” in Philippians 3:20. This same verse also tells us that heaven is where Christ lives.

The Relationship

Believers have the prospect of living together with Christ (Jn. 14:3; 1 Th. 5:10). They will go to be with Him at death or at the rapture. After death they are said to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So heaven is where Christ lives and it is also the believer’s home.

When Christ returns for His followers, the Christians who have already died will rise from the dead first and then those who “are still alive” will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” in order to be “with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:16-18).

At this time it is said that believers “will all be changed” as their bodies will be transformed to be like Christ’s resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:49-51; Phil. 3:21). As a result of this radical change they receive new bodies fit for heaven, that do not decay or die (Rom. 8:18-23; 1 Cor. 15:49-54).

The Celebration

Some of the most widely celebrated events on earth are the Olympic games and the World Cup football (soccer) series. But Christians can participate in a much greater celebration in heaven. It will be a great wedding feast, with all God’s people, millions and millions, honoring Him and Christ with gladness and rejoicing. Those present are referred to as “blessed” (Rev. 19:6-9). In heaven there will be continual worship and praise of God for His great acts of creation and salvation (Rev. 4:1-5:14).

Although the opportunity is available to all, Christ taught that, relatively speaking, “few” will accept the invitation to share in this great celebration (Mt. 22:1-14). The names of those who do are recorded in the Book of Life (Rev. 20:15).

The Inheritance

According to the Bible, an inheritance awaits God’s people in heaven that is both glorious and eternal (Eph. 1:18; Heb. 9:15). It “can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Pet. 1:4). Three aspects of this inheritance are: receiving re­wards, seeing God glorified, and reigning with Christ.

1. Receiving rewards: Jesus told many parables about the kingdom of heaven, including how His servants will be rewarded according to their faithfulness (Mt. 25:14-28; Lk. 19:12-24). As His servants today, Christians are accountable to God. When they appear before the judgment seat of Christ, their performance will be assessed and rewards given for what they have done for the Lord (1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:10).

His promise is this: “I am coming soon! My reward is with Me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). In his first letter, Peter states that when Christ returns, believers “will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet. 5:4).

2. Seeing God glorified: Before he was martyred for his faith, Stephen “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). We don’t know what he saw, but when John saw a vision of Jesus on the island of Patmos, it was so awesome that he fell down like a dead person (Rev. 1:17).

Christians who are suffering are encouraged to rejoice in spite of it, because this will prepare them for even greater happiness when He makes His glorious return (1 Pet. 4:13). Also, they will see Christ “as He is” when He appears in power and glory (1 Jn. 3:2).

Believers will not only see God’s glory, but they will also share in it! Paul was confident of sharing in Christ’s glory when it is revealed (1 Pet. 5:1) and looked forward to sharing in the glory of God (Rom. 5:2; Col. 1:27). An aspect of this is shown in the third example of the Christian’s inheritance – the reign.

3. Reigning with Christ: According to the Bible, believers will “reign on the earth” with Jesus Christ “for a thousand years” (Rev. 5:10; 20:6). They are described as being given a place beside Christ in heaven (Eph. 2:6), and when He returns to earth in great power. This is the believer’s “blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Ti. 2:13).

Your Home

We all have a place on earth that we refer to as our home. But God wants us all to be able to call heaven our home as well. That’s why He gives us these glimpses of the place He’s preparing for us.

Have you accepted His invitation to be with Him there forever? When Jesus was asked about the way to get to this place He said that He is “the way” (Jn. 14:6). Are you following Him?

Visualizing heaven can help us endure the disappointments of life. Those who are faithful look ahead to their destiny with hope (Heb. 11:10,16). Are you looking forward to the place God is preparing for you?

Published, April 2000