Archive for September, 2012

Previously I’ve blurted out some thoughts on memorialist sex and memorialist preaching.

In both (as with memorialist communion) there is an unhelpful divorce between the physical act and an internal realm: where ‘the action’ really happens.

In sex it leads to a proliferation of fantasy sex (porn) and/or a growing uncomfortability with the physical act.  The mechanics of sex put us off and we retreat into remembrances of the real thing.  All the while, the pressure for sex to be “mind-blowing” makes actual love-making less and less likely.

In preaching it leads to sermons that offer the raw materials of gospel proclamation but there’s no belief in the ‘real presence’ of Christ ‘in, with and under’ the preacher’s words.  Preaching does not hand over Christ, it merely calls truths to mind and leaves the congregation to piece it together in their own internal worlds.

Here’s another area, ripe for the divorce between physical acts and the real meaning: prayer.  Let me ask you some questions:

How do you feel about prayer beads?  Why?

Do you close your eyes when you pray? Why?

Do you pray silently? Why?

There is an explicit reference to silent prayer in the bible.  Hannah came to the temple to pray for a child:

Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli [the Priest] took her to be a drunken woman.  (1 Samuel 1:13)

The High Priest thought only a drunk would pray silently!  He was wrong of course.  But it’s interesting what his expectations were.  And it’s interesting how our expectations have almost completely inverted.  Prayer, for us, is a silent and utterly internal act.  As with communion, as with sex, as with preaching, apparently all the action happens between our ears.

And when we do physically pray (especially with others) we find our prayers are peppered with “Just… really… Lord… hmmmm…. Just…. Just…   LORD…  HMMMM…. Really….”  We know we’re praying but we feel that… really… you know… we should… REALLY… MEAN IT!  We feel that prayer is one thing but the main thing is a “spiritual” frame of mind – one which becomes increasingly difficult to muster.

Are you the same?  When I pray with others I “hmm” along, as is our evangelical wont, I say ‘Amen’ but still I sense a lack of emotional intensity in my soul. So I attach a silent addendum to the prayer-time: “Lord, Really. I meant that one. Please.  Mmm.”  Is it just me?

I’m tempted to think that the act of praying is one thing, but on top of that there’s a pressure.  A pressure to really mean my prayers.  And so I leave prayer meetings with furrowed brows and sage nods and an intangible fear that I wasn’t ‘engaged’ enough.  Perhaps – Oh dear – I was just ‘going through the motions.’

But I wonder whether I’m labouring under a pretty serious misapprehension.  Maybe I’m imagining that my prayers themselves establish a connection between myself and the Father.  Perhaps I’ve been duped into thinking my prayers must make the journey to the throne of grace.  In which case, they’d better be good!  They better be sent up with a fair bit of impetus.  What kind of thrust do rockets need to escape the earth’s gravitational pull?  Well surely I need to match that intensity – emotionally speaking!

But what if my prayers don’t travel to the throne of grace.  What if Christ has already made that journey?  What if I’m not shouting up to heaven.  What if I’m at the Father’s right hand – whispering in His ear?  What if my prayers go, not in my name, but in Jesus’ name?  What if their efficacy is not determined by my heart towards God, but Christ’s heart?  What if the Spirit is Himself praying within me (Gal 4:6)?  What if I genuinely have the Father’s ear before and apart from any of my “prayer-righteousness”?

Then I can just pray.  I can take the focus off my internal world, and simply speak to my heavenly Father.  Of course, as I do that, I might just find myself “really meaning” my prayers.  Great!  When you understand the real presence of Christ in the Supper, you’re free to commune with Him in your heart.  When you understand the real connection which sex brings, you’re free to commune with each other in a personal way.  When you understand the real presence of Christ in the sermon, you’re free to receive Him powerfully in your pew.  But it’s got to start with the reality.

Prayer really connects with God – not because you really connect with God but because Christ does.  Prayer really works, but it works apart from any of your fickle feelings.  So, speak to your Father and rest your confidence, not on your own heart, but on Christ’s.

So the High Priest shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD.  (Exodus 28:29)


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Other vids on the theme of pride?

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Look at this guy, solitary, upright, clear view to the horizon.  In fact he seems to stand between heaven and earth.  He is the Man, surveying all before him, standing on top of the world.

And which way will he go?  It’s his call.

He is the captain of his soul.  This is man at his most liberated and flourishing isn’t it?  Free to do what he wants any old time.

He’s living the dream.  Which is why the whole scene is shot through with romance – the sun setting idyllically on his sovereign Decision.

But this very modern view of our choices is a ridiculous idyll.  It crumbles under almost any scrutiny and yet it captures the hearts of the whole world – and so many in the church too.

I reckon this false belief in our identity as sovereign choosers is mistake number one when it comes to the issue of guidance.  The whole world seems to believe that what we choose leads to who we are.  And while-ever we believe that then our decisions will be invested with an existential importance they were never meant to carry.

Modern Christians are obsessed with the issue of guidance in a way our forebears just weren’t.  To a certain degree you can explain that as a function of the greater opportunities we have today to shape our lives.  In years gone past a baker’s son was a baker and that was that.  Today he might become a she and move to Thailand.  It’s his/her call!

The options have certainly expanded, but it’s the underlying false belief which invests those options with such weight that they become a burden.  We really think that our choices make us who we are.  We believe we have the power (in ourselves, in our choices) to be self-made men and women – rather than to receive our life and being as a gift.

But a moment’s thought shows how ridiculous the sovereign chooser myth is.

I could tell you some of the story of my life by telling you the choices I’ve made.  I decided to take this job and not this job.  To move to this city at this stage.  But that tells you only a very small amount about me (but, usually, the only part of me that the world is interested in – because we’re all playing the same game).

But what about the bits I didn’t decide.  For instance, my parents never decided to have me – I was an accident, as my sisters would constantly remind me.  I never decided to be born in the 20th century in the West.  I never decided to grow up in Canberra.  Would you have chosen your home town if you had the choice??  I never decided all sorts of things that have made me who I am.

And this is not to mention all the hundreds of decisions I’ve tried to make happen but they never came off.  Those failures have made me who I am too.

Didn’t John Lennon say ‘Life’s what happens to you while you’re busy making plans’?  That’s a good observation.  Life is not found in our choices and plans and strategising.  It happens to us.  We receive it.  And if we simply learnt that lesson, the weight of the guidance issue would lessen significantly.

But what we really need to do is attack the problem at its source.  We need to go to the Scriptures and learn again that what we choose does not make us who we are.  Rather who we are flows out in what we choose.

Take the book of Proverbs for instance.  You might read it and get the impression it’s supporting the world’s wisdom.  It seems to say “Wise people act like this and it’s good.  Fools act like that and it’s bad.”  But on closer inspection you see that the actions flow from being wise or being foolish.  There’s only actually one wise Person – Wisdom.  And one foolish person – Folly.  They both consider humanity to be simple and lacking in judgement (Prov 9:4,16) yet they vie for the hearts of the masses (see Prov 1:20ff; 8:1ff; 9:1ff).  They are portrayed as women – Wisdom like the good wife, Folly like the deceitful adulteress.  And belonging to their respective houses – that’s what constitutes a person wise or foolish.

Then from within those houses the wise and the foolish live out their being.  In the house of the wise you walk with the wise and feast with Wisdom.  You learn her teachings and right choices follow.

So first it’s an affair of the heart as Wisdom woos you.  This constitutes a change of being and then we see a change in will, in choosing, in action.

All of which is just to stress what Luther saw as absolutely critical in his debate with Erasmus.  The moment you make the will the centre of gravity, you lose the gospel.  Our wills are bound.  We do what we want, but we can’t want the right thing until the LORD sweeps us off our feet.  When He changes our hearts, then the will is liberated to act in line with our new hearts.  But to make our very identity depend on our choices is to commit a fundamental theological error.

I’ll write some more on guidance, but for now let’s just emphasize this basic point: we are NOT the choices we have made.  We are who we are in Christ who has wooed and won us and freed us to live in a new way.  In that new way there will be decisions to be made. But relax.  Your life and identity is not found in those plans, it’s found and it’s secure in Christ.


sermon on guidance in Proverbs.

More on freedom here.


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Filthy Lucre

When I began the King’s English, I was looking forward to covering this phrase.  I only realised today that I never did!  Well here it is, finally.

Filthy Lucre

On the surface it’s a quaint archaism.  But it speaks of a deadly trap.  “Filthy lucre” is used four times in the King James Bible and in each case it refers to a grave temptation for gospel ministers (1 Timothy 3:3,8; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:2).  Eg:

Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. (1 Peter 5:2)

The KJV follows Tyndale in leaving the Vulgate’s lucrum untranslated.  Lucrum is the Latin word from which we get “lucrative”.  It just means profit.  The underlying Greek word is a compound word meaning “unclean gain”.  So here’s what we’re being warned against: unclean gain, base profit, filthy lucre.

The repetition of this biblical warning should make us think.  But it rarely does.  Many times people have joked with me: “What attracted you to the ministry? It can’t have been the money!”  Everyone has a good laugh.  Everyone except the Apostles.  They were worried about ministering for the money in the first century.  What about in the twenty first century when Christianity is big business?

Listen to John Bunyan illustrate the dangers of lucre.

Then CHRISTIAN and HOPEFUL went till they came at a delicate plain, called Ease, where they went with much content; but that plain was but narrow, so they were quickly got over it. Now at the further side of that plain was a little hill called Lucre, and in that hill a silver mine, which some of them that had formerly gone that way, because of the rarity of it, had turned aside to see; but going too near the brink of the pit, the ground being deceitful under them, broke, and they were slain; some also had been maimed there, and could not to their dying day be their own men again.

Then I saw in my dream, that a little off the road, over against the silver mine, stood DEMAS (gentleman-like), to call to passengers to come and see; who said to CHRISTIAN and his fellow, “Ho, turn aside hither, and I will show you a thing.”

CHRISTIAN. What thing is so deserving as to turn us out of the way to see it?

DEMAS. Here is a silver mine, and some digging in it for treasure; if you will come, with a little pain you may richly provide for yourselves.

HOPEFUL. Then said HOPEFUL, “Let us go and see.”

CHRISTIAN. “Not I,” said CHRISTIAN; “I have heard of this place before now and how many have there been slain; and besides, that treasure is a snare to those that seek it, for it hinders them in their pilgrimage.”  (Pilgrim’s Progress)

It is indeed a snare and a hindrance.  So how can we avoid it?

At heart, we must recapture a vision of the Generous Father.  Our God treats nothing as a means to some other end.  It is His eternal nature to love the other.  First His Son, and then, through His Son and by the Spirit, He loves the world. “God so loved the world He gave” (John 3:16).  He is a Fountain of life and love whose glory is to pour Himself out.  His activity is not mercenary.  He’s not in the whole “creation-salvation game” for what He can get out of it.  He commits Himself to us for the sake of committing Himself to us.  Because this is the kind of God He is.  He genuinely loves to give and He gives to love.

Once we’ve grasped this, we’ve learnt the secret of life and of ministry. Immanuel Kant wasn’t so far off really.  Treating people as ends in themselves is absolutely right and good.  If even God does it, then it must be the good life.  But such living is the fruit of the gospel.  It’s the good life that comes about with this good God.

So when I’m tempted to minister for “shameful gain” (NIV) or “filthy lucre” I should not be surprised.  It’s actually a perennial temptation.  But look first to the Father, poured out in Jesus.  I have all I need in His generosity. And look, secondly, to “the flock of God which is among you.”  They are not means towards further gain.  They are my “crown” and “joy” (Philippians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:19).  They are my reward – a reward far greater than that snare and hindrance: “filthy lucre.”

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Jonah 3 sermon

The Ninevites hear this prophet back from the dead.

They acknowledge that God is right to judge.

They bury themselves in the dust.

And they trust Jonah’s God to bring them through to resurrection.


We too hear a word of judgement from God’s Resurrected Prophet (Acts 17:30).

We too are buried in Him (Romans 6:3-5).

And we are brought out beyond condemnation (Romans 8:1).

Christians note: God does many miraculous things in the book of Jonah.  At just the right time he appoints storms and fish and plants.  It’s almost magical.  But there’s one thing he refuses to do: He refuses to save Nineveh without a messenger.  Faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17).

It doesn’t matter if you’re a bad messenger (Jonah’s sermon left much to be desired).  It doesn’t matter if you struggle with motivation (Jonah struggled with motivation).  As those brought through judgement, we have a message that can save – no matter how rubbish we messengers are!




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Armageddon is well known in our culture as the “final battle” for the future of the planet.  But the way people imagine this battle differs greatly from the biblical reality.

According to Hollywood, “Armageddon” is a special effects punch-up where the outcome is doubtful right up to the last minute.  According to the Bible, “Armageddon” is all build-up and no follow-through.  It’s a case of “first round, first minute” for the good guys!

Before we consider it, we’ll set the scene in the book of Revelation.  If you like, you can skip the outline below, but it shows some of my “working” for why I consider “Armageddon” the way that I do…

Outline of Revelation

In Chapter 1 John sees a vision of the risen Christ.

In Chapters 2-3:  Christ addresses seven churches.

In Chapters 4-5: As a slain Lamb, the Son approaches the enthroned Father and takes the scroll from His hand – here are the title deeds to creation.

Then we have the largest section of Revelation: from chapter 6 to chapter 20.  This shows the unravelling of the scroll.  Jesus, the Lamb, unfolds God’s history.  These chapters show us the history of the world from Christ’s first coming until His second.

And so chapters 21-22 show us God’s new world – the new heavens and new earth.  This is the ultimate “happily ever after”.

Most people think of Revelation as a book about the future, yet the great majority of the book tells us about the present. What we see in chapters 6-20 are are 7 action replays of this history from different angles.  So we see…

Chapter 6: The opening of the seven seals.

Chapter 8-11: The blowing of the seven trumpets.

Chapters 12-14: We meet the unholy trinity:  the Dragon (Satan), the Beast and the False Prophet (his earthly intermediaries).  We also meet the anti-church: Babylon.

Chapters 15-16:  The pouring out of the seven bowls of judgement.

Then we see the defeat of the four evil forces…

Chapters 17-18: The destruction of Babylon (the false church)

Chapter 19: The destruction of the Beast and the False prophet.

Chapter 20: The destruction of Satan.


Some may not agree with my outline, but it seems clear to me that these are not seven consecutive scenes of judgement.  Here are seven “action replays” of the same reality viewed from different angles.

One of the reasons I take this view is because of “Armageddon”.  There are three final “punch-ups” narrated in Revelation.  They correspond to the defeat of Babylon, the defeat of the Beast and False Prophet and the defeat of Satan.  Either God fails to eradicate evil twice but gets it right on the third attempt, or all three descriptions are true descriptions of “the end.”

If that’s right, then the “Armageddon” passage is one of three angles on the same last battle.  See if you can spot the common theme in all three tellings:

[They were gathered] to the battle of that great day of God Almighty…. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon. And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done.  (Revelation 16:14-17)

And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him.  (Revelation 19:19-20)

Satan shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.  And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.  (Revelation 20:7-10)

Did you notice the common theme?  There is a menacing build up followed by a complete non-event of a conclusion.  There’s stockpiling of weapons, there’s amassing of troops, there’s sabre-rattling.  But the minute God’s had enough – it’s over.  There’s a knockout punch before the bell has sounded.

Evil is not an equal and opposite force which gives God a run for His money.  As we saw with “the bottomless pit” – darkness is no match for light.  Emptiness is no match for fullness.

Do you worry about the future?  Does it seem like the darkness will win?

Take heart, the Lamb wins.  When push really does come to shove, Armageddon is no contest!

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Bottomless pit

The word in Greek is “Abyss.”  Jerome’s Vulgate left it untranslated.  John Wycliffe rendered it “the pit of depnesse”.  But it’s been William Tyndale’s turn of phrase that has endured: “bottomless pit”!  Rightly, the KJV decided it could not improve on Tyndale.  The phrase occurs seven times, all in the book of Revelation (where sevens abound!).  Take this representative example:

They had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon. (Revelation 9:11)

The sense of the “bottomless pit” (or “abyss”) is an unbounded chaos.  Infinite emptiness. An immeasurable depth.  Limitless nothingness.  This place of destruction and corruption is highlighted at the beginning and end of the Bible.

In the opening verses of Scripture we read about a void opened up in the creation of heaven and earth:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  (Genesis 1:1-2)

“The deep” is the Abyss.  And its presence is felt in the second verse of the Bible!

God, having created a reality beyond Himself, is faced, not with a mere extension of His divine being, but with something very distinct from Himself.  God is light but here is darkness.  God is full but here is an emptiness. In creation there is something beyond God which needs enlightening and filling full.  This is what the work of creation involves.  Over the six days God forms and then fills the universe, acting redemptively upon what is, by nature, “without form and void”.

God separates light from darkness and sea from dry land. He divides and adjudicates – “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further” (Job 38:11).  God’s creative work is all about undoing the abyss. He brings light, fullness and form – bounding the boundless.

Yet somehow there is a sphere that stands against the spreading goodness of God.  There is an abyss.  And it does not stand on an alternative foundation.  The only true  foundation can be the living God.  Whatever stands against God cannot stand on anything substantial.  No, God’s enemies have nothing to stand on.  Their realm is groundless – a bottomless pit.

Think about this negative reality.  The realm of evil is not an equal and opposite kingdom.  It is darkness, somehow resisting God’s radiant light.  It is a boundless emptiness, somehow resisting God’s glory filling the earth.  It is rebellion without a cause.

Sin and evil have no ultimate foundation, no reasons, no footing.  They are madness.  Those swallowed by the bottomless pit can only keep falling.  Think of the tragedy: it’s one kind of death to fall far – it’s another to fall forever.

What hope is there in the face of this abyss?

Paul writes to the Romans to tell them that we have no hope against the powers of darkness.  None of us can ascend to heaven and none of us can plumb the bottomless pit.  But Christ has come down from the heights.  And He has risen from the abyss:

Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)  Or, Who shall descend into the deep [the abyss]? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead)  (Romans 10:6-7)

We don’t have to climb up to heaven and we don’t have to climb out of the bottomless pit.  Christ has done it all.  He is the Radiant Light of the Father.  He is the Spreading Goodness of God.  And He has come to plunder Satan’s house (Mark 3:27).  He has entered into our darkness and risen to bring us home.

We cannot reason with evil – it’s insanity.  We cannot climb out of the bottomless pit – there is no footing.  But Christ has done it all.  We need only trust Him and He’ll turn our pit to paradise:

If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.  (Romans 10:9)

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