The destiny God has planned for us

Does God choose which of us makes it in the end?

You know that feeling when you meet someone for the first time, and they remind you of someone else? Previous experiences shape our current perceptions.

Previous experiences also shape what we see in Scripture. We bring with us what we’ve heard and believed over the years. That’s why it’s such a surprise when someone reads it differently.

A practical example: there’s a tradition where words like predestination and election mean God choosing some individuals to save, and others to damn. If you’ve accepted this all your life, you may not see another possibility — that it’s about God pre-planning the rescue of humanity through the Messiah, not pre-assigning individual destinies for heaven or hell. Continue reading “The destiny God has planned for us”

How should we do church?

Most churches spend our energy and resources providing a great Sunday experience. It might be a cathedral with pipe organ, or a rented hall with a band, but most of a church’s time and money goes into what happens at the weekend service.

So, you’d expect the New Testament to guide us on how to do church. It doesn’t.

Ephesians says heaps about the church, with no instruction on what to do when we meet. Search Colossians, Philippians, Thessalonians, and Galatians. Nothing?

What about a longer letter like Romans? Nada. What should we make of this disparity? Is it our fault (we’re focused on the wrong thing), or Paul’s (he missed the main deal)?

Let me throw you a lifeline. There is one letter where Paul discusses church meetings, and it’s a significant chunk: 1 Corinthians 11 – 14.

Continue reading “How should we do church?”

Why parables? Jesus’ answer

In the previous post, I suggested two reasons Jesus used parables instead of plain talk. (a) He was inspiring imagination for how life could be. (b) He was announcing his kingship, without making the usual power claims.

When Jesus was asked why he spoke with cryptic stories, he quoted Isaiah’s frustration with people hearing but never getting the message, seeing but never comprehending (Isaiah 6:9-10 in Matthew 13:11-17).

To understand why Jesus reapplied Isaiah’s situation to his own, we need to identify what they shared in common. As usual, it’s about God’s kingship.

Continue reading “Why parables? Jesus’ answer”

Why parables?

Ever wondered why Jesus told stories about the kingdom of God? Wouldn’t it be better if he just told us plainly what he wanted from us? If you think so, let me offer you a challenge: put Jesus’ kingdom vision into plain words. Any attempt to reduce Jesus’ message to an imperative (what we should do) fails miserably: it feels lame, heartless, uninspiring.

Jesus’ kingdom vision takes us beyond what is to what could be. You can’t do that with analysis; it requires imagination.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
— Albert Einstein.

Jesus’ parables were cameos of the kingdom of God, visual stimuli for our imagination. They transport us from injustice and oppression to a world where humans are reconciled with their heavenly king, and therefore give each other the same dignity, care and restorative grace that our sovereign has given us. Continue reading “Why parables?”

Jesus in the Psalms?

Should I be seeing Christ when I read the Psalms?

The Psalms are powerful, enduring songs from ancient Israel that still inspire us today. They praise the character of our heavenly sovereign, giving thanks for what he has done. They lament when things aren’t working out as they should under God’s reign. That’s the power of the Psalms: in joy and injustice, they refocus us on the one who rules. The heart of the Psalms is the refrain, The Lord reigns!

When Christians read the Psalms, we’re faced with a puzzle: Should I see Jesus in Israel’s ancient songs? Or should I read them as Israel understood them before Jesus’ time? Are the Psalms intended to be prophetic, about the one who was to come? Continue reading “Jesus in the Psalms?”

What does ‘Son of God’ mean (Matthew 16:16)?

There was this special day when Jesus discussed his identity with his followers. It must have been important for Jesus to take them 40 kilometres north of Galilee, a two-day journey to the headwaters of the Jordan River at Caesarea Philippi.

According to local legend, the cave there was the entrance to the underworld. There were two temples: one dedicated to the Greek god Pan, and another temple to honour Roman emperor. Surrounded by these competing claims for power — spiritual, religious, and political — Jesus asked them how they understood his identity: “Who do people say I am? … And what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:27, 29).

This was Peter’s great confession. The synoptic Gospels record his answer slightly differently:

Mark 8 29  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Matt 16 16  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Luke 9 20  Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.” (NIV)

There’s no problem with the differences. Biographers regularly condense dialogue, and occasionally they expand it for emphasis or to explain the sense. The question is, Did the Gospel writers think Peter had made two significant statements about Jesus, or one? Continue reading “What does ‘Son of God’ mean (Matthew 16:16)?”

What is the kingdom of God?

After eight years on this topic, I’m attempting a simple definition:

The kingdom of God is: earth living as the community under divine governance.

At the most basic level, kingdom implies two entities in relationship: a king, and the community under his reign. In the kingdom of God, God is king, and all the people and creatures on earth live as the community under his governance.

Clear enough? Can we now reframe our message to match what Jesus proclaimed? We would focus on just two things: the community, and the king.

Continue reading “What is the kingdom of God?”

The three monkeys, or the Lion King?

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil? Ask the Lion King.

On our farm in rural Queensland, my Dad had three brass monkeys on his desk. Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. It was an apt image for the kind of Christian faith we adhered to, a kind of pietism, focused on avoiding sin.

One day, some visitors questioned my Dad, “Why do you have a Buddhist image in your house?” They told him the three monkeys came from a Japanese story derived from Buddhism. It turns out that avoiding sin is not a uniquely Christian idea. Other faiths encourage us to meditate on the good and avoid ruminating on the evil. It’s one of the goals of religion: to encourage ethical behaviour.

So now I’m wondering, how important is the message of the three monkeys for the Christian faith?

You can certainly find Jesus disputing with the Pharisees about keeping our thoughts pure. This was part of Judaism and Christianity, just as it is part of other faiths. But what did Jesus do? Did he close his eyes and ears to the evil in the world?

One of the catchiest songs in The Lion King is Hakuna Matata. Banished to the wilderness, Simba takes on a carefree lifestyle. “Hakuna Matata” he sings: “no worries, for the rest of your life.” But eventually the lion king realizes he cannot close his eyes and ears to the evil oppressing his people. Like Moses returning to confront Pharaoh, Simba returns to confront Scar.

Continue reading “The three monkeys, or the Lion King?”

Living in the cross-hairs

If the gospel is good news for the whole world, what’s it like to live the gospel? Surely it’s the best life we could possibly have?

That’s true in the long term. Life under Jesus’ kingship is indeed the best life earth could ever know. There will be no more selfishness when the poor inherit the kingdom, no more abuse of power when the meek inherit the earth.

But in the short term, it’s not quite so simple. Can we live selflessly while people take advantage of us? What happens if we live powerlessly in the face of abusive powers? Won’t we get crucified?

Continue reading “Living in the cross-hairs”

Jesus on war: pacifism, or just war?

Jesus was not speaking as a prophet when he said, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars.” Anyone with a basic understanding of history or politics knows that. Jesus had a point to make: how we respond to news of war.

What response did Jesus expect from his disciples? Christian responses to war have been polarized, as if Jesus said one of these: Continue reading “Jesus on war: pacifism, or just war?”