Movie Review: Soul

I do enjoy watching a good movie, but opportunities don’t always present themselves!  However, I finally had a chance to watch Disney-Pixar’s latest offering called Soul.  Pixar have certainly put out some fun and memorable movies over the years with perhaps some odd story lines, and yet somehow we find ourselves resonating with them!

I wanted to watch this movie because I was intrigued to read a review on it by John Stonestreet & Shane Morris from Colson Centre for Christian Worldview which concluded with the following words:

After a year of disappointments, cancelled plans, and dashed hopes, this redemptive message is one many need to hear. The zany cartoon metaphysics of Disney-Pixar’s latest film by seem a bit odd, but trust me, this one has a Christian soul.[i]

I loved the movie.

I’m probably a bit biased because I happen to love playing jazz piano (I’m not all that great at it but I do love giving it a go!), and in this movie the story centres around a jazz piano player who, just as he is about to get his big break…dies.

And then we enter zany spiritual ideas of the afterlife…or should I say the ‘before-life?’  I don’t want to share too much but I hope to ‘tease’ you enough to want to watch it…

Prepare yourself for “New Age-ey” stuff, and just smile at its characterizations.  Enjoy the fun one-liner puns and jokes dispersed throughout (we don’t crush souls here…that’s what life on earth is for..)

But do watch this movie and use it as a springboard to discuss it with younger ones – especially teens.  Ask yourself the question of “what defines the well lived life?”  Take a look at how the movie answers that question, along with its clear insights that come through, such as ‘lost souls obsessed by something that disconnects them from life’ or perhaps you would identify with ‘so close to getting the dream and then something gets in the way.’

Early on in the movie I was reminded of Augustine who famously said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, and later on I was reminded of that sonnet Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins where he begins by saying “Glory be to God for dappled things…”

We often criticize the world for seeking fulfilment in money, fame and power, but let’s be honest: Christians also seek fulfilment and significance – its just that we put it into spiritual terms, such as “seeking God’s will for my life.”  We’re scared of insignificance.

And a ‘secular’ movie like Soul may just give you something to think about.

It definitely has soul…

Hope you enjoy the movie – would love to hear your thoughts!

[i] https://email.breakpoint.org/soul-and-the-life-well-lived?

The Old Rugged Cross for the 21st Century

I’ve had my eyes opened a bit more to the nature of the world we live in, especially when it comes to ideas.  We truly are in an age of competing ideas, each vying for the soul of humanity.  Whether it be the rise of Islam, atheism, apatheism (people who don’t care about the debate over the existence of God) scientism, secularism, materialism, nationalism, Big Tech, trans*, or ideas which come under the umbrella term of Social Justice such as critical theory and intersectionality, the 21st century is witnessing an ideological multiverse.

It’s a wonder we haven’t all completely annihilated each other.  After all, there is no shortage of mistrust, suspicion and hate being spewed out to those of different lenses to the one we use, and cancel culture testifies to just how brutal people can be without even lifting a finger other than to type text and post an emoji.  At the other extreme we see the brutality of power without conscience displayed as innocent lives are stolen away at the hands of extremists.

For a while now Christians in the West have recognised that we can no longer take for granted an underlying foundation of Judeo-Christian values.  We are now seen as living in a post-Christian age.   In a recent blog, John Stonestreet, who heads up the Colson Centre, recently said the following:

John Adams, the second President of the United States, famously said that the Constitution was meant for a “moral and religious people” and “is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His observation applies as much to the Second Amendment as to any other.

The shocking lack of conscience on display in America is producing behaviors that can largely be grouped into one of two categories. First, historic levels of suicide, opioid use, and overdoses, as well as epidemic levels of loneliness and isolation (especially among the most vulnerable) are together known as “deaths from despair.” Second, the various and consistent acts of mass violence, such as shootings and rioting, are among those things that could be labeled “acts of desperation.”

With both deaths of despair and acts of desperation at epidemic levels, we are clearly not a people moral or religious enough to sustain the freedoms we’ve been blessed with.[i]

The irony is that the political model (liberalism) which gave space to the expression of contrary ideas (including our own Christians ideas), is itself being somewhat stretched and frayed at the seams.  Throw into the mix a young generation that grew up online and being exposed to a ‘potjiekos[ii]’ of ideas and with a somewhat strong propensity to angst, and it is an understatement to say that we are living in interesting times.  Os Guinness, in his book Impossible People, describes our current cultural moment in the following terms:

Christians in the West are living in a grand clarifying moment.  The gap between Christians and the wider culture is widening, and many formerly nominal Christians are becoming “religious nones.”  In many ways we are in the Thursday evening of Holy Week.  The cock has not yet crowed, but the angry crowd who would like to see the end of our Lord in the Western world has already seen and heard enough of our early betrayals to believe that it can count on more, and harry us toward ignominious surrender.  So this is not time for cowards, for fence sitters or for those who wish to hedge their bets until they hear the judge’s verdict on the contest.[iii]

I don’t know about you, but I get the distinct impression that it’s as if the world is on a fuse, and COVID-19 speeded up the flame.  So many narratives; so little time.

Does the old, rugged cross speak into these contemporary issues?

In all these isms, there is an attempt to define what is wrong with the world, and what will make it right.  I believe there is a deep, underlying hunger within these worldviews to see the world as a better place.  There is clearly discontent with the way things are.  Whether it’s because you are being oppressed in some form and not being allowed to express your true self, or variations to that theme such as technology can make life easier and scientism can release you from oppressive religion, there is a worldview that goes along with the concepts.

And these worldviews make for disastrous shepherds.  They offer a false hope, because they offer a false god.  The idols may not be constructed of wood and stone, but they’re still man-made.  They still operate on the Babel spirit of making a name for ourselves without God.  The new isms are really not new at all: just different outfits for old ideas.

We know what is wrong with the world, but perhaps as children of God we can show what is right with the world?

Calvary was the defeat of Satan, and the Resurrection confirmed, in the words of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the supremacy of Christ over all things:

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent (1:18)

Calvary, humanly speaking, was the ultimate oppression: every sin, every penalty, every arrow of the full forces of evil, the heaviness of the wrath of God and the ultimate loneliness of separation – all while dying a cruel death on an object of scorn and shame designed to humiliate (and a Jew on top of that as well).

But Jesus endured the cross scorning its shame, and he did so because of the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2).

The joy set before Him was redeemed, reconciled men and women from every tribe and nation amongst whom God was dwelling (Revelation 4, 5 &21).  And He rose victorious.

Since Satan is defeated, and God is purposefully working towards re-establish His dwelling amongst humanity one day as heaven and earth become one, we truly can meditate and display “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8)

The message of the old, rugged cross is needed now more than ever.  And it needs to be seen to be believed.  The greatest apologetic for our gospel message is our gospel life.    The fact that we live in a visual, social media saturated age really just confirms this truth.  In a study by the Barna Group, the number one quality that non-Christians look for, or ‘lapsed Christians’ look for in someone with whom to discuss issues of faith is… the ability ‘ to listen without judgement’ (62%) – and only 34% of them said they knew Christians who possessed this quality.[iv]

Clearly there’s a problem if sinners flocked to Jesus but don’t want to flock to His followers.  James Emery White comments on this Barna Group study and notes:

To be clear, the great dynamic of the gospel is grace and truth in equal parts. Truth without grace is just judgment; grace without truth is just licentiousness. But in regard to the art of evangelism, Jesus tended to begin with grace and acceptance first, and then, once established and having earned the right to be heard, He turned to the relevant truth for their life that was at hand.[v]

We are a people who have received grace without condemnation, and have been placed on a journey of transformation.  We are part of a far larger narrative than any of the isms the world can offer.  We have real hope.

I pray that people will be touched by Christ in me, because the message of the old rugged cross is the message that still changes lives.

That cross is proof that I matter to God.

God who alone can provide what the world so desperately longs for: love, joy, peace, justice, hope, beauty…

Let us commit ourselves afresh, through the enabling of the Holy Spirit, to live the gospel life as well as share it.  The old, rugged cross remains the hope for the world, and as long as humanity has breath, it has opportunity for redemption.

The Cross

Submission

The Way of the Cross

Suffering

The Truth of the Cross

Salvation

The Life of the Cross

Richard Baird

 

 

 

[i] https://breakpoint.org/how-our-narratives-fail-us

[ii] A South African traditional dish: a stew with lots of meat and veggies, normally cooked over an open fire in a three-leg iron pot

[iii] Guinness, Os (2016) Impossible People p22

[iv] https://www.churchandculture.org/blog/2021/3/29/the-1-quality-non-christians-look-for

[v] ibid

Will the Real 666 Please stand up?

 

From Popes to Presidents to Potions, few concepts have captured the public imagination the way 666 has.  Not so long ago I received a text from a former congregation member asking for my input because some pastors have been saying that if we take the covid vaccine we won’t go to heaven, because apparently this vaccine is linked to 666.  I found it intriguing that people believed the effects of Cavalry could be wiped out by a vaccine.

As time passes and the world faces more crises, there will be new culprits and scapegoats that will be labelled 666.  This article hopes to bring clarity through exploring what 666 is within the Scriptural context it is found, and through this provide a template that we can use to see what conditions need to be met before we can more positively say “this could well be 666.”

The 666 identity comes at the end of Revelation 13, a passage in which two beasts are described.  The 666 refers to the second beast, and part of the description is as follows:

Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of his name.  This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666 (Revelation 13:16-18 ESV)

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that these are just two verses in a book of just over 400 verses.  Incidentally, in those 400 verses there are over 600 allusions to the Old Testament, which gives us a significant clue on how we are to understand this book.  Is there an allusion to the OT in the beast verses quoted above? You decide:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes (Deuteronomy 6:4-8)

Whenever we read literature of any type, we always adapt our brain to the type of material we are reading to get maximum understanding.  You wouldn’t read Dr Seuss and read it as if it were a history textbook (that wouldn’t be fun at all!).  In the same way it really does help to ask ourselves what type of book is Revelation?  When I look at the Book of Revelation I see an apocalyptic, prophetic pastoral letter dictated by Jesus Himself!  By apocalyptic, we mean a special type of literature filled with symbols.  I like this definition by John Harris: The purpose of apocalyptic writing is to use over-the-top imagery to impress great truths on our minds, truths far beyond the power of ordinary words.  When we say prophetic, we are understanding that this letter is offering us God’s perspective on reality, as well as giving understanding of what is to come. Its pastoral because it is written with the goal of helping believers to strengthen their faith. And it is a letter, because it is written to specific people in a specific place.  It is a letter written from above for believers below.[i]  To quote Revelation 1:1-3…

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.  He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.  Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. 

In these opening verses of Revelation quoted above we see that not only is Revelation written for the whole church, but to specific believers in early church history who would have understood the letter (and the seven churches identified later are in modern day Turkey).  We’re also told that Revelation is a book about history told in advance.  It refers to the time span between the first and second coming of Jesus, and scholars have recognised that it does so not in sequence but in parallel, using multiple images (seals/trumpets/bowls), and certainly human history indicates that the cycles seem to get successively more intense, and this is the pattern, until Jesus comes.  Revelation also intertwines three realities: heaven, our world and the church.  It reveals a sovereign God in charge of history and how He is answering the prayer of “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is Biblical therefore to keep our eyes open to identify the seasons we are in.

I personally find it helpful to see Revelation as a big picture book.  It’s like looking at a painting – you have to stand back a bit to see the whole picture.  A more modern analogy which I came across which I thought was excellent was to view Revelation as a hologram, and the parallel images which we see are like walking around the hologram and seeing it from different perspectives.

Another reality to consider is how there have been so many different interpretations to this book!  The same biblical data is in front of everyone, but diverse interpretations arise.  How can this be? That is simply a result of looking through different lenses.  Interestingly enough, Revelation is one of those books where you may not understand all the imagery, but you can still understand the lessons!  For an overview of the book which touches on different perspectives, do yourself a favour and check out the Bible Project overview of Revelation (done in two videos – click here).[ii]

In terms of the structure of Revelation, I like this one from Dr Martin Pohlman[iii] (I am indebted to him for helping me see things in a new light!):

1:1-8 Prologue
1:9-3:22 The inaugural vision of Christ in relation to His Church
4:1-5:14 The inaugural vision of heaven with Jesus being the representative of God’s throne
6:1-11:19 A demonstration of God’s sovereignty over history through Jesus
12:1-16:20 An inaugural demonstration of God’s sovereign power of Satan through Jesus Christ
17:1-19:10 Babylon the harlot finally falls after a demonstration of God’s power through Jesus Christ
19:11-21:8 The transition from Babylon to the New Testament
21:9-22:5 The inauguration of eternity
22:6-21 Epilogue

 

It also must have been incredibly amazing to the apostle John that he received this revelation.  He is the same John that wrote the gospel, was the disciple referred to as the one Jesus loved (obviously he loved them all! But there was clearly a special affinity to John) and the three letters that bear his name.  I point this out because John obviously had a way of looking at the world that was shaped by his perception and experience of Jesus.  In 1 John 2:18 he references human history as we know it now as being ‘the last hour’ and that there are multiple anti-Christs, which in the immediate context of his letter refers to false teachers, but isn’t it also interesting to note that history has indeed produced many anti-Christs?  He also references the spirit of anti-Christs in 1 John 2:20; 1 John 4:3 & 2 John 7.

This article is not meant to be a commentary on Revelation, but I do hope that what has been shared so far helps give an appreciation for the beauty of the book that deserves such careful study (as it says in Rev 1:3), and make us more reluctant to jump to quick conclusions, because neither do we want to be guilty of misusing the book as we are warned about in Rev 22:18-19.

One thing I am sure we can all agree on is that things are not always what they seem.  We do live in a spiritual world, and we are engaged in a spiritual war (as Ephesians 6 in particular highlights).  In 2 Cor 4:18 we are encouraged to keep our eyes on the unseen, because what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal.  If we look at Calvary, on the surface, the crucifixion of Christ looked like utter, meaningless and hopeless defeat.  But how wrong we would be to think that!

Looking at Revelation, and especially as we consider chapter 12&13, we recognise that there is a lot going on behind the scenes! Recognising this truth, does the following interpretation make sense? Remember: this is ‘big picture’ version:…

Don’t you just love nativity scenes?  They always seem so serene and peaceful.  I’ve yet to see a nativity scene that features a big dragon – and yet behind the scenes of that first Christmas there was a lot going on.  We see depicted the birth of Christ (see v5) but Satan, who is identified as the dragon (v9) is there wanting to defeat the purposes of God and kill the baby.  He was not successful in that, and so now turns onto the subsequent offspring of the woman, identified as (v17) “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” – that would be the church of Christ.  So the ‘big picture’ in this chapter is that we have an enemy that is raging mad and raging war against us, but we’re also given the key to victory over him: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death (v11).”  In other words, we claim the blood of Christ to cover our sins, and prefer death to disobedience.  Have you noticed how deception and persecution have been affecting the church ever since the Ascension of Christ?

Right at the end of chapter 12 we read the following sentence: “And he stood on the sand of the sea.”  This puts him into position to summon the two beasts which we now encounter in chapter 13. The first beast is from the sea (Rev 13v1) and the second one from the land (v11).  The first beast is  one freaky scaring looking creature that makes Medusa look like a barbie doll.  But there’s a familiarity to the images, and that is because this beast is a hybrid of the beasts described in Daniel 7:1-7 and 17-27.  We know from Daniel’s vision and interpretation that the beasts referred to political empires.  History revealed the accuracy of Daniel’s prophetic vision, and the fact that all of these beasts, along with the horns (representing kingship – reinforced by the crown on each horn) come together in this beast suggests to us that one tool of the dragon or Satan is political power.  And as we know from human history, political power often results in political tyranny, and where there has been tyranny, Christians have been on the receiving end of it.  To the first century readers they would have understood this, since many Christians cruelly lost their lives because they did not regard Caesar as Lord.  Throughout the gospel age, there have been political rulers rising and falling who have persecuted Christians and blasphemed God.

So, in terms of boxes that need to be ticked before we can start speculating that we are dealing with a 666 scenario, the first is that it needs to be linked to a system of political power that is against Christ.  In this respect each and every age has had its anti-Christs.

The second beast is from the land, and it doesn’t look so bad.

Appearances can be deceptive!  This beast looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon.  This is the ultimate “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”  And that’s the clue – remember how Jesus said we were to watch out for false prophets who were wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15)? This beast is representative of false religion, especially religion designed to at the minimum either look like Christianity or easily deceive into allegiance professing believers (I base this on its lamb-appearance), and what is more, it is operating in the service of the first beast: political power.  This sounds like propaganda…the ultimate fake-news specialist!  And because its power lies in deception, it is going to sound ‘very nice.’  We shall undoubtedly hear talk about love and kindness and tolerance and rights and ….hmmm, maybe we should already be aware?

Now we enter some murky waters!  The relationship between church and state has historically been fraught with difficulties.  Let’s be honest: it’s wonderful to enjoy freedom to worship and have state protection of these freedoms.  But what happens when we venture into a type of Christian Nationalism?

That’s another book of its own!  Suffice it to say that as Christians we need to be careful.  I fully believe we must have Christians serving in politics, but I do not believe the church should be an arm of the state.  If that happens, we’re looking at beast material.

That’s the second box to tick.  False religion aligned with and promoting the political power.

Let’s pause for a moment.  Since the ascension of Christ into glory, have there been systems of political power aligned with false religion which have persecuted Christians?

Yes.  The early church had to face the emperor cult.  Then when Christianity became the official state religion, although it was nice to finally have state protection and freedom from persecution, issues over the course of history started to arise where Rome became the dominant church and there was always a power tension exhibited between kings and popes.  In more recent history we have had communism which effectively used Marxism as its religion and was anti-Christ.  In North Korea the emperor is worshipped.  In China there is continued suppression of Christianity.  Islam is very much a political religious system where Christians are targeted.  In the west we are finding increasing hostility against Christianity as political powers align with anti-Christian ideologies such as humanism.

In essence, the church has always had to deal with the unholy trinity of Satan using political power and false ideologies to persecute believers.  In short, the beast presents itself as a counterfeit Christ. The message of Revelation is: that’s ok – its only temporary and the puppets of these political powers and false ideologies are only men.  Christ is supreme.

So political power and false ideology or religion have been manifested in every age.  Is it going to continue like this, or will there one day be an ultimate system against God (a new type of Babel) and the church just prior to Christ’s return?

Satan knows his time is short, and he will do everything he can to take as many down with him as possible.  It is not unreasonable to expect that he is indeed working towards a one world order type scenario, because he wants to be worshipped by all.  This is obviously the stuff of conspiracy theories as well.

If we take into account 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12, we do seem to get a picture of an ultimate rebellion just prior to Christ’s return.  How will this look? Will it be a case of a one world order, or a coalition of nations?  Think about it in terms of the leaders we have on the global front today: it’s going to take a special person to get the likes of Xi Jinping, Putin, Kim Jong-un and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to relinquish their power! If I understand the imagery correctly, it will not be a result of a secret takeover (such as inserting chips into vaccines), but rather an open takeover where people gladly give their allegiance, but will soon discover they have been deceived.

There’s a third box to tick that comes out: the economic system.  Christians will find it incredibly difficult, or simply will not be able to, trade in the currency of the system unless they give up their allegiance.

Again, this has been a pattern in history.  In early church history, many Christians would have battled simply because they did not belong to trade guilds.  Christians in countries where they are persecuted also often live in poverty because they are discriminated against because of their faith.

With the way things are moving today in our economic system, it is understandable that many theories have come up regarding this mark of the beast.  Certainly the world has in place everything it needs to create a one world order and one currency system; whether we have nations actually willing to be part of this is another story.  Certainly there are some, but I do find the rise of nationalism interesting, such as what happened with Brexit.  In order for such a system to be in place again will indeed require a deceptive leader who looks trustworthy – a kind of Hitler or Stalin character that looks like Obama (sorry Obama…).

Is the mark literal? Or again is it symbolic of spiritual realities? And is the 666 a name or a typology of identity?

My thoughts here are my thoughts.  I believe I’m being faithful to the message of the text, but I also want to clearly state that I am simply one voice among many.

I believe the theological thrust of the mark is about who we belong to, and the Lord knows those who are His.  Everything in Revelation is symbolic, and I don’t believe we do the text justice if we now suddenly become literal and argue for some tattoo.  This is a heart issue! If we love the Lord our God with all our heart, then we’re not going to participate in any system that demands allegiance to another.  Remember that many Israelites took Deuteronomy 6:8 very literally and would carry God’s law on their foreheads and hands (phylacteries) to indicate His authority over them. I am just personally challenged by the truth that materialism has always been a temptation for the child of God.  It is for me! It is easy for me to slip into a pattern where I would give all of my thinking (forehead) and all of my effort (hand) into making good money, and Jesus did warn that the love of money was the primary competitor to having Him as Lord.  Put differently: who or what we worship will show itself in our lives.

As for the number 666, I love the way Kevin de Young puts it: “This is probably the most debated verse in Revelation.  It certainly is the verse that has produced the most fruitless debate”[iv]

Many have tried to link 666 to a person through a process known as gematria: letters of the alphabet linked to numbers.  It was quite common in early times (there’s even ancient graffiti using it!). The fact that no consensus has been reached on the name of a person (even using Nero requires a spelling error to make it fit) is undoubtedly a big clue that this is not the route to go.  What would I think be more true to the text is to ask the symbolism, because numbers in Revelation are always used symbolically.

Also, take note that we are actually not called to solve a riddle, because we’re told to calculate a number, and then the number is given.  I offer two proposals:

Firstly, just simply understanding that the beast and system falls short of perfection.  We would represent Trinity as 777, so the unholy trinity of Satan, Political Power and False Prophet/Religion would be 666, and what is truly important to understand in this light is that for all the appearance of power of this system and person, he is still just a man.  The Africa Bible Commentary puts it well:

But there is another way to approach this number…which moves away from associating the number with a particular person.  Instead it focuses on the fact that in Revelation the number 7 (used of angels, churches, seals, trumpets and bowls) implies completeness, whereas the number 6 falls one short of this.  The beast seems to be near perfection and almost messianic; it is, after all, a caricature of the Lamb who was slain (13:3, 11, 13).  But it is not perfect, and that makes all the difference.  It is actually diabolical and utterly opposed to God (13:4).  The number 666 represents a threefold falling short of perfection (dragon:6, beast:6, false prophet:6).  But it is close to perfection, and has most of the hallmarks of truth, and so can easily deceive.  No wonder wisdom is required! (13:18a)[v]

The second possibility I’ve only ever seen suggested once, and it was by Dr Martin Pohlman who I mentioned earlier.

The verse tells us that 666 is the answer, and yet the clear implication of the verse is that it refers to someone already known.  Could there be an OT prototype that exemplifies the type of thing to expect in terms of this unholy trinity?

The clues are a number relating to a person, the Greek word for wisdom (Sophia) and the counting process referred to.  In the OT there is one significant time when the number 666 is used and it is in reference to Solomon and what he received yearly in gold (2 Chronicles 9:13/1 Kings 10:14).  Solomon was a king who started his leadership as a ‘lamb’ in contrast to David who was a warrior.  There was much material prosperity under Solomon’s reign.  Unfortunately, syncretism (false religion) entered into the main line worship, to the extent that we are told “Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; and did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father did (1 Kings 11:6).  The inevitable outcome of this was abuse of sexuality which is also a picture of the new Babylon in terms of apocalyptic imagery of Revelation (Rev 17).

That last paragraph above is just for your consideration.  In short, the final anti-Christ scenario will be represented by: Extensive political power, false religion and Christians being discriminated against in terms of economic trade.  These elements have been present in every age, and so Christians in every age have had to be faithful to God no matter what the cost.  As Revelation engages with human futurology, there is in all probability going to be a final ‘big’ demonstration of this unholy trinity prior to Christ’s return – but the elements will be the same.  This has been a very long article to in essence bring across a simple point which James White once tweeted:

Folks, the mark of the beast in Revelation had to do with worship of Caesar, and hence, representative of worship of any worldly system that stands over and against Christ.  It doesn’t have to do with vending machines or implanted chips.”

May we be found faithful no matter what!

 

[i] Pohlman, M (2008) From Above For Below: The influence of the worldview on the theological thrust of the                                                                                                           Apocalypse

[ii] https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/revelation

[iii] Pohlman p104

[iv] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/revelation-coronavirus-and-the-mark-of-the-beast-how-should-christians-read-the-bibles-most-fascinating-book-part-1/

[v] Africa Bible Commentary (2006) p1567

A Civil Judgement?

…for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.  Jesus (Matt 12:37)

It was at a youth meeting a while ago when I was showing the youth a series on prayer by Pastor Jim Cymbala.  It’s not the first time I have done this series with a group, but it was the first time I had a particular reaction.  In one segment, Jim Cymbala shares a story in which a couple approach him  about wanting to get married, and it soon becomes clear that the couple were already living together.  He pointed it out as sin.

And then the reaction happened. One youngster just put his hands out expressing confusion over what the big deal was, and another young lady was angry because Jim was ‘being judgmental.’

But that scenario is mild compared to what we find amongst Christians today.  Social media has provided fertile soil for the growth of both perceived and real judgementalism.  It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that in the eyes of many, to cause offence and to be judgmental are ‘big sins’ nowadays, especially in a culture that values tolerance above all (ironically except with regard to Christian views).

The body of Christ is tragically suffering a pandemic of its own: disunity.  This disunity is unfortunately characterised by deeply contentious disagreement (to use the words of James Emery White)[i]. The result of this division is the proliferation of judgements towards those not deemed to be in ‘our camp’ or aligning with our version of the Christian narrative. Judgementalism has become a Christian cultural norm, and of course the challenge for me is to not be judgemental in writing about judgmentalism!  This scenario is not what Jesus prayed for in His High Priestly prayer prior to Calvary:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:20-23)

In the light of this Scripture, the sobering implication is that the world has the right to not believe because of the example a disunified body is setting.

The waters are not easy to navigate.  For example, I personally don’t go out of my way to cause offence because I’ve accepted that no matter how nicely or gently one may share truth, invariably someone will get offended because truth has that capacity when landing in a heart not ready to receive it.  Such a heart will naturally jump to the conclusion that I was being judgmental.  As a pastor I’ve often found myself on the receiving end of this charge.  One case stands out for me in particular when I had to challenge a couple that were living together prior to marriage (and trust me I didn’t do it in a heavy-handed way as I am not a person who enjoys conflict).  The guy got really angry with me and left the church.  About two years later he came to see me to apologise and just simply say that I was right and he should have listened to me: the relationship had failed.

It seems to me that the issue of judging has become murky, and clarity is needed.  I do think Paul Washer hits the nail on the head in his strong comment when he says: “People tell me, ‘ Judge not lest ye be judged.’ I always tell them, ‘twist not Scripture lest ye be like Satan.’  That’s undeniably a strong statement, but we have to appreciate the point being made: don’t misuse Scripture for your own ends, because that is precisely what Satan does.  We need to go to Scripture for clarity on the issue.  The following Scriptures are useful in understanding the issue: Matthew 7:1-5; Matthew 12:33-37; Matthew 18:15-35; Luke 6:37-42; John 3:16-21; John 8:1-11;  John 12:46&47; Romans 2; Romans 12:9-21; Romans 14:1-12; 1 Corinthians 5 & 6:1-8; Galatians 6:1-10; James 2:13; James 4:11-12.

Can Christians judge? The short answer: yes and no. Two primary factors determine whether you have the authority to judge in a particular circumstance or not: the state and intent of your heart.

Let’s begin with the no.

The Scriptures are quite clear that we are not to judge others.  What we need clarity on is what we mean by judging.  To not judge does not mean to not make a moral evaluation – that is simply impossible. To live in a way that honours God is fundamental to our faith: to call sinners to repentance means that sin be identified as sin.  Critics who want to accuse Christianity of being judgmental on the basis of the moral evaluations we make are ironically themselves guilty of judgmentalism by their own definition.

What we are addressing here is the spirit behind the judgment: the state and intent of the heart. In Ephesians 4:15 we are instructed to ‘speak the truth in love,’ because unfortunately we can speak the truth in a way that is unloving, slanderous and judgmental.

A popular Scripture which gets quoted about not judging others is taken from the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus in Matthew 7.  Here Jesus clearly states: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Taken on its own we could settle the discussion about judging right now.  But the reality is that Jesus didn’t make that as an isolated statement but provided a context to it.  The context? Jesus paints quite a comical picture to get the point across: imagine you’re standing in a carpenter’s workshop and you’ve got a big plank of wood sticking out your eye, and you look at your mate and say “hey – you’ve got a bit of sawdust in your eye – let me help you get it out…” It’s absurd right? Surely the focus should be on getting the plank out of your own eye?

That is precisely the point Jesus was making: don’t judge others without an awareness of your own frailty, i.e. don’t be a self-righteous hypocrite.  Self-heart awareness is critical.

In James 4:11&12 we have these strong words:

11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

This passage forces us to consider why we would speak against a brother or sister.  To slander and judge is to belittle and condemn a person, and, as Tim Keller points out,  in the light of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, this is not a sub-category of lying but of murder.[ii]  When we slander and judge a person, we assume a position of moral superiority as opposed to a position of equality.  This is clearly dangerous ground as each of us are in need of the grace of God.  In Romans 2: 1 Paul emphasises the need to be careful in passing judgement, because we are guilty of sin ourselves.

So, if our heart condition is one where we presume moral superiority and fail to see our hypocrisy, then we have no authority to judge.  If our intent in judging is to pull the other person down to size (in order to feed our own insecurities or self-righteousness), to punish them in some way, such as besmirching their character in the eyes of others, then we have failed to judge properly.  We have sinned.

So when can we judge?

When the goal is relational redemption.

When you see a brother or sister in sin, and you are genuinely concerned for their welfare and fully aware of your own frailty (a repentant hypocrite as I remember one minister putting it), then the grounds for proper judgement is given.  The goal here is to warn a person against the error of their ways in order that they may be restored to God and to their brothers and sisters.  The “worst case scenario” in which this would play out is the context of church discipline.

The well-known passage in dealing with the sin of others is from Matthew 18:15-17.  Jesus makes it so clear as to what is expected, that should the process not be followed then the proverbial red flags must be raised in our hearts and mind.  The first person to speak to about the sin you are concerned about is the person himself.  If there is no response after this, then you need to address it again in the presence of witnesses.  Let’s stop here for a moment:

If you find yourself in a situation where a person is accused in the context of a group without prior one on one engagement, then you have to consider the probability of just plain nasty character assassination, even though the person bringing the charge may sincerely believe he or she is doing the right thing.  Satan knows how to give the appearance of righteousness.  If there is furthermore a lack of substantive evidence provided by others on the issue, especially in the case of a mature Christian or elder in the faith, then the problem is heightened, because a person’s character has been tainted and people now perceive the person in a different light, and it may simply be a false perception, but the damage has been done. Slander has a very slippery slope.  The following story has a number of variations but it illustrates the point well:

Once upon a time, an old man spread rumors that his neighbor was a thief. As a result, the young man was arrested. Days later he was proven innocent. After being released, he sued the old man for wrongly accusing him. In court, the old man told the judge, “They were just comments, they didn’t harm anyone.” The judges, before passing sentence on the case, told the old man, “write all the things you said about him on a piece of paper.” “Cut it up into little pieces and on the way home, throw the pieces of paper out of your car window. Tomorrow, come back to hear the sentence.”

The next day, the judge told the old man, “Before receiving the sentence, I want you to go out and gather up all the pieces of paper that you threw out of your car window yesterday.”

The old man said, “I can’t do that! The wind spread them all over the place and won’t know where to find them.” Then the judge replied, “The same way, simple words and comments may destroy the honor of a person to such an extent that a person will not be able to fix it. If you can’t speak well of someone, don’t say anything at all. Let’s all be masters of our mouths, so that we won’t be slaves of our words.” “Gossips are worse than thieves because they steal another person’s dignity, honor, reputation and credibility which are impossible to restore. So remember this: when your feet slip, you can always recover your balance but when your tongue slips, you can never recover your words!”[iii]

However, if the person was engaged one on one first for actual sin (and not suspicion of sin) and then in the presence of two or three witnesses and there was no repentance, then, and only then, does it get brought before the community of believers.  This pattern is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 in dealing with a brother who was not only unrepentant but boastful of his sin.

Is it possible for Christians to disagree civilly without casting judgement on one another?  Of course it is.  How?

The best way to get rid of judgmentalism is to allow the gospel to truly sink into your heart.  We need to understand that God alone has the full right to judge, and it was His judgement on Christ on our behalf that enables us to be forgiven.  The Judge became judged and took upon Himself what we deserve.

Look at others through the lens of Calvary, and then you will be enabled to speak the truth in love.

[i] https://www.churchandculture.org/blog/2020/10/29/the-mark-of-a-christian

[ii] Keller, Tim : Communication – audio sermon on James 4:11&12 & 5:12

[iii] https://mygoodtimestories.com/2016/02/25/something-worse-than-a-thief/

Discerning the Calls

In the light of the increasing number of calls to prayer doing the rounds on social media, this article offers us encouragement not to simply accept at face value the call to prayer, but to explore a little deeper. I am thankful to Rev Melvin Tinker whose insights helped shaped this article. I also recommend Disarming the Darkness by Calvin Miller on the topic of Spiritual Warfare…This article first appeared on Incontext

Discerning the Calls

Every now and again, prayer requests do the rounds on social media, and they seem to follow a variation of the following pattern: “God woke me….gave me an image/revelation…need to pray against…sense of urgency….we serve a mighty God.”

A call to prayer is always a good idea, and I don’t doubt the good intentions and sincerity of those issuing the calls, but given the increasing frequency of these calls, it would be prudent to discern the nature of these prayer requests and compare it to what we see in Scripture. We live in an age where there is no shortage of spirituality, but there does seem to be a shortage of discernment. It is rather disturbing the number of ‘prayer hoaxes’ that Christians have been passing on to one another (If you want some examples, go to www.incontextinternational.org and click on the hoaxology tab). Scripture instructs us to discern and test (eg 1 Thess 5:21) what people claim to say in the name of God. We cannot, if we want to be God honouring disciples, just simply accept every ‘revelation’ (this in itself is a warning bell as it implies that the current revelation of Scripture is not sufficient) that comes along. Remember, Satan knows full well how to appear as an angel of light, and he is an absolute master at giving deception the appearance of truth – Jesus simply calls him a liar (John 8:44). If we take the words of our Lord seriously, we need to examine our hearts in coming to the Lord in prayer. Let us not be naive; Satan does not mind people praying if they are praying with a wrong spirit. It was Jesus who warned us that there would be many on that day who will cry out about how they did mighty things in the name of Jesus, and His answer will be “I never knew you (Matt 7:21-23).”

I want to encourage the body of Christ to pray in accordance with Scripture. Given the spiritual warfare nature of these calls to prayer, let us look at some ‘spiritual warfare’ examples in Scripture. Let us look at the example set before us by men who were intimately familiar with knowledge of the spiritual world: two from the Old Testament (Elijah and Daniel), one from the New Testament (Paul) and, of course, Jesus our Lord.

Let’s consider the epic stand-off between Elijah and all the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18. You know what happened. There was one prophet of God, Elijah, and 450 prophets of Baal on that mountain. The goal of this meeting was simple: to determine who was God. Was it Baal? If so, then follow him! Is it God? If so, then follow Him! How would the people know? The one who answered by fire.

The prophets of Baal engage in their frenzied worship, and Elijah does have some fun at their expense (v27). But no fire came. I’m pretty sure Satan knows how to light a fire. Any thoughts as to why he couldn’t?
Then Elijah arranges for the altar and sacrifice to be drenched in water (v33-35 – how would this go down today in terms of water restrictions?).

Please take note of Elijah’s prayer: there is no binding of the spirits of Baal, no coming against them in any form: just a simple prayer of faith to a powerful God. “O Lord” Elijah prays… “ God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
The result? Fire fell.

There is so much to be learnt in this! What do we see? We see a willing, obedient and believing servant, coming humbly before God, desiring the glory of God, and entrusting the outcome to God. Elijah knew the real miracle and display of power was not in the binding of spirits, but in changing the hearts of the people. Let’s not forget that in James 5:17 we are told that Elijah was a man like us. We don’t have to have the epic stand off scenario to pray like Elijah. We too can live in obedience, come humbly before God, desire His glory to be manifested and pray not for spirits to be bound, but for hearts to be changed.

What about Daniel? Daniel was forcefully removed from his homeland as a teenager, placed in a pagan palace in Babylon, got given a new pagan name (Belteshazzar – Daniel 1:7) and had to learn a new language along with the practices of this culture, which was polytheistic and steeped in sorcery and astrology. Daniel definitely understood the reality of a spiritual world.

In fact, in one of his fantastic apocalyptic visions, Daniel matter-of-factly gets told by an angel that he got delayed in responding to Daniel because he was held up! Does this sound a bit strange to you? “The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia…(Daniel 10:13)!” It is primarily this verse that has been used to bolster the notion of binding territorial spirits, but nowhere do we see Daniel being instructed to engage in such an activity or that he actually does anything like that. What is telling is Daniels approach to prayer: it was a way of life. In the context of keen sensitivity to the spiritual world, Daniel’s approach is not to bind anything or come against anything, but to submit to God and to be a faithful witness within his context and pray for God’s purposes to be fulfilled.

Daniel’s prayer life was anchored in the sovereignty of God. He didn’t curse the darkness, but instead sought to be a light.

The early church knew the reality of the spiritual world, and we read about it in the book of Acts. I am always amazed at how, in the context of persecution, we do not find prayers that come against the authorities, but rather instead we find prayers for boldness to preach and live out the gospel witness. In Acts 4:23-31 we again see prayers to a Sovereign God and a willingness to be used of God for the honour of God.

What about the Apostle Paul? Paul lived and ministered in the context of the Greco-Roman world with its pantheon of Gods. He also knew about the spiritual world, having during the course of his ministry cast out a few demons (although he never went looking for them), to the extent that we even read about the sons of Sceva trying to drive out demons via the names of Jesus and Paul (Acts 19:11-20)! Paul’s approach to witnessing in a hostile context? Proclaim Christ.

Perhaps Paul’s most famous teaching on the issue of spiritual warfare is his armour of God image in Ephesians 6. We find that the real locus of the battle is not the earthly political sphere, but, in the light of all that he has written before in this letter, the church. Children of God, collectively called the church, represent a ‘supernatural community which God indwells by his Spirit (2:22).’ We certainly do engage in battle with the demonic realm, but not in the way that popularly gets promoted. We don’t fight from a distance via spiritual Bluetooth, but we instead wrestle (v12)! And the areas we need to watch out for? V11 tells us: the schemes, or to use a more literal translation, the “stratagems” of the devil. The same word is used in Ephesians 4:14 in the context of calling Christians to grow in biblical knowledge so that we “may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” So – we need to be discerning!

Again, in the context of this passage of warfare where the weapons boil down to the church simply carrying out its calling of proclaiming and living the gospel and trusting God, the atmosphere of prayer is not about binding spirits or coming against anything or anyone, but rather the bold proclamation of the gospel. The gospel has a way of sorting people out. Remember that the real battle is about establishing the rule of God in the hearts of men! People are not the enemy; Satan is (more on him below…)

But there is something else very interesting. There is another mention of the devil in this book of Ephesians, and it also in chapter 4, and it’s in connection with something far less esoteric and far more real. It’s in v26&27 and it says the following:
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

Did you get that? Through anger the devil can be given a foothold.

Now think about the seeds that get sown in your heart through some of these calls to prayer. We get told to pray against this person or that spirit…and don’t you find yourself just getting so angry over that person or that spirit? And then, don’t you find that anger has a knack for leading you into fear?

Oops.

The command ‘do not fear’ appears throughout Scripture for the child of God. Why? Because God is sovereign over all. Why pray against a defeated enemy when we can instead pray for the establishment of an already won victory? Isn’t it interesting that the objective of the battle laid out in Ephesians 6 is not disarming principalities and powers, but to stand. Why? Because Jesus has already defeated the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15)

A victory won at Calvary, and I want to close this reflection by briefly look at the example of our Lord.

When Jesus walked this earth, His disciples soon became aware that there was something different about the prayer life of Jesus, and so they asked Him to teach them. What always astounds me about the prayer of Jesus is this description in Hebrews 5:7. Before I quote it, please remember that this is the description of the prayers of Jesus, the Son of God:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence

Does that make you marvel? It should! And let us not forget the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane: Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done (Luke 22:42).

And when He taught us to pray, He taught us to pray to our Father (that means Jesus sees us as His brothers and sisters). He taught us to pray for God’s name to be revered (and that begins with us), for the establishment of God’s kingdom and will (again, that begins with us), to ask for our daily needs (so that we remember that we are dependent on God and we can be grateful for His provision), to please forgive us (recognising that we need it) just as we forgive others (its hard to hold onto anger when you seek to forgive), and to lead us not into temptation (because we know our weakness in being tested) and to deliver us from evil (which could only happen through Calvary).

So, the next time you hear a call to prayer, ask yourself the following:
• Does it encourage a humble, reverent dependence on a Sovereign God?
• Does it sow the seeds of faith or fear?
• Does it desire the revealing of the glory of God through the transformation of hearts…or is it maybe just rather wanting to get rid of a potential threat to our comfort?

When I look at Scripture, I would, if I could, issue a call to prayer along the following lines:
Father God, you alone are Lord. You alone hold the hearts of men and women in Your hands. You have both the authority and the power to change hearts, and we ask You to do so. Please give us hearts of compassion and courage to live and speak your gospel.
We look at what is happening in our land. We see people promoting hate and violence, and we want to lift them up to You. We pray that You will create gospel opportunities for these men and women who promote hate, that they will encounter You in the fulness of Your holy love, and that they will see the wickedness of their own heart by comparison and desire you to instead be Lord of their lives.
We thank you that You are at work. Forgive us for our complacency and being more concerned for our earthly kingdom than Your eternal one. We do pray that You will continue to work in our land, and more especially in our hearts. We even pray that Parliament will be filled with a passion for righteousness.
But most of all, help your people to advance Your Kingdom, and may it begin with me.
We ask this in the name of Jesus our Lord
Amen.