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How to Evaluate Truth Claims

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Learning how to evaluate truth claims has never been more important than in the 21st century.

COVID-19 may be on the wane but theories of its origin, purpose and composition are still circulating as fast as airborne viruses. In the past, we only had to contend with flat-earth poppycock, faked moon landings, and so on. Now we are faced with conspiracy theories and misinformation that would make Joseph Geobbels envious.

It would be OK if the tidal waves of misinformation washing through our brains via social media were just entertaining distractions, but they aren’t. They confuse, increase insecurity, raise tension levels and can cause both physical and mental harm.

In May 2020 I wrote an article titled So Pass It On where I gave some advice on what information not to pass on to others, and why we shouldn’t. Since then I have been obliged to view dozens and dozens of posts and videos covering such things as why all COVID-19 vaccines are actually deadly venom injections, how a cabal of all-powerful people are taking over the entire world, how the end of the world will come in a matter of months, and so on. During a recent discussion regarding these matters, I was asked why ‘the church’ had not taught us how to evaluate such claims. Now, I am not ‘the church’, but I accepted the challenge to write something on evaluating truth claims … so here it is.

Logic versus Emotion

If it were only a matter of applying logic then it would be relatively easy to filter out the, well you know what, from the media posts, but it isn’t.

Emotions play a big role in whether a person will accept disinformation as valid and unfounded theories as truth.

There is an interesting article on sciencefocus.com where the author sets out a few researched emotional reasons why some people are more prone than others to conspiracy theories. I think that the prime culprit is fear, specifically the fear of not being in control and of being helpless in the face of impending catastrophe. Ironically, the thing that eases the fear of not being in control comes from buying into the idea that a shadowy elite group is in control. They then find a sense of worth and validation by passing on information to like-minded people and warning sceptical friends of the impending doom. Of course, this just increases the general level of stress and anxiety and fails miserably in providing practical help and solutions.

Emotions aside, what we all can and should be doing is applying critical thinking to truth claims that come our way.

Critical Thinking Skills

Two essential preliminary steps to take when exposed to new information are;

  1. Test the premises: A premise is the base of an argument or theory and a good way to identify it is to a work backwards to a previous statement or proposition from which it is inferred. What you are doing here is checking the validity and connectedness of the statements made. i.e. If this is true then that would also probably be true. For example, I recently read a claim that an un-named ‘Spanish lab’ had tested the Pfizer vaccine and found that it was 99% Graphine Oxide. The person spreading this ‘fact’ across the world went on to state that this particular chemical was lethal. So the ‘logic’ is that Pfizer is attempting to kill off millions of people by injecting them with deadly venom. There is reliable evidence that Graphine Oxide in substantial doses can be harmful, so the main premise in this media post is not the claim that it can be toxic, but the claim that it is a major component of Pfizer vaccines. This premise can be tested by scanning the list of contents on a vaccine label, consulting the Food and Drug Administration list, or accessing the research of an accredited laboratory that has analysed the vaccine (not an un-named Spanish lab).

However, here is the problem for us ordinary mortals:

To adequately check the validity of a false truth claim such as the one I have just presented requires both access to the right kind of information and a level of expertise that most of us do not possess.

So, we refer to time-honoured reliable sources such as reports by well-known medical faculties at major universities available on the internet, or to articles in accredited news or fact-checking sources such as Reuters , Associated Press , Factcheck , and so on. But here comes the rub – the advocates of the theories we are testing immediately claim that our ‘reliable’ sources are not reliable at all because they have sold out to big pharma, big tech, or a shadowy cabal of supermen … and so the conspiracy deepens and widens and presents itself as unfalsifiable.

  1. Evaluate the argument logically:
    1. Falsifiable: Is there enough valid evidence to prove it wrong or are the claims made too general, vague or unsubstantiated to find against them. The idea here is that new truth claims must earn their right to be accepted by demonstrating that they can be tested, evaluated, and found to be truthful.
    2. Probable: What are the chances of this being true? For instance, most of the world conspiracy theories require that almost every authority and expertise source in the world is in cahoots – The British government colluding with the Iranian leaders, the American with the Chinese, The North Koreans with Japan, and subject matter experts all singing off the same out-of-tune hymn sheet.
    3. Generalisable: To use an old example, spotting three dogs that are black does not mean that all dogs are black. Some adverse reactions to a vaccine do not mean that everyone will experience adverse effects.
    4. Convergent: Are there several lines of research and reasoning that are all coming to similar conclusions or is the evidence emanating from just a small number of similar-minded people?
    5. Credible: Is the source of the information credible? Does it come from a well-known and generally well-regarded institution? Is the person promoting the ideas suitably qualified and experienced in that field?

To these five criteria I would add the matter of Rhetorical Malpractice:

  • Does the source attack the opposition to the idea and not the ideas themselves?
  • Does it capitalize on the fear of possible adverse consequences?
  • Does it beg the question by assuming that the conclusion is true without proving it to be true?
  • Is it peppered with inconsistent and self-contradictory statements?
  • Does it argue that because it happened after X it must have been caused by X? Does it exclude any other reasonable proposition other than the one it is promoting?
The Bottom Line

All well and good, but at the heart of the issue are some fundamental choices we all have to make:

  1. Are we prepared to do the hard work of researching and evaluating truth claims?
  2. Are we determined to allow logic and careful thinking to prevail over emotional and sensational appeal?
  3. Are we committed to refusing to pass on fear and confusion-inducing theories until we have personally verified them and satisfied ourselves that the recipients can do something positive with the information?
    Do they encourage, hearten, and fill us and others with faith. Do they point us to Jesus?
  4. Are we prepared to abide by the scriptural principles that we can easily deduce from the Word of God? For example:
  • Exodus 23:1 ‘Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness’.
  • 2 Timothy 2:16-17 ‘Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene.
  • 2 Timothy 4:3-4 ‘For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
  • 2 Timothy 1:7 ‘For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment’ HCSB.
Conclusion

I am convinced that most of us have the mental capability and basic skills to test truth claims, but I am not convinced that most of us are prepared to do the time-consuming and mentally challenging work that this requires. I am equally sure that some people find comfort in emotional validation rather than logical deduction. I also believe that most disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ want to help others, but some do not appreciate that the way to do this is not through imbibing and passing on conspiracy sewerage but by drinking and sharing the pure water of Jesus and his word.

 

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Jesus and Pentecost

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Pentecost Sunday is the day when we celebrate the birth of the church and the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world. I have always strongly advocated that we should be Jesus-centred because he is the fullness of God in bodily form and thus the member of the Triune Godhead to whom we can best relate. However, with such focus on the Lord Jesus, we could neglect God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is a time when we can rectify this tendency and so in this article I want to connect the Holy Spirit of Pentecost to Jesus.

The Pilgrim Feasts

The Day of Pentecost was one of the three pilgrim feasts of ancient Israel. By ‘Pilgrim’ I mean that these were the three feasts that all Jewish men were required by the Law of God to travel up to Jerusalem to attend.  The three feasts were

  1. Passover,
  2. Tabernacles, and
  3. Pentecost

and the Gospels record how Jesus attended Passover and Tabernacles; but what about Pentecost?

Pentecost marked the annual wheat harvest and Jesus must have celebrated at least two of these feasts in Jerusalem during his public ministry, so why is there no mention of this?

Jesus at the Feast of Pentecost

Well, perhaps the Gospels are not totally silent on Jesus’ attending the Feast of Pentecost. John 5:1 records that Jesus ‘went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews’. Could this have been the Feast of Pentecost?  The passage goes on to describe how he healed a lame man at the pool of Bethesda. The Pharisees wanted to kill him over what he said and did on this occasion. To start with, he healed the man on the Sabbath and, in their opinion, this was breaking their holy law. Then to make things intolerably worse for them, Jesus called God his father, thus making himself equal to God.

In responding to the Pharisees, Jesus included something that, by implication, connected his baptism by John the Baptist to the Day of Pentecost he was in Jerusalem to celebrate. He told them that if they were not prepared to take what he said about himself as true, then they should rather accept John’s testimony about him. Then he went further and said that if even that was not good enough for them, then they should accept the fact that God himself had attested to his status. When did these two testimonials occur? They happened on the day that Jesus was baptised in the Jordan river at the beginning of his 3 years of public ministry. Matthew 3:11 records John’s words: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. Matthew then recounts what happened when John baptised Jesus, the one he had foretold would come. He wrote:  ‘As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Now it seems significant to me that Jesus connected what he was doing on the Day of Pentecost with his water baptism sometime before. 

John baptised Jesus in water and said that he, Jesus, would baptise not with water, but with fire. Jesus spoke about this baptism of fire when he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they had received power from on high. He said, “John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:5). And when did that happen? Just ten days later on the Day of Pentecost. And what did this baptism look like? Fire! Fire from heaven.

The Empowering Spirit

When John baptised Jesus in water, the Holy Spirit came down upon him and filled him with power. After his baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness and Luke recorded that at the end of that time of testing ‘Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4:14).

It seems to me that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Jesus’ baptism occurred around the Day of Pentecost as he was on his way up to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast.

However, what is certain is that Jesus’ ministry started with a mighty empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the church’s ministry started the same way, on the Day of Pentecost. You see, on that day a group of 120 frightened but expectant disciples were baptised into the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. On that day the church was born, drew its first breath of the Spirit and rushed out into the streets to testify to the glory of God in Christ Jesus. On that great and wonderful day, the new Body of Christ on earth came into being. A body empowered by the same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus for ministry. A continuation of the Lord’s earthly ministry and the ongoing place of his presence on earth.

Jesus’ Public Ministry

If Jesus’ public ministry perhaps started on the Day of Pentecost, when do you think it ended? When he died on the cross? No, because he rose again and continued ministering for another 40 days. Did it end when he ascended into heaven? No, because just 10 days later, possibly three years to the day, after his ministry started, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to raise up a body for him to continue his ministry on earth; the church.

Jesus’ earthly ministry has not ended. We, the Body of Christ, the church, continue it and will do so until he comes again in glory. 

The Day of Pentecost is Important

The Day of Pentecost should be a very important memorial for all Christians because:

  1. It is the birthday of the church, the Body of Christ on earth, the ongoing representation of his presence and ministry. Everyone born again of the Spirit is baptised into this glorious body… and that means you and me.
  2. It is the celebration of the time when God the Holy Spirit took up residence in the church, of which we are part.  When Jesus walked this earth, God was present with us in human form. Now he is with us in the person of the Holy Spirit in and through the church.
  3. The Day of Pentecost is also important in that it reminds us that we, like Jesus and the very first church members, need to be empowered from on high. We need this to BE the effective, powerful, glorious church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Being born again is not an optional extra to being a Christian and being filled with the Spirit is not an optional extra either. Holy Spirit empowerment is essential for without it we can only function as part of a religious school or a social agency. But we cannot be part of the supernatural, world-changing, church of the Living God. Without the enabling of the Holy Spirit, we are little better than that poor man at the pool of Bethesda, lame, useless, and without hope.

So, dear disciples of Jesus, come to church every Sunday as though it were Pentecost Sunday. Come in desperate expectation, knowing that unless the Holy Spirit empowers us, we cannot hope to live and minister as Jesus’ representatives here and now. If you are able, spend time with God before you come to the church service. Prepare your spirit and cry out to him to fill you with power from on high and then come expecting this to happen. Come in full anticipation that the Holy Spirit will reveal Jesus more clearly to you and then send you out into your world to reveal Jesus and make him known.

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A Rant Today to Keep the Devil Away

Top ImageIn naming this article ‘A Rant Today to Keep the Devil Away’ I am not just butchering a common adage, but summing up my purpose in writing this post. I don’t rant often, however when I see the word of God tortured and butchered, then ranting seems most appropriate.

By ‘Word of God’ I mean, firstly, the Lord Jesus Christ, and secondly, the inspired scriptures (the bible) that reveal His nature, character, principles, and priorities. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t come across some or other form of ‘Word butchering’, but when I am personally impacted in one week by not one but two such acts of spiritual brutality, then I feel its time for a bit of a rant.

My first encounter of the week was with an attempt to build a theological foundation for dominion theology almost exclusively on the authority of three very well known charismatic teachers, one now departed and the other two alive and kicking. The second encounter was with someone who had taken issue, ever so kindly, with the leader of the small group they are attending. Before I give examples and analysis, I must first make a disclaimer.

Why I Don’t Name Names

I very seldom call a person out by name when I  write or preach into what they say or do. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. The people who teach aberrant theology, prominent as they may be, are not the focus of my attention. I am more concerned about helping folk to recognise false teaching and false prophets than I am on naming and shaming the culprits.
  2. Before I would think of calling someone out I would need to carefully study their teachings and practices in context and then, preferably, have interacted with them personally at some level. I have not met either of these preconditions concerning my sources for this article.

The Big Bad Picture

I am aware that for some readers, too much detail and too long an article, detracts from their appreciation of the content. For this reason, I will first describe the overall problem and the heart of my rant. After that, I will give some details of the encounters with the faulty theology and biblical interpretation I have recently encountered.

I have previously written about Hyper-literalism and flawed semantics HERE, so I won’t bang on about these issues again in this article, although what I want to highlight does flow from these two poisoned wells.

The people whose faulty interpretations and theology I am ranting about here all claim to respect the inspiration of the bible and to love Jesus. They make a point of stating that they are both biblical and Jesus-centred in their approach. However, being truly ‘biblical’ does not allow taking texts out of context, creating elaborate and ultimately illogical word chains based on a word or two in the original languages, or leaping to unwarranted conclusions in order to make the text mean what they want it to mean (eisegesis). And to be Jesus-centred does not allow detracting from His uniquely divine-human nature, nor playing fast and loose with what He taught.

     One of the key proof-texts for a brand of theology that is the cause of my current distress is the last part of Psalm 138:2, which the NKJV translates as ‘For You have magnified Your word above all Your name’. This is a carry-over from the KJV of the bible translation and is regarded by every major theologian I have consulted as a very poor translation of the Hebrew. The NIV translates this verse far more accurately as ‘for you have exalted above all things your name and your word’. The bible does not proscribe God, but He, through the agency of His Word (Bible and Jesus), proscribes all other things. From this deformed root has grown a theology that teaches that what certain people understand of the scriptural revelation binds God and proscribes what He can and can’t do. For instance, they claim that God cannot do anything on earth without the participation of human agencies… because He has said that man has sole dominion over the earth. The reasoning is as follows:

  • When God created man, He said: “and let them rule over.. all (non-human) creatures” (Genesis 1:26). Therefore, if mankind has dominions that means that God has given up His divine dominion.
  • As a result, they claim that God has no jurisdiction on Earth and cannot even enter the physical realm without human permission. So, not only has what has said become His master, but so have the humans who decide what He meant by what He said. In my view, this theology is both heretical and blasphemous and evidence of massive human arrogance. Genesis 1:26 ‘says’ no more than that God permitted mankind to look after His creation. It is not an irrevocable mandate or power of attorney and there is a multitude of biblical passages proclaiming God’s ongoing sovereignty over all things.

     From this warped understanding of scripture, at least one of the culprits I have read reinterprets the whole mission of the Lord Jesus and the prime purpose of all Christians. According to him, Jesus came not to reveal the Father, nor to provide eternal life for those who believe, but to reestablish a physical Kingdom of God on earth and to enlist people into His colonisation project. 

My First Upsetting Encounter of the Week

My first encounter of the week concerned the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’.  I have already described the misconception that Jesus’ purpose on earth was primarily to announce that the world was now a colonisation of the heavenly Kingdom of God and that His disciples are actually its ‘kings’. Here, I will summarise one of the arguments for this as follows:

They contend that God’s purpose is to govern the earth through His followers. This, they say, is made clear in two Old Testament scriptures. Genesis 1:26-28, which is part of the creation account, where two Hebrew words are translated as ‘rule’, and Psalm 8:3-6 where another Hebrew word translates in a similar way. This is used to ‘prove’ that God’s purpose for each of us is to partner with God and each other in ruling the world.

Of course, the deciding factor in biblical interpretation is not simply the meaning of particular words in the biblical account, but what I call ‘the first intended meaning’. We determine this by;

  1. Considering the context of the word and passage
  2. Referring to what Jesus said and did,
  3. Surveying what the rest of the bible teaches,
  4. Considering the meaning of the actual words and syntax of the original languages used.

A reasonable and consistent understanding of ‘dominion’ relates to stewardship and care of the natural world rather than dominance over it. While He walked this earth, the Lord Jesus was an example of this ‘care’ concept both in what He taught and how He acted. However, the line of reasoning used by the dominion-now protagonists, to whom I am referring, centres rather on one of Jesus’ ascriptions as ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ used twice in the book of Revelation (Revelation 17:14 and 19:16). Their argument is as follows:

The words ‘King’ and ‘Lord’ are in the singular tense, but the words ‘kings’ and lords’, indicate that we are all kings and lords born as a god-class to have dominion over the world.

However, the context of this passage in Revelation is much more obviously understood as a simple reference to the supremacy of the Lord Jesus over all others, particularly those who are earthly kings.

My Second in a Week Run-in with Aberrant Thinking

As if all this was not enough to trigger a good rant, I was speaking to someone about the inter-church bible study group they attended. The leader had just announced that the next book they would be studying would be by yet another well known, now deceased, misguided teacher. Note well that the ‘bible study’ in mind actually consisted of a string of books rather than the bible itself. The person I was talking to informed the group leader that what they were teaching was neither biblical nor theologically sound. The leader, who claimed to be passionately committed to biblical authority, gave a defense that floored me when it was recounted to me. In essence, this is how it apparently went: “All teachers are human and not perfect but the Holy Spirit inspires some to teach profound truth. Paul was human and so what he wrote in the bible was no more authoritative than what these other ‘men and women of God’ have written”. So much for the unique inspiration of the bible then!

Now for the Real Rant

I could write a whole lot more, but I think I have made my point. The object of my concern is not as much for the authors concerned as it is for the thousands of Christians who believe them and teach others and then propagate their doctrines. Of the three well-known teachers, I referred to in this article, two are dead and buried and I know with certainty that the other has been challenged many times by many sound theologians and church leaders, all to no avail.

I realise that most of you who read this post will be just as amazed and outraged as I am, but there are some folk who are sent this article, or just stumble upon it, who really need to catch a wake-up call! To those readers, I say:

“Please, for the love of God, and for your own sake, stop buying into and propagating false doctrine, half a ‘gospel’ message, and an unbiblical portrayal of Jesus. There is so much excellent teaching out there and so many churches where the truth is faithfully proclaimed. Commit yourself rather to seeking the truth, for Jesus himself has said: ‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you’” (John 16:12-14).

God have mercy on us all, and God bless us all.

 

 

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Apostates in the News

Apostates Top ImageOf late there have been several apostates in the news. Most recently, two fairly well known ‘Christians’ proudly declared that they had renounced their Faith. One of them was Hillsong’s Marty Sampson who recently announced on Instagram, “I’m genuinely losing my faith.” Christianity Today  has reported on his apparent apostasy, so I won’t attempt to summarise or evaluate Marty’s reported utterances.

A dictionary definition of Apostasy is ‘an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith’ and I will leave it to those who know the man and the circumstances to determine the extent of his ‘falling away’.

One Reason for Modern Apostasy

What I want to pick up on is Marty’s reported frustrations about the Christian faith and apparent contradictions in the Bible. He posted “”How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send 4 billion people to a place, all coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it”. Well, I want to talk and write about it, but perhaps from a perspective that may be different to that of the many critics of people like Marty Sampson.

Marty is a high profile representative of an alarmingly large group of intelligent men and woman who fall away, to one extent or another, from orthodox Christian belief. Many of them suffer a crisis of faith because they cannot reconcile the biblical record with science, modern morality, or common sense. They learn of the well-established theory of macroevolution, but then their Christian mentors tell them that the cosmos is really just a few thousand years old because the Bible ‘says so’. The Old Testament appears to them to depict God as wrathful, petty, and vengeful, yet their pastors tell them that although God is love He also has an ‘angry’ face. They identify anomalies in scripture that seem to be distinct errors yet their theologians inform them that the Bible is inerrant and that ‘errors’ are just the perceptions of uninformed and spiritually immature readers. And these are just some of the more obvious issues that trouble many people, not to mention Hell, evil, predestination, and so on.

My Position on Scripture

For any reader who doesn’t already know where I stand, let me state that I believe in the inspiration of the Bible and regard it as entirely trustworthy. However, I differ from many of my contemporaries in my understanding of the Bible’s purpose and how it we should understand what it is saying. Although I may differ from some orthodox theologians on these matters, I am in good company – actually, the best company. We just need to read the Sermon on the Mount  to realise that the Lord Jesus affirmed the inspiration of scripture yet, almost in the same breath, informed the learned men of His day that they were misunderstanding what the scriptures taught.

Let me state my essential thinking on the Bible’s purpose and my thought on how to understand what it teaches. If you want my abbreviated statement on the purpose of the Bible, then click HERE. In brief, my understanding is as the Apostle John put it:

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).
My essential view of biblical interpretation flows out of this in that I regard the Lord Jesus as both the author and primary interpreter of scripture. If you want my full view on this then click HERE.

The Nature of the Bible

I believe that the Bible is a divine-human collaboration primarily designed to reveal the character and nature of Almighty God, pre-eminently through His self-revelation in and through Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible is exactly what God wants it to be, apparent anomalies and all. It’s divine purpose includes revealing the sinful ways of humanity, good and bad examples of responses to His instruction, and the way we can be eternally reunited with Him. It is not a science textbook nor a theological dictionary. It is a testimony to God and His ways and man and his ways.  Now, if people like Marty Sampson understood this, then why would they have a crisis of faith when encountering biblical ‘problems’?

Let me offer one possible answer to my question. It is highly likely that the mentors of men like Marty have taught them that the Bible is inerrant because The Holy Spirit dictated all its words (impressed upon the writers just what they should record). If there are any ‘errors’ that can not be attributed to scribal incompetence then it would mean that God is in error. So “just accept everything and contradict nothing or you will be guilty of blasphemy!” (my own possibly overstated words and not a quote).

I have covered this idea in my book ‘Truth is The Word’ , but it must be obvious, at least I think it is obvious, that some thinking men and women of integrity are likely to struggle with any concept of total inerrancy. Perhaps some of these folk, like Marty, would not even consider walking away from the Christian Faith if they had a different understanding of the purpose of the Bible and of how to interpret its contents.

Inerrancy of Scripture

In 2006 I wrote a short article on biblical inerrancy which you can find HERE. One of my favourite theologians when it comes to biblical inspiration is the late Clark Pinnock. His major work on this subject  ‘The Biblical Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible’ contains excellent comment on inerrancy. Unfortunately, this book is not available on Kindle. You can read Steven H Propp’s review of the print version on Amazon HERE and click on the ‘Look Inside’ to get a general idea of the book’s contents.

Final Thought

I don’t know Marty Sampson and I have no detailed information on why he thinks as he does. I have no knowledge of his testimony of salvation, nor of his life as a church worship leader. However, perhaps we should be gentler in our criticism of him and a little more challenging in our criticism of the kind of fundamentalist dogma that makes total inerrancy a litmus test of true faith.

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The Complete ‘What Kind of Church would Jesus Attend?’ series

 

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What Kind of Church would Jesus Attend?

 

My daughter suggested I write about the kind of church Jesus would attend. I have been thinking about it and I think it is something all Christians, and especially church leaders, need to consider. Attend is a rather formal word that evokes thoughts of annual general meetings and other formal business-like occasions, but it is an appropriate word that simply means ‘be present’.

So what kind of church would Jesus attend? Well, I doubt very much if He would be interested in denominational labels or self-descriptors like Baptist, or Charismatic, or the like. I doubt too that any particular ethnic mix would especially appeal to Him, or the style and volume of the music, or the pulpit skills of the Pastor. Perhaps He would only attend an on-fire group of passionate disciples… what do you think?

Well, here is a shocker – Revelation 3:14-22 pictures Jesus trying to attend the lukewarm church of Laodicea. He wrote to this church; “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). So, it seems that the Lord Jesus is prepared to attend any church that would welcome him. But, and there is always a ‘but’, it seems that if they did not repent and welcome Him, then He was going to close them down (Revelation 2:5). So, perhaps a better way of framing the question would be; ‘what kind of church would Jesus be happy to attend regularly?’

This is a vitally important question because God designed ‘church’ to be the localised ‘body of Christ’, His temple and the place of His presence. If the Lord Jesus is not present in a church then how can we even call it a church? Club, mutual help organisation, religious school perhaps, but not a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16).

The focus of my thoughts

A local church is more than just its Sunday worship service. During the week, it has other types of meetings, and it has structures, processes, outreaches, social works, and so on.  However, its primary corporate expression is its weekly worship service. So, I have limited my thoughts and remarks, at this stage, to the presence of God in a church service.

This word, ‘presence’, is key. Thousands of years ago, Jacob encountered God in a visionary dream, and his account of this life-changing experience ends with the words; “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17). Then he named the place Bethel, set up a stone memorial, and made the vow that “this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house…” (Genesis 28:22). In a sense, Bethel was the prototype church, the house of God and gate of heaven… the place of the presence of God.

In later years, the temple in Jerusalem became the place of God’s presence and the Jewish scholars of that time regarded it as the location where Heaven and Earth came together. Then, just 40 years before this temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Lord Jesus Christ made the startling declaration to Nathanael that he would see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”  (John 1:51). Nathanael and the disciples would have understood this to be a clear reference to Jacob’s vision of some 1,800 years earlier. So, when Jesus lived in Palestine Heaven touched Earth, and in our day the corporate gathering of every true church is this interface… the place of the presence of Jesus.

Therefore, in this article, and in further articles in this series I will initially limit myself to the manifest presence of God in our corporate church meetings.

Sensing the presence of God

How do we know if ‘the Lord is in the house’? What are the indicators of His presence? I have identified nine, but I do not claim that this a comprehensive list. As I ponder on each of them, I realise that they are both indicators of and responses to God’s presence among His people. When The Lord is tangibly present in a church meeting, we respond in significant ways and our responses are both to His sensed presence as well as being evidence of His presence.

The nine indicators/responses are:

  1. Reverent and adoring worship
  2. Passionate prayer
  3. Serious attention to biblical preaching
  4. An attitude of faith
  5. Ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit
  6. Anointed leadership
  7. Expressions of love
  8. An impartation of life and wholeness
  9. A desire to share the presence of God with others

So, my plan is to take each of these in turn and consider how we would recognise the presence of God in a church service by observing and participating in worship, prayer, and so on.

I am looking forward to this series and I hope you are too.

 

Worship: The church Jesus would attend series

 

In my first article in this series, I posed the question ‘what kind of church would Jesus attend?’ to perhaps motivate us to do some sort of spiritual audit of our approach to our local church Sunday services. I identified nine indicators of the presence of The Lord but made the point that these are also our responses to His presence in a church service. The first identifier is Reverent and Adoring Worship’, and in this article, I focus on just this factor.

In his book ‘Natural Church Development’ Christian Schwarz identified what he called ‘Inspiring Worship Service’ as one of eight characteristics of healthy growing churches. The word inspiration comes from a Latin word meaning ‘to breathe into’. John 20:22 records how the risen Lord Jesus met with his disciples ‘breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit’. Now the New Testament word for ‘spirit’ is pneuma and translates directly as breath or wind as well as spirit. Inspiration, in its truest sense, comes from the Holy Spirit and inspiring worship comes from people who are inspired by The Spirit and aware of His presence.

Reverent and Adoring

So why did I select the words ‘reverent and adoring’ to describe inspired worship? Well, to revere God is to regard and treat Him with deep respect, to hold Him in the highest regard, and to cherish and value the opportunity of being in His presence. Awe has similar meanings but includes a sense of wonder and appreciative astonishment. The phrase ‘the fear of the Lord’ that runs as a refrain through much of the Bible usually implies reverence and adoration. (Psalm 147:11  1 Peter 1:17).

Reverent adoration does not imply any particular style of worship, but it does qualify all true worship. Each element of a Sunday service, from praying and singing to preaching and sharing, should be characterised by reverent adoration. However, the major indicator of our attitude towards God and our corporate response to His presence is usually our singing.

Whether we sing old-fashioned hymns or modern spiritual songs isn’t the issue, and the body postures or actions we employ are merely expressions of our attitude and responses. The key issue is the question of ‘attitude’.

What we sing, to whom we sing, and how we sing in our church services flows from our attitude towards The Lord. I concede that there are times when we want to use songs as a means of reinforcing doctrine, as John Wesley often did during his remarkable ministry, or to affirm our blessed status as children of God. But most of the time our songs should reflect how we feel about God. So, let’s consider the following:

What do we sing?

What do the words of our songs convey? I had a look at the ranker.com list of best Christian songs for 2018. I don’t know how many of these are sung in church services and the only one I recognise as a corporate worship song is listed as number five. Perhaps this is indicative of my age and church experience and I don’t want to come across as a critical curmudgeon, but I believe that I can serve you best by bluntly stating my views. Anyway, here are the top five on the list:

  1. I just need you – TobyMac
  1. God only knows – for King and Country
  1. You say – Lauren Daigle
  1. What a friend – Matt Maher
  1. Who you say I am – Hillsong worship

Here is the link to the ranker.com list so that you can listen and evaluate for yourself, but all the top five are about how WE feel and how God helps US. Not one is about who God is or how we adore Him! So how about doing a reality check and audit the songs we sing most often in our church services – are they centred on Jesus or on us?

The irony of it all

Man-centred and self-centred songs are essentially self-defeating as a means of worshipping God, although they may have some therapeutic value for ourselves. We sing them to experience the pleasure of the music or we relate the lyrics to our pain, needs and hope. We were created to be worshippers, not worshipped. Intuitively we know that it’s neither real nor healthy to make ourselves the centre of our own attention. So we sing, and sway, and get goose bumps, and then we leave  the church service often unchanged.

Have you ever wondered why God needs to be worshipped? Well, I don’t think He does. God’s love for us and His self-giving nature is so much more than we can comprehend. He knows that we are most whole and most satisfied when our lives are centred on Him… so He allows us to worship Him as a way of aligning our lives under His sovereignty, providence, authority, and love. The irony is that by worshipping Him in spirit and truth we truly become the recipients of peace, joy, and righteousness (Romans 14:17).

So, now let’s consider to whom and how we sing:

To whom do we sing?

Surely, if our songs convey reverent adoration then they should mostly be TO Jesus, not simply about Him, and certainly not about US? If a major component of our corporate time together is devoted to singing about how we feel about OURSELVES then we should not be surprised if we do not sense God’s presence among us. They might make us emotional and empathetic, but in what sense is that WORSHIP? Self-worship perhaps, but worship of the Lord Jesus?… I don’t think so.

How do we sing?

Holding up our arms towards Jesus is a natural and appropriate worshipful response to His presence. But what is it with all those folk who rush to the front to form a forest of hands waving towards the worship group? I have even seen church layouts where the ‘worshippers’ can crowd all around their musical idols. It is appropriate to clap in delight as we sing about God’s glory, but to ‘give the Lord an applause offering’ as the preacher bounds onto the stage is surely neither appropriate nor worshipful. And what is it with folk who lip-sync, check their smartphones, or even chat to the person next to them after the minister up front says, “Let us now sing hymn number 999”?!

If we could see Jesus

Perhaps a little dated now, but one of the songs I still greatly appreciate is Phil Driscoll’s ‘Open our eyes Lord’. Now imagine for a moment that the Holy Spirit answered that sung prayer and suddenly we could see the Lord Jesus standing right up front where the worship group is usually located. How would we respond? Perhaps we would fall down on our knees or even prostrate ourselves on the floor. Perhaps we would sing with greater passion and intensity than before, seeking to let Him know how we feel about Him. Or perhaps we would fall into awestruck silence. Whatever our responses, I am sure that no believer among us would be standing with hands in pockets, or muttering to his wife that the music was too loud, or making a mental note to talk to the pastor about the blatant emotionalism on display.

What can we do?

In 2005 George Barna wrote in his book ‘Revolution’ that eight out of every ten believers do not feel they have entered into the presence of God, or experienced a connection with Him, during the Sunday worship service. This must change! For our sake and for the church’s sake, this must change. But how? I can make a few suggestions:

  1. We can examine ourselves and evaluate our own contributions to corporate worship; repent if necessary and ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us once again.
  2. We can prepare our own hearts before attending the Sunday service and expect to meet with God in a meaningful way.
  3. We can start every service we attend with the silent prayer “Open my eyes Lord, I want to see Jesus.”
  4. If necessary we can speak respectfully and kindly to our church leaders.
  5. We can commit to God and to our leaders to participate enthusiastically in every aspect of the Sunday service.

Finally

The testimony of Mike Pilavach, the pastor of Soul Survivor church, in Watford, England back in the late 1990’s is a great encouragement to us. He became dissatisfied with the consumer mentality and self-centredness of the church worship so he decided to do away with the entire worship group and sound system for a season. The worship leader at that time was none other than Matt Redman who during this imposed ‘sabbatical’ composed the well-known song ‘The heart of worship’. The lyrics are: ‘When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come / Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart… / I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about You, Jesus’. HERE is a link to a video of Matt leading a congregation in singing this song several years later.

To return to the theme of this series of articles – the question we all need to seek to answer remains, ‘would Jesus be pleased to be in the church service with us?’ For if He is present then we should surely know it and respond appropriately.

 

Prayer: The church Jesus would attend series

 

Many people have written much about prayer but few have focused on corporate prayer. Therefore, this article is exclusively about why, what, and how we pray when we come together, specifically on a Sunday morning.

In this series of articles, I am addressing the question, ‘what kind of church would Jesus attend?’ Although I have identified nine indicators of the presence of The Lord in a church service, I acknowledge that these nine are also ways in which we respond to His sensed presence.

Prayer is the second of the nine indicators, but to be more accurate I need to amplify it with the word ‘passionate’. Prayer is communicating with God and passionate, in this context, is expressing strong feeling. If we sense the immediate presence of the Lord Jesus in a Sunday service then we will surely want to communicate with Him heart-to-heart. Equally, it is hard to imagine that The Lord would be pleased to be in the midst of people who feel little for Him and who don’t really want to communicate with Him.

What makes corporate prayer different to individual prayer and why is it an important element of gathered church life?

I think that the best way to answer these questions is to look through the window of the book of Acts into the corporate prayer life of the early church.

The embryo church consisted of no more than about 17 men and women (Acts 1:13-14) who continued to meet together frequently after Jesus had ascended back into Heaven. Significantly, the primary purpose of these gatherings was to ‘join together with one mind in prayer’. They were constantly together both physically and in unity of heart and mind. Jesus had risen from the dead and then had spent 40 days with them teaching about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). They had then seen Him ascending bodily into Heaven and so it was natural for them to want to continue to talk with Him as a group of disciples. This then is the very essence of corporate prayer – a group of disciples talking passionately to Jesus.

Ten days later, those same disciples, plus about another one hundred, were meeting again in the upper room when the Holy Spirit came with power to birth the church and to anoint its members with the fire and wind of heaven (Acts 2:1-4). The result of this was the start of a wonderful cooperation between God and the church. The Spirit-filled disciples poured out into the street from the room where they were gathering, praising God in a spiritual language (tongues). This attracted a huge crowd of Jews who, to their amazement, found that they could understand what the disciples were praying. Because there has been so much confusion over this, I think it best to give you the full account as per the NIV Bible:

Acts 2:1-12  ‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.  Utterly amazed, they asked; “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?  Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs — we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”’

As a very minimum, we can take from this passage that when the believers met together in prayer they were filled by The Holy Spirit with spiritual power that enabled them to speak out in prayers of praise ‘declaring the wonders of God’. What is more, the Holy Spirit then enabled those in the crowd to understand what the disciples were praying. [Paul later identified these as two of the ‘gifts’ of The Holy Spirit to the church Tongues and Interpretation of tongues)]. Peter then answered the question “what does this mean?” by presenting the Gospel of Salvation, and as a result, about 3,000 people believed and were baptised!

Was this a once-off spiritual ‘birthing’ of the first church or an ongoing ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ that we can continue to expect and pray for in our church today?

Well, something similar happened again just a short while later. Peter and John were hauled before the Jewish religious hierarchy and told to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18). Their initial response was to publically reject this instruction, and secondly to report to the gathered church. Acts 4:24 records what the church did when they heard of what had happened to their leaders; “they raised their voices together in prayer to God” and asked Him to enable them to “speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30). Then the Acts account goes on in verse 31 to record that ‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly’.

This alone should encourage us to meet together regularly to pray! However, corporate prayer also featured in other aspects of early church life. For instance, after Judas had killed himself, the disciples felt it necessary to appoint a replacement. So what did they do? They prayed together and asked God to help them decide on which of the two candidates was more suitable (Acts 1:24). Sometime later, the apostles appointed seven deacons to distribute food to the needy in the church, but before they ‘ordained’ these men what did they do? ‘They prayed and laid their hands on them’ (Acts 6:6).

Later, Samaria experienced a Revival and so the Church in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to check it out. Acts 8:15 records that ‘when they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.’ Later still, the Kingdom of God spread to the city of Antioch where Barnabas and Paul co-pastored a growing church. Acts 13:2-3 gives the account that while they (the gathered church) were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off’.

Of course, the theme of corporate prayer runs on through the rest of the book of Acts but its importance is established right at the beginning of the church in Jerusalem where ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). In other words, when the church came together they focused on an intertwined combination of four things – the apostle’s teachings about Jesus, the sharing of testimony and life, the shared meal of Holy Communion, and… corporate prayer.

Paul later developed the subject of corporate prayer in his letters to the young churches, particularly in 1 Corinthians 14.

Now, here is a picture I will be putting before you, in one form or another, throughout this series:

Imagine for a moment that at some point in your Sunday service, at your local church, everyone there suddenly becomes aware of the tangible presence of the Lord Jesus. There He is standing right there! He looks around and His eyes linger briefly on every person there. Then He says; “Here I am my dearest people. What would you like to talk to me about? Come, speak to me.” What would you, and the others there, do and say?

Would you start to mouth out well-used prayer clichés like “Most holy Lord, we your people humbly beseech you…”? I doubt it. Would you start a chorus or read out a scripture? Surely not when He asked you to talk with Him. Would you turn to your pastor and mutter “Something’s wrong here because we should only pray to The Father you know” Perish the thought? No, rather one of you would start to tell Him how you feel about Him and others would exclaim “Yes Lord that is how I feel too!” Someone else would ask Him for forgiveness for apathy and faithlessness and you may well agree with a heartfelt “Amen” as you associate yourself with this prayer request. Others would speak out expressing personal passion but also seeking to express the heart and mind of the whole group. Oh, and hopefully you would then be silent as you waited with almost breathless expectation for Jesus to respond to your prayers.

Just as reverent and adoring worship is an indicator of and a response to the presence of God in our midst, so is passionate prayer.

HERE is an article on prayer that I wrote earlier this year and HERE is one I wrote as part of a serialisation of my book ‘Prayer, Power, and Proclamation

 

Biblical Preaching: The church Jesus would attend series

For many centuries, preaching has been an important element in church life. Visitors often rate a local church in terms of its music, friendliness, and preaching. But, in what way does preaching relate to the sensed presence of God in a service?

In this series, ‘the church Jesus would attend’, I am developing nine key criteria, and the third of these is what I have called ‘serious attention to biblical preaching’. I don’t intend discussing the differences between teaching and preaching or the superiority of expository over topical preaching. Rather, I want to explore the connection between preaching and the presence of God.

I have long defined preaching as ‘the proclamation of the Word of God with power’, but the most succinct definition of biblical preaching that I have found is, ‘preaching that is true to the Word of God’. The Word of God is central to both formulations, so I need to explain what I understand by this term.

The Word of God manifests in our lives in two ways. Primarily, Jesus is the Word of God. ‘In the beginning was the Word… (and) the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:1,14). However, the Bible is the inspired record of God’s interactions with humanity, which focuses on and finds full expression in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, while Jesus is the incarnate Word, the Bible is the inscribed Word. Therefore, when the Word of God is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, then Jesus would surely be pleased to bless it with His presence.

Prophecy

To take a slightly different line of thinking, prophecy is a means for God to communicate with His people and true preaching is also a way that God communicates with His people. Therefore, preaching is a form of prophecy. Biblical preaching presents the Incarnate Word in the context of the inscribed Word. If this is faithfully undertaken in the power of the Holy Spirit then it should be as much a “thus sayeth the Lord” as the gift of a word of prophecy. If this is truly the case, then should we not expect preaching to be a way in which Jesus manifests His presence in a Sunday service?

I have added the words ‘serious attention’ to ‘biblical preaching’ as one of the nine criteria because for preaching to be acceptable to The Lord and a means of sensing His presence, then both preacher and congregants need to give serious attention to it.  I do not mean that the sermon should be the high point of a church service, with everything else as either a preparation or an aftermath, but rather that the time given to preaching should be one element in a concentrated period of worship, prayer, ministry, fellowship, and biblical proclamation that, in its totality, focuses on Jesus and is an encounter with Him. When the preacher stands up with Bible in hand, we should regard the next 30 minutes as part of worship and not simply the time a suitably qualified person either shares ideas or teaches doctrine.

When we hear the Word of God preached, we need to be expecting to encounter Jesus and to hear Him speaking directly to us.

The most profound compliment that a preacher can ever receive is when someone says, “it was as though Jesus himself was talking to me.” This can only happen when the preacher has faithfully presented Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, from the inscribed Word of God.

This means that the preacher too needs to give serious attention to biblical preaching. If he or she is to faithfully present Jesus in the context of the Bible then that preacher needs to prepare conscientiously, skilfully, and in dependence upon the Holy Spirit for illumination, wisdom, and ultimately for delivery. Every so often, a preacher has little option but to prepare a sermon at the last moment or to respond to the immediate direction of The Lord to change what he has prepared. Here is the personal account of a life-changing moment experienced by Dr A.J.Gordon, a well-known Baptist preacher of the late nineteenth century, when he found himself having to prepare a sermon on a Saturday night. It is quite lengthy and in an outdated style, but it is definitely worth reading:

‘It was Saturday night, when wearied from the work of preparing Sunday’s sermon, that I fell asleep and the dream came. I was in the pulpit before a full congregation, just ready to begin my sermon, when a stranger entered and passed slowly up the left aisle of the church looking first to the one side and then to the other as though silently asking with his eyes that someone would give him a seat. He had proceeded nearly half-way up the aisle when a gentleman stepped out and offered him a place in his pew, which was quietly accepted. Excepting the face and features of the stranger everything in the scene is distinctly remembered — the number of the pew, the Christian man who offered its hospitality, the exact seat which was occupied. Only the countenance of the visitor could never be recalled. That his face wore a peculiarly serious look, as of one who had known some great sorrow, is clearly impressed on my mind. His bearing too was exceeding humble, his dress poor and plain, and from the beginning to the end of the service he gave the most respectful attention to the preacher. Immediately as I began my sermon my attention became riveted on this hearer. If I would avert my eyes from him for a moment they would instinctively return to him, so that he held my attention rather than I held his till the discourse was ended. To myself I said constantly, “Who can that stranger be?” and then I mentally resolved to find out by going to him and making his acquaintance as soon as the service should be over. But after the benediction had been given the departing congregation filed into the aisles and before I could reach him, the visitor had left the house. The gentleman with whom he had sat remained behind however; and approaching him with great eagerness I asked: “Can you tell me who that stranger was who sat in your pew this morning?”  In the most matter-of-course way he replied: “Why, do you not know that man? It was Jesus of Nazareth.” With a sense of the keenest disappointment I said: “My dear sir, why did you let him go without introducing me to him? I was so desirous to speak with him.” And with the same nonchalant air the gentleman replied: “Oh, do not be troubled. He has been here today, and no doubt he will come again.” And now came an indescribable rush of emotion’… ‘the Lord himself “whose I am and whom I serve” had been listening to me today. What was I saying? Was I preaching on some popular theme in order to catch the ear of the public? Well, thank God it was of himself I was speaking. However imperfectly done, it was Christ and him crucified whom I was holding up this morning. But in what spirit did I preach? Was it “Christ crucified preached in a crucified style”? or did the preacher magnify himself while exalting Christ? So anxious and painful did these questionings become that I was about to ask the brother with whom he had sat if the Lord had said anything to him concerning the sermon, but a sense of propriety and self-respect at once checked the suggestion.’

So, I believe that if both the preacher and the congregants give serious attention to biblical preaching, we will sense the presence of the Lord in our church services, for Jesus would have been pleased to visit us.

 

An Attitude of Faith: The church Jesus would attend series

 

At the start of this series, I identified nine indicators of the presence of The Lord in a church service and I acknowledge that these nine are also ways in which we respond to His sensed presence. So far, I have examined reverent and adoring worship, passionate prayer, and serious attention to biblical preaching. This article is about the fourth indicator, an attitude of faith.

The first problem confronting us when we try to get to grips with this topic is the different ways that some people understand and use the word ‘faith’.

Understandings and use of the word Faith

Some folk believe that faith equates to ‘standing on the promises of God’, usually meaning all the general promises of scripture irrespective of when or to whom they were originally given. Some take this even further by constantly reminding God of what He has ‘promised’ in the Bible. Others even claim these promises as their right and confess that God is bound by His Word to fulfil them all.  Still others believe that faith is a force they can use to achieve what they want. On the other hand, those on the conservative side of the theological spectrum understand faith more as a mental process or as a shorthand word for the Christian Faith in general. However, I don’t think that any of these understandings are biblically sustainable and they certainly don’t help us to comprehend how ‘faith’ can help us to perceive the presence of God.

A biblical definition of Faith

In the Old Testament, faith is defined as resting, trusting and hoping in God, with the idea that we should trust in and commit ourselves to Him. The primary definition of faith in the New Testament is, ‘being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (Hebrews 11:1). However, biblical faith should never be separated from the one in whom we have faith, the Lord Jesus Christ.

If we want to experience His presence in a church service then we need to first believe that He exists. Of course, no true Christian would deny that Jesus exists, but I doubt that too many believe that He is able and willing to presence himself in some tangible way in the midst of the gathered church. They don’t have ‘faith’ for this, but a better way of putting it is that they don’t expect this to happen.

Expectation and reality

There has been a theory around for decades that we only see what we expect to see. I mentioned this briefly here, and in my book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation, but until recently this idea has not been embraced by modern science. However, very recently Thomas Metzinger and Wanja Wiese of the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität have launched a website debating this subject.  The latest research suggests that we create reality inside our brains based on our prior knowledge and experiences, and that this then ‘influences’ how we see the world. Subconsciously, we make predictions about what we should be seeing that are based on a range of factors, including our individual experiences and emotional state. In other words, much of our reality is what we expect it to be.

One of the implications for this idea is that we are unlikely to perceive as reality anything we do not expect to be part of our reality.

If we don’t expect to experience the presence of the Lord Jesus in a church service then the chances are good that we won’t.

Spiritual beings, of all descriptions, currently exist in dimensions beyond our normal three, and if we are to encounter them, they need to initiate the experience and we need to expect to experience their presence.

A good Old Testament example of this is when the sight of enemy soldiers surrounding the city terrified Elisha’s servant, and Elisha said to him; “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  And Elisha prayed, “O LORD, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:16-17)

Something similar occurred when the disciples left Mary alone at the empty tomb. ‘Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”  At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.  “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”’ (John 20:10-16). Now, there could be a number of reasons why Mary did not recognise Jesus before he addressed her by name, but I think a major factor was that she didn’t expect to see him alive and well.

Now, let’s apply this idea to our experience of church services.

How we express Faith and Expectation in a church service

To experience the presence of God in a church service we need firstly to believe (have faith in) that He is present with us and is pleased to reveal himself to us. Secondly, we need to expect that this will happen with enough passionate conviction that our brains will be able to accept this as a new part of our present reality.

We express our faith in the reality of The Lord’s presence by:

  • Speaking to Him personally and directly (prayer)
  • Purposefully seeking signs of His presence in the environment around us, and
  • Acting on any genuine glimpses we might have of Him. By acting on these insights, I mean expressing the inner reality in some physical way such as falling down on our knees, standing with arms raised high, declaring aloud His wonderful presence, and so on.

At the risk of being presumptuous (possibly not for the first time in this series), I would think that the Lord Jesus would be very happy to be among people who believe He is with them and expect to encounter him in a meaningful way.

In my next article, I will be covering the hugely important subject of ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

 Ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit: The church Jesus would attend series

 

Pentecostal and charismatic Christians are familiar with the term ‘ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit’, but for the benefit of others, let me explain what I think it means.

The Holy Spirit empowers believers to minister to others in the Body of Christ in order to build them up and point them to Jesus, and this ‘empowerment’ forms part of the ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’.

This series is about the things that make a church service welcoming to the Lord Jesus and the indicators of His presence in the corporate gathering. Ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit is one such qualification and sign. Let me explain.

Kings give presents to their guests

In ancient times, kings, or other important people, customarily gave gifts to the guests attending their functions. Today, the practice lives on in the form of ‘party favours’ and more especially the gifts placed at each person’s place at the wedding reception table.

There are hints of this practice in Old Testament passages such as Ester 2:18, which records that ‘the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality’. In the New Testament, there are also allusions to this practice. For instance, Matthew 22 records Jesus’ story about a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son (God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son) and ended up inviting people off the street (you and me). The custom was that if someone arrived at a function such as this without the required fine attire then the host would ‘gift’ them with suitable robes. Obviously, in the story, the invited guests were unprepared for such an occasion and so they would have all been offered complimentary clothing when they arrived at the venue. It makes perfect sense therefore that the host, the king, was deeply offended by any guest who refused this gift. So, we would not wish to offend our divine host when He invites us to attend his special function, an occasion which we call the Sunday church service.

Gifts of the Spirit

There is a strong biblical thread connecting the idea of divine gifts with the gathered church. The Romans 12 passage outlining ministries and gifts starts with the words; ‘We have different gifts, according to the grace given us’ (verse 6). Similarly, the primary New Testament passage on spiritual gifts introduces the topic with; ‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men’ (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). In addition, the other key passage that outlines aspects of spiritual gifts, Ephesians 4, starts with; ‘grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift’ (Verse 7 per ESV).

I know that charismatic Christians customarily understand ‘Gifts’ as semi-permanent abilities given by the Holy Spirit to believers.

However, I think that there is sufficient evidence in 1 Corinthians 12  to indicate that they are rather special spiritual endowments given through believers to other believers as the Holy Spirit directs on any given occasion or circumstance.

To return to the analogy of the wedding garment, it is better to think of them as something given for the occasion rather than something worn routinely from then on.

Gifts in action

So, see the scene: We all arrive with everyone else at the Sunday Church service expecting to meet with the King of Kings. We also expect to be given something suitable to the occasion that will allow us to participate in the celebration of His presence. As the worship service progresses, you become aware of people there who desperately need to receive something tangible from their Lord. A compelling thought coalesces with your awareness and in it you sense the Holy Spirit saying, “Go to that person over there and minister my gift to them”. You don’t know just what to do or how to do it, but you trust the goodness of God and you appreciate His involving you as a ‘gift giver’, so you approach the person and ask if you may pray for them. As you start to pray, thanking God for His goodness and asking Him to meet the particular need, something wonderful happens. You just know what the root issue is and what to do about it. You don’t know how you know, but you just do. This ‘knowing’ is, as far as I can discern, the gift of Knowledge and the ability to prescribe a solution is a Word of Wisdom. Or perhaps, you might just ‘know’ that the person needs to be healed of a specific physical or emotional condition, so you ‘minister’ this to them with respect, gentleness, humility, and joy; this is a Gift of Healing. Then again, perhaps the Holy Spirit wants to say something to this person, so you speak out as best you can what it is you think The Lord wants to convey, and this would be a form of the gift of Prophecy.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive or complete description of what might take place as the Holy Spirit distributes His gifts among the gathered church members. The principles that emerge are however applicable to all circumstances. (1) The Holy Spirit gives the gifts, which are in fact manifestations of His power and grace, (2) Our role is to be alert to His voice, obedient to His prompting, and joyfully willing to be the ones who ‘carry’ the gifts to their intended recipients.

Signs of the presence of Jesus

Why are gifts of the Spirit signs of the presence of Jesus among us? Because they indicate that the divine host is present and is blessing those He has invited! Because He is tangibly among us to direct the distribution of these gifts of His grace. Because He has invited us into His presence as a group of believers to edify, build up, equip and us fill with sense of wonder at who He is, and the gifts demonstrate this reality.

If you have ever been the recipient of such a gift of grace, then you know without explanation just how it affected you. Someone who has received a genuine gift of healing will always be grateful to The Lord Jesus. To receive words of prophecy that personally encourage and give hope is memorable and when the hope is fulfilled, then it is impossible not to praise God and treasure the gift forever.

Gifts of the Spirit are signs of the presence of God and evidences of His love for His people. They are to be received with joy and not argued over, and they certainly are not to be faked or manipulated. To return one last time to Jesus’ story of the wedding banquet, they are to be ‘worn’ with grateful honour and shared generously with all in need.

I believe that the Lord Jesus is delighted to be present in a gathering where His followers are delivering His gifts to those in need.

 

Anointed Leadership: The Church Jesus would Attend Series

God anoints men and woman to lead; this fact is indisputably taught and demonstrated in both the Old and New Testaments. Unsurprisingly then, anointed leadership is one of the evidences and criteria for the presence of God in a Sunday church service.

In this series, I am considering only what happens in a corporate gathering of the church, such as the Sunday service.

Individual Anointing in the Bible

In the Old Testament there were three special classes of people who the Holy Spirit anointed to lead the people of Israel; Kings, Prophets, and Priests (Exodus 28:41, 1 Kings 19:15, 1 Samuel 10:1). The kings lead the people in national affairs under the anointing power of the Holy Spirit; The Prophets spoke on behalf of Almighty God; and the Priests represented the people to God.

Then came Jesus and fulfilled the prophecy of the coming anointed Messiah (Psalm 2:2, Luke 4:18) to embody all three sacred offices; the perfect King, Prophet, and Priest.

‘God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him’ (Acts 10:38).

Although Jesus perfectly modeled and fulfilled these three anointed offices, when He ascended back into heaven, He passed on these functions to His church. Ephesians 4:8-13 records how Jesus appointed Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers to equip and build up the church in order for His people to ‘become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ Although not explicitly stated, these five categories of anointed ministry equate to the three Old Testament (OT) offices. The Apostles establish, govern and lead the church (OT Kings). The Prophets speak out the Word of God to the church and the Evangelists proclaim the Gospel to the world (OT Prophets). The Pastors and Teachers are to represent the people of God before His throne and to instruct them in His Word (OT Priests).

Unfortunately, in much of today’s church, these roles and ascriptions have become blurred and confused. Pastors attempt to fulfill the apostolic function, Apostles call themselves ‘Senior Pastor’, Evangelist think they are Teachers, Priests govern, and everyone thinks he is a Prophet.

The Anointed Leaders in a Church Service

Three designated people play dominant roles in most Sunday church gatherings. In the church I attend:

  1. One of the Elders co-ordinates the service (OT King). He greets the people, tells them what is likely to happen during the service, and orchestrates the various activities that follow.
  2. The worship leader helps the people to worship God and to enter as much as they can into His presence (OT Priest).
  3. The preacher speaks the Word of God to the People (OT Prophet).

It matters little who these people are, man, woman, or adolescent, but it matters a lot that they are anointed by the Holy Spirit with grace and power to do what they are supposed to do. And their task is to direct the people, be an example to the people, and point the people to Jesus. Helping the church to focus on Jesus and encounter his presence is paramount. This is what the Holy Spirit does and so this is what His anointing leaders are to do. Jesus said, “the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Pointing to Jesus

Leaders do not represent Jesus so much as point people to Him. So, perhaps it would be useful to give some examples of what this does and does not mean in practice.

  • When a preacher makes what he thinks is a great point and immediately calls on the congregation to “give the Lord an applause offering”, he is pointing at himself, not Jesus.
  • When a worship leader takes center stage, sings songs nobody but he and his group can sing and cavorts about in front of the church with great showmanship, then he is pointing to himself and not Jesus.
  • When the person co-ordinating the service controls everything tightly, dominates and personally performs almost everything except singing and preaching, then he is pointing to himself and not to Jesus.

By the way, I am using the words ‘he’ and ‘him’ simply for convenience. I can’t see valid reasons why women should not lead worship, co-ordinate services, or preach.

So how then should a person co-ordinate a service, lead worship, and preach? By consistently pointing the people to Jesus.  They do this by honouring Him with their words and actions, helping the people to encounter Him, and faithfully speaking His words to them. Preaching is a form of prophecy in that it proclaims the Living Word (Jesus) from the Written Word of God (Bible) under the unction of the Holy Spirit. Worship leading is essentially a priestly duty because it helps the congregation to encounter The Lord and to respond to Him in song and in prayer. Leading a service is part of an apostolic ministry in that it lays out the structure of the service, co-ordinates it, and guides the people in responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

And in Conclusion

When the apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral, and teaching roles are exercised under the anointing and guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we encounter Jesus. When the OT roles of King, Prophet, and Priest are applied with grace, power, and a focus on Jesus, then surely He is pleased to be in our midst and we are blessed to be in His presence.

 

Wrapping Up The Church Jesus would Attend Series

In this eighth and final post in the current series, I intend to wrap things up by summarising a little and by dealing briefly with the last three items on my original list of indicators of and responses to the presence of God.

Right up front, I stated that in this series I would limit myself to the manifest presence of God in our corporate church meetings. The church is more than its Sunday gatherings, but these worship services are a focal point of its life.

I posed the question, “How do we know if ‘the Lord is in the house’? What are the indicators of His presence?” In response, I identified the following indicators:

The Nine Indicators

  1. Reverent and adoring worship
  2. Passionate prayer
  3. Serious attention to biblical preaching
  4. An attitude of faith
  5. Ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit
  6. Anointed leadership
  7. Expressions of love
  8. An impartation of life and wholeness
  9. A desire to share the presence of God with others

Over the last four months, I have written successively about worship, prayer, preaching, faith, ministry, and leadership. Now, as I consider the last three on the list, I appreciate that they do not stand alone, but rather form part of each of the preceding six.

Here are the final 3:

Expressions of Love

Jesus gave love as a defining mark of His church. His best-known statement is in John 13:34-35, which records Jesus as saying; “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.

I don’t want to differentiate between brotherly love and self-sacrificing love, but it must be reasonably obvious that love, in one form or another, is the binding agent in a corporate gathering of the church. We worship together because we love God and we love each other enough to want to join with each other in worship to the Lord. Similarly, prayer flows from a love of God and corporate prayer includes a love for each other, of being of one mind and contributing to a group expression of prayer. Biblical preaching, from the preacher’s perspective, is based on a love for God and His Words as well as a love for the people strong enough to motivate him/her to extensive, time-consuming preparation.

Faith is a little different from the other indicators, but we cannot separate faith from love; we have faith in the God we love or we have no biblical faith at all.

Ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit would just be a self-serving sham if it did not flow out of a desire to bless others with the Gifts of the Spirit. Lastly, anointed leadership is, in essence, a service of love for God and His people and if it does not issue from this then it is just a disgraceful display of ego and manipulation.

An Impartation of Life and Wholeness

When we preach, minister, or lead, we do it from a desire to impart life and wholeness to others. Once again, if this is not an underlying motive then these are self-serving shams.

Love is the essential source of imparting life; love of God and love for fellow members of His family.

When I teach young preachers, I make a point of ensuring that they understand that the purpose of a sermon is more than just informing, persuading, or motivating. In addition to these, it is to impart life to the hearers. A sermon should not simply entertain or educate, it should impart a life-changing message laden with the anointing power of the Holy Spirit.

I remember so well my first experience of receiving a powerful infilling by and from the Holy Spirit, and how for several minutes after this experience I stood with my hands cupped in front of me. It seemed in my spirit-charged imagination that God had poured a precious liquid into my hands and that I needed to carry it carefully, without spilling any, until I could give it to someone in need.

A desire to Share the Presence of God with Others

To love is to want to give, be it to God or others. Love is best seen in outward actions. We give money to the church, family, and those in need because we care deeply for them and we only give our time and attention freely to things and people we love.

Now the most valuable thing we have is our eternal relationship with Jesus. So, because we care, we seek to share this with others.

We, in many church circles, have tended to regard witnessing and evangelising as the source merit for duty performed. If we are ‘driven’ to speak out the Gospel from a sense of religious duty, or guilt, or a desire for recognition by our church leaders, then we have missed the point entirely. Surely, we share the Gospel because we love who the Gospel is all about and we care enough for others to want to share this love with them? Why then do we need tracts, methodologies, and training sessions?!

From the Church Service to the World

I have focused on what happens in a Sunday service, but this gathering cannot contain our life-in-Christ. If this life is true to both its definition and its source, then it needs to be shared outside of the church meetings. When the final “amen” sounds and the worship group sing one last song, the people who constitute the ‘church’ spill out into the world to share their love, their faith, and their hope. The Sunday service is when the local family of God come together to worship, pray, learn, minister and build each other up. Monday through Saturday is when that family, the local church, do what Jesus instructed when He said;

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation”. (Mark 16:15  ESV)

 

 

The Complete ‘What Kind of Church would Jesus Attend?’ series Read More »

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.