Christianity 201

May 8, 2017

Preaching for Change

CEB Acts 2:36 “Therefore, let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

37 When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Earlier today I wrote these words at my other blog, or perhaps I should say these words wrote themselves:

I have been noticing a recurring theme lately in sermons I have listened to online and books I have been reading. Perhaps it’s personal conviction about this subject.

The idea is very simple: Many of us read the Bible and Christian books, and many of us listen to sermons in order to gain information when God is wanting to see our transformation. Perhaps you even are in a position where you give leadership or mentoring to others, or simply have occasion to speak into the lives of friends, and what you’re imparting is more informative than transformative.

I know I’m a guilty of this. Do you ever track your spiritual progress by the month, or by the year? Each day I have more knowledge and a better understanding of the ways of God and the history of his dealings with his people. But am I a different person than I was last month or last year? To ask the question bluntly, what good is all this information doing for me? What good is all that Bible knowledge and understanding of systematic theology doing for you?

Spiritual formation is not simply about building up the mind’s knowledge base. It’s about forming the character of the heart. It leads to different speech, different choices, a different mindset, and different actions.

The Word of God should bring change. As I write this now, later in the day, I realize that there are people for whom God’s truth needs to be rediscovered. They don’t even have the basic Bible knowledge that was once common among people in North America and Western Europe, regardless of their personal beliefs. It reminds me of Nehemiah (see chapter 8) bringing the scrolls to be read to a people who had not heard this word in a long, long time.

At the blog Clergy Stuff I read this:

In this information age, where any piece of information can be accessed at our fingertips at any time, it might be hard to believe that God’s people had lost touch with their God. But they had been exiled – ripped from their homes, families, and faith practices. After so many years of living apart from the community of faith, it is possible to see how easily the faith practices of a broken people could unravel.

But after they returned, a scroll was found. The scroll contained God’s word lost long ago. When Ezra read it to the people, it brought up many emotions for them. It was a word of hope and promise to a people that had nearly lost all hope of ever being a united people again. But the promise of restoration had been fulfilled, and on this day, the word of God spoke loudly throughout their gathering.

At the Our Daily Bread archives, I found this in reference to our key text today:

In 1738, an Englishman named John Wesley entered a church service where someone was preaching from the book of Romans. As he listened to the message of the gospel that night, Wesley wrote that he felt his heart “strangely warmed,” and he knew deep within that Jesus had died to save him from his sins. John Wesley would go on to found Methodism, an approach to living out Christian faith that continues today.

In today’s world, the message of the gospel can sound strange to some who don’t yet know God. The idea of receiving salvation can seem like a foreign concept.

We can be encouraged, however, for a person’s heart being transformed by the gospel takes place through the work of the Holy Spirit—a work we trace back to that first day of the early church.

So today we have both situations: People who have great quantities of Bible knowledge at their fingertips but have not allowed themselves to be changed by it; and people for whom the Bible narrative has gotten lost and they need to hear it as if it were the first time.

Because we’ve posted this song before, here’s a different version of it.

God, help us all in this information age when we have so many Biblical resources so easily accessible; help us that we don’t track our progress simply in terms of knowledge gained but in terms of hearts and lives changed. For those who lead, help them to lead with change in view. Amen.

 

October 26, 2016

Overview of Ezra

John D. West has retired and is re-reading the Bible and posting overviews of each book at his blog West Word. We caught up with him a few days ago when he was in the book of Ezra. Click the title below to read at source, and then jump back to the beginning of the series.

Gleanings from the Bible: Ezra

You would think that Ezra and Nehemiah should really be towards the end of our Old Testament as they cover the return of the Jews from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. The scene is being set for the incarnation of Jesus Christ, albeit about five hundred years before the Nativity.

THE MIRACLE OF THE RETURN

The thing that stands out most is that the Return was a remarkable event. That the Persian king, Cyrus, would allow the Jews to go and rebuild the walls of their city is unusual. That he and his successors would actually help to finance the venture, acknowledging the “God of heaven”, is quite miraculous. It’s no wonder that Ezra records, Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials.” (8:27-28). It’s another reminder that God is King over all nations, that he controls their fate and that his mercy continues to extend to his people, despite their past failures. While we think of history being shaped by kings, politicians and wars (and perhaps currently by multi-national corporations), the witness of Scripture is that Yahweh is the mover and shaker who will encompass the good and bad decisions of all people into his overall plans for humanity.

THE DIFFICULTY OF DIVORCE

I found it hard to come to terms with Ezra sending away foreign wives and their children (See chapters 9 and following). It seems harsh against today’s social background and particularly when you try to imagine what it must have been like in their place. Was this a pre-pharisaical sort of response, which the coming of Jesus would change? An exclusiveness which he would challenge, as he often commended the foreigners of faith and finally commanded his disciples to take the gospel to all nations?

I had to remind myself that once again the Jews were at a precarious stage of regrouping and re-establishing all they had lost seventy years earlier. It would still be all too easy to fall back into idolatry, and there were still hundreds of years to go before the Christ would arrive on the scene. A lot can happen in that time – and it did!

Another point is that Ezra is claiming that the Jewish men should not have entered into these marriages in the first place. Today the application of this principle has less to do with race but as much to do with faith. I have had occasion in the past, based on New Testament Scripture, to warn Christian young people to be wary of who they became romantically involved with. Marrying an unbeliever has too often marked the ending of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. At the very least it has made commitment to God’s work more difficult as one person is pulling in a different direction or not pulling at all. I’ve seen it happen too many times and heart-breaking though it may sometimes be I believe that God honours and blesses those who put him first as they seek a partner.

OT RESPONSE vs NT RESPONSE

I note here that to the New Testament Church Paul advises those who converted to Christianity, and were already married to an unbelieving partner, should not seek a separation. There was a chance that the partner could be converted through the witness of the Christian (1 Corinthians 7).

So what had changed between the people of God prior to Christ and those after? Why didn’t Paul insist that Christians divorce unbelievers as Ezra had done with the returning Jews?

There are probably other reasons but the one that stands out for me is that the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit created a generally stronger people spiritually. No longer held together by ritual observance, nor motivated by legal observance, Christians were in a New Covenant relationship, motivated by the Spirit from the heart. Those born of the Spirit had a new, natural bias towards God. The Kingdom of God was always a reality, but with the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God’s Kingdom had come with power into the lives of all who truly responded with faith.

BACK TO EZRA

On re-reading Ezra I also realized that the business of sending away wives and children was not a hasty decision enacted over a weekend. There were actually one hundred and ten cases and they were dealt with by an investigative committee over seventy-five days with the names recorded. I can only trust that provision was made for all concerned under such difficult circumstances!