Christianity 201

May 22, 2021

When Face Masks Block the Light

A year later, we are returning to the website Sacred Sandwich. This article touches on a subject I was thinking about just a week ago and I urge you to click the header below to read it in full. The author is C. R. Carmichael.

Is Your Face Shining With The Light Of Christ?

“…It is ours to reflect the light.. and to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” — C.H. Spurgeon, 1879

It is not until you’ve been forced to wear a mask during a pandemic that you truly value the power of your face. No sooner have you exchanged glances with someone that you suddenly realize they can’t see your hidden smile, and you in turn have no idea what they might be expressing to you under that piece of cloth. It is in that awkward moment that you immediately comprehend how dehumanizing and frustrating it is to have your face so savagely removed from the process of interpersonal communication and emotional connection. No doubt this is why so many masked people these days seem to avoid eye contact altogether, walking past you like soulless zombies in a private hell.

For joyful Christians who demonstrate the grace of God through the social graces, this can be a difficult time for missional endeavors. As ambassadors for Christ who are called to be a light in this dark world, our shining faces are essential in communicating the Gospel to those with whom we interact during the course of our day. The Gospel, you see, is conveyed with more than mere words or deeds. It is a message of love and grace, fueled by the Holy Spirit, that can be powerfully expressed in the very countenances of our faces. Does the Scriptures not tell us so?

Indeed, the Bible teaches that the inward spiritual transformation of the Christian will bear outward “fruit” as the believer increases in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9-10). By the grace of God, those drawn to Christ have been “transformed by the renewing of their minds” (Romans 12:2) and now possess the wisdom of God’s truth embedded in their hearts. This sacred Gospel knowledge imparted by His Spirit is a sparkling treasure in earthen vessels that will always radiate through the bright eyes and happy wrinkles of our beaming faces. Indeed, as God’s word tells us, “a man’s wisdom brightens his face, and the sternness of his face is changed” (Ecclesiastes 8:1).

Once freed from the chains of sin and guilt by Christ’s sacrifice, the wise Christian’s once-dour face is forever changed, shining “as the brightness of the firmament” and appearing like “stars forever and ever” so that the believer might “turn many people to righteousness” through the illumination of the Gospel (Daniel 12:3). Even stretching into eternity, Jesus has assured us, “the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

Light, therefore, is intrinsic to the new nature of those transformed by Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells His people. “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Jesus Christ, in fact, is our example to be emulated so that we might become “the children of Light” (John 12:36). During his earthly ministry, our Lord spoke to his disciples, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And how was His light often transmitted in its full power and glory? Why, in His glorious face! “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

“In the face of Christ!” Imagine being witness to those historic supernatural events bathed in the brilliance of Christ’s white-hot countenance. How thrilling it would have been to stand beside Peter, James, and John in the high mountain when they saw their Master “transfigured before them,” where “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). Or being there to share in John’s vision of Christ holding seven stars in his right hand, a sharp double-edged sword coming from His mouth, and seeing His face “like the sun shining at its brightest” (Revelation 1:16).

One day, of course, the redeemed people of God will literally witness such a marvelous sight when “night will be no more, and they will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). And what a glorious thought this is as we anticipate His return to usher us into this bright eternity.

Until that day, however, the question remains: how do we as Christians bring Christ’s light to our faces to help convey the Gospel message in this dark world? Quite simply, it can only happen when we are in daily communion with the Lord. Just as Moses’ face radiated with the fiery glory of God when he returned from his interaction with the Divine in Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:29), so too the Christian’s face should be filled with the reflected light of Christ’s glory after boldly approaching His heavenly throne through fervent prayer, worship, and the reading of His word. It is, after all, the spiritual culmination of “fixing our eyes upon Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

As the old hymn beautifully says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; Look full in His wonderful face; And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.”

When believers are regularly energized through communion with the holy dynamo that is Christ Jesus, such fellowship cannot help but show forth in their outward expression. This spiritual interaction with the eternal Light of the world produces a godly, compelling visage that can draw the attention of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Isaiah 55:1; Matthew 5:6). As explained by Matthew Henry, “Near and spiritual communion with God improves the graces of a renewed and holy character. Serious godliness puts a lustre upon a man’s countenance, such as commands esteem and affection.”

This noticeable “lustre,” therefore, should be the goal of every Christian who desires to be used for God’s glory in bringing the lost to Christ. “Every Christian life,” insists Alexander Maclaren, “should be a life of increasing lustre, uninterrupted, and the natural result of increasing communion with, and conformity to, the very fountain itself of heavenly radiance.”

It is here where the Christian must be very careful not to pursue this heavenly radiance under their own power. This is not something that can be manufactured by sheer will or desire. We must never think we can put on a “happy Christian mask” of our own creation to hide a dark face still burdened by stagnant discipleship, ongoing sin or suspect faith.

When Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees, “hypocrites” (Matthew 23:25), He was using a common theatrical term of His day that denotes a stage actor in a Greek play who often wore a mask to “assume a role and identity that were not truly his own and performed for the audience’s approval” (Jesus and the Theatre, New Testament Studies, Vol. 30, 1984). The grave implications of being a hypocrite, therefore, are readily apparent. If you, as a professing Christian, are wearing the false mask of an actor because you are “more concerned with your public image rather than with genuine fidelity to God” (Ibid), then do not be surprised if the Lord soon calls you out as a liar and a hypocrite.

The true disciple of Christ has no need to hide behind a false mask. Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church, is a case in point. To be sure, this servant of God was a humble disciple “full of God’s grace and power” who preached Christ with a true supernatural “lustre” that came from the Holy Spirit. There, even among the enemies of Christ, Stephen displayed in his face a real godly wisdom and calm serenity that struck at the very hearts of his listeners as he delivered his Gospel message. As the Bible records, “Gazing at Stephen, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).

Did this mean that Stephen looked like an effeminate cherub from an old Renaissance painting? Of course not. John Gill tells us that the beauty displayed in Stephen’s face was consistent with the “lovely and amiable” angels of God, “who when they appeared to men, it was in very glorious and splendid forms.” Indeed, the Bible reminds us that angelic beings are “angels of light” that can have “faces like the sun” (Revelation 10:1). And so it was with Stephen’s appearance at the very moment of his martyrdom when his face reflected the heavenly vision he saw of Christ standing at the right Hand of God (Acts 7:55-56).

At this point, perhaps, the Christian may look in the mirror and become worried that the face looking back at him or her has little of the biblical radiance of an angel of God. This, of course, can be a frequent concern among those who are poor in spirit as humble servants and are often “working out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Whether this fear of a dim spiritual condition is based on one’s lack of godly discipleship or from an overly-harsh assessment of their position in Christ, it makes little difference. The answer is simply to renew one’s commitment to Christ and seek His face at every opportunity. When our spiritual focus wanes, how blessed we are to have a God who is “gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness” (Psalm 145:8).

This is why the Bible is filled with repeated heartfelt petitions to the Lord, actively seeking His face and asking that He might “make His face shine upon thee” (2 Chronicles 7:14; Numbers 6:25; Psalm 27:8; 105:4-5). It is the shining face of God which imparts His grace and warms us in the rays of His care and benevolence. This, in turn, recharges us and brings a renewed spiritual brightness to our faces. It may not be a vivid, supernatural light of biblical proportion, but nevertheless the public around you will no doubt see a striking difference in your facial expression.

“It is not unusual,” writes theologian Albert Barnes, “for deep feeling, sincerity, and confidence in God, to impress themselves on the countenance.” Even the slightest Spirit-driven influence upon your face can mark you as “peculiar” and distinct from the world. As Scripture declares, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” And why are you set apart from the crowd? “So that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

In this way, your happy face with sparkling eyes, a radiant smile, and the glowing cast of spiritual serenity can truly proclaim the light of the glory of Jesus Christ. And if the dazzling beauty of Christ and the shimmering power of the Holy Spirit rests upon your countenance, perhaps one day it will also warm and enlighten the heart of a lost sinner who then will ask you “the reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). As C.H. Spurgeon encourages us on this point, “Scatter your light in all unselfishness. Wish to shine, not that others may say ‘How bright he is,’ but that they may rejoice in the Source from which the light came to you and to them.”

Thus, the Christian should always ask, “Is the Light of Christ still shining in my face?” This may not be an easy question to answer these days. Sadly, we live in a stressful age of suppressive masks and fearful faces that have hardened and waxed cold. Now, more than ever, we must diligently and continually seek after Jesus, knowing that the Captain of our salvation will gladly fill our faces with His eternal brilliance to powerfully shine the Gospel “upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79).

Regardless of our circumstance, may we heed the charge of David’s inspired psalm in order to emit the rays of Christ’s glorious light in this dark and fear-gripped world:

“Oh, give thanks to the Lord! Call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples! Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; Talk of all His wondrous works! Glory in His holy name; Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD be joyful! Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His face for evermore!” (1 Chronicles 16:8-11).

If this we do, then no mask on earth will ever dim our glorious shine for Jesus.

October 1, 2020

A Good News Life

by Clarke Dixon

What does the Christian life look like? Should we retreat from a non-Christian majority and keep to ourselves? Should we just fit in, behaving like everyone else, but holding some beliefs in a very private place? Should we go all-in on what we think is a Bible-based lifestyle and call upon the government to get everyone else to believe and live like we do? What does it look like to be a follower of Jesus in our day?

This was a central question for the young Christian communities in New Testament times. Having turned from Roman religions, now how are they to live? Just as they are and do as Romans do? Or should they begin a political revolution calling on society to adopt and enforce Judea-Christian laws?

When we look at the early Christians we find neither of these things happening. What we find are people continuing to live in the world, rubbing shoulders with those they normally would, but who were now living differently. Yes, they were still in the Roman world, but they were now living there as citizens of another world.

Paul speaks to this in his letter to the Christians in Philippi:

Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ.

Philippians 1:27a (NLT)

Followers of Jesus in the early Church did not separate themselves from society, nor did they try to change society, but they did live differently within society.

Living lives “Worthy of the Good News,” they would be living in such as way that the people they rubbed shoulders with would say “wow, this really is good news.”

We might imagine what a very Roman citizen might say to his neighbour who became a Christian: “You are different. Love seems to be a big thing for you now. You have more concern than ever for the poor. You are quick to forgive people. You Jesus followers refuse to expose your unwanted babies (a practice of leaving unwanted newborns out to die). Your sexuality is different, we don’t see you with the temple prostitutes anymore. Your marriages are different, faithfulness to your spouse is now so important to you. When you gather in community, you don’t make distinctions based on class or, it seems, even gender. You have a confidence that there is only one God and that God is for you and not against you. You say it is good news that Jesus rose from the dead. In many ways it looks like good news!”

When Jesus calmed a storm, the disciples were astounded, asking “who is this man?” The person in the Roman world living a life worthy of the good news, lived a life that caused people to ask “Who is this Jesus they keep talking about? We want to know more.”

Is that happening in our day?

No one is going to ask “Who is this Jesus they keep talking about?”, if we live like hermits, separating ourselves off from everyone who is not a Christian. If no one hears us talking about Jesus, and sees the difference following him makes in our lives, nothing will change in theirs.

No one is going to ask “Who is this Jesus they keep talking about?”, if we just make Christianity a belief system, a set of doctrines we believe, with little to no impact on our lives. Christianity is not a privately held set of thoughts, but a way of life.

No one is going to ask “Who is this Jesus they keep talking about?”, if we make adopting Christianity a nationalist political agenda, if it is all about getting the state to ensure that everyone is living like Christians. People will not ask “Who is this Jesus?”, but they will ask “Who do these Christians think they are?”.

People will ask “Who is this Jesus they keep talking about?”, if we are growing in the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. People will ask “Who is this Jesus they keep talking about?”, if we are being changed from the inside out.

Now back to the Romans in Philippi:

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.

Philippians 1:27-28 (NRSV emphasis added)

Though a life worthy of the good news is really a beautiful kind of life, there will always be those who are very much opposed.

We can imagine the opposition in Philippi. The Christians would be seen to be promoting atheism by saying that the gods commonly believed in are not gods at all. The Christians are also no longer taking part in all the regular civic duties. The Christians seem to have forgotten what being a good Roman looks like with regards to both belief, and practice!

There will be those who are opposed to the Christ-focused life today with regards to both belief and practice.

There are those who very strongly promote scientism, the belief that all that is worth knowing can be learned through science. Certainly there is much we can know from science and we are grateful for all the work scientists do. But science is limited in what it can discover. We can expect opposition from those who disagree.

There are those who are opposed to Christian ethics and lifestyle. As an obvious example, many think the emphasis on faithfulness within monogamous marriage is rather old-fashioned. It may be old-fashioned, but it is good! There is something beautiful about the Christian ethic. We can expect opposition from those who disagree.

Let us not be intimidated by those who are opposed to Christianity, those who claim that it is unbelievable and/or ugly. In fact Christianity is both believable and beautiful! I will refer you to a series of earlier blog posts which speak to this, the summary of which, and a kind of “table of contents,” can be found here.

Just as Paul encouraged the Christians in Philippi to find encouragement from Christian community, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” we also can find encouragement from Christian community. This includes being part of a church family, but it can also include the encouragement we receive from Christian writers and resources.

When we are a follower of Jesus, do we retreat from society? Do we just fit in with society, and hold our beliefs in a very private place? Do we go all in and try to get everyone else to believe and live like we do?

We center our lives on God, being encouraged by Christian community, learning love from Jesus, empowered and led by the Holy Spirit.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Watch a video version of today’s devotional at their “online worship expression” from September 27th.

August 22, 2020

Take Us To Your Leader

“This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: In those days ten men from different nations and languages of the world will clutch at the sleeve of one Jew. And they will say, ‘Please let us walk with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”
-Zechariah 8:23

Over a year ago I copied and pasted this scripture into a devotional draft and then never returned to it. But the verse has been on my mind for quite some time. If we were to carry this principle into the New Testament era, I like the idea of them coming to us; the notion that they (those outside the faith) see something desirable about Christ-followers and want what we have.

Is that the general outlook non-believers have about Christians right now? I’ll leave it to you to check out the Barna Research or Pew Research survey results, but I think you know ahead of time what you’re likely to find.

BibleStudyTools.com quotes John Gill, whose classic commentary takes the Christological approach to this passage and harmonizes the idea of ‘clutching the sleeve’ being parallel to the woman who touched the hem of Christ’s clothing:

…the woman of Samaria knew he was a Jew, ( John 4:9 ) and very probably he wore the fringe the Jews did on the border of his garment.

He continues that ‘going with you’ can mean one of three things,

…either with Christ, resolving to follow him [wherever] he goes; to hold to him the Head; to abide by his truths and ordinances; to walk on in his ways, whatever they suffer for his name’s sake: or with his ministers and people, determining to go along and join with them in all religious exercises…

StudyLight.org quotes another classic commentary from Joseph Benson:

The meaning of the passage, therefore, is, that the heathen should apply themselves to the Christians, particularly to Christian pastors and ministers, for instruction, in order to qualify themselves for admittance into the church.

(The language is interesting in that we rarely hear the unchurched or seekers described as heathen much these days!)

On the forum, Quora.com, a very different answer from reader Ronald Jones. He reads it prophetically, and considering this is Zachariah we’re quoting, it could be argued that this is the only way to read the larger passage where this verse is found:

A time is coming shortly called the Millennial Kingdom of Jesus Christ. This period of time will last 1,000 years, and will come to pass after the rapture and the tribulation.

During this time, Jesus will reign in Jerusalem and the Israelites will be His emissaries. It will be a time of peace where the people of world will love Christ and long to be with Him. So much so, that they will beg the Jew to bring them to Israel so they may worship Him.

But Quora is a forum where anyone can post comments, and while it breaks up the rhythm here perhaps, it’s important to consider the above Christological interpretations of this passage from the view of Moshe Dawid Kohain, a Jew:

This is a prophecy found in the Tanakh. I’m not sure why Christians read the man that they worship into this verse. This verse is telling them and all others that their religions are not true. That Judaism is the only truth.

The Jews in Zechariah 8:23 are the observant Jews. The ten men from nation are the Christians, Mormons, Hindus, Zoroastrians, atheists, non-observant Jews and so on.

(Responses like this are important to keep in mind when discussing prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures with people for whom those texts represent their Bible!)

The Message Bible renders this passage,

A Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“At that time, ten men speaking a variety of languages will grab the sleeve of one Jew, hold tight, and say, ‘Let us go with you. We’ve heard that God is with you.’”

Bible Hub offers some parallel passages:

This is what the LORD says: “The products of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush, along with the Sabeans, men of stature, will come over to you and will be yours; they will trudge behind you; they will come over in chains and bow down to you. They will confess to you: ‘God is indeed with you, and there is no other; there is no other God.'”
 – Isaiah 45:14

and this New Testament passage:

But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, and the secrets of his heart will be made clear. So he will fall facedown and worship God, proclaiming, “God is truly among you!”
– I Cor 14:24-25

I did mention this passage at the end of an article in March, 2016: We were discussing the idea of Christians not keeping company with the world (a valid principle in general) but with necessary allowances for evangelism and, in the case of Zechariah 8:23, the times they come to you.

This is the ultimate goal for the follower of Christ, for them to see the presence of God in both attitudes and actions; and to know who this God is. I love this passage because it’s so much the opposite of Psalm 1:1 (Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.)

In this case the foreigners and strangers want to walk in the counsel of the godly. It’s a complete 180-degree spin on who is hanging out with who!

Let us walk with you for we have heard God is with you. We had a pastor who concluded ten years of ministry with us by saying, “Don’t let people come to you and say, ‘You’ve got a great church.’ Rather, let them say, ‘You’ve got a great God.’”


Go Deeper: The citations above are entirely from page one of search engine results. Now it’s your turn. Using the internet or more modern commentaries you already possess, why does our key verse say ten men? (Okay, ten people if you prefer the inclusivity.) There are lots of answers online.

October 17, 2019

Are Non-Christians Thankful for Christians?

by Clarke Dixon

(This “Shrunk Sermon” is from a series on The Book of Daniel which begins here)

As we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving this past weekend, we might wonder if anyone expressed thanks for Christians. Would such a notion have entered anyone’s head? If you keep up with the media, you might think no one could be thankful for Christians. We only hear about the bad apples among the clergy and the mistakes of high profile Christians. We don’t typically hear about all the good that is done. TV shows often portray Christians as being the bad guys, the weird or scary people. Perhaps it would be a miracle if someone said “I’m grateful for Christians.”

We have such a miracle in Daniel chapter 2. In the opening chapter of Daniel the ruling Babylonians attempted to turn wise young Jewish men into good Babylonian wisemen. However, Daniel and his friends were determined to retain their Jewish identity and dependence upon God. Surely this is not going to end well! There is indeed a clash of world-views in chapter 3, but something remarkable happens before that:

46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar threw himself down before Daniel and worshiped him, and he commanded his people to offer sacrifices and burn sweet incense before him. 47 The king said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is the greatest of gods, the Lord over kings, a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this secret.”

48 Then the king appointed Daniel to a high position and gave him many valuable gifts. He made Daniel ruler over the whole province of Babylon, as well as chief over all his wise men. 49 At Daniel’s request, the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be in charge of all the affairs of the province of Babylon, while Daniel remained in the king’s court. Daniel 2:46-49 (NLT)

The Babylonian king is obviously very thankful and very impressed not just with Daniel, but with the God Daniel serves. Daniel alone was able to help the king. Despite the fact Daniel was different, and from a minority group, Nebuchadnezzar is impressed, and thankful.

Back to our day where Christianity no longer has the influence it once did: Could anyone be impressed with, or thankful for, Christians? Let us look to another time in which Christianity had even less influence in society. Was anyone impressed with, or thankful for, Christians in New Testament times?

Some people in Jewish and Roman society were not impressed at all, and certainly not thankful. Consider Jewish religious leaders, like Saul before he became a Christian. He would have liked the Jesus followers to just go away and take their Christianity with them. Consider merchants dependent upon the sale of idols, such as we read of in Acts 19. As Christians didn’t spend their money on idols, the idol merchants were becoming idle merchants as people turned to Jesus. Consider people who liked the status quo, like those we read about in Acts 17.

Was anyone grateful for Christians in New Testament times?

Yes, let us consider some examples. Consider people who were poor, who would have benefitted greatly from the kind of help we read about in Acts 2. Consider women whose husbands became Christians and put a new effort into loving them sacrificially (see Ephesians 5:25-33). Consider women whose husbands became Christians and now focused their sexuality in faithful and selfless ways (see Hebrews 13:4). Consider slave masters whose slaves became Christians and began serving them as if they were rendering service to God (see Acts 6:5-8). Consider slaves whose masters became Christians and began treating them like brothers and sisters (see Ephesians 6:9, and the Book of Philemon). Consider people of lower classes who found themselves on equal footing with people of higher classes in the church community (see Galatians 3:28). We can think of women who were affirmed in greater ways than ever before (see Mary’s commendation by Jesus for taking the place of a disciple Luke 10:38-42). We can think of anyone dependent upon someone, who, in becoming a Christian, had given up drunkenness (see Ephesians 5:18). We can think of infants of parents who formerly would have “exposed” their children, a practice of letting unwanted infants die. We can think of anyone in relationship with someone whose activity, and very character, was changing as they grew in their relationship with Christ:

19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Galatians 5:19-23 (NLT emphasis added)

Though certain people were unimpressed and not at all grateful for Christians in New Testament times, many would have been thrilled at the changes happening as a Christians lived Jesus-focused and Spirit-filled lives. There were also people who were thankful for everything changing in their own lives. Consider the gratitude of those who came to know about the love of God because a Christian shared the good news with them (See, for example, Acts 16:25-34).

As in New Testament times, some are neither impressed with, nor thankful for, Christians today. However, when we live Jesus-focused and Spirit-filled lives, good things happen in us, and around us. Jesus-focused ethics bring positive changes to our behaviour. The Holy Spirit creates positive changes in us. Many will be grateful.

We may have expected a clash between a Babylonian king and a young Jewish wiseman in the Book of Daniel. Instead, we have an expression of gratitude from Nebuchadnezzar for Daniel. Let us keep in mind that Daniel appeared before the king, not with an axe to grind, but with help. In our day we might expect a culture clash as traditional Christian values meet the brave new world that is developing around us. If all we have is an axe to grind, that clash will certainly happen. However, if we are living Jesus-focused, Spirit-filled lives, people will be thankful.

 

May 30, 2019

Compelling Society

How the Christian Vision for Society Points to the Reality of God.

by Clarke Dixon

Are Christians to rebel against governments? Are Christians to submit to governments? Are Christians to take over governments? Does the Christian vision for society lead to a theocracy, where God’s law is the law of the land? Does Christianity promote a beautiful vision for society? If God is real, and Christianity is true, then we should expect beauty and not ugliness. What is the vision?

Are Christians to rebel?

8 So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.
19 But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? 20 We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:18-20 (NLT emphasis added)

26 The captain went with his Temple guards and arrested the apostles, but without violence, for they were afraid the people would stone them. 27 Then they brought the apostles before the high council, where the high priest confronted them. 28 “We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this man’s name!” he said. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!”
29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. Acts 5:26-29 (NLT emphasis added)

In the New Testament we find rebellion against the authorities in order to be obedient to God. We can think of the many Christians around the world who disobey the authorities by gathering together as the Church, by telling others about Jesus, sometimes simply by owning a Bible. Let us not just think of the underground Church, let us pray. So yes, we are encouraged to rebel and break the laws when necessary.

Are Christians to submit?

1 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.
6 Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority. Romans 13:1-7 (NLT)

Keep in mind that these words are taken from Paul’s letter to Rome, the seat of power in the ancient world. While the Christians in Rome recognized that “Jesus is Lord” meant  therefore that Caesar is not, there was still a call to respect the authorities. There is an impulse to be good citizens of the land, to be good Romans, or Canadians, as well as good Christians.

We therefore find in the New Testament a balance between respect for the authorities, but also disobedience when necessary.

Are Christians to take over the government, to aim for a “Christian Nation,” to establish a theocracy?

Reading through the entire New Testament we find no encouragement to take over the government, to establish a theocracy. Christianity began as a minority movement and therefore a takeover was not even entertained as a possibility. Even so, neither do we find a longing to do so at some point in the future. What we find is a focus on individuals having a life changing encounter with Christ. We find disciples making disciples. We find the recognition that Jesus already reigns without the need for a coup. There is no need to take over the government, for Jesus is already Lord. There is no need to set up a theocracy, for God is already sovereign.

15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices shouting in heaven:
“The world has now become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,
and he will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 11:15 (NLT)

The place of the Christian is not to enforce laws that make the land look like God’s kingdom. The place of the Christian is to live kingdom focused lives while watching and waiting for God to bring His kingdom.

We find something similar in Old Testament. While there was a call for the establishment of a theocracy, known as Israel, there was no impulse for that theocracy to take over the world. Israel was to be salt and light to the world. Christians today are to be salt and light within the world.

We can have influence on society, but we are to be salt and light, not a hammer and gun. We are to carry a cross, not a sword. Helping people know Jesus is the priority of the Christian, not enforcing non-Christian people to live like Christians, especially not our own vision of what a Christian looks like. Our own idea of a “theocracy” might better be termed a “meocracy.” We are not kings over the land but kingdom people in the land, leading kingdom lives, looking forward to the Kingdom to come. We are disciples making disciples.

As lives are changed, society is changed. Christianity has brought good and beautiful changes to society, yet without a vision for totalitarian control. As an interesting example, consider the nations that are best, and worst, to live in if you are gay. According to one source, here are the ten best in ascending order; Argentina, Belgium, Malta, Germany, Iceland, Portugal, Sweden, The Netherlands, Spain, and Canada takes the top spot as the best. From another source, here are the worst in descending order; Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland, Nigeria, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and Mauritania. Notice anything about these two lists? The nations that are considered best have all had Christianity working in the background for a long time, helping to shape the culture, helping to develop a societal vision of love for one’s neighbour. The nations that are considered worst share a history of either Sharia law or communism, Islam or atheism. Rights and freedoms have flourished in lands that have been marinating in Christianity. This speaks positively about Christianity.

To conclude, the New Testament does not promote a vision for society that is to be fought for, that is to be enforced. That could get ugly quite quickly. Unfortunately, being all too human, we Christians have made things get ugly at times. What the New Testament promotes is a vision for how Christians engage with and interact within society, any society. We are to be individuals reaching individuals with the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are to be disciples making disciples. We are to do good, to love our neighbours. We are to lead Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled, wisdom seeking lives. We are to be kingdom people living kingdom lives, while watching and waiting for the kingdom to come. We are to be good citizens of whatever land we live in. We are to rebel when necessary. Overall, the Bible promotes a beautiful vision for how Christians engage with and live within society. This is another reason Christianity is compelling.


This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.

July 4, 2016

Wheat Among the Weeds

The Parable of the Weeds

NIV Matt. 13: 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

This parable came up in a discussion on the weekend, and I went looking for some commentary on it, even though we’ve covered it here before two or three times. I think there’s a powerful principle here we can miss.

Karoline Lewis is Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minn. Click the title below to read at source. Note: Her website, Dear Working Preacher, is addressed to pastors.

Wheat and Tares and Other Truths about the Kingdom of Heaven

Good and evil side by side, co-existing without set checks and balances, without resolute criteria for adjudicating which is which, without a sense of qualifications and quantifications that might provide certain conclusions to ease our moral consciences? Perhaps one of the most challenging and problematic issues in the history of theological thought. Where does evil come from? Is it as simple as assigning it to an alternate being? Is it as easily determinable as we tend to think? Is it so readily recognized as we want to believe?

These are the theological questions that Matthew’s parable seems to raise. A first step in preaching this week is to acknowledge these difficulties, to dwell in the discomfort, and to resist any definitive test to secure answers that surely demand far more deliberation than a twelve minute sermon can give justice.

We are really good at assessing what is good and what is not with the effortless phrase, “the Bible says.” But, the problem with evil? With sin? Is that it looks pretty darn good. So close to what seems right and virtuous. So close to our vision of what we imagine good should be.

Matthew’s parable…is in one sense a warning. Lest we think we have it all figured out how to judge evil from good, moral from immoral, right from wrong, virtuous from unvirtuous, think again. According to whom? When? In what contexts? By what standards? This is the time for some prophetic proclamation. Pointing out the places in our history, in our present, when evil was and is justified biblically, theologically, morally, socially. This alone is worth preaching.

Such is our human inclination, is it not? Our penchant for judgment and condemnation. For declaring the future of those we deem somehow inadequate in faith and Christian life. For assuming maleficence in another as if our own actions are above reproach.

This parable is one that should stop us up short. Really? Who do you think you are? God? Yet many do. We do. A lot.

I recently shared a saying on my Facebook page that appeared in my news feed, “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed they are not it.”

When we start going down the road of making our lot in life electing what is good and evil we may very well discover that others will make similar conclusions about us.

Matthew’s parable invites some honest preaching about the existence of evil. When was the last time you listened, really listened, to how your parishioners talk about evil, about theodicy? Call attention to the ways in which these realities co-exist. How difficult it is to determine the difference until the point when it’s too late. That it is ok. Because in the end, the parable promises that God’s job is not ours. Exuberant efforts to eradicate evil may very well end up only in questioning our own eschatological actuality.

This parable is a description of a reality we’d rather not admit. Maybe even a description of a God in whom we’d rather not believe. Can’t God do something about the enemy, and now? What is God good for anyway if God can’t see to it that evil is eliminated? The parable of the wheat and the weeds is not told for the sake of action but for the sake of honesty. Our presence in the world as Christians is not about a full-blown plan to get rid of evil at every turn.

That our calling as disciples is to seek out and purge sin and evil? Frankly, I don’t want that job. I don’t trust myself. But I do trust God. Our presence in the world as Christians is to be the good. To live the Gospel. To be the light. To be the salt. Because we are, says Jesus to his disciples. This should be good news. This parable calls us simply to be. To be the good in the world with the full awareness of what the resistances will be. To be light when darkness will surely try to snuff us out. To be salt when blandness and conformity and acceptability are always the easier paths.

Maybe you are wondering, but aren’t we called to call out evil? To resist the forces that would deprive those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? To make sure that those who mourn are comforted? To uplift the poor in spirit? Yes. Absolutely. But perhaps not in this sermon. There will be other texts and other sermons that will have us lead a charge for this kind of action.

Perhaps in this instance we believe in the text and take our cue from Matthew’s vision of God. Immanuel. “I am with you to the end of the age.” We are called to just to be. And in order to be we trust that God is with us.

Indeed, God is.

 

December 24, 2011

The Outrage of the Gospel of Light

At the Saturday morning Christmas Eve service today at North Point, Andy Stanley noted that when you attend an afternoon showing at a movie theater, and then walk out into the day light, the brightness hurts.  It offends the senses.  We tend to think of  “seeing the light” as a good thing; but initially it is an affront to one’s body.

At this classic post from the late Michael Spencer at Internet Monk, he begins with a quotation from Sam Harris — who experiences what Andy Stanley is talking about — and suggests this is a barometer of whether or not we’ve got the gospel right.  If you read it here, be sure to click the “more” tag — grab a coffee or hot chocolate, this is a longer one — otherwise read it at Internet Monk.

There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend an eternity in hell. An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists

Sam Harris, Letters To A Christian Nation


The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
(Isaiah 9:2)

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. …And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:9-18)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)


 


Christians in America have a preference for people like themselves. In this, we’re not unlike most human beings, but that’s exactly the problem. Most 4th graders would be able to give the correct answer to the question “Who is my neighbor As obvious as the answer would be, most of us would still like to be surrounded with people from our tribe, culture, language group, income level and, of course, worldview.

Christians like to participate in the fantasy that ours is a Christian nation in what is becoming a Christian world. Muslims, atheists, occultists and others occupying the planet get the requisite dose of rhetoric saying we love our neighbors who are unlike us, but if we’re honest, especially about our evangelicalism, we’d have to admit a strong bias toward familiar surroundings and familiar people.

Those radically, fundamentally different from ourselves make us uneasy, as if we were somehow under attack from different cultures and beliefs. The sound of the culture war is the sound of Christians- largely- declaring that they are in some way at war with their neighbors. The rumblings of culture expansion and population shifts in Europe and the American southwest brings out a kind of paranoia in some Christians remarkably similar to what one might have heard from white South Africans in the waning days of apartheid.

I am blessed to live in one of the most diverse communities in America, a place where various races, cultures and religions live and work together in the pursuit of education. For those of us who are part of the Christian mission and identity of our school, the command to love our neighbor takes on flesh and blood every day as students from Muslim, Buddhist, Communist and secularist cultures come into our classrooms and lives.

It is not unusual to watch Christians at our school struggle with the feelings this kind of diversity creates. I might find myself surrounded by Koreans speaking their language, and I am assaulted by a temptation toward resentment that they aren’t speaking English. A table of inner-city African-Americans seem too loud and their hip-hop culture seems alien and disrespectful to me. The hostile questions of an atheistic student cross the invisible boundaries I’ve set up; boundaries that demand he not find my worldview oppressive or ridiculous.

These experiences are common enough that our school might lose a staff family each year primarily to the stress and strain of relating to those different from us. The familiar rhetoric of “I thought this was a Christian school” often comes along with that resignation, insisting that a “real” Christian school would, of course, be populated by Christians in agreement on everything from politics to worship music.

Sam Harris’s description of the arrogance of the Christian faith is the kind of bold atheism that rankles many Christians. Despite the Tom Paines of our history, our belief that we live in a Christian culture inclines us to believe that unbelievers should be, at least, humble. If they want to have their little meetings and make the occasional speech, we can handle it. But when they write confident New York Times bestsellers lecturing all of us as if the nation really belongs to the secularists, it makes us mad.

Harris, however, has a better grasp of the Gospel than most Christians. Evangelicals have almost totally lost the outrage that lies at the heart of the Gospel. We believe that everyone ought to believe what we believe because it’s obvious that its the truth. We have big churches, media stars and books explaining everything so persuasively that it shows just how stubborn and hostile unbelievers really are. If they would just listen to our pastor answer all the questions, it would make sense. (more…)