Verse of the Month: July 2020

“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me.” (John 15:4)

Ripening plums

There are no short-cuts to a ‘successful’ Christian life. Spiritual fruitfulness is the product of a long-term relationship with Christ.

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Praying in the Spirit

Romans 8:26,27

Nowhere is the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ more evident than when we pray. Our prayers are weak and ineffective because there are many situations in which we do not know God’s will. Should we, for example, pray for relief from our sufferings or for the strength to endure them? We aren’t competent to discern what is good and right; we are biased and short-sighted, and in our sinfulness we confuse God’s will with our own.

This is why we need the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” (verse 26) We do not pray alone, because the Spirit is in us – not (usually) to give us special revelations of God’s will, but to inspire and direct our prayers. And He actually participates in our struggles by joining in our groans of frustration! There are times (sickness, or severe mental distress) when we may find it humanly impossible to pray; but even then the Spirit comes to our aid by praying for us, conveying our unspoken desires to the Father.

God will not fail to listen and respond to prayers mediated by His own Spirit; there is no possibility of misunderstanding or discord. This is the ‘secret’ of effective prayer: available to every Christian, and involving no special skill or formula!

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Christian Wisdom: Love AND Holiness

James 1:26,27

How do you know that someone is a genuine Christian?
Is it: because they have the right kind of testimony? 
because they’ve been baptised in a particular way?
because they attend a particular type of church – or any church, for that matter?
because they know the Bible well?

James gives us a very helpful definition of what we might call “true Christianity”. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27) We could sum this up in just three words: 
Preachers often talk about the significant ‘buts’ in Scripture (e.g. we were dead in our transgressions and sins… but God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ – Ephesians 2:1-5); well, this is a significant ‘and’! Christianity is not just about love (although the world would dearly like it to be). And it’s not just about holiness (although there are some Christians who would dearly like it to be). It’s both! The unbelieving world likes Christians who do good deeds and help the poor – what’s not to like about that? But our society is much less keen on Christians who express dissenting opinions, especially in the realm of sexual ethics. Remember what happened to Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, three years ago?

In fact, the world is trying very hard to drive a wedge between love and holiness, and it’s easy to see why. People want to benefit from our love; but they don’t want to be challenged by our holiness. And Christians tend to respond in one of two ways. We either abandon the world and go into a ‘holy huddle’, or (more often) we involve ourselves in the needs of the world while doing our best not to appear any different. In both cases, we’re pandering to what the world wants. So although it’s difficult, and often costly, we mustn’t separate love from holiness.

So how will anyone know that I am a genuine Christian? 
By how I talk…
and by how I behave…
Our faith is a personal faith, but it’s got to be more than just private devotions. True faith can’t be indifferent to the needs of those around us; it takes us out of our church meetings and into the messy lives of other people. James specifies widows and orphans because they were the most disadvantaged groups in first-century society. Who would he single out in this country today? Probably the homeless, the disabled, and ethnic minorities. And in the time that I’ve been a Christian I’ve seen some very encouraging developments – over the last ten years or so, particularly. Churches and individual Christians are reaching out more and more, getting involved in meeting the needs of their local communities. We run foodbanks, we provide night shelters for the homeless and drop-in centres for drug addicts, we have “street pastors”, we have “neighbourhood chaplains”, etc, etc.

So this is something that we’re getting right! But as we go out into the world to serve, we do also need to guard against absorbing the attitudes of the world. We’re the salt of the earth, but only if we retain our saltiness! We’re supposed to be different from the unbelieving world, we’re supposed to stand out – yet a lot of the time we simply blend in! We’re just like everyone else! We tend to have the same values and the same attitudes that the world has, rather than the values and attitudes of Jesus – and James wants us to stop and think about how we work out the implications of what we believe.

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Romans 8:22-25

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning…” (verse 22) Illnesses, natural disasters, death and other evils are part of the fabric of this world, because of human sin. Yet these ‘groanings’ are not death throes but labour pains (Mark 13:8). The difference is not one of severity, but of significance; one results in death, the other in new life. So the creation’s ‘eager expectation’ is that of an expectant mother, enduring the pain for the sake of what it signifies. (John 16:21,22)

There will be continuity between the old creation and the new one; the new will be born out of the womb of the old. But we shouldn’t expect the transition from old to new to be smooth or painless – and especially not for us! We have received God’s Spirit as the ‘first instalment’ of our glorious inheritance, and so we are already experiencing some aspects of the new creation. But this actually increases the pain because, while our expectations have raised by the renewal of our spirits, the life of the Spirit cannot be fully expressed in our mortal bodies. We are living in a time of tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, between the promise and its fulfilment. We have seen and tasted the fruits of Canaan; yet we are, for the time being, still living in the wilderness. We still suffer; we still sin; we still struggle. We are frustrated by our lack of spiritual progress, and constantly reminded that we are not yet what God intends us to be.

So we groan along with the rest of creation; and yet our groans are not the groans of despair, but of yearning. Our salvation is not yet fully realised; but it has already been fully accomplished! So, although we await our complete deliverance with a certain amount of impatience, we should also have full confidence in the final outcome. Nobody can measure or prove the future life that Christians hope for – but because we believe God’s promise of what is to come, we can look beyond our immediate situation to take account of these eternal realities. This is what sustains us through our present life, as we wait for the Day of the Lord.

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Even the worst of sinners?

We believe in… the forgiveness of sins…

Jonah 3:10

When God saw what the Ninevites did and how they turned from their evil ways, He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened.

Is anyone beyond God’s forgiveness?

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and the Ninevites were the enemies of God’s people. They were idolatrous, cruel and greedy; their armies terrorised the Middle East. Everyone hated them. Jonah hated them. When God told him to go and preach to them, he refused and went the other way!

But when he did eventually get to Nineveh and warned the people there that they were facing imminent judgement for their sins, something amazing happened. They repented…

The wicked Ninevites cast themselves upon God’s mercy – and discovered that He is incredibly merciful. Whenever He sees a spark of genuine repentance, however feeble or short-lived, He will withhold judgement. And so there is hope for even the worst of sinners…


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Suffering and the Gospel

Romans 8:18-21

Suffering is inevitable in this life; but if we allow ourselves to become discouraged by it, we have lost all sense of proportion. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) When the new age finally dawns, the evils of our present world will fade away like a bad dream, and we will not only see the glory of God but be part of it!

At the moment we don’t look (or feel) very glorious. But this will change when Christ returns. Just as Christ’s status as Son of God was made evident by His resurrection (Romans 1:4), so our status as God’s children will be made public at our resurrection. Meanwhile, the whole of creation is ‘craning its neck’ in excitement, looking for that moment to come! For the world we know is not as it should be; it’s a world dominated by frustration and disappointment (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The whole universe has been affected by mankind’s curse; this is why it is now in bondage, subject to pain and suffering, and doomed to disintegration and death. The woes of humanity are part of this bigger picture. 

But this was not God’s original intention, nor is it His ultimate will. His plan of salvation is not limited to mankind alone, but embraces the whole of creation! When Jesus returns and we are resurrected in our new bodies, the rest of creation will be renewed with us (just as it was once cursed with us) – and we will rule over it, as we were originally meant to do. Then at last the powers of darkness will be defeated, the power of sin will be completely overthrown, every chain will be broken – and the world will be a place of peace and harmony.

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The informer

Psalm 52

When David went on the run from Saul, he apparently had nothing but the clothes he was wearing. Desperately in need of provisions, he headed for the sanctuary at Nob (in the territory of Benjamin, not far from Gibeah) to ask for help. Trying to avoid implicating the high priest Ahimelek in his breach with Saul (which would certainly be interpreted as treachery), he made up a cover story about a secret mission. On that basis, Ahimelek gave him both food and a weapon (I Samuel 21:1-9). 

But unfortunately for Ahimelek, one of Saul’s servants had witnessed his meeting with David. It was Doeg who informed Saul of what had taken place; and when, as a direct consequence, Saul condemned all the priests to death, it was Doeg who carried out the sentence (I Samuel 22:6-23). No doubt Doeg was feeling very pleased with himself: he had ingratiated himself with the king, and he had acquired the reputation of a ‘strong man’. But the massacre of unarmed men, women and children is nothing to be proud of (Psalm 52:1)!

When David heard the news, he was distressed. As an outlaw, he could do nothing; but he could solemnly call upon God to execute justice (Psalm 52:5). For such terrible crimes there will be an equally terrible accounting…

There is a better way to live one’s life:
“I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing live
for ever and ever.” (Psalm 52:8)
The olive tree is long-lived and almost indestructible; it symbolises permanence, and also blessing. Doeg might be basking in the king’s favour for the moment, but David was interested only in the favour of the King of kings. Doeg had been an unwilling visitor to God’s sanctuary (I Samuel 21:7), but David had put his roots down there; it was where he belonged.


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Led by the Spirit

Romans 8:14-17

Romans 8:14 is one of the most commonly misunderstood verses in the New Testament. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” is talking about guidance: just as the Israelites were guided through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud, so Christians are guided through life by the Holy Spirit. But being ‘led by the Spirit’ doesn’t usually mean hearing an inner voice or having subjective experiences; it means submitting one’s own will and desires to God’s will, especially when making moral decisions! Those who co-operate with the Spirit in this way will find themselves taking on the characteristics of our heavenly Father, and also experiencing the great privileges of being His children. 

The first of these privileges is a close personal relationship with the God who has neither conscripted nor enslaved us but adopted us into His family. Just like the Israelites, we are not being led back into a place of fear and bondage, but onwards into a new life of freedom. And so we obey God not as slaves obey their master (out of fear of the consequences of disobedience), but as children obey their father (out of love and respect, and a desire to please him). He is a loving Father who lavishes His affection on us, not a forbidding tyrant who rules His family from on high with a rod of iron. Such negative images of God’s Fatherhood do not come from the Spirit!

Our second privilege is the right to address Almighty God by the intimate word ‘Abba’ (‘Father’) when we pray. This is not presumptuous or irreverent; Jesus Himself instructed us to do so! (Luke 11:2) And when we get into the habit of addressing God in this ‘familiar’ way, it helps to make the fact of our status (as His children) real in our experience. 

Our third privilege is the glorious inheritance that awaits us. 
“Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
As God’s children, we stand to inherit (along with Christ) all that belongs to Him! But heirs have to wait for their inheritance – and we won’t be receiving ours without a struggle! For the world disputes God’s claim to it; it waged war against Christ, and will do the same to us. But our rejection and humiliation in the eyes to the world doesn’t invalidate our title; it’s actually proof of it! All of us who are united with Christ and anticipate a share in His future glory must also expect to share (in however small a way) in His sufferings. The final outcome is not in doubt – and this gives us tremendous confidence, not only in our present life but also for the future.

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The sin of Onan

The Bible has next to nothing to say on the subject of contraception.

At the beginning, of course, and again after the Flood, God commanded the human race to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1) So far, so straightforward – but several millions of years later we have more than filled the earth, so does He really intend us to carry on mindlessly increasing our numbers?

Refraining from sex isn’t the answer. Marriage is not to be despised (I Timothy 4:1-3), and those who are married should fulfil their ‘marital duty’ to their partner by having sex (I Corinthians 7:3-5)! And while we may no longer need to increase in number, we still need to produce enough children to keep the population stable!

So the question of contraception must be tackled. And the only other Bible passage that seems to be at all relevant is the story of Onan (Genesis 38:1-11)

There are several aspects to this story that seem very strange to modern Europeans. The patriarchs of Israel inhabited a very different culture, and had different values. It was considered of paramount importance for a man to have at least one son to carry on his family line. So if he died without fathering a son, the ‘solution’ was for his widow to have sex with his brother, in the hope that she would have a son to inherit the dead man’s name and estate. This was called ‘levirate marriage’; and generations later the custom was written into Israel’s law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). It wasn’t compulsory; but a brother who refused to ‘do his duty’ would be publicly shamed.

Why might the surviving brother refuse? Because of the inheritance rules that pertained at the time. A dead man’s estate would be divided between all his sons, but they didn’t get equal shares. The eldest son would receive a ‘double portion’ – twice as much as any of his brothers. Any child born of a levirate marriage would inherit the share of his mother’s dead husband; but if there was no child, that share would get added to the inheritance of the surviving brother(s).

Now we can begin to understand Onan’s dilemma. As the second of three brothers, he could expect to inherit one quarter of his father’s property (his elder brother would get half and his younger brother the other quarter). But when Er died childless, Onan became the eldest and stood to inherit two-thirds! If he did what was expected of him, his financial ‘loss’ would be considerable. 

He could have simply refused – but instead he went ahead and had sex (repeatedly) with Tamar, while taking steps to ensure that she would never conceive by practising a form of contraception that we now call ‘coitus interruptus’ or ‘the withdrawal method’. “What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death also.” (Genesis 38:10)

What are we to make of this? Is the use of contraception a terrible sin, that God considers punishable by death? I would say not, because if the use of contraception is so evil in itself, why is there no law against it elsewhere in the Old Testament? And in this specific situation there are several other factors to bear in mind:

1) There was more at stake than just family pride. It was Onan’s duty to father the next generation of God’s people. A whole tribe of descendants was depending on him!

2) He could have been honest and refused to do his duty – but instead he made a pretence of doing it, which is hypocrisy.

3) Onan was abusing Tamar. We know from the rest of the story that she was as keen as she could be to become a mother. But by having sex with her while depriving her of the opportunity to conceive, Onan was using her for his sexual gratification.

4) We shouldn’t overlook his other probable motivation, which was greed. He was, effectively, robbing his dead brother of his rightful inheritance – which in the eyes of society at the time was an extremely serious offence.

No decision to have sex, or to use contraception, takes place in a vacuum. Onan was doing something wicked; but that would probably not have been the case under different circumstances. There is always a context to the choices that we make; which is why most churches leave the issue of contraception to individual conscience.

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Working with the Spirit

Romans 8:9-13

The Holy Spirit’s presence is the hallmark of a true believer; His absence should call someone’s Christian profession into question (see Acts 19:2). Christianity without the Holy Spirit is simply unimaginable; without Him there is no sanctification, and there will be no resurrection. For although our physical bodies remain mortal, and will eventually die, there is another part of us that belongs to the Holy Spirit and is suffused with His life. His supernatural power is transforming our spirits, and will eventually transform our bodies as well.

Luther said that a Christian is “both righteous and sinful at one and the same time.” We are righteous (in that we stand in a right relationship with God) but still sinful (in that sin has yet to be completely eradicated from our nature). The decisive victory over sin was won at our conversion, but there are still extensive ‘mopping-up operations’ to be done in order to overcome pockets of resistance. And this is our responsibility: we’re not passive recipients of our sanctification, but active participants in it. With the Holy Spirit inside us, we have the authority to overcome sin; but we must make the effort to exercise that authority! “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (verse 13) We owe the flesh nothing; it is our enemy. And yet we are so accustomed to obeying it that we will continue to do so, out of sheer habit, unless we make a conscious decision to break away. We have to remind ourselves that we have received God’s gifts of the Holy Spirit and eternal life – so we have no right to carry on living according to the dictates of the flesh. 

Sin is not a trivial matter. We must declare war against it – which entails repudiating everything in our lives that is incompatible with the life of the Spirit. There is no room for compromise, no space for negotiation; we must be utterly ruthless. For nothing less than our eternal destiny is at stake: if we don’t kill the flesh, it will kill us! A ‘Christian’ who does not engage in this struggle is at risk of spiritual death!

How do we put to death ‘the misdeeds of the body’? Willpower doesn’t work (not in the long term, anyway); we have to deal with sin at its source, in the mindset that is hostile towards God. In metaphorical terms, we need to cut off its blood supply, or dig it up by the roots. We can’t do this by our own unaided efforts, but only with the help of the Holy Spirit – who gives us the desire, the courage, the confidence and the resources to overcome our selfish desires and conform our lives more closely to God’s will.

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