Book Reviews: Coronavirus Reads. (Piper, Lennox and Healthy Faith.)

In an effort to respond helpfully and ‘Christianly’ to this global crisis, several leading Christian thinkers and publishers have released new books aimed at helping Christians and non-Christians find Gospel hope at the heart of this pandemic. Below I review two short books, written by John Piper and John Lennox respectively, that both offer very different approaches to this issue. I also include a suggestion for a third book that could help us through this time.

John Piper: Christ and Coronavirus

Coronavirus and Christ by John Piper

Piper has written a short book to help Christians respond to this global pandemic. Christ and Coronavirus is a really helpful read as we think about our own hearts in this strange and often difficult time. Split into two short sections, Piper first considers God’s sovereignty before offering six reflections as to what God might be doing through this crisis.

Part One addresses God’s sovereignty. Piper wants to stress that we trust in a God who reigns over the coronavirus. He is the rock on whom we can stand firm. And so Part One takes on a theological tone. But Piper is careful to make this a section that can be directly applied to our lives, not some academic, abstract theological idea. He gives a great analogy of technology versus taste (26-27). If we were to take a jar of honey, technology could tell us the composition, the chemical makeup – but only taste could tell us of its sweetness. The same is true of theology, we must taste the truth of Scripture as we explore God’s sovereignty to see the sweetness of this truth.

So in a few short chapters heavily dependent on Scriptural truth, Piper does exactly that. I found this a helpful read, and was encouraged that God is sovereign over all of this. At times some of what Piper wrote was hard to read, but through challenging truths such as (45) – “if we try to rescue God from his sovereignty over suffering, we sacrifice his sovereignty to turn all things for good”, Piper offers a great picture of God’s sovereignty over a fragile and broken world.

Part Two offers six answers to the question: what is God doing through the coronavirus? Again, this was a section full of helpful thoughts, although some of what Piper said jarred with me. I was left with much to mull over and reflect on, but in that came some really important truths. The wonderful if hard reality that (64) Christians will experience corruption now, but we are free from the condemnation that follows. The tough challenge of the “gift of desperation” (83): stop relying on yourselves, and trust in God alone.

This is a short book, and will certainly be a controversial read, but Piper offers some helpful thoughts to challenge us to respond to this crisis. Is our understanding of the truth of God’s sovereignty deep and rich enough that we can see the beauty of it even through this crisis? This book might be a helpful prompt to consider that.

John Lennox: Where is God in a Coronavirus World?

John Lennox: Why did God make a world with coronavirus? - The ...

If you’re in the mood for something a bit different, then perhaps you might consider John Lennox’s offering. This is another excellent book to help us respond to this crisis, and whereas Piper responds in a theological work, Lennox offers a more apologetic book. Where is God in a Coronavirus World? is thoughtfully geared towards the current crisis, and offers a wonderful presentation of the Gospel amidst the confusion of coronavirus.

What I found most helpful about this short, accessible book, was its clear presentation of the hope that Christians have. Lennox shows that not only can Christians respond to this crisis helpfully and ‘Christianly’, but actually that the answers Christians have to offer are full of a hope that is so much more sure and certain than anything the world has to offer.

Chapter 6 offers some practical advice on how we might respond to this crisis with some great, future-focussed, Heaven-looking tips, so this is a brilliant read for Christians as well as non-Christians. But I think this would be a great short book to send or give to a non-Christian friend, neighbour or family member. It helpfully spells out the sure and certain hope Christians can find in a world of uncertainty, and does so in a gentle and simple manner.

Kristi Mair and Luke Cawley: Healthy Faith

Whilst I won’t offer a review of this upcoming book, I would love to commend it to you.

Kristi and Luke have assembled 20 chapters and a whole load of extra material: appendices, prayers and other helpful sections, to help the British church think through and respond to the Coronavirus crisis. This book stands out for me because not only is it wholly written as new material speaking into this pandemic, but because Luke and Kristi have made a real effort to equip their readers with practical and Gospel-centred advice.

Primarily aimed at a Christian audience, this book includes chapters from the likes of Dan Strange, Krish Kandiah, Tom Wright, Andy Kind, Ed Shaw and many more. It’s a really helpful briefing as we think about responding to this crisis. With chapters discussing parenting, singleness, work, redundancy, humour and mental health, it’s a really helpful book for thinking through how we can respond to this crisis biblically across all areas of our lives.

I was thrilled to contribute a chapter to this book on the realities of working (and of losing work) through this crisis, and it is my hope that this book will be a real blessing. Publication is Monday, but you can preorder through the IVP website below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the above books, and would heartily recommend all three if you’re looking to think through this crisis from a Gospel standpoint.

Healthy Faith: Preorder

Healthy Faith: Contents and Contributors

Clement of Rome and the early claim for the Authority of Rome

The question as to the authority of Rome in the history of Christianity has long been a divisive one. Whilst those in the Catholic tradition will claim an authority stretching back to the Apostle Peter, the reality of the pre-eminence of the Roman Church is to be found in the emergence of Roman authority in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The famous and divisive scholar Walter Bauer theorised that the theological tradition that he believed later became orthodox Christianity could find its roots in Rome itself. Bauer suggests that the writings attributed to Clement of Rome support this idea: that Rome held the authority within the orthodox tradition from the late first century.

Whilst I have mentioned elsewhere that the big picture of Roman authority cannot be traced back beyond the fifth and sixth centuries, here I would like to briefly address the question of using Clement in support of an argument of early Roman primacy. I believe it is a suggestion that falls down quickly in face of the evidence, and indeed, exposes the truth of where Christians can look to authority.

1 Clement: Roman authority over Corinth?

The first extant epistle attributed to Clement of Rome dates from approximately 96 AD. 1 Clement is addressed to the Church in Corinth – and sent, in the hands of the messengers Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Vito and Fortunatus, from the gathered Church in Rome.

Clement has written to the Corinthians because of a dispute that has arisen among them. The church in Corinth had ejected its elders, and installed new leadership, despite the faithful and wise service of their former presbyters. This has led to a bitter division in the church, and 1 Clement is written to encourage a Gospel unity predicated on their shared salvation in Christ.

It is worth noting that the assumption that the leader of the church in Rome commanded authority over the Corinthian church because of this letter is questioned by the first line. The letter is addressed, as mentioned above, not by Clement himself, but from “the [colony] of the church of God at Rome”. It is a letter from one local church, one family of believers, to another.

More so than this: there is a continual and clear tone throughout the letter. There are not stark commands to submission, or indications of pulling rank or setting the standard. Instead there are gentle, and indeed hard, admonitions to love one another in the truth. As I discuss below, this is a letter not grounded in the authority of Rome, but in the authority of Scripture.

Indeed, the letter continues in a shared tone of submission not to one another, but to God Himself. The encouragement is clear (9) – “Let us bow then, to that sovereign and glorious will. Let us entreat His mercy and goodness, casting ourselves upon His compassion.” The letter urges the Corinthian church to join with their Roman brothers and sisters in submitting to their Heavenly Father, and ultimately to throw off the quarrels and rivalry that have arisen. There is a clear humility with which this letter is written, and the idea of exaltation above the flock is clearly refuted (16): “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock.”

This letter is written in a gracious style; hard and clear yes, but not overbearing or authoritative in and of itself. It is a collegiate missive, from one church to another. It is a partnership across the Empire – “dear friends” are repeatedly addressed, and the language of “we”/”us” is used as Clement encourages his brothers and sisters to strive as one. This is no vertical papal directive to a wandering church, it is a horizontal, loving correction from one church to another.

A Few Recent Scholarly Comments

In his introduction to his 1987 Penguin translation of 1 Clement, Andrew Louth writes (20) “Although Clement does not write like a Pope exercising his extraordinary jurisdiction, maybe a step had already been taken in that direction.” This seems to me, misguided. To suggest that the evidence points away from a papal authority, then question whether, regardless, such authority exists, seems erroneous. And more recent scholars would agree.

In their excellent rebuttal of the Bauer thesis, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Michael Kruger and Andreas Köstenberger address the importance of Rome in the early years. “When one compares the tone of 1 Clement to that of other letters from the same time period, it is evident that the letter did not aim to impose a theological position onto the Corinthian church but to persuade the Christians there to accept it.” (43-44). They note that there is no authoritative tone, no imposition of Roman will. Louth, in his 1987 introduction, overlooks this point.

The letter came from Rome, but this does not mean it automatically carries with it a Roman authority. To read fifth/sixth century authority back into the first century is to commit the very crimes Bauer accuses those who argue for a consistent orthodox position throughout the Early Church period of embracing. 1 Clement simply does not add to the argument of an early Roman authority.

Clement’s true source of authority: Scripture

Instead 1 Clement clearly shows the reader, both ancient and modern, where the authority for their letter resides. It is found in Scripture.

Continually, Scripture is used to illustrate the points made. Scripture is used to reveal sin, to call the Corinthian Church to repentance, to offer a reminder of the truth of the resurrection, and much more. The divinely inspired pages of Scripture offer the basis of authority in this letter.

(28) “Since there is nothing He does not see and hear, let us approach Him with awe… so that we may find shelter in His mercy… As it says in the Psalms…” Time and again this letter appeals to God, and His word, not to human authority.

Because this authority is total. The above quote goes on to cite Psalm 139.

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

It is God’s authority that is total and complete, no Bishop or Pope or Church has authority over God’s people, and there was no sense of papal authority in 1 Clement. Instead, this letter appeals to The Authority, to God Himself. To the God that is sovereign over all, sees all, knows and keeps all. A God worth submitting to. A God worth knowing.

Book Review: Reading Between the Lines, Volume 2, by Glen Scrivener

Reading Between The Lines (Vol 2: NT)

Like all good sequels, there tends to be a gap between the first and the second, a gap some would say was simply too long.

I have, however, finally gotten round to reviewing Volume 2 of Glen Scrivener’s excellent devotional: Reading Between the Lines. Find my review below.

This is, once again, a longer version of an original review written for the Scottish Free Church Books.

Volume 2: The New Testament

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Volume 1 took the reader through the Old Testament, Glen’s second book of short devotions takes us through the New. Once again the focus is not on daily applications to specific issues and actions but rather a consistent and helpful pointing to Christ. As Glen works through the New Testament, his time spent dwelling on the Old shines through, and his devotions helpfully weave together a picture of Scripture that points to the absolute centrality of Christ.

This consistent engagement with the whole of Scripture is really helpful for two reasons. The first is that through constantly referencing and linking the Old to the New, Glen both shows how God’s Word is wonderfully woven together around the Good News of Christ, whilst pointing away from his own writing and back to Scripture. In his introduction to the work, Glen writes (4) “if you’re pressed for time, read Scripture not Scrivener!” In producing devotions rich in Scripture, he helpfully affords us that opportunity.

From a more practical point of view, Glen’s constant engagement with both testaments serves to add variety to the structure of the studies and the interaction required. Whilst we know the Word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12), and we can so often enjoy the beauty and awesome truth of it, it’s a widely accepted truth that quiet times can be hard. We so often struggle with daily devotions, and Reading Between the Lines does its best to help with that. By varying the structure of different devotions, breaking some down into short sections for example, Glen offers a bit of variety each day. Helpfully, his use of the Old Testament serves to offer the same. Some days require a short passage to be read from both the Old and the New, others offer reflections on passages within the devotion. God’s Word is a wonderful thing, and I found these devotions helpful in reminding me of that, even when my heart didn’t want to sit and read just then!

The variety with which Glen approaches Scripture is matched only with with his love of pictures. An evangelist by trade, Glen tells short stories, paints quick pictures, and offers helpful anecdotes. Our American friends may struggle with his affinity for cricketing metaphors, but such pictures help the reader thoughtfully engage with passages of Scripture that may seem alien or odd, or that we may think we already know so well.

I enjoyed Volume Two as much as the first, and would encourage those who are struggling in their quiet times, and those who simply want to decide what notes to use next, to give it a go. Each study is short, and wonderfully clear. As I said above, Glen doesn’t try to produce a legalistic application for us to implement every day, but rather he seeks to point us back to Jesus. His aim, for me, was wonderfully summed up at the close of a devotion on 2 Corinthians 3. Glen writes (413) “If you want deep and abiding change in the Christian life, don’t gaze at yourself. Don’t gaze at the law. Don’t even gaze at the spirit of the law. Gaze at Christ himself.”

Not everyone enjoys Bible reading notes, not everyone will enjoy the style with which Glen writes. But in times such as these, it is so crucial that we are setting aside time on a daily basis to be learning from and resting in our Heavenly Father. So if you do want to start your day by gazing at your Saviour, and you’d value some simple, short devotions to help you do that, then it may well be worth giving Reading Between the Lines a go.

The Good News of Easter: is it true?

Over the Easter Weekend we ran a short series exploring the message at the heart of Easter. That Jesus Christ died, was buried and rose again. We looked at the Cross, the Tomb and the Risen God. Below our links to all three blogs, in case it would be helpful to revisit them.

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Easter Sunday: A God Rises to Life

If this is all true: it really matters. A while ago I reviewed Brian Edwards’ short tract on this question. It’s well worth a read, as is this short online article by Patrick Zukeran.

If it’s true: it could change your life. If you already know this wonderful news to be true, then don’t keep it quiet.

Easter Sunday: a God rises to life.

Empty Tomb Of Jesus Pictures | Jesus tomb, Empty tomb

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

Matthew 28:1-7

He is not here, said the angel. He has risen. Just as He said.

The first Easter Sunday started in the most incredible way. This man, Jesus, had claimed that after three days He would rise again. And as these two faithful friends went to the tomb early on Sunday morning, they were met with the shock of the empty tomb. But this was no trick or deception, like the Pharisees had feared on the Sabbath. This was supernatural. The earth shook, and a godly figure descended, rolling away the stone – far too heavy a stone for any one man to move – and sitting upon it. The guards, this crack team of Roman soldiers, ‘shook and became like dead men.’

In fear, Jesus’ friends approach this shining man, and he utters some of the most miraculous words in the Bible. “He is not here; He has risen.” This Christ, who promised that the grave could not hold Him, who promised that death would be defeated, had done exactly that.

The incredible events of this first Easter morning changed the Roman world more than anything else. As the story of this God who died and rose again spread around the Mediterranean, thousands, millions, came to trust in Him. It all started on this morning with the empty tomb.

‘god’ is Dead.

The notion that a god could die was a painful reality in the ancient world. Indeed, new gods rose up frequently, and almost all inevitably died quickly. Emperors from Augustus onwards (the Emperor when Jesus was born) encouraged an ‘Emperor-cult’ – a revering of the Roman Emperor as a divine figure. These emperors, these gods, died. People accepted that these men became gods, but they also saw them die.

This notion of divine death was common place in the ancient world. Plutarch, the Greek writer who died less than a century after Christ rose from the dead, told of a discussion of divine mortality. In it the story of the Greek god Pan is recounted. Plutarch tells of a traveller named Epitherses who witnessed a stunning scene. As Epitherses and his companions sailed on their way, a voice was heard calling from the shore.

When you are arrived at Palodes, take care to make it known that the great God Pan is dead.

Plutarch, De defec. Orac., 17.

The passengers on this ship witnessed the announcement: the god had died.

Take even the supposed king of the gods, Zeus, the Roman Jupiter. Clement of Alexandria, a second century Christian apologist, quotes the Greek poet Callimachus as he says:

Search for your Zeus. Scour no heaven, but earth. Callimachus the Cretan, in whose land he lies buried, will tell you in his hymns:

for a tomb, O prince, did the Cretans fashion for you.

Yes, Zeus is dead.

Clement of Alexandria, Protr., 2 (quoting Call. Hymn to Zeus 8-9)

Even Zeus, the great king of the gods, could die. So the death of the divine was no alien notion to the Roman audience as Christian believers began sharing the news of their Saviour. If a bunch of provincial Jews has one more god to throw into the mix, that would have been of little consequence in a world of many gods, living and dead.

God is not Dead.

But that wasn’t quite what these new Christ followers began to say. Because they believed in a God who was different for two reasons. The first was a scandal, the second was a miracle.

Their God, this Jesus Christ, was not another ‘god’ to toss into the ring. He doesn’t ask to be worshipped alongside Apollo, Zeus or Mithras. He made a sole claim to divinity, one repeated by His followers for millenia. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus was not an extra god in a crowded pantheon, He was God. End of story.

But alongside this bold claim, came the news at the heart of this new religious movement. The followers of this Christ claimed that their God had died. And that He had risen again.

Pan had died and stayed dead. Augustus, founder of the mighty empire, was buried in Rome. Zeus, a myth slowly rotting on Crete. But Jesus? Death could not hold this true Son of God. There was no lonely voice calling out His death across the sea. No funerary hymn for Christ. He was dead, and now He is alive.

This is the stunning truth at the heart of the Christian faith. That 2000 years ago, God walked on Earth. He came down, lived and walked among men and women for 33 years. He was killed as He hung on a Roman cross. He was buried in a rock tomb. And He rose to life on that first Easter Sunday, gloriously defeating death, shouldering the punishment our sins deserved, and displaying to the world that surely, truly, this man was the Son of God.

The message of the Early Church as they spread around the Roman world was not that they had a new god on offer. It was that they worshipped the True God, who had defeated death, conquered the grave, and now offered the chance of a relationship with the Creator of the Universe. God is not dead, the grave could not hold Him.

A Different kind of Life.

Jesus told His followers that “I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full.” His resurrection shows that this was no mere self-help claim. This wasn’t a feel good statement, or a few reassuring words. Christ has come, so that we might have life, to the full. Real life. True life. Eternal life.

The Early Christians believed that with a fervent joy. As they took the news of the miraculously empty tomb to the nations, they preached a good news of joy and of life. As we reflect on this Easter story, millenia later, locked down in the grips of a global pandemic, these words still ring true.

He came that we might have life to the full. He died, and rose again, so that we too may have life to the full.

This Easter, if you know and love Jesus for yourself, rejoice and praise God that this life is yours.

But if you don’t know Jesus yet, if you’re not sure who He really is, then this lockdown Easter, why not explore His story? Open up (or Google) a Bible and start at John Chapter 1. Read the story of Jesus for yourself. Explore for yourself this God who died and is risen. Consider His offer of life to the full. Because as the tomb is empty, as the risen Lord Jesus reigns on high, Easter truly does mean hope for you.

Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Mark: An Illustrated Commentary: Mark 16:1-8-- The Unsatisfying End

Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

Mark 15:43-16:1

After the events and horror of Good Friday, Saturday brings silence. Joseph, the fearful but faithful follower of Jesus asks Pilate for his body late on Friday. Surprised to learn that He is already dead, Pilate grants this request. Joseph generously but quickly prepares the body, and seals it in the tomb.

This man who claimed to be the King of the World, the Son of God Himself, now lies, stiff and cold, in a dark rock tomb.

Mark skips straight over the Sabbath in his account of this first Easter weekend. The tomb is sealed late on Friday, and the next line takes us straight to Sunday morning. John likewise omits the Sabbath day from his record of events. Luke’s eyewitness account tells us only that “the women who had come with Jesus…went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rest on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” It is only Matthew’s Gospel which gives us a hint of the action, or lack thereof, on this Easter Sabbath day.

The Dark of the Tomb

Each one of the four Gospel accounts is at pains to tell its readers that Jesus was buried, sealed in a rock hewn tomb. Their accounts match up perfectly, and are clear in the chain of events. Jesus dies on that dark Friday afternoon. The diligence of the Roman executioners is evident across the Gospel accounts, even piercing the body with a spear when they are called to check on their work. Again, Mark stresses that Pilate sent soldiers to confirm the death before the body is released to Joseph. As mentioned yesterday, the Roman historian Tacitus likewise confirms that “Christus… was put to death by Pontius Pilate.” He is buried quickly and simply, the tomb is sealed, and the disciples scatter. The German scholar Rudolf Bultmann called the burial of Jesus “a historical account which creates no impression of being a legend.” This man died and was buried, we can be confident of that.

And so we are left with a tomb. A dead body in a cold rock tomb. As Christ’s head dropped to His chest on that cross, hope seemed lost. The Messiah was dead, defeated, gone. The darkness of Friday lingered into the Sabbath. The disciples sheltered in their dark upper room, other followers of Jesus scattered. It was over. The hints that Jesus Himself had offered: that He had to die, but that after three days He would rise, had been long forgotten. What hope did such words really hold now?

The Fear of the Pharisees

One Gospel account tells us that these words were not totally forgotten. Matthew gives us a small detail of the events of that Sabbath. As the day began, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate…

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Matthew 27:62-65

The Pharisees, the very group that had condemned Jesus to death, remembered His words. His promises had not been totally forgotten, and so, in order to counter any hoax or trick that the disciples could somehow pull off, the tomb is made even more secure. A crack team of Roman soldiers is stationed there. The greatest army in the world in the first century, and part of it guarded the tomb of this so-called Messiah. No one was getting in or out, especially a disheartened band of fishermen and tax collectors from Galilee. Matthew includes this detail for two reasons. It shows the situation for what it was. Humanly speaking, all hope was gone. The tomb was made as secure as the soldiers of the Roman Empire knew how. There was no human hope of a trick or deception here. But secondly, Matthew reminds us, the reader, of these words of Jesus. Christ Himself made it abundantly clear that He came to die, and that He would rise again.

John’s Gospel tells us some words of Jesus to one Jewish leader. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son. That whoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus taught that mankind was headed for death, and we all know that to be true. But Jesus taught that mankind embrace sin – the evil that we do, that we love and enjoy – and so God’s punishment for sin was on us all: eternal separation from God and His goodness. Separation from the very God that gives goodness and life. Eternal death and punishment. But Jesus taught that He, the perfect Son of Man, would give His life as a ransom for us all. He would die, and rise, defeating death, and offering His life once and for all for ours. All you must do, is believe in this wonderful Son of God.

Jesus had taught this message for all His earthly ministry. He had repeated the claim that He would die and rise again over and over. Yet still the disciples missed the point. Only the Pharisees remembered those words, and not out of faith, but rather fear that the body would become a political tool.

But other than Matthew’s Gospel – which reminds us of these words of Jesus – Easter Saturday is quickly passed over. As seen with Mark above, the account moves from Friday to Sunday. Because this isn’t a story about Jesus being dead. This is the story about how He conquered death. How He died and rose again, taking the guilt and punishment that mankind deserve. So the Gospel accounts move quickly to the first day of the week. The dark of the tomb isn’t the end of the story.

Early in the Morning...

Because as each Gospel account tells us, the story continues on Sunday morning.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week…

Matthew 28:1

Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise…

Mark 16:2

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning…

Luke 24:1

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark…

John 20:1

As that first Easter Sunday dawns, the dark of the tomb is forgotten, as something of earth-shattering proportions was about to unfold…

Because Easter Means Hope.

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

John 19:16b-18.

In agony, the body hangs off the cross. Blood pours out of a series of brutally inflicted wounds. From a back that has been torn by the vicious lashes of a three lined whip, one woven through with pieces of lead or bone (designed to rip open the skin, and tear off chunks of the body). From hands and feet that have been pierced through by rough and jagged nails. From a brow crowned with thorns only a short while before, sweat mixing with blood as it pours down a face that cannot be wiped.

Breathing is quickly sharp and jagged. A body wracked with pain, agony in every breath. Hung from a wooden cross, the weight of the body pulls down on the lungs. Slowly, suffocation closes in. The heart becomes weaker as blood pours out of the wounds. Only pain remains, from a body damaged beyond belief. Humanity is stripped away as the naked body hangs, skin in tatters, life fading fast.

This was the horror of the Roman crucifixion. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, called it “the most wretched of deaths.” Cicero, the Republican orator and polymath, labelled it the “most cruel and terrible punishment.” As Christ hung upon that wooden cross, on the darkest day we know as Good Friday, He hung as a broken, humiliated criminal.

Tacitus, the Roman historian who was born just a few decades after the death of Jesus, gave a simple and methodical account of Jesus’ death.

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.

Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.

Lacking the details of the Gospel accounts, Tacitus nonetheless confirms the horrifying truth at the heart of the Christian faith. Their founder and Messiah had died upon a cross like a common criminal. The same fate handed out to runaway slaves was inflicted upon the one they thought would be their Saviour. The Cross was a horrifying way to die. And in the Roman world, it was a shame without equal.

The Horror of the Death

Crucifixion is a horrific form of execution, and the suffering inflicted upon the victim is immense. A reading of any one of the four Gospel accounts illustrates this quickly. We can so easily gloss over the details when we read these narratives, but it is human brutality at its worst. The body is wracked with unimaginable pain. Crucifixion was the ultimate statement of the state’s authority.

Runaway slaves were caught and hung to illustrate how their freedom was an illusion before the might of Rome. Criminals were hung to show their crimes had no impact on the power of the Empire. Jesus was hung on the cross as a political prisoner. The sign above His head declared Him to be the King of the Jews. Here, says the might of Rome, is what has become of your king. Your great king, your hope, your so-called Messiah, see how He hangs upon our cross. It was the ultimate defeat at the hands of the state, and the sign above Jesus’ head was an open ridicule of any hopes of deliverance through this now beaten Messiah.

As Jesus hung His head and died, the horror of His death had one final, brutal reality. As He hangs on the cross, Christ’s words are recorded in the Gospel accounts. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In His final moments, this Son of God felt His Father turn His back. Abandoned by friends, disciples and followers, now His God had turned away.

The Shame of Those Left Behind

Just a few days before, Jesus has ridden into the city on a colt, with crowds surrounding Him, cheering “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Truly, this Messiah was at His earthly peak. Adoring crowds surrounded Him, welcoming the Son of God come to save a broken humanity. The disciples marched proudly behind Him, basking in His glory. Yet by the end of the week, His battered and torn body hung limply on a cross. The disciples retreated to an upper room. Not for a supper such as the one they had shared just a few hours before, but instead, in fear and trembling, to assess their options.

Only a week earlier they seemed headed for certain success. Now, their leader hung lifeless on a wooden cross, and the faithful lieutenants hid fearfully. Victory had turned to shame. Their king hung like a criminal. Rome had won. The High Priest and the Pharisees had won. This lowly band of fishermen and tax collectors had seen their hopes crushed in the most public of ways.

The disciples offer a painful absence in the Gospel account of the death and burial of Jesus. The Gospel writers tell us that several of the women who followed Jesus stood by watching, but as Joseph comes to request and collect the body, before burying it in his family tomb, there is only silence from the disciples.

Their wonderful leader was seemingly crushed, and in their shame and sorrow, their response was hopelessness.

The Faintest Hope?

Amazingly, in the face of this most horrific of executions, there was a glimmer of hope. The disciples shivered alone in their locked upper room, because they had fled in panic as their leader was defeated. Except He wasn’t defeated. Though all seemed lost, though Rome and the Jewish leaders seemed to have crushed this Jesus Christ, the story was by no means over.

Because this death was not the end.

Jesus Himself had made that clear. He was the first man for whom death was not the end, because He had come to defeat it. He was in charge of the dark events of this first Good Friday. And He had made that clear to all those who would listen just a short while ago.

“I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

John 10:17b-18a.

Jesus knew exactly what was coming when He rode into Jerusalem in triumph. It wasn’t a triumph at a past victory, but one He was about to win. As Christ breathed His last on that humble wooden cross, the story was far from over. He had laid down His life for the very people who had surrounded Him at that triumphal entry, for the same people who had called for Him to hang upon that cross. But He had the authority to take it back up again.

Good Friday is only the start of the weekend.

Because Easter Means Hope.

Book Review: Story Bearer, by Phil Knox (IVP, 2020)

“The truth is that if you are a Christian, Jesus has changed your life. You have a story and it is meaningful, important, interesting and significant. It has the power to change somebody else’s life.” (52)

Story Bearer | Free Delivery @ Eden.co.uk

Story Bearer is a book on evangelism. It’s a little different to a lot of reads on the subject. And it’s brilliant.

Phil Knox’s book has a clear message: that everyone has a story, and when we are remade in Christ (3) “our story becomes intertwined with God’s story.” This idea of storytelling is accessible, enjoyable and universal. Everyone loves a good story, and as Christians, our very lives are part of the greatest story ever told.

This book is incredibly readable. As Phil walks through his case for each believer taking up the name of Story Bearer, he tells his own story, offers brilliant illustrations and narratives, and presents a helpful and open honesty. Story Bearer is neither difficult to read, nor is it a heavy, theological tome. The call of the book is simple: now we are part of God’s incredible story, we cannot keep that to ourselves. But Phil makes this call in a challenging and insightful way. Practical advice and exercises frame the book. From short challenges: (6) do we spend good time with non-Christian friends? To detailed frameworks: (46-47) how do I learn and tell my personal story, (106-108) how can I memorise useful verses of Scripture?

The book is simply laid out. After introducing the theme, Phil tells four stories. God’s story, your story, your friend’s story and the story of culture. ‘God’s story’ is a brilliant and instantly accessible Bible overview. His narrative of Bible history is faithful and clear, broken up by stories and illustrations that open up what can be at times a complex story. All four of Phil’s stories help us think about how we can reach our unbelieving friends and family for Christ, but the story of culture is also worth a particular mention. The vast majority of those who read this book will know their story has been shaped by the digital revolution of the last few decades. Phil walks through some key ideas around this narrative, questioning how we can weave both the individualism and relational accessibility of modern day technology and social media together. The Christian, says Phil, has a wonderful answer.

“We can celebrate and communicate the fact that, although there are 7.7 billion people on the earth today, you are unique, fearfully and wonderfully made. But we do not get to define ourselves… To a world searching for an identity, we can share the great news that you can find out who you really are and become who you were created to be by knowing the author of your story.” (100)

The story of our culture is that we can choose our own course, setting our highlights up on social media, hiding the bad times, and defining our own selves. But the wonderful story that the Christian can tell, is that we were made for so much more.

Story Bearer finishes as all four stories are pulled together. Concepts such as friendship and prayer are celebrated for their centrality to personal evangelism. Chapter 11 – dedicated to friendship – is a helpful, narrative driven guide to living the Christian life alongside believers. Phil’s section in Chapter 12 on prayer is a great reminder that in evangelism we are privileged to play a part, but we do not bring about new life ourselves. God lets us play a role, but He doesn’t need us to bring about conversion. With reference to 1 Corinthians 3:6*, Phil urges us to depend on God in our evangelism. (119) “If we think it is all about us, we will not pray in the same way for our friends.”

This book offers the reader a challenging and applicable presentation of personal evangelism. Every single person on this planet has a story. Share yours, listen to others, and point towards God’s. Whilst some might be concerned that this idea of storytelling is light on clear Gospel truth: Phil has a really helpful way of grounding his thoughts in God’s Word on every page. This book is a refreshing reminder that our faith is real and living, not merely an academic pursuit, with the fundamentals of the Gospel at the heart of every believer’s story.

To wrap things up: give this a read if you’re sold on evangelism, and the idea of stories. And give it a read if you’re sceptical about this narrative approach, because I think Story Bearer offers refreshing and direct challenge to our lives of personal evangelism. It’s a clear picture, one we can all buy into. It’s a book that cuts to what it is to be human. To be relational, communal, to be part of a bigger story.

*”I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” 1 Cor 3:6

Continuing and Creating: Church Community in Covid-19

In the second century, the atheist writer Celsus launched a vicious attack on the fledgling Christian church.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is church.png
Cartoon credit: davewalker.com

In his work, the True Account, Celsus penned accusation after accusation against the family of God. His writings are now all but lost to us, but much of what he wrote is preserved in the response provided by the third century Christian apologist, Origen. Origen wrote his Contra Celsum in response to the accusations of Celsus, and he quotes the attacks he responds to at length. In this strange time of self-isolation and public lockdown, it is the first accusation that has stood out to me, and perhaps ought to challenge us as we consider how best we ‘do church’ in lockdown.

“The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.

Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.1.

Celsus’ Accusation

So how does Celsus open his great attack on the Christians? What is his first blow as he seeks to dismantle and discredit this new religion? He attacks their gatherings. He tackles their community. In the ancient world, community was a big deal. There were formal guilds and societies one could join: funerary societies, guilds of tradesmen and professions. Often membership of guilds or societies formed an integral part of an individual’s identity. These guilds and associations could care for you in sickness and poverty, pay for your funeral and even care for your children. Many of them had religious aspects, patron gods or goddesses and the like.

But there was one type of association at which every civilised member of Roman society turned their noses up. Secret Associations, where the activities of the group were shrouded in mystery, and membership was tightly limited to the intimately initiated, were a disgrace to civilised society. Such groups had links with the hedonistic gods and practices of the barbarians. These groups, sometimes labelled Mystery Cults, were famed to worship their divine during midnight orgies, to practise human sacrifice, or even cannibalism. Such groups at their best were smutty and secretive, at their worst were criminal and repulsive.

This is the accusation of Celsus, that the Christians willingly enter into such dark and hedonistic associations. He even goes on to label them “love-feasts”. The Christian gatherings, says Celsus, are mysterious, cultic, secret gatherings where the initiates practice ungodly and unwholesome activities.

He makes his accusation to discredit the new faith. And he does so because it is precisely that. It is new, different, and potentially dangerous to the Roman way of life. Origen rebuffs Celsus’ accusation, demonstrating what Christian communities are really like. Celsus has got this one wrong, because although Christians do create set apart communities, it is only so that they can gather to worship their God without confusion or fear of theological pollution. Origen writes (Contra Celsum 1.1) “it is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of the truth.” The Christian, says Origen, formed associations in order to celebrate and hold out the truth, not to hide away and practise evil.

Origen is defending the gathered church. As we meet as the family of God, in the Local Church, we meet to share in His word, to celebrate the family He has made us, and to worship Him. There is nothing dark or secretive about it. The ancient world struggled to understand what Christians were doing because they were creating associations similar to ones they knew and understood, but separate in that they were set apart for the ‘new’ Christian God. The Roman world struggled with the Christian Association, because they were doing something new: worshipping the one true God, in a community that spanned class, gender and ethnicity without discrimination.

Secret Associations and ‘Covid Communities

Our modern world largely understands what a church building is. They understand it to be where Christians gather to read the bible, pray and sing. Our culture understands that our faith is part of our identity, even if they don’t realise that our position before God is fundamentally our whole identity.

But as our world faces a global health crisis, much of what our cultures understand is on pause. Much of what is normal is locked up, isolated and on hold. And that includes our church buildings and meetings. So many churches, rightly, have utilised the technology available at our fingertips, and have gone temporarily online. Church services are broadcast live on Youtube or Facebook, small groups become Skype or Zoom meetings. As churches turned on their tech last Sunday morning for the first of these such services, one well known Christian commentator labelled it one of the most bizarre Sundays in Church History. And it probably was.

As we adjust to the new – temporary – normal of church life, we are faced with a challenge. A difficult one, but also a wonderful opportunity. How do we foster, encourage and develop community within this difficult time? All whilst enabling the outsider to witness the church truly meeting together, and the Gospel really being proclaimed.

The danger of this online church existence is that we become like the Secret Associations Celsus accused the Early Church of being. We hide away from the public gaze, meeting in secret from the comfort of our own home, mysterious ‘church’ meetings held only for the ‘initiated’.

So how do we avoid the trap of a secret church? How do we avoid the pitfalls of mysterious online meetings and closed off community?

The Challenge of Community: Hope & Relationships

We must make our online church a place where any thirsty sinner can come and find true, living water.

These strange times gives us then this unique challenge: how do we do community well? It’s easy for the committed (and especially the technologically literate) members of each church to tune in to every service, log on to each small group conference call, and message on every Whatsapp group. But what of the elderly, the technologically illiterate, or fringe members of our churches? What of individuals who have recently joined our churches, who are just beginning the process of getting stuck in but don’t know many of us well yet? If we close in as a tight-knit group, we will quickly lose those individuals who don’t quite know if they belong yet, and certainly those who don’t know how to go about belonging to a church that has suddenly moved online.* It is important that we both develop and deepen relationships, encouraging one another to cling to the Lord in strange times, but also welcoming new brothers and sisters, all the while holding out the word of truth.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the church in this time is this withdrawal from the world. Is our own church in danger of disappearing off the radars of our unbelieving friends, family and colleagues? We cannot any longer physically invite those we know to services and events, but that does not mean we ought to become the secret and mysterious ‘online church’, open only to the believer. We must be creative in inviting people to tune into our services, we ought to consider how seeker courses can be held over video conferencing platforms, and we must remember that the New Testament calls us to an every member ministry.

Our pastors and elders will be tired, busy and overstretched. On them falls the heavy burden of pastoring the church through a difficult season, all the while innovating how ‘church’ is even done. Whilst our leaders can and ought to lead and encourage evangelism, the burden to do so does not simply fall on them alone. As members and believers we must consider how we can step up and bring hope into our own relationships. The church may have gone online, but the Gospel need of the world is just as (if not more!) apparent. Only Christ can offer true hope in the midst of a crisis such as this. Only the Gospel can shine a light into the darkness of a closed off world. But we must not think that the closing of church buildings should signal the halting of our evangelism. Nor should it signal a lack of welcome to the unbeliever.

We must carefully consider if this season is transforming our church into a secret and closed off society. It is a mighty challenge in a difficult time, but we must heed the words of Scripture:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19-20

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4:2

Christ’s great commission is not on hold because of a global pandemic. As Scripture reminds us elsewhere, nothing will hinder the Lord in building His church. So we must listen to the words of Paul to Timothy. We must challenge unbelievers with the Word. Not because of any legalistic duty, but out of love. With the world in a dark place of fear and trembling, let us be beacons of hope. Holding forth the truth of the light of the world, the hope for all nations. The truth that God so loved His world, that He sent His one and only Son to take the penalty for our sin. The truth that whosoever believes in His Son, shall not perish but have eternal life.

Origen knew that Christians gathered so often and so uniquely because this was the truth they were sharing, celebrating, and holding out. In these dark days, let us not forget that we hold out the same truth to a frightened and confused world.

*Questions that need to be tackled here include (but are not limited to), how do we love well those who have applied for but not yet joined the membership of our churches? Or how about the new face at church, who has moved far from home to settle elsewhere and is only just getting started? Most churches will have individuals that fall into one of these two groups, and perhaps others, and it’s worth taking the time to consider those to whom we need to give special thought.

Book Review: Prayer (How Praying Together Shapes the Church) by John Onwuchekwa

In the midst of strange and unsettling times, perhaps you’ve found yourself with more time to kill, and you’re taking stock of options to fill your time. As I aimlessly scrolled through Twitter yesterday afternoon, I noticed that this short book, part of the 9Marks series on building healthy churches, had now been graciously made available as a free e-book. I made my way through it, and wanted to share a few thoughts here.

Image result for Prayer, How Praying Together Shapes the Church, by John Onwuchekwa

If you’re looking for a short read on a crucial topic during these strange days, look no further than this free offering. As we worry about the fragility of the world around us, to be challenged about the reality of prayer is a wonderful joy.

John’s book isn’t an attempt to provide a definitive study on the privilege of prayer. It’s not even an attempt to define prayer for the struggling Christian. Rather, as he makes clear in his introduction (15) his “hope is that this book will be a guide and a springboard that helps you enjoy the amazing gift of prayer we have as a church.” In days when our church family may not even be physically meeting, considering the role of prayer in our church life seems a worthwhile exercise.

Because as John astutely identifies (18), in many local churches in both the US and beyond, our problem with prayer is “not a complete lack of prayer, but too little prayer.” Too many churches give only a nod to prayer in their gatherings together. We ask humbly for this or that, and the exercise of corporate prayer is over in a minute or two. See you next week.

John’s concern is that (18) “our prayers in the church too often feel like prayer before a meal: obligatory and respectable, but no one really gets much out of it.” And so in this book, just one in a brilliant series of short books seeking to explore the biblical picture of the local church, John provides an honest and raw account of prayer. This is not a book penned by a learned scholar in his ivory tower, or even by a prayer warrior down on his knees. It is an honest and simple read where John wrestles with his own sinfulness, helpfully sharing personal challenges and obstacles to his own prayer life.

The book largely divides into three parts. Having used the introduction to identify the problem of prayer in our churches (too little!), the book moves to consider briefly just what prayer is for the Christian, before moving to apply that to the life and activity of the local church.

Prayer and the Christian Experience.

“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. So it follows that prayer must be a source of life for any community of Christians” (23). Prayer is essential for the Christian, and as it sustains the individual believer so it sustains the gathered church. As Christians then, we must begin to foster a culture and habit of prayer. As John explores the lack of prayer in our churches, he considers a lack of prayer in our own lives. Our problem, he writes, is that “prayerlessness is spiritual suicide. So what I’m suggesting is that we pray more” (39). But how do we pray? The reader is walked through Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, and a brilliant exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, to answer this question.

God’s word is so rich and so clear, and as the book walks line by line through the Lord’s Prayer, there are simple and clear challenges. The first half of the Lord’s Prayer is Godward looking, (49) “the world exists as a canvas for God’s glory.” I was struck by John’s simple challenge. How often am I sleepless, grieved, or distracted from other tasks, by the ways in which God’s name is disrespected? If I am honest with myself, how self-centred are my prayers?

As Jesus turns to pray the second half of his prayer, fresh challenges confront the reader. Do we get comfortable fitting our prayer lives around us? Do we really ask for our daily bread, or is it simply the ad hoc or occasional request? Do we wholly depend on God alone, or use him as a backstop in tricky times? Given the current global crisis, such questions are particularly poignant. But more than this, the Lord’s Prayer is communal in outlook. We are not asking for simply our own needs, there is a plurality to this prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” “forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.” And so John cautions, (59) “even when we pray alone, we should have our neighbours in mind. We should be consumed by ways to love them.”

Prayer requires our humility, as we put others before ourselves and as we submit to God when we sin, or in the storms of life as they rage around us. John helpfully takes us to Gethsemane. Jesus’ prayer in the garden is emotional, the words are raw. And it provides a wonderful model of dependence upon and submission to the Father to whom he prays. (69) “Jesus had taught his disciples how to pray in times of peace. Here [in Gethsemane] he modelled prayer in the midst of suffering. What had been instructed in the classroom was now illustrated in crisis.”

Prayer is a wonderful gift for the Christian. It is the means by which we speak with our Father. Where we can be open, honest and raw. It is a means to depend on and submit to our Father. (76) “God strengthened their hands when they surrendered their hearts to do his will. They began to look like their Saviour. They finally understood that the life-changing work of the gospel isn’t strengthened in the public eye. Rather, it’s strengthened in private before the eyes of God and our family in Christ.”

Prayer and the Local Church

Chapters Six to Eight see the book apply these truths to the local church gathering together. With a mix of solid biblical truth (94-95 for example, an exploration of prayer in the Early Church of the book of Acts) and practical advice, John considers the place of prayer in the life of the local church. He unpacks the ACTS model of prayer at length (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), providing a useful model for the church to use to consider conversations around prayer. Indeed, on this model in particular, the corporate application is clear. As we pray through these four things together we are encouraged to praise God as one body, to confront sin in ourselves as we hear the confessions of others (me too!) and to better love one another as we gather.

Perhaps the most striking direct application of this section was John’s encouragement to recover the prayer meeting. It might not be innovative, but we don’t need innovation. We need intentionality. (96) “The prayer meeting isn’t a place of attraction, but a place of necessity.” We may not be attracted to a prayer meeting after a long day at work or a long weekend, but when we understand the vitality of prayer in the life of the church, our perspectives and priorities will shift. Helpfully using the example of his own church family, John challenges us to consider whether we make the right space in both our weeks and our hearts to be gathering to pray together.

As this third section of the book is wrapped up, John turns to consider the relationship between evangelism, missions and prayer. He identifies the anxiety and apathy that can so often fuel both our individual and corporate approaches to evangelism (and adds to this helpful challenges: I was struck by his comment on training. Does constant training for evangelism allow cowards like myself to simply avoid every actually going out on mission?) The remedy, he writes, is prayer. (111)  “Prayer is the link in the chain that connects God’s sovereignty to our responsibility.” Indeed, in corporate prayer for our evangelistic efforts, we give over burdens we were never meant to shoulder to the One who can carry them, (114) “anxiety is replaced with boldness. Apathy is replaced with compassion.”

Conclusion

This book was such a helpful check on my own attitude to prayer in my own church family. At a time when it is even harder to gather and pray together, where prayer meetings and the like require the added logistics of video calls and conferencing software, this book provided a great challenge to how I view prayer in my own life, and crucially, in the life of the church. John challenges us with this book: do we cheapen the place of prayer in our church family? Do we enjoy it? Do we really get it? Through considering services, sermons, prayer meetings and outreach (among other things) John shows how prayer relates to the whole life of the church. A life of prayer is an essential joy for Christian exiles in a broken world. (127) “When Christ teaches us to pray, he does so with a fractured world in mind.” In Glory, we will stand before our Father and praise Him to His face. But until that day, as we live for him in this broken and troubled world, we must lean on him, praying without ceasing. This short book is a great read for a lonely Christian in a troubled, self-isolating world. If you have a few hours this coming week, have a quick read and be humble as you think of your own contribution to the prayer life of your church.