Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Thinking about … (1 Peter 1:13)

Peter has so far focussed on how his Christian readers were enduring the difficulties they were facing because of the opposition that was causing trouble for them. Despite their problems they possessed great joy as they anticipated receiving final salvation – a salvation that had been the focus of the message of the Old Testament prophets – when the time of their exile would be over. Peter was aware that the current attitude of his readers could change, that their priorities could shift, the longer they lived away from their homeland. Therefore he proceeds to explain to them how they should continue in the Christian life. One important aspect was how the used their minds.

We can easily see the importance of how we think from Peter’s twofold reference to the mind in verse 13. He wants his readers to prepare their minds for action and to be sober-minded. The importance of the mind is stressed in the illustration that Peter uses when he tells them, literally, to gird up the loins of their minds. In the ancient world, an individual, because of the kinds of clothes that were worn, had to gird them up with a belt so that he could walk or run. Peter says that each Christian has to think in such a way that he will not be hindered from right activities – this is to be his ongoing resolve. Of course, the illustration also reminds us that we are on a journey, and in order to reach that destination we have to think correctly at all times.

The right way of thinking that Peter exhorts is ‘sober-mindedness’. We all know that drunkenness prevents rational thinking whereas sobriety enables it. Another way by which our minds can be distracted is by having too many things to think about. No doubt, some of us are thinking about where we will go for our summer holidays. We can approach the destination in three ways: first, we can chooses so many options and think about each of them and end up not knowing where to go; second, we can choose a destination and not think about it, with the result that we make no adequate preparations; third, we know our destination, we read all we can about it, and we make suitable preparations for the journey. The third option is the realistic one. In a far higher sense, a Christian has to think continually about his destination and, since it is the priority in his life, he has to always check that he is making the right preparation. Thinking about the destination is Peter’s requirement in verse 13 and thinking about the preparation is his requirement in verses 14 -21.

Peter is not unique among New Testament writers concerning the importance of thinking correctly. We can consider the example of Paul. First, there is Paul’s urging of the Philippians to have the humble mind of Christ in their relationships with one another (Phil. 2:5). Second, there is Paul’s desire for the Colossians to set their minds on the things that are above (Col. 3:2). Third, there is his description of the ungodly as those who mind earthly things (Phil. 3:19). Fourth, there is his call to the Christians in Rome to have transformed minds, and such renewed minds will think in a balanced way about their own spiritual gifts and also the capability of others (Rom. 12:1-3).

So we can see how important a proper use of the mind is. We need to remind ourselves of this requirement because often we base our responses or intentions on our feelings or on our impulses. But it is through the proper use of the mind that we can live as Christians, that we can assess where we are and where we are going.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Central Theme of the Old Testament (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Hundreds of themes can be discovered in the Old Testament. Among them are what the Old Testament says about creation, what the Old Testament says about the origin of human languages, what the Old Testament says about the histories of the ancient empires of the world, what the Old Testament says about features and traits of important individuals who served God, and many more such topics. They are interesting, but they are not the central message of the Old Testament and we do it an injustice when we fail to see that its primary message is about the sufferings of Christ and the glories that will follow.

The sufferings of Christ were prophesied in detail. We only have to read passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 to see that is the case (they are examples of many passages in the Old Testament). Peter tells us how such detail was provided – it was given by the Holy Spirit. Isaiah and David did not spend a few years seeking for a suitable message, which they then passed on to others. Their words were not expressions of their own discoveries. Instead they were divinely inspired in what they said about Jesus and his sufferings and were able to go into detail about them.

The sufferings of Christ were substitutionary in nature. It is evident from passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 that Jesus suffered on behalf of others (it is also taught in the worship rituals of Israel which were pictures of his future sacrifice). The pain he endured was instead of others having to endure them. His sufferings were not only an example to others regarding how to persevere through them. Nor were they only the sufferings of one who has to perform heroic acts in order to bring benefits to others (similar to how a soldier endures suffering in order to defeat an enemy on behalf of his country). Instead the Old Testament prophets make it very clear that Jesus suffered peculiarly in a penal manner, that his sufferings were actually punishment for the sins of others. And the Old Testament makes it clear that the One who punished him instead of punishing others was his heavenly Father.

The benefits of the sufferings of Christ are for peoples of all nations. This was promised in the first prediction recorded in the Bible when God himself said that the great Deliverer’s heel would be bruised (Gen. 3:15). Psalm 22, which gives a marvellous entrance into the Messiah’s sufferings, tells us that the beneficiaries of it will come from ‘all the ends of the earth’ as they ‘turn to the Lord’ (Ps. 22:27). Through his death, they will receive pardon for their sins because he will have paid the penalty that God required of them.

The other part of the central theme of the Old Testament is the glories that will follow for Jesus. We know what they are because the New Testament reveals what was hidden in the Old Testament, although each of them can be found in the Old Testament: his resurrection, his ascension, his exaltation, his giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, his blessing the nations with the gospel, his return at the end of human history when he will raise from the dead those of his people who have died, the gathering of his people in his presence, his formation of the new heavens and new earth, and countless glories to follow. In fact, it will always be the case that there will be glories to come. They will be endless in number and experience.

Throughout the experiences of these glories, the capabilities of his followers to understand their significances will be expanded. Although we know more than the Old Testament believers did, the development is not the equivalent of going from primary one to secondary school. In a sense we are now in primary two, and ahead of us are endless experiences in which we will be enabled to understand more and more about Jesus. When we die, we will go to the next level; when the resurrection comes, we will go to the next level again; and we will continue to grow in our understanding of Jesus and his glories.

We belong to the same diaspora as Peter’s readers, yet we have more than they had because we now have the complete Bible. I wonder what they would say to us if they could send us a message. Perhaps it would be a reminder how privileged we are, and how we can learn about Jesus from a whole Bible. Let us as exiles read the book that has been sent to us from the homeland and discover more of what it says about Jesus and his glories.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Our Salvation (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Peter reminds his readers that the message about their salvation is not new because it is found in the Old Testament. He also says that three distinct groups of the Lord’s servants are interested in the salvation that we have received.

One group were the prophets who ‘inquired and searched diligently’ into the meaning of their own predictions. Although they were guided by the Spirit as they spoke, they did not automatically understand what they were saying about the future Messiah. This is not surprising because their prophecies seemed contradictory – on the one hand he would suffer, and on the other hand he would reign for ever. Yet when they discovered that their prophecies were mainly for the benefit of others (Christians), they persevered in finding out more. And in that response they are a challenge to us to know about Christ’s sufferings and the glories that will follow.

The second group were the apostles, the ones Christ commissioned to spread the gospel. They did so with the help of the Holy Spirit. The astonishing aspect is that without the illumination of the Spirit the apostles did not fully understand the gospel. We can see this easily from the Gospels themselves. Yet when the Spirit came at Pentecost, we can see a marvellous development in their understanding of the Old Testament and they begin to apply its passages to Jesus. They encourage us to search the Bible, including the Old Testament, because it will be common to discover Jesus walking on its pages, and we will find out about his sufferings and the glories that follow.

The third group are the angels, described by Peter as ‘longing to look’ into this salvation. That translation could indicate that they are not allowed to look or that they will at some stage in the future be allowed to look. I don’t think Peter has either of these meanings in mind. Instead I suspect he says that they long to understand more about salvation but even they, with their exalted intelligences, still need divine instruction before they can understand the wonder of divine mercy. Their interest is all the more startling given that they themselves will not experience God’s grace in salvation.

Why do the angels look into salvation? Various answers can be given. Through observing the salvation of sinners, they discover wonderful things about God, especially his love and his mercy. They rejoice at seeing God worshipped in a way in which they cannot fully participate (we can see from Revelation 4 and 5 how they praise God alongside the redeemed, listening gladly to the songs of salvation). They love the people of God and they take care of them through their journey through life, waiting to take them across the river into the Father’s house, and delight to see them worshipping God throughout that journey. And they will come with the church when Jesus returns to judge the world (1. Thess. 4:13ff.).

So prophets, apostles and angels tell us that the most important things to study are the sufferings of Jesus and the glories that will follow.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Joy in the Unseen Christ (1 Pet. 1:8-9)

It is important to note that Peter connects the rejoicing of Christians to their faith. True joy is always the outcome of a living faith. It has often been pointed out that the preposition translated ‘in’ means ‘into’ and suggests a deeply personal contact with Christ. In other words, their faith was not a surface or shallow response to the gospel. Instead it was a deep and intense taking hold of Jesus.

From one point of view, what matters most is not the strength of one’s faith but the object of one’s faith. Yet this truth should not be used to encourage a minimalist response to the gospel. Sinners should be urged to depend strongly on Jesus. We have an illustration of this in the way a worshipper in Israel was supposed to identify with the animal chosen as his sacrifice. When he identified himself with the animal, he did not merely touch it with his hand, he also used his hand to lean all his weight on the animal. Faith is like that hand and allows us to lean strongly on Jesus. No-one would say to the Israelite, ‘What a big hand you have.’ What mattered was not the size of his hand but whether or not it helped him to lean all his weight on the animal. The goal of faith is leaning entirely on Jesus. And when one does so, it opens the door to joy.

Or we can liken faith to a channel that runs between Christ and us. The question is not whether it is a long channel or a wide channel. It does not need to be a long channel because the distance between Christ and the souls of his people is not measured in miles; and it does not need to be a wide channel that functions as a kind of reservoir storing up blessings (Jesus is our reservoir, not our faith). Our faith is the channel that takes to us from Jesus the particular grace that we need at a given moment. We may need several types of grace every minute, and they always come to us by faith.

The joy of these Christians is ‘inexpressible and filled with glory’. What do these descriptions convey about Christian joy? First, they suggest that this joy is surprising. It is not unexpected that these early Christians are classified by Peter as lovers of Jesus. They loved him with a love that was clean, comprehensive and clinging, which is how all Christians love him. What was surprising, in a sense, was that they had great joy in him despite their difficult surroundings.

Second, these terms remind us that Christian joy exists because they have found what satisfies them. People can face trials if they know that the trials are worthwhile. And these Christians had discovered that the presence of Jesus was worth more than anything else. Nothing that happened to them prevented them from receiving continuous grace from Jesus.

Third, these descriptions are a reminder that joy is not dependent on things that we have. This is the great lie of the western world, that joy comes from accumulating things. The ones to whom Peter was writing had lost their things, but they had not lost their joy. True joy, whether in adversity or in prosperity, comes from drawing out of the fullness that is in Christ.

Fourth, true joy is anticipatory in that those who have it are always looking ahead to heaven. In this regard, we can say that faith is like a telescope that helps us see the blessings of the promised land before we reach it. The Spirit in our hearts functions as the earnest of the inheritance, assuring us that there is a better world, that at God’s right hand there are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Loving the Unseen Christ (1 Pet. 1:8-9)

A first comment that can be made about their attitude of love for Jesus is that it expresses obedience to the first commandment which tells us to love God with all our heart, mind and strength. So this kind of love reveals that the lover understands that Jesus is fully divine. Only God can be the object of such love. There are other levels of love found within Christians, such as marital love or family love, but they are not corporate expressions of love. In contrast this love is a shared love, which means its object can only be Someone who is precious to them all. And the one who fills such a position has to be divine. All these Christians to whom Peter wrote loved Jesus, just as all Christians love Jesus.

What else can be said about the love Christians have for Jesus? One aspect of their love is that it is clean. This does not mean that they are free from wrong motives, but when they have them they are not the outcome of love to Jesus. In fact, love to Jesus is the purest activity in which a sinner can engage. When such love is present, Christians have the right motives; when it is absent, as was the case with the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-8), then even good actions, such as getting rid of false teachers, are sinful activities. Such clean love to Jesus also results in clean love to his people. What I say about or do to another Christian tells me what my love for Jesus is like.

A further aspect of their love for Jesus is that it is comprehensive. Love to him extends to all areas of life. A husband who truly loves his wife never forgets this relationship wherever he is. If he does forget it, he does not love her. It is the same with a healthy spiritual state of soul. What will stop a Christian sinning? Conscience might raise her voice, but it can be ignored. But when love to Jesus is present, such a believer will respond appropriately. The biggest danger to a Christian occurs when love to something else replaces love to Jesus (even when that something else is a good matter). Look what happened to faithful and loving Barnabas when he put love to his relative above love to Christ! His role in the church was damaged, although graciously restored later. We can extend the effects of love to Jesus into every area of one’s life (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13).

Another feature of their love for Jesus is that it is clinging – they can never stop gripping him. Often the first sign that two persons are in love is the hold they have of one another. The same is true in a spiritual sense – a spiritually-healthy Christian will cling to Christ. They will not only do so in times of danger and difficulty, but also in times of comfort and enjoyment. We can imagine a husband or wife seeing a beautiful sight. Often their thought is, ‘I wish my husband/wife could see this.’ A Christian clings to Christ all the time: he may be praying for help, or he may be reading the promises of the Bible, he may be in the company of Christian friends, he may be driving his car along the road. Wherever, he likes to talk to Jesus and say, in one way or another, that he is clinging to Jesus. We cling to him in our homes, in our work; we cling to him in every stage of life, and we will cling to him when we come to the end of the journey when all others can do nothing for us.