Whom Paul preaches

Paul rolled into town, once upon a time at the city of Ephesus, with all the subtlety of a gunslinger.

 

Or maybe I’ve watched too many Westerns. But in truth, Paul was the type of guy who made an impression everywhere he went. Miracles, healings, exorcisms.

 

The things we picture happening in large tents in places like Rustwater, Kansas, and of dubious authenticity, were actually taking place in broad daylight for all to see as Paul was going around. This must have impressed the seven sons of Sceva, whose pappy was a Rabbi in the city.

 

They recognised that there was power in the Name of Jesus, but they wanted to use the power without knowing Jesus or being filled with the Holy Spirit. You can’t piggyback on someone else’s relationship to Christ. They learned that lesson in a 7-1 beating when a demon-possessed man sent them running back home, bruised and with their britches down.

 

The lesson they should have learned that day was that being a child of God is not something that is baked into your family’s cake. It needs to be authentic. The demons in the possessed man berated them that they knew Jesus and Paul, but not these seven posers.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+19%3A+11+-+16&version=NIV

 

Once, when Jesus was having a back-and-forth with the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law at the Temple, they were disputing with him and he pointed out that they were still slaves to sin.

 

Even in the midst of the Law, and their pursuit of righteousness, Jesus pointed out that the religious professionals still needed saving, and were still slaves to sin, to which the Teachers of the Law naturally became offended and played what they thought was their trump card to end all debate: “Abraham is our father” (verse 39).

 

It was supposed to be a mic-drop type of moment. Not so because Jesus had their ticket:

 

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would[c] do what Abraham did.  (verse 39). These guys were secure in their own minds of their connection to God and yet they were completely wrong, probably not unlike the seven sons of Sceva. They weren’t children of Abraham because they did not have the faith of Abraham. They had the DNA of Abraham but that wasn’t the thing that saved or saves.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A+31+-+42&version=NIV

 

I think passages like these are what Paul was thinking about when he wrote back in Romans 4 about Abraham:

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+4%3A+1+-+3&version=NIV

 

Not by works but by faith. Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.

 

Here’s Paul in Romans 9 then, agonizing about his Jewish brothers having missed their Messiah. How did this happen? And by implication, what does this mean for the Gentile Believer?

 

Paul’s brain unpacks it for us, but his heart is solemn and serious about the souls of men.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+9%3A+1+-+4&version=NIV

 

 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” (Romans 9)

 

Does he mean that? Viewed through the lens of our time, could Paul be ‘virtue signalling’? Not from the first verse of Romans 9: Paul says he’s not lying, that he’s doubly sure. His conscience confirms what he’s saying through the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s exploration of the question of the Children of Israel and their destiny in salvation stretches over three chapters of Romans (9 – 11) however he comes to the conclusion that:

  • God is faithful (his word has not failed)
  • God is sovereign: some he saves and some he hardens
  • Jew and Gentile alike are saved the same way, through faith in Christ

 

Like that old song which you may remember from childhood (Sunday school):

 

Father Abraham had many sons

Many sons had Father Abraham

I am one of them (and so are you?)

So let’s just praise the Lord…

Valley Forge

Just this past week, President Trump over at Mount Rushmore for the 4th of July delivered remarks about the history of the U.S. and the four men whose faces are carved into the rock.

 

To my mind, history is endlessly fascinating and multi-faceted. Fascinating because actions taken by men in the course of time, lead to present day realities that might not have otherwise occurred. Multi-faceted because we view their actions through the lens of our context here and now. And in five years time, we look at the same historical record and it looks different again.

 

George Washington became the first elected president of the United States and the first among the visages immortalised in rock. You may be asking what George Washington has to do with me? In 2020. In Cape Town. In the middle of a modern era with smart phones where everything happens at the speed of light?

 

Because he and the soldiers in his Continental army endured a brutal winter.

 

Because the lessons of their endurance are relevant to us who are going through this craziness that will forever be remembered as 2020.

 

There will be no historical moment, a ‘where were you when’ this happened. Corona virus and the lockdown are not like a pin-point on a calendar, but a broad smudge of dread and frustration spanning most of the year.

 

Washington’s Continental army turned to a bend on the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania to winter and resupply, spending around 6 months in tactical hibernation in the winter of 1777/78. As we think of 2020, they likely thought of 1777 going into 1778.

 

https://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/history/vstory.html

 

Ironically, they camped next to a forge that was used by two Quaker families. A forge is a superb image of being shaped through extreme circumstances. This is the forge after which the encampment was named.

 

Washington was merely reaching for the promise of a new nation in the New World, conceived in liberty. The winter encampment was brutal, a sixth of the soldiers succumbed to disease, a disparate rabble who were ill-trained to take on the British, the dream of America seemingly bleeding out its warmth into the cold earth.

Just a couple of inches of snow

And yet, they persevered in a political miracle.

 

Like the Continental army perhaps, our hope seems lost, an eternal winter when we cannot conceive of how normalcy could ever return. Loved ones falling ill, friends losing work, the comfort of proximity tempered with the fear of infection.

 

We are His children. The struggle has a purpose. Like the Valley Forge, the forge of 2020 is showing us our faith.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+1%3A6+-+9&version=NIV

 

I would rather not endure a forge or trials to test my faith. Can I admit that I cringe slightly when I think of James’ word to the Believer?

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A+2+-+4&version=NIV

 

Pure joy is not what 2020 evokes. Or any trial. But I may yet be standing when Christmas comes around. I may yet be singing His praises. I may be slightly more mature and battle-hardened. For sure, I don’t even want to consider throwing in the towel.

 

Today’s not a bad day. There have been worse, but not too many better than today. I don’t see much.

 

But God must be doing something.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews+12%3A+1+-+3&version=NIV

More than conquerors

Week 13 (at least) of the State mandated lockdown in South Africa.

I barely remember what things were like before. Life resembles a movie…several spring to mind: ‘1984’, ‘Contagion’.

I’m more worried about what other people might be going through than I am personally, people losing jobs and livelihoods, people hungry, people who’s suffering doesn’t serve a narrative favourable to the politically powerful or politically correct – or both, suffering out of the public consciousness.

There is the promise in Scripture that nothing, however distasteful or painful, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A35+-+39&version=NIV

More than conquerors in a war that’s bigger than us

Having to attend the local traffic department, wait 4 hours in a queue, be processed like meat was my lowest point this week. And yet, Romans 8 reveals that this experience did not separate me from God’s love.

Four and a half hours interacting with a government department, I left feeling like a part of my soul was sucked dry

Four and a half hours interacting with a government department, I left feeling like a part of my soul was sucked dry
I was walking this week, thinking about that part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells the audience to look at how the Father provides for birds, comparing this to the greater care he has for people.


Birds seem to be making a better fist of it than people. Birds don’t put other birds in prison, or cancel them for holding different opinions, or make them stand in queues and tax them, or judge them by their different feathers.

Compositionally and aesthetically pleasing, this created work begs a picture

I was struggling to understand what it is about people that is worth saving. Suffice it to say that the Father views human beings with an incomprehensible grace. And having set his love on us, that love trumps any situation that we can’t understand and that causes us the most profound pain.

Lemon tree growing towards the sun

I don’t feel it, but I know it to be true. There is beauty in the humble back yard, there is His grace every morning. There is family and faith. And a conquering church that keeps on going.

Shoofly pie, or Future glory

For a taste of Pennsylvania – and because baking is fun – my wife made a Shoofly pie for the first time ever.

Pennsylvania’s finest

It was as good as I remember it, with generous dollops of whipped cream. It’s just a pity that we ate it in the midst of what some reckon is the longest continuous lockdown in the world.

 

I’m still ruminating on Paul’s letter to the Romans, the eighth chapter now. Paul’s subject matter is vast and epic. All the way from the first chapter where he describes what the gospel is, that we can’t be right with God except in faith, where he describes the hopeless natural and moral condition of man, to the constant moral battle that is fought in the mind to choose what is right and reject what is wrong.

 

And now from the part where Paul has told us what’s happened, to describing how to practically live now that we know what’s happened. The latter part of Romans gets into more practicalities.

 

Living by the Spirit is as practical as the examination of the subject in theory. The Holy Spirit works in the world and more particularly works in the Christian’s life to transform theology into practice. I can think of no more practical thing He does.

 

He tells us that we are the Father’s children. We are loved, taken care of.

 

We are heirs and co-heirs, with a stupendous inheritance. John Piper lists our inheritance. We:

 

  • Will inherit the earth
  • Know God himself, and will be in his presence and will see his glory
  • Can look forward to new bodies

 

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/children-heirs-and-fellow-sufferers

 

We are heirs and co-heirs, with a stupendous inheritance. But we have to go through suffering in order to get to the ultimate good stuff.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A18+-+28&version=NIV

 

Like having Shoofly pie to look forward to but you can’t enjoy it yet because you have a tooth-ache, or you’re too full of afternoon tea and can’t have another bite. Or any one of a number of reasons that you can’t enjoy it yet.

 

Paul writes that he considers the sufferings we go through are not worthy to be compared with the glory that awaits us. This is one of those times where I think I understand what Paul is saying, but I’m unsure how to get my heart over the line.

 

Its a package deal. Suffering preceding glory.

John Piper explains that “the reason the calamities and conflicts of the world exist is because God subjected the natural world to futility. God put the natural world under a curse, so that the physical horrors of that curse, of that futility, of that corruption, the physical horrors, disease and death, would become a vivid picture — parable — of the horrors of moral evil, sin. In other words, natural evil exists in the world as a signpost, a parable of the horrors of moral evil.”

 

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-pain-of-the-world-and-the-purposes-of-god

 

So, to get to the Shoofly pie, I have to first eat a big old mud pie with gristle and twigs. The stomach heaves.

 

So, I can’t get my heart over the line, and my stomach is green and tender and won’t come with. All I’ve got is a package deal and a mind that vacillates. And the imperative that I can’t just lie down, but have to put one more foot forward today.

 

And another one tomorrow.

 

And another foot the next. Such is the nature of faith and because we follow him.

Living in the Spirit

No matter how weary I become, how empty the tank, the dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit is apparent.

 

None more so than during an extended, mandated lockdown.

 

Citizen Sean has a tank where freedom, rights and civic duties slosh around, and at the moment is in danger of bottoming out.

 

Physical Sean has a tank for fitness levels and general effervescence and that level is trending in the wrong direction.

 

Sean’s brain has endured an intellectual devolution, snacking on mind junk-food and being exposed to propaganda and copious amounts of fear-mongering from the mainstream media.

 

Levels are low across the board. But not my flesh, the sinful nature that snipes from a place of spite and rebellion. Nope, levels are still high there. Memes and mockery are swirling in a creative storm.

 

No matter how weary I become, I notice that my flesh (sinful nature) is self-fueling and in inexhaustible supply.

 

I’m still in Romans chapter 8: Paul has explained how we’re no longer living the old way of flesh and condemnation, but in the Spirit.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A+1+-+4&version=NIV

 

There is a dichotomy between the flesh and the Spirit and my mind is where the tension is resolved. Paul uses the previous chapter of Romans to paint a picture of the tension.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A+5+-+11&version=NIV

 

This Sunday just past was Pentecost. It’s not merely a stop on the calendar between Easter and Christmas. Without the Holy Spirit falling on the disciples in the upper room, would there be a church? Not one full of power. How would any of us be able to spread the gospel without the Holy Spirit?

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+1%3A8&version=NIV

 

This is central to what Paul is saying in this part of Romans. We cannot live the Christian life in the flesh, which is to say in our natural abilities. The Holy Spirit is central to the Christian life. Without living in the Spirit, we’d be no better than self-righteous and sin-destined Pharisees.

Sounds simple. So, how exactly do you tell the flesh where to get off? The flesh is sneakier than a criminal springing a surprise attack with a knife fight in a dark alley. Paul writes: “by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body…” (8:13, NIV)

 

The Holy Spirit doesn’t get into knife fights. The commentary I consulted seems to be dove-tail with my experience that He works by consistent, daily subtle influence in our lives.

 

https://www.cru.org/us/en/blog/spiritual-growth/beginning-with-god/walking-in-the-spirit.html#.XtJGMJLf5Ms.email

 

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/why-and-how-we-walk-according-to-the-spirit

 

Living in the Spirit requires us making time and space for the Holy Spirit to work in us…

 

  • Coming back to the foot of the cross
  • Confessing our sins
  • Engaging in prayer
  • Renewing our mind
  • Praising
  • Seeking to be filled with the Spirit…

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+5%3A18+-+20&version=NIV

 

In a later verse Paul reminds us that those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God (8:14, NIV).

 

As children, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and he leads us. The Holy Spirit doesn’t manipulate, or coerce, or push, He leads. Since we are connected so fundamentally to God by His Spirit, and are made aware by the Spirit that we are His children, it is natural (or should I say supernatural) for Him to lead us.

 

I can’t conceive of a time when He is not leading us.

 

My experience is that when the flesh (sinful nature) knifes me in the back, my inner ear starts resonating with what He is saying, reminding me of my sonship, calling me back.

 

I can’t do it. I really can’t.

 

But He can.

Ravi

Since we are not allowed to go anywhere for fun upon pain of being confronted by zealous inquisitors, and since the thought of an inquisition evokes the country of Spain, I’m reminded of this past week in Lock-down, day #40-something:

I had gathered some clips from the internet of people having recorded their tour of various places: Central Park, the Eiffel tower, the Bronx Zoo, Madame Tussauds in London. We did in a mini world tour over the weekend, transported thousands of miles by the wonders of television.

I saw the inside of the Vatican for the first time, and sat back to watch some Kiwi take the audience on a tour of Madrid. The tour of Madrid was actually the most interesting part of our travels. Old architecture, Moorish battles, Christian castles, restaurants that are hundreds of years old, authors being beheaded, and a visit to the presumed last resting place of Miguel de Cervantes. Presumed, because as the Kiwi guide mentioned many times, ‘we lose bodies in Madrid’.

I’d never read Cervantes’ most famous work: ‘Don Qixote de la Mancha’. According to a summary I read online, Don Qixote reads a surfeit of romantic books and gets the incredibly idealistic notion that he is a knight involved in a great quest.

The novel could have been called The Great Pretender. Except that the conceit is precisely that Don Qixote actually believes that he is a knight. His knightly exploits result in essentially nothing. The world isn’t changed, people aren’t rescued from situations, real or imagined. And Don Qixote is the recipient of regular beating as a result of sticking his nose in other peoples’ business.

In this lockdown, I have been far from my best. I imagine most of us are extremely uncomfortable. As my formative study years were involved with the idea that the press is the 4th estate, holding those in political power to account, I cannot help but enter the fray, with a few ideas and comments to counteract the banality of those who accept things as the way they are because they cannot be changed.

Like a pathetic Don Qixote, my knightly forays into social media and the Twitterverse stand at odds with the world the way it is, unmoved by my mountain of words. I have this idealistic notion that whether my words change a single thing or not, some things need to be said.

For the record.

My devotions have been infrequent. Prayer, which Scripture says changes things far more effectively than my words, has been a stranger to my cracked lips. Dry and underutilized in supplication.

I have not looked to Him to establish the proper order on His earth and hold the powerfully corrupt to account. He moves slower than I would like.

And then I hear the news that the great apologist Ravi Zacharias has succumbed to cancer. Snapped back to reality. I have not seen His hand for many days in this place. And then I see His hand in the life of Ravi.

Fire in the sky

I think of Moses with the flocks of Jethro that he led at the foot of Horeb, doing his regular work as a shepherd:

 

https://classic.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+3%3A1+-+5&version=NIV

 

Doing his thing, tending to the sheep of his father-in-law, probably taking them on a grazing circuit that was quite familiar, to the mountain and back, maybe in a loop, maybe in a figure-8 if the mood struck him.

 

In open terrain, flame is very apparent, so Moses investigated, and found that the signs of fire were there but the bush was not being consumed. The Lord got Moses’ attention:

 

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3, NIV)

In this desert of a lockdown, personally and constitutionally grieved at the God-given natural law that is being curtailed by temporal authorities, I looked at the life of Ravi, and the passing of Ravi, and I approached and found that God is even there in the place I was looking.

 

Holy ground. Because God is in this place.

 

His presence is in Lockdown Day #54. I hadn’t even noticed before.

God had called his servant Ravi home and was still on His throne.

Tent

Misty morning in May

Reading a Bible study recently (YouVersion: Christ > Corona by Mike Novotny), the author pointed to Psalms 90 and 91.

 

If you read Psalm 90 and then read Psalm 91 directly afterwards, the juxtaposition is very interesting and worth consideration in the times we are going through.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+90&version=NIV

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+91&version=NIV

 

In Psalm 90, the writer advises us to consider our mortality and realise that we have to return to dust, that God is fully aware of our moral debt and that we should ‘number our days’. The Psalmist asks God to have compassion.

 

In Psalm 91, the writer seeks God’s protection during a time of danger. The Psalmist mentions poisonous snakes, presumably hungry and angry lions and plague with ten thousand falling into death’s sigh. Basically a pandemic.

 

“9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.” (Psalm 91, NIV)

 

It would be superficial to suggest that God will never let His people suffer from snakes, lions, pandemics or any other danger.

 

Psalm 90 is as true as Psalm 91. We should number our days and seek His protection.

 

The promise that no harm will befall the Believer is not a blanket promise of no death from pandemic, however that the child of God is habitually delivered from such dangers.

 

https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/psalm-91/

 

This is inspired poetry and when the Psalmist writes that no disaster will come near the tent of the Believer, I think of Paul the apostle.

 

Paul, a tent-maker by profession, using what he knows – his day job – to illustrate the frailty of flesh, and in the midst of that the hope of the Christian.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+5%3A1+-+10&version=NIV

 

Our bodies are temporary dwellings. The older we get the more we realise this. There’s only so much you can patch a tent, but what I do take from Psalm 91 is that God is intimately concerned with our welfare and the best thing we can do, in danger or not, is to seek Him.

The year that was April

I’ve stopped counting the days in the lockdown. It was fun for 3 weeks but then it just got ridiculous. The novelty wore off.

Another numberless morning

Anecdotally, I’ve seen more South African flags on display: on a table in a living room when driving past, on a flag pole three doors down from us. Presumably, people are seeing themselves as part of something bigger, a national effort to pull in one direction and be good citizens.

Braai without fresh rugby is sad

Personally, I think the national honeymoon is about at an end. It was never going to last longer than a month. As someone who has a libertarian orientation when it comes to civil rights, it’s been difficult to read about some of the things going on.

‘Tjop’ with no ‘dop’

There’s been a basic struggle going on in the street that has nothing to do with us human beings. Crows versus squirrels. The collective noun for squirrels is apparently a dray or a colony, or alternatively a scurry.

Scrat on the lookout for yet more pecan nuts

I like that. It’s been a scurry of squirrels versus a murder of crows. Moves and countermoves. The squirrels have been thorough in  collecting the pecan nuts from the tree next door and avoiding the crows. The crows got one of them this past fortnight (or week; I’m not sure as I’ve totally lost track of the accurate passage of time). They ate up the kill really fast.

 

At least two are left that we’ve been able to count: one with a truncated tail we call ‘Stumpy’ and another I call ‘Scrat’.

 

Social media (Twitter) is a dumpster fire of emotion and vitriol and you can see where people’s heads are at. It’s not pretty but at times perversely entertaining. We are not in our right minds.

Something something electrons

It feels strange not to get in the vehicle and go to work or church. I actually started a Bible study on YouVersion one morning recently, and it actually felt like an occasion. My normal day is work, leisure screen time, eating and sleeping; doing things to pass the time but without real enjoyment.

Lekker slaai

 

Daily bread

I need to get stuck into that Bible study again. I’ll tell you about it sometime. I have the time but the motivation is still in first gear.

Numbers

Days of lockdown: 24

Days until lockdown ends (theoretically): 12

 

That means that we’re 66.67% of the way there.

 

Tests conducted: 108,021

Positive cases: 3,034

Deaths: 52

 

That’s a mortality rate of 0.017%.

 

There’s a calculus to this pandemic and the way the authorities are handling it. It’s a numbers game.

 

Random numbers, random patterns, fun and games

 

The data plotted on a graph with ‘x’ and ‘y’ axes amounts to a curve. The curve must be flattened by social distancing. Not necessarily to save lives, but to save available hospital beds and medical care.

 

We all know these things.

 

The great Albert Einstein was credited with saying that ‘not everything that can be counted, counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’

 

Craving fresh fruit

 

People are caring for one another. But equally, people are snitching on one another and using the pandemic as a pretext to settle social justice scores. That’s something you can’t plot on a graph or quantify with numbers.

 

Frequent coffee

 

Too many people killed by over-officious and zealous police and soldiers.

 

Human beings excluded from financial help because of their race.

 

The psychological cost of social isolation creeping unawares on ordinary people locked in their homes with the threat of fines and arrest.

 

The anxiety of people facing an abrupt halt to their ability to provide for their families.

 

The sun going down on Day 20, wishing it would go down on the lock-down

 

The virus is a numbers game but what the human condition means is that we bring to it the same ingredients that were there before, the stuff that is already baked into the cake. And the human condition (including my own) means that there are glimpses of things to be positive about, but truck loads of things to be negative about.

 

The family kettle getting a work-out

 

Only God’s working causes the equation to balance for the good.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A28&version=NIV