Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rob Bell and Love Wins: Does it really preserve freedom?

I am indebted to Aaron Ironside of Radio Rhema who inspired this idea about RB's book this morning, after we had conversed on the show about the book. Aaron spoke of how it would work, if people stood before Christ at his return, and then were sent to destruction, and then had the choice of getting out. Aaron made the excellent point that they would of course want to get out, having met Jesus and wanting out of the horror of the hell (whatever it looks like). I thought it was a very interesting point.

I thought about it a bit more and want to push the idea further. As RB affirms in his book, and I agree in my book What's God Up To (Chapters 1-3), the gospel involves the idea of volition (I prefer this word as there is no such thing as freedom in a sense). That is, God gives 'freedom' to humanity to respond to his desire for relationship. This is an essential component of genuine love, as encapsulated in the old saying, if you love something, Set it free... If it comes back, it's yours, If it doesn't, it never was yours...'



Now one of the key elements of this is that God in a sense veils himself in his works. Creation for example, cries out for a designer, but this is veiled i.e. is it a God or some other thing? Is it the Christian God? What is the power behind the design? That is why we can't reason to the Christian God through creation alone. We can argue God is reasonable, and perhaps the best option, but cannot conclusively prove him. God also sent Jesus, who functioned in a manner avoiding over-riding human volition. Indeed, many of the Jews expected a Messiah who would do just that, enforce his reign over all the earth with power supernatural, political, and military.

Rather, Jesus did miracles based on compassion, love and need, yet refused to do the ones demanded by those who were checking out whether he was really the one they looked for. Jesus refused to take control by coercive force, but invited people to follow him through works of love and mercy, and of a vision of a new world under his reign and marked by love and not human expectations of power. He taught in parables, pithy simple double-barrelled stories which invite people in to consider what he was saying, they resulted in his rejection. Jesus preferred to be crucified to save the world through sacrifice and love, rather than impose himself to force people to bow to him. He rose from the dead, vindicated by God for his flawless service. He was not seen by the powers of the world, he avoided Rome before and after the resurrection. Aside from theological debates with Jewish religious leaders, he generally clashes with political powers. He did not appear to the power holders of the world after he rose. Jesus came in a veiled way.

Now he works in the world through his people. He has placed his Spirit in them, commissioned them to work on his behalf, and sent them out to share that there is a God, a creator, that he is controlling history to a climax, that Jesus Christ is saviour and Lord, and that his reign is being established. They invite people into this reign with the promise of eternal life for those who say yes. This is God's dream, that they will. However, God will not impose by force. That is why humans hear the message and some are convinced, others are not. They are free to receive it, or reject it, yet there are consequences for both. The whole gospel story is carefully framed by God to preserve that volition, so that people come to God willingly and without coercion i.e. drawn by love.

Sadly, followers of Jesus distort this, often resorting to preaching fear of judgment as a means of coercing people into 'belief.' Or they ally with political force, and Christianity is not given freely, it comes with political power. Sometimes parents impose it on their children rather than present it to them, and allow them to find their own faith as they hear the message and its appeal for volitional response.

The principle of volition demands that God does not impose himself and override ambiguity in a sense. He comes and presents himself through his works, through Jesus in his life and ministry and his death and resurrection, through his people and the gospel. His people are ambiguous too, and admixture of good works for which the world is grateful, along with horrendous errors and sin. We are a part of this veiling.

He invites us to join him and the path is through faith in Jesus who died for us to save us. He does not coerce us.

Now RB's construct of the consummation in my view, violates this. I presume he agrees that Jesus will return to his world, and there will be a time of reckoning i.e. judgment day. (Or will people just find themselves there one day????) At this point, all will be judged on their lives. Those with a yes-trust-relationship with God, based on their volitional response, will receive eternal life. Those who have rejected this free offer of relationship are granted what they desire, separation from him. They end up in 'hell'. (By the way RB never defines this, wonder what it looks like for him).

Now at this point the ambiguity and veiling of God in our world and in Christ will be removed. God will be unambiguous. Jesus Christ will be Lord, the whole world will have seen him, seeing his return, and facing his judgment. Further, the person who is separated from God will be in a place of eternal separation. It can't be annihilation, as RB presupposes a second chance. I ponder whether this will be separation from everything that is 'God' i.e. no relationships, no glorious created order, no God i.e. solitary confinement. Who knows? The point is, that this person will now no longer have any doubt about God, the gospel, Jesus and eternal destruction. They will know without a shadow of doubt the truth. There will be no veiling. Their freedom will remain in the sense that they can opt out, but is this genuine freedom? Won't they feel coerced with a no-brainer option; stay in this eternal isolation without the joys that God has formed for humanity, or leave freely. This is not a choice.

Unless they are the ultimate sado masochist, they will be terrified of remaining their forever. They will of course opt out.

I ask then, is this, as RB says, God's love melting the human heart? I don't think so. Or is this a full awareness and fear. Is this not effectively coercion? It is now different from Christians preaching hell, now they know there is one! They are in it. They are effectively not being melted by love, but driven by fear. Is this freedom?

The other views of hell held by contemporary Christians whether literal burning, figurative burning i.e. eternal separation, and annihilation all preserve freedom because after the point of 'knowing' and not 'believing' volition ends, the choice is made.

The question is then; does RB's theology really preserve the 'freedom' he espouses?   

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Response


I have just read through Love Wins by Rob Bell (RB). For the uninitiated, this book has created a storm of controversy in the US over its universalistic gospel. Rather than giving a complete breakdown of the book with its strengths and weaknesses, here a few responses.
First, good for RB for asking the question about the universality of salvation. There are a range of questions in it like: If God is love, will his love not melt the heart of even the worst of all sinners ultimately? Is death the end of all chances – is there further hope for the lost after death?  There is nothing wrong with asking the question and stimulating debate. These are good questions that we must continue to ponder.
Secondly, Rob can really write. The book is compelling and seductive. I enjoyed it and felt myself drawn in by the compelling picture of God, love, life, hope and eternity. Rob has a poetic edge; he is easy to read – pleasing to today's reader who, in the main, does not want complexity.
Thirdly, there is much I can affirm. I agree that love is fundamental to God's character. I agree with RB that eternity is not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new restored world. I agree with him that some presentations of the gospel give a picture of a harsh judging God and that the idea of an eternal hell of pain is tough to take in some ways. I agree with his theology of 'freedom' (don't like the word) in salvation i.e. we choose our eternal destiny, by responding to God's initiative in Christ.  I also affirm that the world is to be drawn to God by preaching a gospel based on the love of God, and not on fear and guilt – although that is an unavoidable part of the story.
Fourthly, having said all this, I have to part from Rob at a number of points. Before I begin, let me state that this is not a condemnation of Rob Bell and his ministry; it is not my place to do so. I am discussing the ideas in the book. Here are some of the things I take issue at:
  • While God is love, he is more than love, or better his love is more than what we today think it is; he is also good and just. God's utter goodness and vision for a creation free from evil and corruption means he will act decisively at a certain point of his choice, when his purposes are complete – the end of the age. He will remove anti-good, acting in justice, out of love. To me, this will occur when the gospel has penetrated his world so that it is known through every nation (Mark 13:10; Matt 14:14). At that point, Jesus will return, he will judge all humanity, and eternal destinies decided. Our eternal state is decided on the basis of relational faith in God i.e. where those who have said 'yes' to God, have bowed the knee willingly, there will be eternal life. RB then, to me, misunderstands and overstates love. God is love, true. But he is equally 'good' and as such, evil and corruption violates his very being and must be dealt with. Because of love he is withholding acting to destroy evil. He could have done so at the first, extinguishing evil at the moment of Adam and Eve's sin. Rather, he allowed humanity out of grace to live on. But the day of reckoning is coming. Love demands justice. We know this, because our hearts yearn for God to act to end suffering and injustice. When we see a crime, our hearts cry for justice. God is gathering a people in history, and out of love for those people, he will ultimately act. His grace is seen in that he has not done so yet, but the day is coming.
  • While it is a nice thought, there is no indication in the Scriptures in a second chance after death. That is why the Protestant Church, in the main, has never gone there. Rather, we are given the gift of one life, we die and face judgment. This is most clearly put in Heb 9:27: 'and just as it
    is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.' It is also
    implied in many other references to judgment such as the Sheep and Goats (e.g. Matt 12:36-37; 25:31-46; Rom 2:5-16; 14:11-12; 2 Cor 5:10) etc. The notion of eternal judgment is considered by the writer of Hebrews as an 'elementary teaching' (Heb 6:2), a judgment which is harsh (Heb 10:27). RB following others in the 'Christian universalism' or 'evangelical universalism' stream, in essence brings back purgatory, whereby we can get out of eternal destruction if we turn from our resistance. This is not quite the Roman Catholic purgatory where prayers to Jesus, Mary and the Saints can assist a person's release, but it is a variation on the theme. We can get out when we yield to God willingly, presumably having heard the message again in some way??? Aside from reading several texts like 1 Cor 15:29 and 2 Macc 12:43-47 for support, the thrust of the NT story is that we live, we die, we face judgment, and we receive our due from God.
  • RB's interpretation of the Greek aiōnos is problematic and perhaps the major problem with the book for me. He seems to think 'eternal destruction' does not necessarily imply 'forever' or 'everlasting' but speaks qualitatively, and where attached to punishment or destruction is merely literary, rhetorical warning device, and the possibility of getting out remains. The problem is that a search of the meaning of aiōnos in the Greek OT LXX and the NT shows that, while on occasion it does have the sense of the ages or a long time, it does mean 'forever' a lot of the time. The covenant is a forever covenant (e.g. Gen 9:12; 17:7), God is a forever God (e.g. Gen 21:23; Exod 3:15), eternal life is a forever life (Dan 12:2-3; Matt 19:23; John 3:16; Rom 6:23 etc). These do not merely state that it is a covenant for the ages (it continues in Christ), that God is a great God for ages, that eternal life is great and for a limited time. They are 'forever' concepts. Dan 12:2-3 is a critical text in later apocalyptic and NT texts on eternal life and destruction, it picked up through the narrative to speak of the two fates of humanity. These references to 'eternal' all then speak of 'forever' covenant (Mosaic – Davidic – Christ), a 'forever God' etc i.e. for all of time (whether this age, or the age to come). Is it legitimate then to isolate the 'eternal punishment' verses and give eternal a different meaning, especially when we find eternal life and punishment/destruction in the same text (e.g. Sheep and Goats). Indeed, if we live on a restored earth in continuity with this one as RB says in chapter 2, then this history I presume continues this one and is then necessarily temporal, and so involves 'everlasting' and 'forever.' His own theology betrays him at this point. If then 'eternal life' is 'forever life' (as well as glorious life), then why not destruction/punishment? I wonder whether you can have it both ways – eternal life is forever life without the possibility again of hell and suffering; yet, eternal destruction is not forever, and we can get out of jail anytime we like, by saying yes. Does it mean we can get out of eternal life in the same way or are we transformed so that the possibility and desire is completely gone? I note that there is no tree of knowledge of good and evil referenced in the NT picture of eternity, there are only trees of life.
  • RB takes the idea of warnings in the Gospel and sees as merely rhetorical devices to make a point. He also at times appears to limit them to the Fall of Jerusalem. Both ideas are flawed. Careful reading of the Olivet Discourse in all three Gospels (Mark 13; Matt 24; Luke 21) indicates that more than the fall of Jerusalem are in mind –despite the likes of Wright. This is particularly clear in Matthew, where Matthew takes Mark's account and reshapes it to make it clear that the 'end of the age' is in mind. Matthew then adds four passages which refer to being ready for the eschaton including the Sheep and the Goats. These are not about being ready for the fall of Jerusalem. To argue that Jesus' teaching is merely rhetorical and literary and to be taken seriously requires careful thought. As noted elsewhere in this post, Jesus' teaching on hell, eternal destruction and punishment and failure to enter life fall amidst a whole range of teaching and parabolic material. It is a flawed and assumptive hermeneutic to take out these bits as rhetorical and not other teaching on things like love, forgiveness etc. While we do have to take care with parables and theology, the parables are theological and do contribute to theology.
  • RB seems to see the idea of some experiencing eternal destruction in the traditional sense as a problem for God; that God does not win in that 'story', that for him to win, all must be saved. I can't agree with this. God will win no matter how many are saved. Indeed, he has won in history, he won on the cross, with his Son taking all that evil could throw at him and rising as Christus Victor – evil is now collateral damage in his wake. Despite evil continuing to exist (because of God's grace to give freedom illumination, to refine his people, to allow time for all humanity receive salvation), his reign cannot be threatened, for his power is absolute. It never could be actually, God is always the winner because God is God. Further, there is no a priori need for all to be saved for God to win. God seeks to win human hearts through love, goodness and justice. He woos us. He invites us. He has done it all for us in Christ. He wants us. He has won in that he has been true to his love, goodness, and justice and so love wins. Yet, he has also gifted us in our image bearing and the Spirit the capacity to say 'yes' or 'no' to his invitation to live forever in and with him. Where we say 'yes,' we are won to Christ and are gifted eternal life. Where we don't, a time of reckoning is coming where all evil is extinguished and God 'wins' (he has won whatever happens) by removing from his universe all corruption. For God to win does not require all to be saved. What our winning God is doing is placing all enemies under his feet either through voluntary submission, or if need be, through God's action.
  • RB has an interesting and inconsistent way of interpreting the parables. Where a parable has descriptions of references to hell and destruction he sees it as a literary device not to be taken too seriously but to make the point, we need to live better (e.g. The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Sheep and Goats). But where there is the theme of love, we take it literally as a guide to life. Is this consistent? Can we say that references to love are also figurative, not to be taken literally? I think RB is effectively laying his own interpretative grid on Scripture with a preconceived notion of the story, and accommodating the texts he finds difficult to the metanarrative. This is a common problem, and something we all struggle with (see http://drmarkk.blogspot.com/2007/10/macro-narrative-and-text-hermeneutics.html). The problem for RB, is that his metastory obscures what is a common thread through the NT, those who do not accept Christ will be separated from him eternally – it is found in Jesus, Luke, Paul, Hebrews, Peter, Jude, and Revelation. When something is so etched into the story, can we simply submerge it? This is one of the dangers of contemporary biblical interpretation. We are moving out of an error where people were overly focussed on individual texts, micro-detail, at the expense of the big story, the narrative, the trajectories of the whole story. We are now focussing on the metanarrative, seeing the trends and threads and trajectories of Scripture. That is good. But pushed too far, what RB has done is an example of what happens. We end up distorting the metastory with a metanarrative that does not align with the text! This is the problem in many theological constructs such as hyper-Calvinism, Arminianism, Open Theism, even what is considered blatant heresy such as Jehovah Witness readings, etc. While it is good to study trajectories and the metastory, we must not get to the point where close analysis of the detail of the story reveal that the attempt to summarise has in fact left us with another account. We need to hold the meta-reading of Scripture in tension with deep detailed reading of the text and allow a hermeneutical spiral which works between the two to continually form our constructs. Our constructs must be loose and adaptive as we discover new elements in detail and/or the metastory. RB has now settled, and like many great thinkers, he has settled in a flawed space.
  • RB makes a critical error when he does not look at Paul's use of 'destruction' language (esp. apōleia, apollumi). Paul uses this language frequently of 'destruction', often in parallel with 'being saved' (e.g. Phil 1:28; 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15). These texts speak of those who are sinners and reject Christ ('in Adam'), perishing eternally. In contrast, believers are 'being saved.' Paul is unequivocal on this. The clearest statement is 2 Thess 1:5-10 where Paul speaks unambiguously of Jesus' return with his angels, where those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of Christ 'will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.' This text and others speak not of a post-mortem hope, but of God executing his justice at his appointed time. The time is Christ's return. At that point, the dead will rise and there will be a judgment. RB's failure to deal with Paul is critical. It enables him to paint the picture more positively than the Scriptures really allow. For Paul, humanity outside of Christ is 'in Adam', in and under sin, and destined for eternal destruction unless saved. God acted in Christ to provide the hilastērion (propitiation, mercy seat, expiation, atoning sacrifice) for sin (Rom 3:25) whereby sin, death and wrath are dealt with in Christ. The path to salvation is faith which is reckoned as righteousness. Where the gospel is preached, it is response to Jesus that takes a person out of that state to be 'in Christ.' Where the gospel has not been preached, Abraham is our hope, his faith in God reckoned to him as righteousness. When we die, we are 'lost' in sin – there is no sense of another hope. This inability to deal with Paul is a major flaw in RB's book.
  • RB rightly asks questions about the common Christian construct of eternal destruction. He asks about babies and others who die without hearing the gospel, he asks about the nature of eternal destruction. Where he falls short to me is that he seeks to resolve these with universalism. There are other places an evangelical can go to have possible answers. There are the stories of Melchizedek and Abraham whose faith is reckoned as righteousness but never heard of Jesus. This opens up a range of possibilities. There is the grace of God who can be trusted to deal with the problem of the child with grace. There is the possibility of conditional mortality whereby those who are in a trust-relationship with are raised to life, but those who reject God simply do not rise or are annihilated. These constructs can work in the Scriptures. I don't quite see why RB and other evangelical universalists feel a need to go to universalism when the New Testament clearly supports that some will be separated from God eternally. Why not work with what is written rather than create a construct which violates what is written? It reveals a detachment from Scripture as first priority in theological decision making toward philosophical speculation and the imposition of reason on the text.
  • RB seems to me to play down the problem of evil and suffering – he does what many westerners today are doing with the text, deapocalyptising it i.e. playing down the nasty and supernatural bits. There is little in RB's picture of the call to take up the cross and suffer for Christ. Christianity is about enjoyment. That is critical, but it is joy in the midst of suffering, especially in the theology of Paul (e.g. Philippians with 16 references to joy as he waxes lyrical about the suffering of Christ, Epaphroditus, himself, and the Philippians). The world in the Biblical story is a glorious place, but it is terribly flawed as are its people. It is thus a dangerous world. There are spiritual forces seeking to destroy. There are people who want to assume control and do all they can to gain it. Our God acts in this world, and we live in it. The story RB paints lacks the apocalyptic nuance of the real world, although it might reflect the nice cushy world of the west. As such, the picture of the consummation painted is soft, as if love will conquer all. Yes it will, but not voluntarily in many cases. There are forces at work which refuse to yield, and must be 'put under his feet' (Ps 110:1). I complete this on ANZAC day remembering Gallipoli and other conflicts where lunatics have sought to take the world, and huge wars with massive death tolls have occurred. The world is full of such conflict. The book reads like a westerner writing in a nice soft western context without the ruthless suffering and evil of much of the history of God's world. It is a sweet picture.  Above all, the cross is placed in the middle of this. We see it all there, evil doing its worst, human depravity in deceit, violence, hubris, hate and power, human incomprehension of what God is really about. Since the cross it goes on. Look at the Middle East today, etc. We are in a dangerous world full of pain, suffering and hate. The picture painted in the book is soft and almost sentimental. Life, God and faith are more robust than this.
  • RB gets a little confused on salvation. He doesn't like the language of 'entry' into salvation. The problem for him is that Jesus did, and spoke of it frequently (e.g. Matt 5:20; 7:13, 21; 18:8, 9; 19:7, 23-24; 23:12). Humanity needs to enter God's reign, it is not automatic. We are outside God's reign unless we yield, the other NT writers agree. RB rightly notes the diverse answers Jesus gives to questions of entry into salvation. What he does not then do is go through the rest of the NT and show that there is a consistency in the post-resurrection preaching and writing of the church on this question of how to enter. As we do we find two key words, repent and believe. Repent is not always mentioned and 'believe' implies a turning from false beliefs. But the picture is consistent, one turns from sin and false allegiances, and believe in Jesus to be saved. Faith is relational, it is assent (saying yes), submission (coming under his lordship), and trust. The picture is clear in the NT. Jesus in his pre-crucifixion ministry was drawing people away from Torah, boundary markers, covenant presumption, works and self-reliance to himself! This is why his answers are fluid; they are not so to confuse us in terms of salvation. Once Jesus died and rose from the dead, the answer became clear – Jesus is the pathway to salvation. He has done it all, he has fulfilled the law, he is the sinless one, he refused to yield, he completed the work, he has taken the judgment of God on himself on our behalf, he has conquered death, he is the first fruits of the new creation and humanity – he has completed all that needed to be done. All that is required is faith – indeed RB uses this term himself often, trust. We assent to what Jesus, and come under his lordship and live for him i.e. we 'enter.' It is not axiomatic and many will not. Similarly, RB seems to struggle with the idea that most will not receive salvation, but only a few will. Jesus didn't have a problem with this, stating it in the great Sermon on the Mount in Matt 7, 'few will find it' (cf. Luke 13). I am sure that RB would take most of the Sermon on the Mount seriously, especially 'love your enemies' etc? Why not this text as well? We cannot simply choose to treat some of Jesus' teaching as rhetorical or literary devices, and leave the rest, this is a flawed inconsistent hermeneutic. Yes, we do have to read carefully in terms of genre and draw theology judiciously and with good interpretative skills, but we cannot simply write off bits of it which suit our metanarrative, and emphasise others that please it. Most false teaching is not a result of extreme views, but imbalances, distortions, and over-emphases.
  • RB overstates how universalism has been viewed in the church over the centuries. Yes there have been voices who have proposed it, like Origen etc. Yes, today there are many theologians who flirt with it. However, with a few exceptions, the church has resolutely not accepted this as authentic. It has been condemned as a heresy. It is a very daring thing for a preacher to say that because others have held a view, it is ok to hold it, which RB does. For example, people in the church have denied the divinity of Christ, denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus, denied the Trinity, etc., does this legitimise this as an 'ok' view. Not for me. I believe RB overstates his authority when he claims this. It is not for him to decide this for others. The only true test is the Scriptures. We need to go back to them and test an idea. When we do, we find that there are a few texts that can suggest universal salvation e.g. Matt 19:28; Acts 3:21; Rom 3:24; Phil 2:9-11; Col 1:20; Eph 1:11; 2 Cor 5:19 etc). Yet, to read these universalistically we have to isolate them from their contexts and ignore references to destruction, wrath in the writings of the same author. For example, Matthew is replete with references to destruction and hell including parables of the net, weeds, the Sheep and the Goats, etc etc. Luke-Acts does not emphasise this element but it is there e.g. Luke 13:24-30; Acts 1:25; 13:48). Paul, as noted above, speaks unambiguously of destruction (e.g. Rom 2:5-16; 14:11-12; Phil 1:28; 3:18-19; Col 3:5; Eph 2:3; 5:6). We have a choice to subvert the texts that speak of destruction/salvation beneath these texts, or the converse. Most Christians noting that Jesus, Matthew, Luke, Mark, Peter, John, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation all speak of destruction, prefer to read the gospel as being potentially universal in the sense that the goal of the gospel is the reconciliation of all, but that some will resist and will not experience that reconciliation. Part of the reconciliation is indeed the healing of the world by the removal of evil, including resistant humanity. That is, God will remove evil, and his purpose is not to see anyone separated from him, but respects human freedom and so collateral to his dealing with evil will be eternal separation of all humanity who refuse his offer from him. This is our story. At one point RB dares to quote Luther is if Luther supports universalism. This is subtly deceitful, there is no way Luther was a universalist.
  • I love the way RB goes through the OT listing the Scriptures which demonstrate God is a restoring God. He is, I agree. But he does not go through the Scriptures and list where God acts decisively in justice to remove evil, the list would be a lot longer. There is selectivity in the book that is disturbing. 
In conclusion then, it is a well written book. In my view however, it is flawed in that it distorts the Christian story. It even becomes dangerous in the hands of many Christians today that do not have the biblical and theological knowledge to work through it in depth and see it for what it is. Evangelicalism is disintegrating stimulated in no small part by the power of the Internet to allow people to propagate their ideas unopposed and freely. This book is paper thin theologically, there is no referencing, texts are not even properly references, alternative views are not given etc. For the vulnerable Christian who feeds off the Net with all sorts of ideas and thoughts, it becomes a shaper of theology without critique. Today's Christian leaders and thinkers are torn between the insatiable demand for easy to read popularist material which gets ideas out there for consumption; and writing good solid stuff which few can be bothered reading. If we go for the former, we need to do so very very carefully, because of the vulnerability of the this biblically and theologically illiterate generation.

Now, having said all that, I want to be clear. I am not saying Rob Bell is not a Christian and standing in judgment over him. My own writings and theology are open to the same critique. None of us is a perfect teacher, leader and free from false ideas. To be fair to him too, he does not quite in the book emphatically state that he is a universalist, but poses a lot of questions. However, as he does so, he clearly sides with the idea arguing it is a better story. I disagree, the gospel as we have it in the narrative and text is the only story and we need to ensure we handle it carefully and accurately. I am contending with his ideas, I think he is reading the gospel wrongly. I would still encourage people to read the book, but do so with a Bible in hand, and don't just read the texts he refers to. If you do, you might find yourself agreeing too easily. Read the whole NT again and again, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, note what it says about life, death, hope and eternity. Consider the whole story and don't write off the bits you don't like. See if there are ways that you can make sense of the story, but hold all its elements in balance. I think as you do, you will find that you will hear a similar but different story to the one painted by RB, but don't worry, God wins.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Glorious Cross of Christ

Published in Challenge Weekly 2011

As we come to Easter and we consider the death of Jesus, it is good to ponder what it means.

First, the cross speaks of our salvation. On the cross Jesus, completely without sin, took upon himself the corruption of all humanity, and died in our place for us. Jesus, both our high priest, and the final sacrifice for sin took to himself human depravity and all its consequences. He extinguished it in the seeming humiliation of brutal death by crucifixion. Because of his righteousness, God raised him from the dead on the third day. Now, God offers us in Christ, the ultimate final sacrifice for sins, the gift of salvation. If we accept his completely free offer by saying yes to this Jesus as saviour and Lord, we will experience the power of the resurrection and receive eternal life with God and his people –a life that begins now! The cross then represents our justification, where God's voice booms out over all creation saying 'pardoned, acquitted, not-guilty, right with God, righteous!' It sings of our redemption, our release from slavery to corruption and its effects. It tells of our reconciliation, where we are reconciled to God in Christ. It guarantees us our resurrection as we are crucified with God in Christ, so that the life we now live is in Christ, by faith. The cross averted the wrath of God, it cleansed us from sin, from guilt and shame, it made God's enemies his friends – it saved us. It marks the death of death itself, the resurrection marks the launch of a new humanity and a new creation – glory be to God!

Secondly, the cross speaks of how we should now live. The cross tells of a reversal of the power patterns of the world. For most, power is found in the ability to exert coercive influence over another, whether through armies, intrigue, sheer force of numbers, beauty, wisdom, wealth, charisma, status, or otherwise. The cross subverts this. On the cross Jesus showed us what true divinity looks like. It looks like the creator and rightful king of the world, voluntarily choosing not to use his power, privilege and status to his own advantage to subdue and control, but rather coming among us as one of us, to win the world through serving and laying down his life for it. Jesus refused to meet the expectations of a Davidic Messiah Warrior King or to impress the Caesar and the Romans with brilliant reason and might. Rather, he humbled himself and became obedient to death. He showed us what true humanity looked like as walked the Via Dolorosa to his death to save his world. In so doing he showed that the true power of the universe is found in love and not violent force or intrigue. As such, the cross now lays down for us a pattern of what it means to be truly human. It reveals the cruciform ethic that should characterise God's people as they lead, gather in churches, engage with one another and his world. We do so as servants bearing the marks of suffering with a cross strapped over our backs, with a towel in one hand and the 'sword' of the Spirit in the other, that they would see who God truly is. Go deeper!

Is it the End of the World?

Published in Challenge Weekly 2011

There is some speculation around that current events indicate that the end of the world is nigh. This is no doubt due to Jesus' predictions of wars and earthquakes as the end approaches. It is certainly true that our news is full of earthquakes and Middle Eastern turmoil. So, is this the beginning of the end?

The first thing is to admit that we just don't know. Jesus himself did not know when the end would come. There are texts that point to Jesus returning like a thief in the night, surprising most of the people of the world. So, his return may be imminent. But, a sensible Christian does no claim too much on the basis of a few world events.

Secondly, such events are not really that unusual. Seismologists tell us that the number of earthquakes remains constant. The difference for us in NZ is that one hit us! Further, we are now able to watch their effects dramatically on live TV! The truth is that there have been earthquakes and turmoil since the time of Christ, and they will go on.

Thirdly, while it is true that these are potentially signs, other key signs remain unfulfilled. For example, the gospel is yet to be preached to every known people group on earth. Neither is there any sign of a world-wide economic, political, and spiritual power taking control.

Fourthly, while the world is in many instances a dangerous place, the idea of a rising intensity of evil in the earth is not clear-cut, although one could argue that the conditions are coming into place for such world-wide chaos (e.g. ecology, globalisation, technology, tension). When we think back to last century there were times of great intensity such as the World Wars, the Cuban Missile crisis, and more, yet these did not signal the end. As such, we Christians should always on our guard, but act with sober realism and judgment concerning the return of Christ at a time like this.

Then there is the question of whether when Jesus returns will in fact the end of the world at all. The assumption behind the idea is that Jesus returns, the world is enveloped in a cataclysmic end and believers are whipped off to live in heaven for eternity. In Rom 8:19-23 a very different picture is given. It speaks of the creation (all things) groaning in suffering (e.g. earthquakes), waiting eagerly for the coming of Christ, of the creation subjected to futility, and of the hope that the creation will be liberated from its enslavement to decay and brought into glorious resurrection freedom. This is a thrilling picture not of the end of the world, but the renewal of this one! So, even if it is 'the end,' this should not lead us to despair or fear, but to joy and hope, because our savior is coming and the renewal of God's creation is at hand. Go deeper!

New Zealand Christian Leaders Gather in Waikanae

Published in Challenge Weekly 2011

Over the last week, some 200 Christian leaders from all over the nation came together at El Rancho in Waikanae for the 6th New Zealand Christian Leader's Congress. The Congress is a significant cutting edge event, a must-do for many of the Christian leaders of the nation. The leaders came from many denominations, parachurch organisations, colleges and the business world. The theme this year was a vision for 2020, 'The Gospel in the Decade Ahead.' The Congress was launched by Rev Dr Stuart Lange and Angelene Goodman from Laidlaw College who spoke on 200 years of the Gospel in NZ. The presentation was brilliant, speaking of the way in which Christianity was fused into the nation from the beginning and formed the basis for the Treaty of Waitangi. This was followed over the next few days by a range of speakers on the gospel from a range of perspectives including its content and proclamation, economics, global issues and mission, creation, justice, family, and the State.

Particularly significant were the overseas speakers. Jeff Fountain, former Director of YWAM Europe and now chair of the Hope for Europe Round Table and Schuman Centre for European Studies, inspired the Congress arguing that the future of Europe is not as bleak as many hold and that the seeds of her renewal are many. Geoff Tunnicluffe the Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance spoke of the range of ways that evangelicals are now able to influence global politics and policy making. Of particular note from the other speakers is planning for the 2014 Bicentenary when the gospel was first preached in NZ by Samuel Marsden on Christmas Day 1814 at Oihi Bay. This is a very significant moment in our history and an opportunity for NZ Christians to engage the nation with the gospel. Plans have begun for significant events to commemorate the coming of the gospel to Aotearoa. Glynn Carpenter, the tireless National Director of the NZ Christian Network compared the NZ church to the Sardis Church of Rev 3:2-3, challenging it to wake up. He spoke of his hopes for the decade ahead. Aside from plans for the 2014 bicentennial, other emphases moving ahead include holistic mission engagement across the nation, reducing the rates of abortion, rebuilding a marriage culture, and building Christian unity across cities and regions. The presentations from the Congress will be available through the NZ Christian Network Website (http://www.visionnetwork.org.nz/). David Lyle Morris with a superb team from Meadows Church led the Congress in some times of wonderful worship. While the speaking and worship were excellent, the highlight of the congress was the rich fellowship and the networking of Christians across the many flavours of the faith in NZ. We saw a living out of Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17.

After the shocking news of the Christchurch earthquake was made known early Tuesday afternoon, the quake dominated the thoughts and prayers of the Congress. Many delegates from Christchurch left immediately desperate to get home to family, friends and those in their pastoral care. A press statement was released from the Congress expressing that the Christian leaders stand together with New Zealanders in prayer and thought for the people of Christchurch and Canterbury. Much prayer arose from the delegates for the people of the region. This congress will always be remembered as 'the one when the Christchurch quake happened.' The earthquake serves to highlight the urgency of the task the Christian Church has as we move ahead. Christians across the nation must rise from their slumber as the people of God, stand together in the unity in the Spirit, continue to defend and proclaim the gospel, seek to see the transformation of people, churches and the whole nation, with the servant-heart of Christ. The need is huge and we must be relentless in our commitment to the cause.

When Truth and Unity Collide

Published in Challenge Weekly 2011

The latest controversy over Destiny Church highlights one of the core tensions of Christian faith, truth 'versus' unity. The NT writings make it clear that unity is of critical importance with it being emphasised especially in Jesus' great prayer of John 17, and in many of its letters (e.g. 1 Corinthians; Philippians; Ephesians 4; Romans 14-15; Philemon). One of the gospels great truths is love, the power that holds us together and gives power to our witness (e.g. John 13:34-35). Truth is equally important in the NT with many warnings against false teaching and prophets (e.g. Acts 20; 2 Corinthians 10-12; Galatians; Colossians 2; 1 John; 2 Peter; Jude). Preserving the one gospel is critical to ensure the survival of the faith. The tension occurs when unity comes under threat because of clashes over truth. When this happens, this is the one of the most difficult challenges Christians can face.

Over the history of the church there have been a number of points at the church has split when it is felt that truth of the gospel is violated whether it be over the Spirit, works and faith, baptism, church government structures, resurrection, tradition, music styles, sexuality issues, and more. Such splits are always destructive, messy, and painful. At some points wars were fought over these divisions, with Christians fighting or some put to death for their apostasy. In many cases these Christians were simply standing for what they believed to be the truth. Now we live in a world with a fragmented Christian community which struggles to present a united witness to the world. While breaking up into many denominations, groups and independent churches may have enhanced mission in some cases, in the big picture of things it has done enormous damage to our witness with many people writing us off for our disunity.

With all this in mind, there are a number of things that are critical to us all. First, we need to know the gospel well. Most importantly we need to know the things that are central to the faith (e.g. bodily resurrection, the Trinity) and the things that are not (the way we baptize, music styles). While all things are important to some degree, we need to stop slitting up over things that are not essential to the core of the gospel. When we face a threat to unity we need to ask, is this worth us leaving or splitting over? Secondly, we need to seek to preserve the unity of the Spirit unless we are forced to divide over something really critical, like the bodily resurrection, and even then at last resort. Thirdly, when we see a new problem emerge we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions and divide ourselves yet further. We need to work with all our being, going the extra mile, in service and humility before dividing. Leaving should be a last resort for any Christian considering breaking up a church. Go deeper.

Bishop Tamaki and the Resurrection

Published in Challenge Weekly in 2011

The latest controversy which has broken out over Destiny and Brian Tamaki raises important questions. If it is true, as Cult Watch and Garth George have claimed, that Bishop Brian denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus and is asserting that all believers are Christs and divine, this position is not in line with historical evangelical Christian faith.

The first question raised is whether Jesus' resurrection was bodily or spiritual, or in some sense, both. As Garth George demonstrates in his article in this paper, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is central to Christian belief. Late last year I blogged on this myself, going into some detail to demonstrate from the NT writings that the Jesus who entered the tomb killed by the Romans, was the same man who left it (http://drmarkk.blogspot.com/2010/12/bodily-resurrection-of-jesus-and-brian.html). The Jesus who died is the one who was raised with the same body now transformed. In many ways his resurrected body conforms to what it was during his life on earth. He can see, hear, speak, eat, drink and be touched. Yet, the NT also shows that, while he is the same Jesus with the same body, he is transformed into that and more. The raised Jesus is able to move freely in and out of this world, translate across vast distances from place to place, and pass in and out of seemingly secure rooms. Scholars talk about this resurrected Christ being ubiquitous (omnipresent) or able to be in all places at all times. He is thus bodily but not confined to his body. How this works of course is beyond our understanding. To describe the mystery of Christ's resurrected body, Paul calls it a 'spiritual body,' a body animated by the Spirit and with many of the properties of the Spirit. In the resurrection, Jesus' 'body of humiliation' has been transformed to a 'glorious body' that is imperishable, immortal and glorious (1 Cor 15:50-54; Phil 3:20-21).

When we discuss Jesus' resurrection body we can go in one of two directions, we can stress continuity with his pre-resurrection body and highlight the bodily dimensions of it. Alternatively, we can highlight the discontinuity with his earthly body, its spiritual elements, whereby Jesus is a 'life-giving spirit' (1 Cor 15:45) – a phrase Bishop Tamaki uses. However, if Jesus is a 'life-giving spirit,' he is still very much the same Jesus raised from the dead. He remains incarnate (en-fleshed).

All this is very important when it comes to the doctrine of the general resurrection where all believers are raised to eternal life at the consummation of this age. The resurrection of Jesus was the firstfruits of the one great resurrection of the righteous at the conclusion of time (1 Cor 15:20). His resurrection is the pattern for the resurrection of God's people who will be set free from the consequences of the Fall and sin, death, and raised to eternal life. Paul writes that at the return of Christ, believers in full bodily form will rise from their graves and will be with him. Just as Jesus' body was transformed in this way, believers too will go through a process of transformation in the twinkling of an eye, where their 'bodies of humiliation' will be transformed to be like his 'glorious body.' We too will have glorious spiritual bodies, these same bodies we have now, raised to eternal life, now immortal and imperishable.

As such, any denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus would be to step outside of orthodox faith. This was seen in the 1960s when Presbyterians in this nation debated this issue rejecting the radical claims of Lloyd Geering. The question is, does Bishop Tamaki really mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead in bodily form? If so, the wider church would be right to challenge him and his teachings and raise questions about the 'Christian' status of his church. In the Herald article however, (17 Feb, 2011) Bishop Tamaki has clarified his beliefs, stating that he and his church affirm the bodily resurrection of Christ which is good news. However, some questions remain as to what he was trying to say and his claims to revelations from God concerning the resurrection. Such claims of revelation are not unusual in some quarters of the church, but they can be problematical; how can we know for sure that they are from God? I suggest it is better to follow the Scriptures as far as they go and live in the tension of the mystery; or, as Paul puts it, 'do not go beyond what is written' (1 Cor 4:6).

The other main issue raised in the controversy is the idea that all believers are divine, 'the actual same divinity and substance of spirit as God.' I have blogged on this in some detail previously (http://drmarkk.blogspot.com/2010/12/brian-tamaki-and-others-and-abuse-of.html) suggesting that this is a dangerous place to go and potentially crosses the line into a form of idolatry. The Bible affirms that when we become Christians we are joined to Christ and are 'in Christ' (e.g. Rom 3:24; 6:1, 11; 1 Cor 1:30). This means that we are spiritually joined to him, participating in his death, life and salvation. It also means we become one with him in the great body of Christ with Jesus as head (e.g. Rom 12:5; Eph 4:11-16). This is a glorious idea speaking of our identity and status; we are children of God in Christ! However, we have to be really careful with this doctrine. If we push the idea too far we can easily begin to see ourselves as mini-Christ's or 'gods.' Scholars call this divinisation or theosis. The idea is that we are swept up into the God head (Trinity) and have the status and power of God himself. This is going too far as the Bible is very clear that there is one God Yahweh, one Lord Jesus, and that we never cross the line from being the created to the creator (e.g. 1 Cor 8:4-6; Rom 1:18-23). Our status is glorious as resurrected humans, but we are not gods, we are not Christs. There is only one God, and one Christ, Jesus of Nazareth raised, Jesus Christ our Lord, Saviour of the World. We are dependent on him and live for him by the Spirit's leading and power. None of us is his equal, we all in our individuality live out our part in his ongoing mission with the gifts he apportions to us. The crossing of the line to see ourselves as gods is the very mistake Adam and Eve made in the garden (Gen 3:5), and some would say Satan (Isa 14:13). It would be concerning if that is what Bishop Tamaki meant.

We must be careful not to be too hasty to condemn Bishop Tamaki and his church. The theology in them appears questionable, but he deserves a chance to respond as he has begun to do on the resurrection. In the meantime it is important to maintain unity as we move ahead as in these challenging times, we cannot afford as the body of Christ to be divided unless it is clear that the gospel is irrevocably violated. My prayer is that unity is maintained and the gospel upheld by all who name Christ as Lord in this nation.


 

Time for a Revolution?

Published in Challenge Weekly in 2011

Revolutions are in the news. The media is dominated by events in the Middle East and especially Egypt where protestors continue to call for the resignation of Mubarak and the formation of a democratic state. On Waitangi Day Hone Harawira's nephew Wi Popata called for a Maori revolution to overthrow our supposedly 'racist' government.

This got me thinking, do we need a revolution in NZ? The truth is, I think we do. The revolution I am thinking of is not the sort of revolution that we are seeing in Egypt or that which Popata is calling for. The last thing we need is a violent political revolution. As I read the Bible, this is not the stuff of God's people who pattern their lives on the example of Christ who died on a cross rather than call for his angels and people to storm the power of the then world, Rome.  

Rather than these flawed alternatives, I am talking about the people of God in this nation rising up not to overthrow the government, not to overthrow their own church leadership, not to use force and the weapons of this world, but out of their apathy to live the faith as they should. Maybe the right word is not revolution, perhaps it is reformation, or revival, or renewal. Perhaps it should not be any re- word, for such words imply going back to something that previously existed. I am talking about an unprecedented arising of God's people in this nation.

While I hate generalisations and know many great Christians, churches, and organisations are giving it their all, it feels to me that we have in many cases lost our edge and have gone to sleep. I think it is time for a change. What might it look like?

It would start with prayer, as God's people gather as never before and plead with God for a new movement of his power in this nation. It would include deep consideration of his Word, not to analyse and critique, but to hear its appeal and respond. It would no doubt include repentance, as we confessed our apathy and selling out to our culture of atheism, pluralism, relativism, love of money, consumerism, individualism, entertainment and more. It would include a new sense of unity, as God's people come together in love, across culture, denominations, and differences, putting them aside and working together as never before. It would involve evangelism, lovingly sharing Christ to the lost. It would overflow in works of love, social justice, compassion and mercy as we reach out to the poor. It would be based on humility, service and sacrifice as we lay down our lives for the gospel 'invading' our communities as Jesus would. It would involve us finding our voice on issues, not in a judgmental moralising coercive way, but with grace standing for the things of God in the face of the dismantling of the Judeo-Christian ethic. What could we achieve if this were to happen? May it come to be! Go deeper!


 

The Maori Party and Christian Unity


Published in Challenge Weekly 2011
The current tensions in the Maori Party centred on Hone Harawira has got me thinking. Whatever you think of the Maori Party, it has done amazingly well. Formed in 2004, they have five MPs and sit in coalition with National wielding a disproportionate degree of influence considering they gained only 2.39% of the vote in 2008. Yet now there is evidence of growing divisions with even talk of a new party under Hone Hariwira. Unsurprisingly, it seems much of the problem relates in large part to a desire for power and influence.
Studying Philippians as I am, this has me thinking about unity. Jesus was big on unity. In John 17 he pleads with God that his people would be one as he is one with the Father. That is, that we in our relationships reflect the perfect harmony of the Trinity. Elsewhere, he warned of the dangers of disunity when he said, 'Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.' This principle has stood the test of time across all spheres of life. Jesus taught that we are not to be like the world struggling for power, but we are to be one based on service and love.
Sadly, God's people since the first have struggled to maintain unity. In the New Testament itself there is evidence of a number of struggles for power. It is apparent that the churches of Rome, Galatia, Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus and Crete were all beset with contention and power struggles. Paul in particular, challenges his readers to lay down their differences, to live with the attitude of Christ as servants, showing love and living as one in the Spirit.
The existence of denominational divisions is evidence of our ongoing struggle. According to David Barrett there are now something like 34,000 denominations! There are of course times to stand for truth and in these times unity is challenged. The truth is however, over the last 1000 years or so we have done this far too readily. Our local churches and denominations are often split by power struggles, or differences of minutiae. When it happens, whatever the reason, our witness is dimmed, our voice confused, and people have yet another reason to reject the faith. Satan loves our divisions. They are more often as not a result of sin and a desire to control.
One of my prayers in 2011 is that we all work harder than ever for Christian unity. We do not need to try and form one great denomination, this was tried in the ecumenical movement but failed. But, whatever church we go to, each of us must do our part to live in unity honouring others above ourselves. We must not make the mistake that the Maori Party is now making and tear ourselves apart even more. There is too much at stake as we seek the salvation of the world. Go deeper.
Postscript: Since the writing of this Hone H has left the Maori Party and it remains to be seen whether it will weaken Maori influence in politics. Time will tell.

A New Year, A Fresh Start

Published in Challenge Weekly 2011

I love New Years. Genesis 1:14 tells us that the marking of seasons, months and years is part of God's creation. I love the start of a new year because I can take stock, reflect over the year that has gone, and start afresh. It is kind of like a new birth, a resurrection. I love the rhythm of a holiday over summer in which I can laze on the beach, go for a walk, read a few good books, and forget the challenges that are about to restart. I can reflect on 2010, the good, the bad and ugly, close the chapter 2010, and open the chapter, 2011.

New Years are great times to come to God in reflection, examine our lives, and consider where we can grow. In 2010 I had some of the greatest highs and lows I have experienced. I got to see the cities of Paul in Europe, I published a book, my wife and I brought our first home, and my kids did amazing things. I also suffered a terrible disappointment which I have struggled to overcome. After a nice break, I can now close that chapter and open a new one.

As I head into 2011, I am pondering how God would want me to live. I think he would want me to spend more time with him, walking in relationship with him as did Adam and Eve in the garden before the Fall and as did Enoch. I think he would want me, like Paul, not to live in the glories and pain of the past but to press on, not held back, but stretching for the goal of eternal life. I think he would want me to live out of faith, hope and love. This means living in radical trust and dependence on him. It means facing whatever struggles I will have with hope given by the Spirit, and the knowledge of God's love and control. This means never-failing optimism, no matter how bad it seems. It means above all, loving others, forgiving them and serving. He would want me to live the pattern of the cross, living selflesslessy, sacrificially, and humbly using everything I have to serve him and others with all my being. He would want me to take up my towel and my cross, and follow him.

The details are really secondary. Sometimes we are so hung up on working out what we should be doing, that we forget to seize the opportunity before us. That to me is the message of the Samaritan parable. The two Jewish religious leaders were totally preoccupied with what they had to do and missed stopping to help the injured man. The Samaritan, an enemy of the injured man, stopped and despite the danger and sacrifice, helped the man, saving him from certain death. I think that is what God would want us to do in 2010. Go deeper!

Don’t Miss Christ This Christmas

Published in Challenge Weekly 2010

I have mixed feelings about Christmas. On the one hand it annoys me greatly. This is due to the incessant stripping away of almost anything Christian and its replacement with every possible excuse for rampant consumerism, materialism, gluttony, alcohol abuse and even family violence, which peaks at this time. The way most Kiwi's celebrate Christmas demonstrates perhaps more than at any other time, how much we as a nation are rejecting our Christian heritage. Sometimes I think it should be renamed, '-mas,' as there is no Christ in it for most.

On the other hand, for those of us who know and believe the story, it is a glorious time to stop and consider what it means. It tells us that God is a God in control of history. The story is full of fulfilled prophecies with Jesus born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2), born of a virgin (Is 7:14 Greek Version), a descendent of David (Matt 1:6), from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10) and more. It shows that God acts in history to fulfil. This means we can trust him to do so in the future. It speaks of miracle, with a virgin conception and birth which importantly lays the foundation for Jesus' divine sonship. It tells of the determination of our God to save. When Jesus was conceived, the pre-existent God the Son, creator of the world, emptied himself and took on flesh. He became one with his fallen creation to save it from the effects of sins corruption. Christmas then is the story of the creator God becoming one with his creation, experiencing the fullness of fleshly existence and to ultimately go the way of all flesh, to die, only to rise from death to begin the glorious redemption of his creation.

So for us it is an appropriate time to pause, to tell the story, to marvel in awe, to ponder and to give glory to God. In a nation that continues to forget or recast the story into its dogma of self-gratification, stripping God out of it, we must keep the story alive. Those seemingly nerdy Christmas pageants then are greatly important, re-enacting the good news in this nation. The Carols, while seemingly so trite to many, should be sung with gusto. They are a constant witness that there is more to Christmas than self-gratification and a holiday. It is a holy-day, celebrating the enfleshing of the Holy Son of God. We need to persevere in taking Christ into the community to the schools, the Carol Singing services, and in the media. It is trendy to rev up the faith, modernise, make it relevant and attractive. This is good in one sense, it brings the gospel alive for a new generation. Yet, at times like Christmas, keeping elements of the tradition is vital, as when times are hard it is to those traditional memories that people go. So, this Christmas, tell the story, stop and marvel in awe, and don't miss the Christ who is Christmas. May God bless you and your family as you do so. Go deeper!

Pike River Tragedy

Published in 2010 in Challenge Weekly

The Pike River Mine tragedy has stunned us all. What a tragic loss of life. May God bless the families who have lost their loved ones! The event raises so many questions doesn't it? It raises the question of why suffering, death and such horror. What can we say? 

The first thing to say is that we live in a fallen world where death and suffering remain woven into the fabric of everyday life. Romans 5:12 tells us that suffering and death entered at the Fall and Romans 8:19-23 tells us that, tragically, creation remains in bondage to death and decay. This means that despite our best efforts to prolong life and avoid suffering, we will continue to experience it. This means that, sadly, such things will continue to happen. Yes, God does miracles and believers should pray, hope and believe for them. Yet, the truth is that decay and death remain the last enemy to be defeated and so such things will continue to blight our existences. This is why all people including Christians continue to experience suffering in all its forms, whether disease, broken relationships or death.

The second thing to say is that while suffering is real and unavoidable, there is hope. Romans 8:18-39 is arguably the passage in New Testament which best gathers hope up. Paul here states that the world is groaning under this bondage to suffering. He says that even God's children and heirs are swept up in this, groaning for redemption. However, he also gives a series of reasons to hope. Remember too that these don't come from a theorist sitting in his ivory tower with a big salary, but from a man who knew suffering immensely (2 Cor 11:23-29) who was writing to a pre-industrial world '4th world' context with a life expectancy of 40, in which death and suffering was the norm.

These are the reasons Paul gives for hope: 1) The day is coming when creation and God's people will be set free from all death and suffering, the return of Christ. Hallelujah!; 2) The Spirit is with us always to comfort and strengthen us, even praying to Father God for us, so we know we can make it through; 3) Even though it doesn't look like it, human history is being woven together for good for those who have been called and love God; 4) Everything is under God's control from before creation, foreknown and predestined; 5) Even though suffering is real, in an ultimate sense, nothing can stand against us because God is for us; we are more than conquerors!; 6) We know this because Jesus died for us! More, Jesus is also interceding for us joining the Spirit in petitioning Father God on our behalf! Praise God; 7) Nothing in all creation, however heinous, can separate us from the love of God and Christ.

So, whoever is to blame, whatever the cause, how little we understand; God is for us, this is our hope! Go deeper!


 

NZ a Republic?

Published in Challenge Weekly in 2010

Our national anthem begins, 'God of Nations...' This is a great statement theologically, summing up the biblical truth that the world, despite its seeming chaos, is in fact under God's sovereign control as he shapes history toward its glorious climax. As such, NZ being part of the Commonwealth has been one dimension of this. Our participation in the Commonwealth has used by God as he has worked out his purposes over the centuries. Not that it has all been good, the British Empire has been guilty of horrendous injustices. Yet, God has worked in these and through them seeing his gospel go to the ends of the earth.

Today, as I ponder the media circus around the news that Prince William is getting married to Kate Middleton, it is bringing me to the point where I think, 'enough is enough!' Aside from the good news this is to those in their families, who cares? More importantly, should we care? It seems to me it is a royal time for NZ to break from London and forge its own path. Aside from holding an increasingly mediocre sports event every four years where NZ gets a chance to win some soft medals, it is utterly irrelevant. In fact, it is embarrassing especially when one considers the behaviour of the royals over recent decades and aspects of Britain's colonial history. My only concerns about NZ becoming a republic is that it severs an essential part of our history, it gives us no external point of reference in judicial matters and it has seemed good to be Great Britain's friend. Yet we can remain friends with Britain without being tied to them in the commonwealth and we have already broken from the Privy Council. I now see no reason to remain a part of the commonwealth.

So, it seems to me that the time is right for NZ to split from the Commonwealth and do her own thing. It is time for us to work through constitutional matters and find a common basis for moving ahead as a nation. We can work with Australia with whom we are so close in so many ways and where many Kiwis now live.  

In the meantime, I will somewhat reluctantly continue to give 'requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving' for 'everyone – for kings (and queens) and all those in authority' (1 Tim 2:1-2) i.e. Queen Elizabeth (sigh!). Yet even as I write this, my heart betrays me. I feel no allegiance to this queen across the sea. She seems so removed and irrelevant. The thought of Charles being 'my king' after all his years of infidelity and the fiasco over Diana's life and death, turns me cold. The thought of William getting married and being my king just seems laughable. For me there is one King, Jesus Christ our Lord, and I am an honoured citizen and ambassador of his heavenly commonwealth (Phil 3:20). That is enough for me. So, is it time to break with London? Go deeper!

The Problem of Abortion

Published in Challenge Weekly in 2010

So it seems that, after Sweden, NZ has the second highest abortion rate in the developed world. Last year alone, 4000 NZ teenage girls had abortions. Last week Close Up (Oct 28) told the story of Rachel who, with dreams of being a professional dancer, had an abortion after giving no thought to keeping or adopting out her baby. Such is the world we now live in.

On Close Up Mark Sainsbury described this as shocking; yet in the same breath says, 'the issue is not about the rights and wrongs of abortion, the issue is about why so many teenagers end up in this position.'

With respect to Mark Sainsbury, it is not just about too many teenage abortions, but it is about the rights and wrongs of abortion. Every year in NZ some 18,000 babies are aborted. Globally, in the last 40 years, over a billion abortions have been conducted. Surely the question of the rights and wrongs of abortion remain!  

The evidence suggests from a Christian worldview, it is not right. Abortion was a big issue in the Greco-Roman world at the time of Christ, a part of daily life and practiced extensively. Aristotle and Plato approved of abortion. While not explicit, the evidence suggests however, that Judaism rejected intentional abortion.

While the NT does not expressly say so, the church from its inception rejected abortion. The Didache (AD 70-100) states, 'you shall no slay your child by abortion.' Other Christian writers like Tertullian saw it as murder.

Some arguments against abortion include: 1) A person's life and personhood begins at conception when development begins; 2) God's creation and sovereign guidance of the baby in the womb (e.g. Gen 25:23; Jer 1:5; Lk 1:15; Gal 1:15); 3) The incarnation whereby God became flesh in Mary's womb (Matt 1:18, 21; Lk 1:35). It is inconceivable that abortion is acceptable to God after his Son became a zygote to grow and save the world! 4) The commands not to kill (e.g. Exod 20:13); 5) The rights of the weak and defenseless have priority over the strong i.e. the unborn child's rights supersede that of the mother. Theologically, the only time abortion seems arguably defensible is when the child's life is medically non-viable and/or when one has to choose between baby and mother.

Abortion in my view is the greatest social evil in today's world. As upholders of life, we must not flag in zeal to challenge it. Let us work at every level to see this horror ended. We must do so out of grace for those who carry guilt and grieve over abortion. But we must persevere. I see it as parallel to slavery in the 17-18th century which took centuries to overcome. As with slavery, it may take years, but we need to continue to stand. May God raise up a new generation of those who will determinedly and with grace continue the fight for life. Go deeper!

To Drink or Not To Drink, That is the Question

Published in Challenge Weekly in 2010

Alcohol is very much in the news at the moment. One example is the tragic death of James Webster due to binge drinking. Another is the University of Otago study which demonstrates that alcohol in NZ costs around the same price as bottle water! While it is arguable that bottled water is a waste of money and overpriced, this is a sad state of affairs. While our politicians toy with the alcohol laws refusing to make the substantive changes needed, the problem deepens. Alcohol abuse is also very personal to me as many years ago I lost a very close relative to vodka. So how can we Christian's respond to this ongoing problem?

Generally speaking, the Scriptures do not prohibit alcohol drinking. Jesus was criticised for drinking with sinners and also turned water into wine at a wedding (Luke 7:34; John 2:1-10). Paul forbade getting drunk rather than drinking itself (Eph 5:18; 1 Tim 2:8; Tit 2:3) and even once mentioned alcohol's medicinal benefit (1 Tim 5:23). There are individuals like John the Baptist who were directly instructed by God not to drink alcohol as part of their special calling (Luke 1:15). Paul also encouraged believers who were not prone to drunkenness to be prepared to give up drinking alcohol if it would cause their brother or sister to fall (Rom 14:21). What we need to realise too is that all this is written into a world where alcohol was a huge issue with the god of wine Dionysus (also Bacchus) very popular. Getting wasted was not uncommon for many.

Aside from those with a special calling like John, we Christians today are faced with an interesting choice. Do we choose not to drink at all or do we drink in moderation?

I have had an interesting personal journey in this regard. When came to Christ due to my boozing background, for several years I abstained completely. One day I went to visit a colleague who had been charged with a sexual offense. He was an unbeliever and had been completely ostracised. His first words to me were, 'Mark, great to see you, have a beer!' Despite my abstinence, I felt in the Lord I had to say yes or the moment would be lost. I did, and in the next few years was able to share Christ with him and I have great hope that he is now with the Lord. After this, I began to have a drink when among non-believers and found that witnessing opportunities began to open up. I even had the privilege of leading some to the Lord. When my relative died I reviewed this felt it was right to remain a moderate drinker as for me it removed a barrier in witness. I must say, in light of the increasing problems in society in this area, I am beginning to rethink this again. In a society which is increasingly alcohol dependent, should I continue in moderation or should I return to abstinence? Go deeper.

                  
 


 

What to do about Paul Henry?

Published in 2010 in Challenge Weekly

The latest antics of Paul Henry should make us Christians think. First, he intentionally mispronounced the name of Delhi's Chief Minister Sheila Dixit in a crass way which is unrepeatable in Challenge. Secondly, speaking to John Key on air of the replacement for Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand, "Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time?" This has led to a belated apology for causing offence and a ten day suspension. In my view it raises some interesting questions for us as Christians in a multicultural age.

First, there is the issue of political correctness. Many people, including a number of Christians like myself, are rather fed up with demands for political correctness. It seems we cannot speak in humour without offending someone. The question here is: did Paul Henry cross the line this time? Many would say no and laugh it off. The question then becomes, when does it cross the line? After all, we have take care that in our desire for a good laugh and our reaction against political correctness we do not inadvertently open the door to racism. My feeling here is that Mr Henry crossed a critical line. His problem is that he represents our national network and that our Governor General is every bit a Kiwi, he was even born in NZ.

Secondly, it raises the issue of freedom of speech. One can defend Mr Henry on the basis of his right to express his opinion. In recent times the likes of Hone Harawira have made some rather 'marginal' remarks concerning Pakeha. However, the difference here is that while voters can and will judge Mr Harawira, Mr Henry is speaking on behalf of the national television network and so he represents the network. As such, there are lines then that cannot be crossed. In offending all non-white Kiwis, he went too far.

Thirdly, there is the central question of racism. From this standpoint, even allowing for excessive political correctness, he went too far. The problem for Mr Henry is that his comments while seemingly humorous and reflective of some people's thoughts, were demeaning to all NZ Indians, all who are non-European, and so all of us. After all, we are all immigrants. We or our forebears have travelled on waka from all parts of the world and the face of a New Zealander is now multi-coloured. Jesus came to unite all peoples and end racism. Paul too was vehemently opposed to it. So, Mr Henry was rightly chastised. Should he have been fired rather than suspended? Not in my view. The punishment seems appropriate to the 'crime.' It is not easy speaking off the cuff entertaining the nation as Mr Henry usually does so well. But I do hope he and we too do take care not to cross such lines in the future treating all from every culture with respect and dignity. This is the purpose of God. Go deeper!

Postscript: After this Paul Henry resigned. I think he should have been given another chance. I am sure he will be back.


 

Presbyterians on the Rise: General Assembly 2010

Published in Challenge Weekly 2010

Over the last few days I have attended the Presbyterian Affirm conference followed by the Presbyterian General Assembly in Christchurch. For the uninitiated, Presbyterian Affirm is a network for Action, Faith, Fellowship, Intercession, Renewal and Mission (AFFIRM) within the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ). The General Assembly is the bi-annual gathering of ministers and elders from churches across NZ who meet for worship, fellowship, encouragement and to discuss Presbyterian business. The Affirm conferences are always inspiring with like minded evangelicals and charismatics gathering to give glory to God, for ministry, inspirational teaching, and fellowship. This year's conference was no exception. The worship was led by Darryl Tempero of Hornby Presbyterian. The speakers included Murray Robertson formerly senior pastor Spreydon Baptist and Jim Wallace of Bethlehem Presbyterian. Murray Robertson spoke of trends in the NZ church. Of particular note is the growth of large conservative churches and externally focused churches. He spoke of his concern of the problem of conflict in many churches and denominations, challenging us to live out of the cross in unity. He also spoke of the great challenge of the increasingly multi-cultural scene. Jim Wallace told the story of the growth of Bethlehem Presbyterian which is an inspiring story of people coming to Christ and a new church flourishing.

The General Assemblies have often in times past been contentious affairs with evangelicals and liberals locking horns on thorny theological issues such as resurrection and sexuality and leadership. They have often been stuffy, bogged down in business, the worship uninspiring, and more often than not, hard work which has left many a young evangelical despondent and hope-less. 

This year's Assembly was far from being this type of experience. It had its moments of contention and at times got bogged down in the detail, but in the main it was inspiring! The worship was led by a team from Calvin Community Church in Gore who led us with a powerful and glorious blend of the old and the new with the whole mood profoundly missional. On the Saturday night worship was led by a team from the Korean Presbyterian Church in Christchurch. It was utterly dynamic with dancers, items, the roof lifted and the room was shaken (no pun intended). The speakers were excellent. The new moderator, the Right Rev Peter Cheyne, launched the Assembly with a most excellent message on the logo of this year's assembly, 'Making disciple-making disciples.' He challenged the Assembly to emulate Jesus and work for evangelism and discipleship so that the gospel will continue to spread. Mick Duncan gave four addresses on discipleship and, as always with Mick, they were inspiring and challenging. These addresses and others can be heard at http://www.presbyterian.org.nz/about-us/general-assembly/general-assembly-2010/news-and-audio-from-ga10.

The Assembly was notable for several critical decisions. First, the Church emphatically reaffirmed the 2006 ruling which rejected de facto and homosexual ministers or elders. Secondly, the Assembly endorsed a new confession of faith, the Kupu Whakapono and its commentary, the culmination of ten years work. This will now function as a subordinate standard of the church after its supreme standard, the Bible. Having adopted this, the Assembly then voted to retain its original founding document, the Westminster Confession alongside the new statement. Along with the Bible, the blend of old and new statements gives the PCANZ a sound doctrinal basis for its future. Several other features of the Assembly were notable including its emphasis on evangelism and discipleship and the 2008 initiative Press Go, a fund for generating mission initiatives. This continues to gain momentum with some exciting projects under development around the country. A truly wonderful moment of grace was the gift of $37,000 from Korean Presbyterian Churches to Christchurch for the earthquake.

I have to say, having at times been a somewhat reluctant Presbyterian, this is all very refreshing. In fact, the last twenty years of the Presbyterian Church is a wonderful testimony to a God who renews. The turn-around in the PCANZ is an almost unprecedented story of God taking a whole denomination from the brink of division and fragmentation to be a gospel-centred and mission-minded church. Just as he can bring flesh to a valley of dry bones, he is bringing it to life day by day. God is raising up new generations of evangelical and charismatic leaders who love the Word, are full of the Spirit, and want to take the gospel to the world. The divisions of the past are fading and the church is pressing on in unity and the gospel. 

This all demonstrates the power of God to grow his church. Jesus said he would build it of course, and where people humble themselves and call on his name, he renews. It is a glorious thing when this happens at a denominational level and it is something only God can do. No matter what church you attend I want to encourage you. New Zealand and other western countries can seem spiritually barren. Yet, if we get to our knees and cry out to him, if we take up the gospel and live it and share it, if we work together in unity and love, if we determine to serve in mercy and grace, and if we trust in him, he will bring renewal. He can take the old and make it new.

Father’s Day 2010

Published in 2010 in Challenge Weekly

So it's Father's Day this Sunday. I believe that Father's Day is an excellent time for the Dad's among us to take stock of what it means to be a husband and Father. I am a Dad. I am blessed with three lovely daughters in their late teens and early twenties, so I have some idea of what is involved. To me, the most challenging and rewarding thing I have done in my life is being a Dad. As I have gone about being a Dad, the Bible has given me great guidance.

The first thing is to consider God as 'Father'. This is the favourite name given to God in the Bible. The ancient picture of manhood and fatherhood was a picture of power and strength. The God of the Bible is strong, but he is more. He is full of love, mercy and gentleness. He protects us, provides for us, nurtures us and comforts us when we are struggling. He disciplines us when we step out of line, but only because he loves us. The supreme way God demonstrates fatherhood is by saving us with the greatest sacrifice that a Father can ever make; by giving his one and only son to save us through his humility and death on a cross. God is truly our 'Abba', our Dad. This lays down the patter of how we are to be with our families.

The second thing I have found most helpful is Ephesians 5:21-6:10. Here instruction is given especially to wives and husbands, fathers and slave masters. People often debate this passage about who should submit to whom, and often miss the radical appeal to men in the passage. Here, Paul looks at fatherhood from three perspectives; the man of the house as husband, as father and as master. This of course relates to the ancient world where the father was the paterfamilias, the supreme all powerful head of the family which included wives, children and slaves. The key is Eph 5:22 where Paul says husbands are not to lord it over their families, but to behave like Christ who gave himself up for us. This takes us to the cross, where Jesus gave his life for humanity. Paul is urging fathers to imitate Christ, living a life of service, sacrifice and love. They are to show this to their children and even to their slaves.

Earlier in Eph 5:1-2 Paul captures this, writing, 'Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.' What should mark us as fathers is love, service and self-giving. Paul is here calling for a complete revolution in manhood; men not dominating with force and power, but like Christ, serving in love and humility.

So, this Father's Day let us Fathers resolve to take up our crosses and give our lives for our families. Go deeper.


 

The September Christchurch Earthquake

Published in late 2010 in Challenge Weekly

As I write, it is the day after the Canterbury September earthquake. I want to wish all those in Christchurch whose lives have been so deeply affected all God's blessing and strength.

I have been pondering a theological response to this event. Some might see it as the judgment of God, a warning shot to NZ or even Christchurch itself for her idolatry and sin. While this is possible as the Scriptures do warn of such events, it is a dangerous position to take without revelation to that effect. Usually when God brings such judgment there is a warning with consequences. Whether or not this right on this occasion of which I am dubious, we believers should take time to ponder whether we are truly living full of for God full on, turn from sin and seek to honour him.

Another possible perspective is to see here a pointer to the imminent return of Christ based on the signs of the second coming (Matt 24). This is possible, but seismic studies do not show that earthquakes are on the increase in any significant way. Further, we need to be very wary about excessive speculation concerning the return of Christ as so many people have got this wrong in the past! As above, whether this view is correct or not, we should take time to ask ourselves whether we are ready for Christ's return sold out to the things of God.

Another angle is to see such things as an indirect result of the Fall, a consequence of the corruption let loose in all creation through sin (Rom 8:19-23). We can see this in at least two ways. First, some believe that the world before the Fall was stable without such cataclysm. The first sin caused a rupture that rent the earth itself leading to earthquakes, tsunamis, eruptions etc. This appeals to most Christians who reject the idea of death before the Fall. Secondly, others believe that before the Fall such events happened, but God protected and sustained people through them. This view appeals to some scientifically minded believers who argue that there was death in the animal world before the Fall. While open to other views, I prefer the first of these views longing for the day when Christ returns and the world is restored to its original stability (Rev 21-22).

The final and most important thought is to see this event as a spur to action. First, that we give thanks to God for his goodness to us that no one's life was lost, we pray for those who are so deeply affected and for God's continued protection of our nation. Secondly, that we renew our efforts to give and serve compassionately to alleviate the suffering of others. Finally, that we ponder the difference between this event and the Haiti earthquake in which 230,000 died and become increasingly committed to work for global justice. Go deeper!


 

Europe and Islam


Published late in 2010 in Challenge WeeklyHave you noticed what is going on in our world? Almost daily some issue concerning Islam and western relations is in the news. As I write it is the Commonwealth Games in Delhi under threat from the Mujahideen. Before this, it was the threat to burn the Quran in Florida. The Ground Zero mosque remains a burning issue. Recently, France banned the Burqa. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a consequence of this tension. A little further back we have the Bali bombings, 7/7 in London and 9/11 in New York. The threat of Al Qaeda casts a shadow everyday; where and how will they strike next? We live with continuous tension between Islam and the western world. Here in NZ with a small Muslim population, thankfully this is not yet a real issue. But, as we look around, the temperature is rising.
On my recent trip to Europe I felt this tension strongly. In Turkey, the most secular Muslim country, I was taken aback by their nationalism and religious fervor. While there, the Israelis stormed the Gaza Aid Ship. The response was amazing with violent riots and 24/7 television revealing a deep hostility to Israel and the US. One local believed this would swing Turkey away from the US toward Iraq and Iran. Across Europe tension is rising with the growing Islamic population and influence. This is on the rise with ongoing immigration and the high birthrates of Muslims. One senses Europe is a continent heading for crisis as two great civilizations clash.
So where will this all head? The history of Europe and European-Islamic relations suggests to me that there will be a progressive increase of tension and violence as the right of European politics gains momentum. One senses that the future of the world is increased instability and perhaps in Europe, suppression of Islam, ethnic cleansing and dare I say it, ultimately even war.
How can we as Christians respond? First, we should not respond out of fear. Our security is in God and we can have complete trust in him that no matter what happens, all things work for the good of his loved and elect. Secondly, we can pray for the world. Let's pray that the power of God will restrain the forces of evil and lead the west of which we are a part, to respond in God's way. Thirdly, we can seek to understand Islam better with its various shades. This will ensure we do not react wrongly and condemn all Muslims on the basis of the lunacy of a few. Fourthly, we should show relentless and unconditional love to all whatever their worldview. Jesus was all for love for all, even enemies. Where we come into contact with Muslims, let's engage them in openness and not avoid them in fear. Let's reach out to them in love. Finally, let us love one another and show the world there is another way to live, the way of Jesus. Go deeper!

Easter – a time to imagine: Auckland Church Leaders share an Easter message

Something I wrote which was adapted with input from Richard Waugh in particular, and a few others who contributed minor adjustments. Published in the NZ Herald Saturday 3 April; see http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10720638

Imagine there is a God who is loving, just and good. Suppose this God formed the world, full of beauty and with people like us in it. Imagine God's plan is for a world full of goodness, beauty, and love, free of horror, suffering and death.

Consider that this world was corrupted and became flawed, no longer utterly good but a mix of beauty and torment, suffering and joy, life and death. It is now a perplexing place; full of goodness and love, yet broken with the horror of earthquakes, tsunami, war, disease, struggle, and the inevitability of death.

Imagine then, that God resolved to 'save' this world; to deal with the horror and suffering. How might that look? For many, it would look like a revolution with God coming decisively to suppress all opposition with brute force. We know what this looks like. We have seen it in playground bullies and in the likes of dictators who impose 'peace' with ideology and force.

Such a hope was in vogue in Israel two thousand years ago. Empires ruled the world this way. Rome and her Caesars were the current power-holders. Many in Israel longed for release through a coming Messiah, a powerful descendent of David. They hoped he would come and assume control with God's power, leading the overthrow of the ruthless Romans and establishing God's reign and 'peace' across the world.

When understood in this context, the Easter Story is the stunning account of God's Son coming to save his world in a totally unanticipated fashion. The Christian faith is built on the conviction that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God came to earth. Rather than coming in blazing glory, wealth and power, he came in poverty and obscurity, born among animals in the insignificant town of Bethlehem. For thirty years he was a complete unknown.

At age thirty, Jesus began his work. Rather than impose himself with power and call the nation to war, he avoided the mainstream and went out among the poor, marginalised and lost, feeding, healing, and preaching God's love and forgiveness. After three years, without a stain on his character, he was betrayed by a friend and arrested.

Jesus was questioned with evidence supplied by false witnesses, and then handed on to the Roman authorities who had the power to put him to death. The Roman procurator Pilate could find no fault with him, but out of political expediency sentenced him to die. Dressed in purple and crowned with thorns, Jesus was mocked and ruthlessly beaten and flogged by the Roman soldiers. Exhausted, he was forced to walk the path to the cross where he was crucified under the ironical title, 'King of the Jews.'

As with any such crucifixion, the overall point was to warn all would-be revolutionaries "don't mess with Rome!" The crowds abused him mocking him as king, challenging him to come down and prove it himself with power. Between two genuine revolutionaries, completely abandoned, Jesus took it all without retaliation. Ultimately he said his final words, "it is finished," and breathed his last. A soldier pierced his side, and separated blood flowed verifying his death. He was taken down from the cross, placed in the tomb of a follower, blocked with a large stone, and guarded by Roman soldiers. The crowds left; another pretender to power defeated.

On the face of it, the event is insignificant; yet another story of a misguided agitator squashed by forces of the world. Or so it seemed.

On the Passover Sunday, a strange thing happened. Some women followers of Jesus came to the tomb to find the stone rolled away, the soldiers gone, and the tomb empty. They were confused as were his other followers.

Further strange events followed, with a series of appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee, and Syria. These experiences convinced his followers that Jesus had risen from the dead.

They pondered what had happened, remembering his teaching and the ancient prophecies. They realised God had come to save his world not as expected, by imposing himself with military force and suppression, but as a servant to save through humility, selflessness, sacrifice and death. In coming to die for the world, Jesus had become the final sacrifice for sin.

Jesus came to overcome evil, not illegitimately with compulsion, but through his refusal to yield to evil as it did its worst to defeat him. He overcame
the worst enemy of humanity, death, ironically by dying himself, and being raised from the dead to overcome it. He came to invite the world to turn and believe in him so that the world can experience this life, hope and resurrection power.
Jesus came to invite the world to live in a new way, to live not for prestige, power, and wealth but out of the pattern he had laid down in his service. 

His death through political intrigue and violent force is the doorway into a new world which should be free of such horror. Sadly, we still have not come to fully understand what Jesus' death and resurrection means. It was the death to end all deaths and a call to bring a reconciling peace to God's world. 

Imagine if we were all gripped with this message today. How might the world look if we lived out the ethic of Jesus, whatever the cost? This is what the first Christians did. Despite facing insurmountable odds, rejection, persecution, suffering and martyrdom, they courageously refused to be silenced, and the message of peace spread throughout the Roman world. Within 300 years, without the use of violent force, this story became the religion of the whole Roman world. Now, over one third of the world's population are followers of Jesus in some way or another. Since Marsden's first sermon at Christmas in the Bay of Islands in 1814, our nation has to a large extent been shaped by this ethic.  

It is significant this year that Easter falls on the same weekend as ANZAC Day. Gallipoli and the stories of our people giving their lives for freedom and love reveal the struggle our world faces, and remind us of the power of sacrifice and service for others. The challenge of this world goes on.

We,
Christian leaders of Auckland City, invite you this Easter to join the two billion followers of Jesus in the world today,
to spend time acknowledging the meaning of Easter. The events of Easter vividly tell the story of God, who, with arms outstretched, invites us all to find forgiveness and salvation through Christ and to join the global movement to see God's world restored. Imagine what would happen if we all said yes.

Endorsed by:

Rev. Dr Neville Bartle, National Superintendent, Church of the Nazarene

Right Rev. Ross Bay, Anglican Bishop of Auckland

Rev. Norman Brookes, Auckland Superintendent, Methodist Church of New Zealand

Pastor Luke Brough, National Leader, Elim Churches

Pastor Terry Calkin, Senior Pastor, Greenlane Christian Centre

Rev. Murray Cottle, Regional Consultant, Baptist Churches of New Zealand

Pastor Paul de Jong, Senior Pastor, LIFE Church

Bishop Patrick Dunn, Roman Catholic Bishop of Auckland

Mr Peter Eccles, Auckland District Chairman, Congregational Union of New Zealand

Pastor Vic Francis, Chairman of the Association of Vineyard Churches Aotearoa New Zealand

Pastor Ken Harrison, Superintendent, Assemblies of God New Zealand

Pastor Brian Hughes, Senior Pastor, Calvary Chapel

Rev. Fakaofo Kaio, Moderator, Northern Presbytery, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand

Rev. Andrew Marshall, Director, Christian and Missionary Alliance Churches

Very Rev. Jo Kelly-Moore, Dean, Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral

Pastor Bruce Monk, National Leader, Acts Churches NZ

Pastor Sam Monk, Pastor, Equippers Church

Pastor Peter Mortlock, Senior Pastor, City Impact Churches

Major Heather Rodwell, Divisional Commander, The Salvation Army

Pastor Eddie Tupai, President North NZ Conference, Seventh-day Adventist Church

Rev. Dr Richard Waugh, National Superintendent, Wesleyan Methodist Church of New Zealand