Sunday, 10 April 2016

Notes on Death and Judgment

To complement Sean's sermon, (which will go up on Tuesday afternoon) here are the notes I wrote, for our elders' meeting, that represent the historic Reformed Protestant Christian confession, on the weighty subject of death and judgment.  All of this turns on the assumption that through Jesus, God offers us not just a cleaned up heart, but a new one; not just a cleaned up life, but a new one.


Death is the defining chrysalis moment where our true spiritual identity as belonging to Jesus or belonging to the Devil is finally revealed.

The fact that physical death has not been removed by the Cross, should spur a Christian on to honest reflection, maturity and holiness not denial, dissipation and depravity.

Christians follow Christ through death to resurrection life and the new World. If the Master underwent it, so must we, for we are no greater than he.

Our attitude to death reveals to our hearts - where we really think our source of life is located. If we think it is in ourselves, our love and obedience to God will stall, if we know it is from God we will freely give ourselves up to him in love, even to death as he has already done for us in his Son at the Cross.

Below is the handout we distributed: (click on it to enlarge)

The apostle Paul in Acts seemed happy declaring the “brute fact” of Final Judgment to all people, believers and unbelievers alike, whether they were familiar with the Bible or not. What imperative does that press on us for our preaching, our personal lifestyle and our church culture?

The Final Judgement is the great unveiling. Things that were hidden from view will finally be fully understood. This judgment is not our opportunity to plead our case with God – that outcome is already known by whether we received Christ or not – the point of the Final judgement is the public vindication of God’s reputation in condemning sin (rebellion against him) forever in individuals who refused his offer or in Christ at the cross for those who have received him.

Thus, final judgment is for declaring the severity of the sentence for the unbeliever and the greatness of the reward for the believer.

If God does reveal the sins of believers at the Judgment (and it would appear that he does) it will only be in the context of vindicating his grace, and showing that no one receives eternal life on the basis of their own efforts, but only as a gift of Christ’s righteousness. It is therefore not a reason to fear, but it
should provoke a Christian to godliness and to the renunciation of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is probably the biggest sin in the church, causing the enemies of God to mock him – 2 Sam 12:14 (See NASB translation)

The Nature of Judgment

Christ will be the judge – unbelievers will never see the Father only the righteous will see him. (Matt 5:8)

Unbelievers will be judged and the judgement will be brutally holistic and nothing will be left in the dark, no questions left unanswered, no loose ends left unravelled – and there will be degrees of punishment. The punishments will be greatest for those heretics of the faith who whilst claiming to bring people to God led them instead to greater destruction by their false teaching - using Christianity as a means of getting riches and glory in this life only.

We assume that Hell is a place where people will lament and wish they had repented, but it is not. Only those who hate God are sent to Hell. The torments of fire and worm come as each time those who hate God declare how much they loathe him. Were it true that people were crying out to God from Hell to be saved, God would immediately save them, his compassion is so great. But the chilling truth is that like a madman floating on driftwood at sea, refusing to get in the lifeboat when it arrives, so too, gripped by the madness of sin, the wicked would rather be the kings and queens on the throne of their own sinful hearts and go to Hell, arrogant and defiant before God, than humbly bow the knee and lovingly submit to him. However moral and good they may have looked in this life, at the judgment, their nature as children of their “father” the devil - John 8:44 is fully revealed.

Believers will be judged equally holistically and rewards given, (remember their rebellion against God has been paid for by Christ) based on how they have lived. Whilst not everyone’s reward will be the same, for not all have worked equally hard and God is not a communist state, nevertheless everyone’s joy will be complete for God has no favourite children and Christians will have no favourites amongst their brothers and sisters.  There will be no pride in those who have received more, only humble loving service to those under them in the New World.  Equally, there will be no envy in those who have received less, but loving, humble submission to those over them in the New World. Love will perfect all things. Rewards will be greatest not for those who converted the most souls (that is often the immediate conclusion after looking at a subject like this), but for those who have loved God and then their neighbour most wholeheartedly, laying down their lives for both to the uttermost.

The Moral Application of Final Judgment

On a personal level, the final judgment satisfies our need for justice and lets us freely forgive, confident that God will repay rightly. (But remember, its God's standard of justice, not our flawed ones.) It also admonishes us to live righteously now in the present moment. and spurs us to compassion and evangelism.

On one level, this can all seem rather cold and clinical, but the Apostle Paul writes of the joy and sorrow he feels here, almost all at the same time.  It is a tension to be held, in trust of God, not a problem to be solved. The joy:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And in the very next verse, the sorrow...
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

At this point, one might legitimately ask:
  • What about those in unreached parts of the world who have never heard the Gospel?
  • What about those who never really heard the gospel clearly because all the Christians in their lives were too flaky to say anything? 
  • What about all those tiny aborted lives or the lives those who died so young?
  • What about the mentally disabled / enfeebled?
  • What about those who have turned away from God because of a dreadful hypocritical witness from those who claimed to be Christians acting in the name of God?
  • Will God really condemn these people?
These are good questions. And along with the Why does God allow suffering? question, they are probably the biggest arguments that lead many to reject the Faith or give it up if they began in it. They cannot reconcile a loving God with these kinds of black and white, in or out pronouncements on eternal destiny.

Many have given defences of God by coming up with reasons why God would grant all of those people eternal life. Others have come down the other way and said, there is no salvation without an explicit profession of faith. And there is every shade in between too.

Personally I would not want to declare either way. I know you think that is a cop out, but on balance, this is a tension to hold, not a problem to solve. There are some things that are for God alone to know. On the one hand, our confidence is that God is loving and merciful, gracious and compassionate, but on the other, he has not given us any confidence in the Bible that there is any way to be saved other than through faith in Jesus Christ, so neither should we.

We might in our arrogance demand, or in our grief plead, that God give an account of his actions, but the truth is that if we as a race had never rebelled against God in the first place, we wouldn't be in this predicament, so the blame is finally with us, not God. God has offered in his love and mercy a way out through his Son, but instead of taking it we try and frame God as the criminal in this, to get ourselves off the hook and vindicate ourselves.

Moreover, in our Western cultural narrative of "rights and equality," we tend to assume that we are entitled to God's kindness, that it's God's job to save us because that's what a loving God should do give us everything we want - like some kind of overindulging parent. Interestingly, in other cultures the question is framed differently, namely, how can God allow himself to draw near to such dark and lowly creatures as we are and still remain pure and just?  If we have an entitlement to anything, it is justice, not generosity, wrath not grace.

So when it comes up in conversation, I would be inclined to say: “Don’t worry about other people, God will take care of them rightly, the question is what are you going to do with Jesus’ offer of life to you today? Or if they are Christian – What does this knowledge of Judgment mean for you? What has God asked of you when it comes to being his witness to the world around you?

One interesting example of this is how the Mouk people received the Gospel. (See from 27:23, but the whole video is worth a watch. It's the second of a two part film series.  Chapter 1 is here.)  The Mouk people could have gotten really angry with God that their relatives and ancestors had entered a Christless eternity, and they do mourn for them, but they don’t allow that sorrow to overshadow the great joy they have at receiving Christ as their Lord and Saviour, or stop it from sharing what they have received with others.


For more on what we believe at RFC, click here.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Sermon Notes: 1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Paul continues in this first section of his letter addressing the issue of true wisdom and how it leads to true unity and false wisdom and how it leads to division.

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy and you are that temple.

Each individual Christian has the fullness of the Holy Spirit living in them (Paul: 1 Cor 6:19 and Jesus: John 14:23), but the “you” of this passage is plural. Don’t you know that you all – the gathered church is also the expression of the fullness of God’s Spirit. Each individual Christian has the fullness of the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, yet when 200 Christians gather together to worship God, there aren’t 200 Holy Spirits in the room, there is one Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who lives in you is the Spirit who lives in the gathered Church.

But in Corinth, factionalism was destroying unity and therefore destroying the church. In this case, it wasn’t the fault of leaders, it was the fault of the led. That’s why he is addressing the church with this letter rather than just the elders in private. Paul, Peter and Apollos hadn’t set themselves up as superstars, the people were dividing themselves over them and maybe some others who aren’t mentioned. And the bad news was that it wouldn’t get any better. If you fast forward to the end of 2 Corinthians, it got worse. So called “super-apostles” are seeking to gain an (financial?) advantage for themselves by driving even deeper wedges of division into the church.

Before I continue, let me reiterate that there is nothing wrong with having great love for leaders in the church. In chapter four Paul talks of himself as a father to the Corinthian church, meaning that like any good father, he has loved her, watched over her and nourished her with the word of truth, but it also means that as a good father according to that culture, he is preparing her for the day when he will give her away to another. She is not his property and never has been, he is preparing her to be fully united to Christ her Saviour and Lord on the day of Judgment as a pure and spotless bride.

The problem comes when we make the idolatrous switch, when instead of thanking God for the service of leaders in the church, we come to view them as mini-messiahs, which is what the Corinthians had done. They had somehow come to believe that they would be more blessed, more victorious, more favoured by God, more favoured by society, look more cool in front of their non-Christian friends, be more proficient in spiritual gifts, see more supernatural activity or have a greater understanding of scripture if they aligned themselves with a particular person and they therefore put that person, or that ministry up on a pedestal and made them something of an idol in their hearts.

When we pursue personalities, we are pursuing idolatry for we are more interested in hearing what a particular personality has to say than we are in what the Holy Spirit has to say. And when we start pursuing personalities, or church brands or online ministries, more than Christ himself, we start to tear down God’s house, the church, which means we destroy God’s testimony in the world and ourselves in the process. It is spiritual suicide and madness. Like the man ripping his head open in the picture.

Why is this utter folly and foolishness? Because God has already given us everything we need. Everything! EVERYTHING! At the Cross, he has given us himself at Pentecost, he poured out his Spirit upon us. What more do we need? Why do so often sit in the dumps thinking we can never be a great Christian because we don’t have access to this or that person, this or that ministry? We have everything we need for life and godliness, we are told that in 2 Peter 1, we just need to believe God and activate it. Fan it into flame. The Bible says that if anyone lacks wisdom, they should ask God who richly provides it. Paul told the Corinthians back in chapter one that they have already been enriched in EVERY WAY, so there was no need to align themselves with someone who they think would get them so to speak a “better deal.” Money pile analogy.

Now that already have everything doesn’t mean we become individual lone ranger Christians, for God has called us to be a people together – the church. For what we can achieve together in God is greater than the sum of our individual parts. It’s not because we lack anything.

God’s temple, the church is holy – set apart for him – it’s not ours to do with as we please – it’s not a place to experiment with our cool ideas. The Church is Christ’s property – when people messed with him (crucifixion) he turned the other cheek, but if we mess with and divide his church with our factions and divisions and do not repent, this text says he will destroy us.  Let the weight of that sit not because we want to engender fear, but rather spur us on to godliness.

Now indulge me a moment. The honest truth is that we don’t see any factionalism in RFC – I can see preferences, which are understandable and human, we all have those, and as long as those preferences are kept in their place, and we are 80% happy with what goes on then that is ok, but think for a moment –the fact that you are here is testimony to the fact that you like church to be a certain way. We already agree on so much here, otherwise we would never have walked through the door.

But imagine there is only one church in Reading, like there was in Corinth. Imagine all the Catholics, Baptists, Charismatics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Brethren etc all had to meet together in one building and in one meeting what would that look like, because that is probably closer to seed of disunity we have here in Corinth? These days, in the consumer atmosphere of the UK when we become a member of any church we are automatically making a whole host of value assumptions choosing one church over another. Are you at RFC because you think God will give you more by being here as opposed to another church? Maybe not, but be wary of that kind of thinking and that you don’t unconsciously make the idolatrous switch because we already have everything we need in God in Christ.

Having said that, I realise the issues around churches and denominations are complex and I don’t have the catch all solution to church unity, but Jesus prayed for the unity of his church in John 17 that we would be one across all boundaries, so therefore should we, not just guarding the unity we have here at RFC, but praying for the unity of the whole church. For Christ does not have many churches, but one church, he does not have many bodies, but one body, he does not have many brides, he as one bride and he is returning to take that one body, one church, one bride to be with him forever.


Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

The Corinthians were not the first bunch of people to pursue this kind of idolatry and personality cult believing that they needed more than they already had.  Where is the first personality cult in the Bible? Put another way, which is the first creature in the Bible to be called crafty? It’s the serpent in the garden of Eden and for me the most helpful way of understanding this middle section v18-20 and the human wisdom vs. God’s wisdom argument more generally is through the lens of Genesis 3:1-6.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Adam and Eve were the babies of the human race to whom God had given everything – everything they could possibly want. And through childlike love and obedience to the God who loved them they would learn to rule the world in righteousness through a right knowledge of good and evil, but that meant being patient and humble, it meant maturing and growing up in God and so when the serpent entered the garden and told them that God didn’t really want them to get wise, that God didn’t really love them and wanted to keep them as servile creatures, he tempted them to get wise and rule the world through disobedience to God’s command, seizing the fruit of the tree and defining good and evil for themselves. And as they bit into the fruit, they spurned God’s love, and were deceived into following the serpent’s lead.

And so much of human history has flowed from that simple moment of mistrust and disobedience. Whatever we say about the great civilisations of history, the great religions of history, that on the surface have had many things in common – similar moral codes when it comes to how to treat your neighbour etc. The fundamental truth underneath the surface is that the history of fallen humanity has been hallmarked but by disobedience to the word of Christ and a desire to gain the blessings of God (life, wisdom, health, wealth and prosperity) without any loving relationship to God or obedience of him. We want God’s blessings, but we don’t want him.

Interestingly, Sisyphus, the king who founded Corinth was the embodiment of this ungodly craftiness and cunning (so called wisdom) and the myths surrounding his escapades with the gods no doubt permeated the culture and the “spirit” of the city as a whole. I won’t say any more on that, but he is worth a glance on Wikipedia, if you get a moment.

But that so called wisdom, the “wisdom of this age” is passing away. God has given his eternal NO! to that counterfeit wisdom, birthed in disobedience. For the only kingdom or civilisation that can stand forever is one that is founded on love and obedience to God’s command – love and obedience to Christ. That is the Kingdom of God and when we talk in our vision statement about bringing the kingdom of God to Reading and beyond, the foundation of that Kingdom is Christ and obedience to Christ. God the Father has given the reign of all things over to his Son Jesus Christ because Jesus was obedient – he was truly wise and he gained authority over everything not by trickery, impatience, violence or mistrust, but through obedience, love and sacrifice even to death.

Whatever the cool influencers Corinth were saying, chapter 4 suggests it was probably a variation on this theme of Adam and Eve – “Have it NOW don’t wait”. Have great bible knowledge, have a supernatural ministry, have amazing worship bands, have all kinds of social action projects, have a vision fund for a new building, or when it comes to general life - get a spouse, get a pay rise, get babies, get your health, get a good qualification, get good friends, get in shape, but obedience? Nah, don’t sweat about that. Who needs the long plod of obedience when there are miracles to be had worship songs to sung and great teaching to be listened to, loving partners to be found, bills to pay etc, etc etc?

Don’t be deceived like Adam and Eve who fell for the serpent’s craftiness, don’t think that you can gain fullness of life or eternal life by craftiness, or disobedience, rather receive the love of God and become foolish in the eyes of a watching world by learning the long plod of obedience that comes by faith in Christ who loves you and called you to be his own. Synchronise you heart with the deep truth that true reigning in life comes through obedience to Christ. God’s people are those who by patience and faith in Christ inherit promises.

One of the big things I have experienced becoming a parent is that you are forced to change your rhythm of life. There are some things we can’t do anymore. There are no shortcuts, nappy change by nappy change, cry by cry, gurgle by gurgle, feed by feed we are preparing her for life in the world. There are no shortcuts to that process. I remember feeling deeply frustrated at the age of 12 that I had to wait 5 years before I could get behind the wheel of a car, but there was no way of legitimately shortcutting that process. I just had to wait. And it did me no harm whatsoever. And there are no shortcuts to our spiritual growth either. Jesus said, whoever wants to enter the kingdom must become like a little child, trusting and obeying the Heavenly Father.

Don’t despise the change in rhythm that comes with learning or relearning the basics of obedient faith for they are life to you and they will make you truly wise.

Paul’s quotes, from Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11 respectively ram home the point that this issue of whether we receive God’s wisdom or the world’s is not a morally neutral one. It is the difference between life and death, blessing and curse, salvation and judgment. Pride and arrogance before Christ are the hallmarks of this wicked wisdom and humble obedience to Christ is the hallmark of the righteous. Adam, Eve and the Serpent, came under God’s judgment pretty swiftly, but judgment may not always be instantaneous, in every case, but it will finally come on all those who refuse to hear God’s call and turn aside to pursue the vanity of their own imagination. – Wanting the blessings of God’s world without God himself.

Christ was the obedient one and he gives us the gift of his righteousness, not so that you and I can continue in disobedience but now that by the Spirit we have been given the kind of heart he has we can follow him in the same kind of obedience he had.


So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.

What can help us to stop grabbing? What can help us to stop boasting in our worldly connections?

Who owns everything? You do, Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the earth, not by earning it but by receiving it as a gift. What Adam sought to take by force - God has given to us as a gift in Christ. All things are yours, you have all authority just as Christ had for the old world is passing away and the new world is dawning – a new world, in which, thanks to great kindness and love of God, you have a place. Paul reels off a short list of what it means that God has given everything to the church.
  • Church leaders yours, they are God’s servants whom God has given to you not for you to bully into your way of thinking, but for your joy, maturity and service.
  • The world is yours – every square metre of it belongs to you for God has given it to you as an inheritance for you to reign over not by violence and warfare, but by prayer – waging spiritual warfare and better still you will reign over it in peace when it is renewed at the end of the age after the judgment of all the living and the dead.
  • Life and death are yours for death is no longer source of fear, but a motivator for life, spurring you to greater godliness, preparing for the day when you will be rewarded by Jesus Christ for your faithful service to him. Life is to be lived in daily talking to the Lord –for this is the privilege of the children of God, we can talk to him at any time – asking him for help in the circumstances we find ourselves in and asking him what he would have us do for him as obedient sons and daughters.
  • The present and the future are all yours for God is right now, in the present, working all things, ALL THINGS for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Even horrible circumstances can be redeemed for whilst God is not the author of evil, as we look to him and stand on his word, trusting him, God can make all things, not just the good things work for our good in the end.
It would be easy to get proud and passive here and think that we are amazing because God has lavished so much upon us, but Paul then reminds us, in view of all that God has lavished upon us, not to forget that we are not independent actors, but that we belong to Christ and our first allegiance and obedience is to him and we only inherit everything if we remain in him. And Christ, though in every way equal with the God, belongs to the Father.

In summary:
  • Are you putting certain personalities or people in your life in a place where they are more important to you than Jesus? If yes, repent of your idolatry and return these people to their proper place in your thinking. Christ is all you need, stop hamstringing the church by an over-allegiance / reliance on human teachers.
  • Are you seeking the good things of life through impatient shortcuts and disobedience or patient trust and obedience?
  • If Heaven was a place where you could have all the health, friends, food, gadgets and entertainments you could wish for, but Christ was not there, would you be happy with that? Would that be enough for you? Because that isn’t true Heaven.
  • You stand to inherit the whole world, in good time. How should that affect the way you live now, how you share that life with others and God’s creation?
  • If you are not a Christian, God calls you in love to the obedience of faith that means trusting in all that Jesus is and all that he has done. It will cost you everything you have, but you will truly gain everything that is valuable in the exchange.