Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Not so obvious.

Tue 26May09:  Joshua 1: 5, Deut 31: 5, 6, Psalm 118:6KJV

Let your conversation be without covetousness . . . Heb 13: 5

Does Joshua 1: 5, Deuteronomy 31: 5, 6 and Psalm 118: 6 have something to do with covetousness and contentment?  Obviously no, it does not.  Or rather, not so obviously, yes, it does?

This evening, I learned that the verses from Deutoronomy 31 and Joshua 1 contains repeated calls to God's people, and to Joshua himself, not to fear as they prepare to enter a hostile land, but instead to be strong and of good courage, because the LORD himself had promised to be with them and that "he will not fail thee nor forsake thee".

Many years later, the Psalmist in Psalm 118 appears to reaffirm this promise by saying

The LORD is on my side: I will not fear: what can man do unto me? v6

Quite surprisingly, this call and its underlying promise is used as a basis for teaching Christians in the New Testament to be contented and to avoid covetousness in life! The connection is not very obvious, is it?

Now, it takes great courage, and great faith in God's providence, to live such Christian lives, especially in today's uncertain world of financial turmoils.  Particularly, when we see people around us spending most of their lives amassing wealth to secure their future.  Where shall we find such courage?  Who will assure us of a secure future, if we are to take the brave step to reject covetous behaviour, and instead to be contented with whatever little we have?

The answer lies in these three scripture passages - that God will never leave us nor forsake us.  And God is calling us to be brave, and not to fear.  It is on this ancient promise of God's presence and this call to courage that the apostle based his injunction to Christians to be free from covetous conduct, but instead, to be content with "such things as we have".  

Thus it is clear that the apostle who wrote Hebrews saw that the same promise of God in the OT still applies to Christians in the NT.  The promise by God to be on Joshua's side. The call to Israel not to fear, but to be of good courage. This same call still holds true for us today.

Christians, the point in Hebrews 13: 5 is this - that our God has promised never to abandon nor forsake us. As such we shall trust God and be confident enough to conduct ourselves with contentment and without greed throughout our earthly lives.  We shall not be anxious about people around us who may appear to gain more than we do.  We shall not fear the future.

At last, it is obvious.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Indispensable and Honourable.

Sun. 24May09:  1 Corinthians 12: 20 - 25 NRSV

The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ v21

Almost all the sermons on 1 Corinthians 12 that I've listened to have, as far as I can remember, emphasized the diversity of spiritual gifts in the members that make up the church, the body of Christ.  The usual elaboration by preachers in church and speakers at retreats alike would be about the need for Christians to recognise different gifts in each member's life and to exercise those gifts for each other's edification in building up the body of Christ.

This morning, as 1 Corinthians 12 was being read out from the pulpit in church, my attention was drawn to an aspect of the body of Christ which is seldom highlighted by preachers.  It is the teaching about weaker and less honourable church members, found in verses 22 and 23:

. . . the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour.

We don't often notice such people on Sundays. Nor do we realise that they are indispensable to our church.  These are members who don't seem very capable or useful to our ministries. They are not serving in any important position in church.  Perhaps we may even regard them as "not-so-gifted".  As such, these members aren't accorded much honour. In view of their insignificant role in church, they are certainly not well known among us.

Yet they are in our midst, week after week, all year round. 

The apostle Paul teaches us that the weak and the less celebrated members in our midst are indispensable. They are to be accorded greater honour and treated with greater respect than the others!   The will of God here is that there may be spiritual unity within the body, where members care for one another regardless of one's capability or accomplishments.

But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. v24, 25

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us look around us on Sunday.  Let us look out for the insignificant member.  Let us remember: this person is indispensable and honourable.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Some trust themselves.

Sat 23May09:  Luke 18: 9 - 14 NKJV

God, I thank you that I am not like other men . . . even as this tax collector. v11

One day a Pharisee went to pray in the temple.  Seeing a tax collector who was also there for prayers, the Pharisee prayed those famous words above.  We can learn something about this Pharisee from his prayer.

Firstly, he thought he was better than many others.  He thanked God that he wasn't like those extortioners outside there.  He could by no means be counted as an unjust person.  And he was certainly not one of those alduterers.

Most of all, he was not like a tax collector.  No, he wasn't thinking of tax-collectors in general as he was of those extortioners, unjust people and adulterers.  Instead, he was thinking of one particular tax-collector - the one standing over there, "afar off" (v13), praying by himself.

 . . . even as this tax collector. v11

What made this Pharisee think so highly of himself in the temple that day?  The last part of the his prayer tells us

I fast twice a week: I give tithes of all that I possess.  v12

Clearly, in this parable by our Lord, this Pharisee is portrayed as somebody who trusted in himself.  He trusted in his fasting.  He trusted in his tithing.  One tenth of everything he owned was offered to the temple of the LORD.  He counted on these works.  By trusting his works, he thought he had made himself righteous.

But the Pharisee didn't stop there.  He went one step further - he despised others.  He distinguished himself from the sinners, or rather, that sinner: the tax-collector who dared not even stand near him, in the same temple.

In contrast, the tax collector looked so pathetic compared to the Pharisee.  While the Pharisee "stood and prayed" (v11), the tax collector "stood afar off"(v13).  While the Pharisee began his prayer proudly by uttering, "God, I thank you . . .", the tax collector bowed his head, and dared not even raise his eyes to heaven.  And while the Pharisee despised others in his prayer, the tax-collector beat his own chest, asking aloud for God's mercies.

At the end of the parable, our Lord Jesus said of the tax-collector:

"I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." v14

Finally note, from v 9 at the beginning of this passage, that our Lord did not merely tell this parable about people who exalted themselves.  Instead, he was actually telling this parable to some people who were present in the audience that day.

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: v9

Christians, let us remind ourselves today, to take heed that we do not fall into the same snare as those people had: to trust their own righteousness and to despise others.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Answer a fool, or not?

Fri 22May09: Proverbs 26: 4,5 KJV

Answer not a fool according to his folly, . . . v4

This morning's reading from the book of Proverbs reminds me to exercise discretion when confronted with the proverbial fool.  Fools despise wisdom and instruction (1:7).  They refuse advice and think they are always right (12:15).  They are hot-tempered and careless (14:16) and are quick to quarrel. (20:3).  

A fool rages and scoffs, even in a court of law! (29:9).

How hazardous indeed to confront a fool in his folly. Here, in Proverbs 26: 4,5 we are given a rule of thumb when anwering fools.  Notice that the verses do NOT forbid a person from replying a fool.  Instead, we are told to be discreet in knowing when, and how, to answer a fool. 

There are times when we must avoid being drawn into a fool's quarrel by refusing to go by his terms.

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. v4

One day as our Lord was teaching and preaching the gospel in the temple court, a group of important people confronted Him.  They comprised the chief priests, scribes and elders.  They did not appear very pleased.  And they demanded an answer from our Lord: "Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority." (Luke 20: 1 - 8, ESV).  Tell them?  Our Lord wouldn't tell them anything. He would not answer them according to their folly.  Instead, He posed a different question to them and demanded that they answer Him first.

"I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?"
When the delegation of important men could not answer him for fear of political consequences, the Lord told them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things". 

Perhaps today we can learn from our Lord's example, that we don't always have to give in to the demands of fools. We don't have to answer a fool according to his folly.  Yet at other times, we may have turn a fool against his own folly by making use of his ideas.  

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. v5

On another occasion, it was a Sabbath day, and as the Lord Jesus was teaching in a synagogue he saw a crippled woman.  She was a crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.  The Lord called her to him, touched her and healed her.  She straightened up and praised God! (Luke 13: 10 - 17)

However, the ruler of the synagogue was not impressed.  He was indignant.  He chided the people, telling them that if they wanted to be healed they should come on any of the other days of the week instead of the Sabbath day.  After all, he said, there are six days on which they can carry out the "work" of healing.  It looked like this man's folly had blinded him from seeing the wonderful miracle wrought by God that day.  Instead, he was fuming with anger.

This time our Lord chose to answer the ruler according to his own folly.  He asked the him,

"You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" Luke 13: 15,16

The Lord turned the thoughts of this angry hypocritical  fool against himself: in terms of what it means to rest on the Sabbath.  And while the people there were delighted with his works,  Luke 13:17 records for us that his opponents were humiliated by the Lord's answer.

Christians, let us learn to be wise in our replies.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Three Amens

Wed 20May09:  Revelation 1: 4 - 20 KJV

Fear not; I am the first and the last. v17

There are three instances in this first chapter of the Revelation of St John the Divine which carries the affirmation, "Amen".  They are in verses 5 and 6; followed by verse 7 and finally in verses 17 and 18. Each instance carries a description of our Lord Jesus: who He is and what he has done for us.

In verses 5 and 6, we encounter a doxology that affirms what our Lord has done for us,

. . . Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father; To Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Then in verse 7, we see an affirmation of what He is going to do upon His return,

Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him. Even so, Amen.

Finally, coming to verses 17 and 18, we read, in words spoken by our Lord Himself, who He is in eternity:

Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am He that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen

Today we can continue to make the same affirmations that the early Christians made in the first century AD.  We say Amen to Him who, in loving us, has cleansed us from sin and made us kings and priests to God the Father.  We shall also say Amen to Him who will be returning in the clouds, seen even by those who crucified Him, and making all peoples of the earth wail for having rejected Him.  And we must say Amen to Him who lived, who was dead, and who is alive forevermore.

Let us say the three Amens together everyday.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Suffer little children.

Tue 19May09:   Matthew 19: 13 - 15 KJV

Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. v14

Parents with little children at home can understand what it means to suffer.  Their yelling and screaming, their fighting over toys, their dangerous antics and unrelenting obstinacy.  It does build character in a parent!

Tonight I am looking at another meaning of the word "suffer" with respect to little children. In the KJV, this 17th Century english word means "let" or "allow".  Thus, the Amplified Bible puts v14 as follows:

But He said, Leave the children alone! Allow the little ones to come to Me, and do not forbid or restrain or hinder them, for of such [as these] is the kingdom of heaven composed

In this story, the Lord Jesus had left Galilee and had arrived on the coastal region of Judeaea, where He met large crowds of people who followed him around.  Along the way, he was tested with tricky theological questions by some Pharisees regarding a controversial issue about the legality of divorce. Even the disciples were confused about this issue and had to be advised further by the Lord. (v10)

While everyone was preoccupied with questions of the Mosaic Law, with issues that matter in heaven, some people brought a group of little children to the Lord.  They asked for Him to lay His hands on the children and to pray for them.  Couldn't they see that they were interrupting a very serious conversation among adults?  Obviously, that was a very inappropriate time to bring in those noisy and naughty little children to ask for the Lord's blessing.  It's not surprising that the disciples rebuked them!

But the Lord surprised everybody.  He told them to allow these children to come to Him, "for of such is the kingdom of heaven".  This reminds me of something that the Lord had taught the disciples earlier while they were still in Galilee, when they had asked Him, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?".  (Matthew 18: 1)  He called a little child, brought him into their midst, and said:

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. v3, 4

It looks like the disciples didn't learn their lesson well enough when they rebuked those who brought the children for the Lord's touch and prayers. They had missed the whole point: that it was these very humble and simple children that exemplify the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Dear Christians, have we been busy with theological polemics?  Have we been preoccupied with giving profound answers to tricky questions? Are so caught up in proving our point in debates and controversies that, like the disciples, we've missed the whole point about the kingdom of heaven? Let us remember to suffer little children among our midst, and to humble ourselves to be like them.

For of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In whom is no deceit.

Mon 18May09:  John 1: 43-51 NRSV

Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit! v47

Nathanael was skeptical.  He had not believed Philip that this person can be the someone, "about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote".  Especially when he came from Nazareth, a town from which, in Nathanael's view, nothing good could emerge.  Until he heard those words in v47 above. 

A remarkably accurate description indeed. He asked the Lord how He got to know him. The Lord told him that He saw him under the fig tree even before Philip went to call him! Nathanael's skepticism turned into amazement, and he realised that Philip was correct.

Nathanael replied,"Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the king of Israel!" v48

This evening, I'm awakened by the Lord's description of Nathanael.  He was a true Israelite.  In him there was no deceit.  You don't encounter people of such high integrity very often.  A person like him should make a very a good friend in life.  Nathanael was a person who must have been known to all his friends in Galilee as a forthright, sincere person who, for instance, would never resort to deceitful words to gain political expediency.  

Here was a man whose words you can always trust.  And when he exclaimed openly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, the King of Israel, the people around him should probably take notice.

Christians, let us emulate Nathanael.  Let us endeavour to come across to people around us, particularly our own brothers and sisters in Christ, as forthright sincere people of high integrity. In our fellowship with one another, and our interaction with the world around us, let us say things with Christian honour.

Let us be people in whom there is no deceit.

Honest conversation.

Mon 18May09: 1Peter 2: 11-15KJV

Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. v12

In the English of the KJV, translated in 1611, the word conversation refers to our behaviour, our conduct or the way we live our lives rather than our talking to one another.  Thus, having "honest conversation" is  translated as living "good lives" in the NIV and having "honourable conduct" in the NKJV.  And, using its original connotation, such honest conversation should be shown in our good works which are seen by our non-believing friends, or the pagans (NIV) or simply "the others" (CEB).

It is noteworthy that Peter tells us in verse 11 to regard ourselves as strangers and pilgrims in this world, through which we sojourn, and that we are to stay away from fleshly desires which war against our souls.  Falling prey to such desires or lusts would be detrimental to our honest conversation, particularly when we are surrounded by "other" people who slander us as evil-doers.

Reading from verses 13 and 14, it appears to me that a basic element of our honest Christian conversation would be to live in submission to authorities, Kings and governors alike.

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him as punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. v13, 14

Dear Christian, this is the will of God.  It is by such good conduct, by doing well in our lives in submission to authorities, that our honest conversation should become obvious to the Gentiles of this world, so that they will eventually glorify God on the day of the Lord's return and so that we may put to silence the "ignorance of foolish men" (verse 15).

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands.

Sat 16May09: Isaiah 50: 10 - 11 NRSV

But all of you are kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands, . . . you shall lie down in torment. v11

A reminder tonight that we should be on guard against going along carelessly with our whims and fancies, including what "seems good in our eyes".  The warning is stern here, that if we kindle our own fires and light our own firebrands instead of trusting in the name of the LORD and relying on His name, then we shall receive from his own hand a tormenting end.

Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and relies upon his God? v10

Perhaps, to the prophet Isaiah, a person of such unwavering faith seemed hard to come by.  Let us learn likewise not to waver in our faith, even when in times when we journey through darkness and have no light.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Flee and follow.

Fri 15May09:  2 Timothy 2: 22-26 KJV

Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, v22

Sometimes, the things that young people strongly go after may be detrimental to Christians. Today, I am reminded to flee from them, "youthful lusts".  Instead, like the young pastor Timothy, Christians are to go after righteousness and similar things like "faith, charity, peace" together with people who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.

Let us flee from desires which turn us away from God's righteousness.  Instead let us follow the things of God, calling on the Lord with a pure heart. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Prayer Item No. One.

Tue 12Apr09: 1Timothy 2: 1-9 NIV

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority  v1,2

In this pastoral letter, the apostle urges the believers in Timothy's church to ask, pray, intercede and give thanks for everyone, particularly for rulers and authorities.  He considers this a high priority, for he uses the words, "first of all".  Paul wanted the church at Ephesus, whom he left under the care of Timothy when he travelled onwards to Macedonia, to make give their foremost attention to such prayers.  Not just any prayer, but prayer for people, especially for kings and those in authority. 

That must be their Prayer Item Number One. 

And our yearning in these prayers? "That we may live quiet and peaceful lives in godliness and holiness." verse two says.

Has there been much disquiet in our lives recently, especially concerning those who rule and who are in authority over us?  Let us pray, and intercede, and give thanks for them. In doing so we aspire to lead godly and holy lives, peacefully and quietly in this land through which we sojourn.

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time. v3-6

Dear Christians, let us likewise urge one another to pray for "everyone" in our churches. In particular, let us pray and intercede for our kings and ministers and representatives who are in authority, including those who, lately, are in contention for authority.

Let's make this our Prayer Item No. One.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Obeying Authorities

Sun 10May09: Romans 13:1 - 7

On the occasion of my eldest son's arrest and detention by police last Thursday night, and his subsequent release on the afternoon of the next day.

Our heartfelt thanks to our pastor and church members' prayerful concern, to many friends in Penang and all over the country who stood by him in the darkest hour of his participation in social activism, and especially to Mdm W who vouched for his cooperation and bailed him out.

And last, but not least, our grateful appreciation to the friendly lawyer Mr T, who went out of his way to pay several visits to the police station in the early hours of the morning, keeping in touch with a chief inspector, and eventually making it a point to attend to his release on police bail.  Mr T has insisted that he should not be rewarded!  May God bless him for his sacrificial kindness.

This post is a reproduction of a sermon which I had preached recently on 22Mar09 in a small church in Ipoh, which I strongly feel is relevant in reminding ourselves how Christians should exercise self-control in the matter of submission to authorities, at a time when we hear so many outcries against perceived injustice all around us.

Introduction
Civil society is largely a result of people obeying authorities.  When my daughter visited Nagoya and Hammamatsu, Japan last year, she was impressed by the peaceful society there, particularly by how civic-minded and law-abiding the people were in those cities.  Traffic was very orderly.  Bus drivers were courteous and patient.  Public facilities were maintained in tip-top condition.  People queued up for almost everything, including waiting for the lift at the lobby!  They would leave their purses, bags, phones etc at their tables and walk away to buy food at cafeteria counters.  The Japanese were almost always proud of their obedient and civil way of life.

Similarly, when my wife and I paid a short visit to Hong Kong back in autumn of 2004, we found out that Hong Kong was one of the safest cities in the world for tourists to visit.  We walked up and down Nathan street and Jordan Road in Kowloon.  We visit night markets. We took countless train rides and a couple of ferry trips to Hong Kong Island. People waited for pedestrian lights to turn green before crossing roads. Like Japan, but perhaps in a very different manner, Hong Kong was, to us, a largely law-abiding civil society.

I am also reminded of remarks made by a former colleague back in 1996 after he returned from a business trip to Oman and Abu Dhabi.  He was very impressed by public safety in those Muslim countries and cities he visited.  People didn't even lock the doors of their homes at night! Burglaries were virtually unheard of, something which my friend attributed to the harsh punishments meted out under the Islamic Laws of those places.

Of course, I must not forget to mention our very own next door neighbour, Singapore - a "fine" country -  where citizens or foreigners alike get fined, and even jailed, for any offence committed.  Trying to bribe a policeman would appear to be a very foolish thing to do indeed in Singapore!  As a result, we can allow our daughter to study there and stay alone in a rented room on her own, with very few friends and relatives, without having to worry much over her safety.

Dear Christians, when civic minded people in society obey authorities, and when civil servants who hold authoritative office enforce the law justly, the likely result is a civil society, as opposed to anarchy.  This morning's scripture passage asks for our attention, and our devotion, to this area of Christian living  - our lives with respect to Government authorities and their governing officers.

1. Authorities are Ordained by God
Consider verses 1, 2:  In the first part of verse 1, Paul calls on every soul (Gr. psuche = being) to subject (Gr tasso =  submit) himself to authorities, while in the second part he asserts that all authorities are appointed, or ordained, by God, and on the basis of this assertion, he makes his  call for Christian submission to governing authorities.  As such, he adds, those who resist (Gr antitassetha = "anti-submit") authorities are virtually resisting God's ordinance, and consequently bring judgment on themselves. Note the tone of Paul's words: he used the third person plural, referring to people collectively, rather than any person individually.  By implication, he appears to be calling the Christian church to avoid becoming "one of those" people.

Please allow me to explain what I have gathered about the historical background surrounding the apostle's words, in the course of preparing this sermon on Romans 13:

1.1 A Historical perspective
It is believed by many that, in this passage, the apostle Paul was giving pastoral advice to the Jewish Christians in Rome, telling them not to withhold taxes or to be involved in anti-Roman protests in sympathy with Palestinian Jewish nationalism brewing back in their homeland.

Now in the early years of the church, Christians and Jews were viewed as one group by the Roman Imperial government. Born within the Jewish synagogues in Rome, the church had  enjoyed the status of religio licita (literally meaning lawful religion) within the fold of Judaism.  But, in response to their perceived civil disobedience, the Emperor Claudius had in AD49 issued an edict ordering these Jews/Jewish Christians, to be exiled from Rome. As a result, many of these exiles were forced to go back to their homeland in Palestine.

Around the time when Paul wrote this epistle, these exiles had been allowed to return to Rome again and it was likely that, through their family and business relationships with people back home, the Jewish Christians might have got themselves involved in anti-Roman activism being promoted by the Palestinian Jews.  One of their aims was to fight for the removal of Roman gentile rule over the Jews, the people of God in Palestine.  In addition, during the early years of Emperor Nero, AD65 - 58, there was a popular outcry against taxation by two prominent Roman historians: Suetonius and Tacitus.

Now the church in Rome had a significant number of Jewish Christians and this was most probably a cause for much concern for the apostle Paul, for there appeared to be a real risk of these church members falling headlong into anti-Gentile and anti-Roman sentiments and activism.  In fact, this could be seen as a significant part of the circumstances surrounding Paul's command to the Roman church to renew their minds, and not to conform to the world around them (Rom 12:2) and his subsequent teaching in Rom 13 about the hazards of disobeying authorities ordained by God.

1.2 Its Implication
From the historical perspective briefly discussed above, it can be seen that the apostle Paul wanted the Christians in Rome to refrain from anti-government protests and activism on the basis of verse 2, that, despite many injustices and shortcomings, the Roman Imperial government remained an authority ordained by God and as such, the Roman rulers were to be regarded as ministers of God.

Likewise, today, we must conscientiously call upon Christians everywhere to exercise self-control and refrain from anti-government sentiments and stay away from participating in demonstrations, particularly in rioting and violence.  In other words, Paul's assertion in verses 1 and 2 implies that Christians must avoid attempts at defying or resisting authorities, i.e. "anti-tassetha" or anti-submission.

Of course, we do not ignore the cries of innocent and often helpless victims of social injustice, usually at the hands of cruel and corrupt government officials.  One must bear in mind, however, that the officials of the Roman empire were no less corrupt than what we see around us today.  Think of tax-collectors like Zaccheus who cheated so many people, and of Pontius Pilate who washed his hands in a bowl of water.  And the Roman Emperors were no angels either!

Thus, it is obvious that, like the Jewish Christians of the early church in Rome, Christians today are called to live out a paradox - to regard authorities as ordained by God, to submit to them and not to resist them, despite the obvious evils inherent in those very authorities. Indeed, it is a heavy cross for Christians to carry in our pilgrimage through this world.

Christians, let us regard government as authorities ordained by God.

2 Rulers are ministers of God
In verse 3, Paul tells us that rulers, the people who govern, are a "terror", a source of fear if you like, to those who do evil.  "Do good, and you will have praise from the authorities", he says.  He tells Christians to avoid living in fear of punishment all the time.  And the basis here, is that rulers are ministers "from God" -  sent to avenge wrongdoing, to execute his wrath on those who practice evil (verse 4).

I must hasten to point out at this juncture, that I am surprised at these words - because they are coming from the apostle Paul - a person who had been badly treated on many occasions by rulers and officials, both Jewish and Gentile.  Let us consider briefly an account of some of his bad experiences, in 2Cor 11, at the hands of government officials:

2.1 In spite of Paul's experiences of injustice
In 2 Cor 11:23 - 26, we read that Paul was flogged with 39 stripes on five occasions at the hands of the Jews.  He was beaten with rods three times by the Romans.

Once he was stoned. 

And he was often living in peril of plots to destroy him - by his countrymen and by foreigners. He also lived in danger of robbers and from false brethren. And he was often put in prison.

On one occasion in Damascus, the governor put the city under a curfew to arrest Paul, who had to escape by being let down in a basket through a window over the city wall (2 Cor 11: 32).

In spite of these traumatic experiences, it is remarkable that Paul did not harbour any bitterness against government officials, but instead he could tell the Christians at Rome that rulers are ministers from God, sent by God to carry out punishment on "him who practices evil". 

2.2 Its Implication
Few, if not none, of us today have suffered such unjust punishments and terrifying experiences from authorities, as those experienced by Paul at the hands of corrupt Roman officials and of vengeful Jewish religious leaders. As such it should be considerably easier for Christians today to regard kings and ministers, governors and officials as people who administer God's punishment on law-breakers.

Note that Paul uses the term "good" to refer to lawful behaviour in this passage -  in contrast to good works, good behaviour, good motives etc.  Likewise, the term "evil" carries the meaning of law-breakers, the people who infringe laws are referred as those who do evil.

Brothers and sisters, let us do good by obeying the law.  Like Paul, let us regard rulers as ministers of God.

3. Christians are Subjects of God
In verse 5, we read that we must be subject to authorities, not only because of punishment mentioned earlier in verses 3 and 4, but also because we want to maintain a clear conscience towards God.

"Therefore you also pay taxes", verse 6 goes on to tell us.  In Greek, this sentence is written by Paul using the indicative, meaning "Therefore you also are paying (or you also have been paying) taxes", rather than the imperative which carries the meaning, "Therefore you also must pay taxes".  This implies strongly that Paul knew, or at least he would have assumed, that the Roman Christians have been paying taxes all along - a big issue indeed, particularly for Jewish Christians involved in anti-Roman activism at that time!

And Paul follows on with his command "to render to all their dues": taxes (Gr phoros = direct tax), as well as customs (Gr telos = indirect tax).  It reminds us of the reply that our Lord Jesus gave in Luke 20: 21-25 to those spies who were sent by the chief priests to ask Him the cunning question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?".

"Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" - this saying continues to ring true among Christians today.

Note that the practice of rendering to all what is due to them had already existed within the temple courts of Jerusalem - where people changed their Roman coins at the money changers' tables for gold shekels (Hebrew "currency") to be used as offerings in the temple.

Remember also the difficult times surrounding the birth of our Lord Jesus, when Joseph and Mary had to obey the decree of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2) to return to their hometown Bethlehem, to register under a census taken throughout the Roman Empire.  How they had to suffer -  the long arduous journey, with Mary about to give birth and no rooms were available at the inns. Under such trying circumstances, they had to render to Caesar the fear and honour due to him as Emperor.

Then there was also a Roman Law that authorized a Roman soldier to stop any citizen in any place within the Empire and order the citizen to carry his armour for him - up to a journey of one mile.  Obviously, this was a very unpopular law, and there could have been many Roman soldiers who abused this law, using it to extort favours from the Jews.  In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord Jesus taught, "And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two." (Matt 5:41)

All in all, verses 5 - 7 seem to be telling us, "We are God's citizens.  Therefore we do good by submitting to authorities ordained by God."

Conclusion
We obey authorities not because of their just and fair practices, but on the contrary, we do so in spite of injustices and cruelty on their part, regarding them as ordained by God.

We do our utmost to avoid breaking laws, and thus stay away from living in fear of punishment enforced by rulers, and governing officials, because we regard them as ministers of God.

And finally, we show the world that we are subjects of God's Kingdom, by submitting ourselves to worldly kings  -  a way of doing good in our Christian living.  We subject ourselves to authorities and their officials not only because because of our fear of punishment, but also because of our yearning for a good conscience towards God.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, in these trying times in our country, when innocent people appear to be wrongfully arrested and locked up for speaking up in protest against perceived injustices and unlawful practices, let us exercise restraint and self-control.  Let us heed the call of the Apostle Paul, in Romans 12:21,

Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Of Weak Knees and Drooping Hands.

Thur 07May09:  Hebrews 12: 3 - 13 RSV

My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline . . . Proverbs 3:11

This chapter of Hebrews elaborates on the wisdom writings of Proverbs 3, telling us that as God's children, we have to respect and submit to His discipline, even more than we respected our earthly fathers when they disciplined us.  If we are not subject to any discipline at all, verse 8 says, then we are like illegitimate children!

For the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. Prov 3:12
Of course, discipline is painful and unpleasant, verse 11 goes on to acknowledge.  However, it will subsequently the "peaceful fruit of righteousness"  to those who have been trained by it.



Although I have read this passage, and its associated source in Proverbs 3 many times before, I realise for the first time today that we should look at episodes of painful discipline from the Lord as a course of training.  It is meant to strengthen us and to keep us spiritually fit, eventually to bear the fruit of righteousness in our character.  And verse 12 goes on to say that we should strengthen our hands and knees, and press on in the race (refer verse 1).

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, and fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. he will come and save you."  Isaiah 35: 3

This reminds me of some Saturday mornings when I bring my mother to a physiotherapy centre near my home for rehabilitation (or rehab, as my daughter, who is a physiotherapy student in Nanyang Poly puts it).  Over the last couple of months, with the expert advice and gentle persuasion of the physiotherapist, my mother has been able to recover considerable mobility to her knees and hip joints.  In the course of the treatment, she has had to endure a lot of pain when trying to regain some range of movements to "feeble knees" which had not been moved for a long time because of the pain she suffered from osteoarthritis.  Ironically, by moving those parts that hurt, under the physio's supervision, eventually they don't hurt so much anymore!

. . . lift your drooping hands, and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed v 13

Dear Christians, are there among us who are going through episodes of painful discipline from the Lord?  Let us take it as a course of training for righteousness. Like physio rehab, we must work those limbs that are lame, so that they will not be put out of joint altogether. 

Fearless factor.

Wed 06May09:  Isaiah 41: 10 KJV

Fear thou not; for I am with thee . . . v10

As a young Christian in Form Five, I would get up very early in the morning to pray and to read the scriptures before getting ready to catch the 6:15 Foh Hup bus from Taynton View, Cheras to my school MBSKL downtown.  Getting up so early in the morning, sitting all alone by myself in the living room posed a difficulty for me: I was afraid of ghosts!  

I was involved in divinations and psychic practices before I believed in the Lord Jesus, and I had stayed briefly in a haunted house a few years earlier.  Hence, there was a fear factor in being alone while everybody else was still asleep.  I turned to the Lord in prayer, somewhat desperately, asking for his protection from evil spirits, using whatever words I could find as a young believer who didn't know how to pray very well.  Coincidentally, and I believe that it was allowed by God's will, as I opened my old King James Bible, I came across Isaiah 41:10.  




I had not read this verse nor had I heard it being preached in sermons before. That morning  in 1976, it leapt out of the page at me. Whilst I do not encourage Christians to go to their Bibles for random messages like some kind of fortune telling machines, I am persuaded that coming across this verse in Isaiah 41 on that occasion was God given.  It was a very personal message, for in the English of the KJV, the "thou" and the "thee" refers to the second person singular. It spoke to me personally and it relieved me of the fear factor I was facing.

For the next minute or two, I read with great joy and confidence that God was with me. I wasn't alone. He was my God, right there at a time of looming apprehension.  He would strengthen me and help me. He would uphold me with his righteous right hand.  Some versions of the Bible translates the last part as his "victorious right hand"

fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. (RSV)

This morning, thirty-three years later, as I begin work, I am reminded of this verse again.  The fear factor has since left me.  Today I am no longer a fearful person, sorely afraid of spirits.  By the victorious right hand of God Almighty, who is with me, the fear factor has ceased.  

God has become my fearless factor.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Be careful for nothing?

Tue 05May2009:  Philippians 4: 4 - 7 ESV

 . . . do not be anxious about anything v.6

I'm often troubled by anxiety whenever it's exam marking season.  And this week is one of those times again.  This morning I woke up thinking whether I'll ever finish the stack of scripts on time before another stack comes in later in the day.  Deadlines are tight, unintentional mistakes are not tolerated and reviewers are almost absolutely merciless with their demands.  Trying to finish work in a hurry and doing it very carefully at the same time is a somewhat dreadful experience for me - three times a year!

And so the anxiety mounts.  As I was preparing to go to work, I am reminded of this short passage in Philippians 4, especially verse 6.  I remember that in my early years as a Christian, I memorised it from the KJV, which goes rather differently as follows:

Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God

Be careful for nothing?  That seemed odd.  Should Christians  live recklessly in the name of God? I was puzzled.  It took me some time before I realised that this 17th century English expression meant "don't be full of care", i.e. we should not be filled with worries or anxieties over anything in our lives.  For me, this morning, that includes the drudgery of marking carefully under tight deadlines.  It looks like, whilst I've to be careful for every item I'm marking, I shouldn't be full of care in the course of carrying out the task over this coming week.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus v.7

Yes, by prayers, by requests and with much thanksgiving, I shall trust God to grant me peace. Peace that will guard my heart and my mind in Christ. 

So, in the old English language of 1611, let us be careful for nothing!


Monday, May 4, 2009

For a moment, and forever.

Mon 04May2009:   Isaiah 54: 1 - 10 KJV

In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer.  v8

As I was reading this passage just before going out for lunch today, my attention was drawn to the sharp contrast between the past and the future of the afflicted people of Israel.  They had been chastised by the hand of the LORD and, as a nation, they were likened to a barren woman "who did not bear", while God was likened to the husband who had forsaken her for a short time.

For the LORD hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.  For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. v6,7

Firstly in verse 7,  the small moment of Israel being forsaken constrasts distinctly against the great mercies by which the people were to be gathered by the Lord again. It tells me that, the same merciful Lord continues to gather His people to him today.  If we have displeased Him, the smallness of being momentarily forsaken cannot be compared with the greatness of being gathered back to Him again.

Secondly in verse 8, and as a parallel image to verse 7 above, there is a distinct contrast between God hiding His face from Israel "for a moment" and the "everlasting" kindness with which He will show mercy.

Thus, the act of God forsaking his people is incomparable to the act of His reconciling them together with Him, while the hiding of His face cannot compare with the showing of His mercy.

We can put our trust in the everlasting mercies of God. The God who had sworn to Noah in ancient times that the earth will never again be overwhelmed with a great flood is also the same God who  has sworn again here:

. . . so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee. v9, 10

Dear Christian, let us draw near to God.  His wrath is for a moment. His mercies are forever.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

For God so loved the world, so what . . .

Sunday, 03May09:  1 John 3: 16 - 24 NIV

. . .Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. v16

This morning it was my turn to read the New Testament Reading, taken from the passage mentioned above.  Then, at the beginning of the sermon, my pastor asked the congregation whether we remember what John 3: 16 says.  As expected, most of us raised our hands to indicate that we've no problem quoting the verse:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Then it was followed by the question, "Who knows what 1 John 3: 16 says?".  

Nobody knew.  

And it was despite my having read it just a while earlier.  I must have read it so badly that nobody understood me. Or perhaps, as usual, most of the congregation were not paying much attention so early in the morning.  And I, even I who read the passage aloud to everybody, could only manage a vague recollection, and I had to turn to the passage to take another good look at the verse again!

Regardless of what caused the rather pitiful ignorance on our part, it is noteworthy that the Lord has allowed the bible to be numbered in such a way that 1 John 3: 16 is an elaboration of the implications of John 3: 16.  That is, if we acknowledge that God has given his only Begotten to die for us, then we ought to die for our brothers.  This is the "so what" of John 3: 16:

The Son of God laid down his life for us, SO we ought to lay down our lives for our brethren. 

Now it is hard for us to agree heartily to this "so what" obligation of 1John 3: 16.  It demands incredible courage and sacrifice, which we rarely come across all our lives.  Nevertheless, I believe that God will grant us courage should the occasion arise one day for us to sacrifice ourselves to save a brother or sister.  May God have mercy on us.

It is also interesting to note in this morning's passage that the verse immediately following 1John 3: 16 appears to have suddenly stopped talking about dying for one another.  Instead it talks about material possessions.

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? v17

I'd like to interpret this sudden departure from the "so we ought to die" issue, as indicating that we begin learning this "so what" obligation by first showing the love of God compassionately to one another: by sharing our possessions with fellow brethren in need.  In other words, we must first learn to lay down "things in our lives" before we can lay down our lives.  This appears to be the prelude, the ongoing daily practice, if you like, towards laying down our lives eventually, should God predestine us to do so one day.

And this is the command: to believe in thename of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. v23

Dear Christian friends, God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ who has laid down his life for us.  So, let us lay down our lives for one another.  Let us begin by showing God's love in sharing our possessions in compassion with the needy brother or sister.  This is the "so what" of John 3: 16.

Encouraged, when we know each other's state.

Philippians 2: 19 - 30 NKJV

But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, that I also may be encouraged when I know your state. v19

Yesterday was a day of joy and encouragement.  My wife Chooy Lin and I met with many of the brothers and sisters whom we fellowshipped with together back in the late 70s and early 80s in the MYF, under the teaching and care of our faithful, diligent and exemplary missionary couple John and Lori Robb. 

The occasion where we were all reunited was the 25th Wedding Anniversary Celebration of one of our dear brothers, Patrick and his wife Germaine , a memorable and meaningful service conducted in the River of Life Sanctuary in Segambut, KL.  I must say I was somewhat shy and tongue-tied when my wife and I greeted Patrick and Germaine at the door at lunch time, and so too, when we said good-bye to both of them at the end.  Perhaps, after such a long separation, it's the awe of meeting in person this tall, dark and handsome brother with high nose and deep-set eyes, resembling an Asian version of a James Bond star.  And initially, we couldn't recognise Germaine, who has grown noticeably slim and very graceful indeed after all these years!

And so many of the MYF'ers were there.  Our beloved brother Pooi Han was one of the first people to walk over to us, and he greeted us heartily.  I haven't met him since 1983!  In my busyness in looking out for the others, I didn't manage to talk very much with him and I hope to meet up with him again soon for a good chat.

Likewise when Yoke Har came out of her way to greet us in the hallway, I was at a loss on what to ask her. The usual "How have you been getting on all these years?" eluded me.  And I forgot to ask about her church, or her family.  I must make up for it the next time, I guess.

Finally, we spent some good time of fellowship with David and Dorcas, Bob and Li Yuen (whom I mistook for another person at one stage), Lai Lin, Yoke Har, Francis Chin, who remembered me well for having often "disturbed" him whenever he worked in the church, and also Alex and wife and his pretty daughter.  Sorry, for having difficulties recalling who Alex was, although he looked very  familiar indeed.  And likewise also Rocky (got the name right, I hope).



[The photo above taken with kind help from Kim Fah, using David's camera, and conveyed by kindness from Patrick, added Sun, 3May09 3 pm]

Well, there was some consolation though, for I was not the only person who failed to remember some people.  David Lim, in his usual cheerful disposition, put his hand on my shoulder, smiling at me, told me he couldn't remember when I was together with them in the MYF.  Eventually, with further elaborations about some of the events when were present together, he recalled who I was, including some help from those crooked front teeth of mine!

Another very pleasant surprise, which deserves a separate page of testimony on its own, was meeting with a dear brother from Serdang Baru AOG, Hee Kim Fah: a school mate from MBSKL back in the 70s, who let me park my bicyle at his house many times when I went home from campus on holidays, and a kind brother who rode his old trusty Suzuki motorbike to visit me and cheered me up when I was ill in hospital in my third year in UPM, mid 1981. God has blessed him indeed: he is CEO of a multinational company now!

As I am writing these words, I am reminded of the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 2: 19, quoted above.  Yesterday's reunion gave me a better understanding of how Paul felt when he was separated from the Philippian brethren. He had to send his faithful helper, Timothy, to see them and to bring back news about "the state" they were in.  As for all of us MYFers yesterday,  we were blessed by the Lord having the opportunity to meet one another face-to-face, and I believe that we were mutually encouraged when we got to know the state each of us were in, after having been separated for a couple of decades.  I think the apostle Paul was likewise trusting the Lord to meet the Philippians face-to-face and have the same mutual encouragement as ours too.

But I trust in the Lord that I myself shall also come shortly. v24

So we shall look forward to meet those of you who'll be coming to Kampar on the first weekend of June for your church camp, albeit briefly again, because we've been invited to join another church camp in Cameron Highlands that same week.  After that we hope to meet more people when John Robb visits again towards the end of the year to preach at Yoke Har's church, and possibly to have fellowship at David's home again(?).  Like Epaphroditus, another dear brother to the apostle Paul, we shall long to meet another again.

Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. v25,26

So, to all our dear lost and found brothers and sisters, we salute you all for having remained faithful in the Lord all these thirty years, particularly Patrick and David Lim who serve full-time in the ministry of the Gospel of Christ.  We thank Patrick and Germaine for their diligence and patience in putting up the event, and also for their dear children's candid and enlightening presentations.  Please forgive us for any shortcomings in our manners, our words or our lack of thoughtfulness towards anybody, and also for having lost our way and arriving late, in that brief but thoroughly pleasant and refreshing reunion yesterday afternoon.

Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem; because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me. v30

Dear brethren, let us receive one another with all gladness and learn to hold each other in high esteem.  May God Bless You all.