Three ways to live

Which is your way?

Christian Community – Part I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:41 am on Sunday, March 30, 2008

Some time back during a group retreat we discussed a topic of Christian community. I will decided to put my prepared material on this blog in three parts; today is Part 1.

Christian community – big picture

1) What is community according to God? Since God as a Trinity is already a community, we can learn a lot about human community by first looking at God’s own. First human community was created male and female, to reflect the nature of God. Two factors united trinity into community – communication inside and common mission to outside. So the first human community was given a common task – take care of each other (inside mission) and tend the garden of Eden (outside mission). So we can define God’s created human community as a group of male and female people united under God to care for each other and to have a common mission/goal that benefits the creation. These features will become more evident in the way God builds his community in the Bible.

2) Human community in the Bible

The fall led to several community problems – broken relationship between people and God, and between people within the community. Yet, what does the broken community do first? It builds cities, see Gen 4-11. The truth is, we cannot live without community, even when our sin makes us selfish. Sin can make us have wrong reasons to join a community (to feel better about ourselves, to make our life more comfortable, safe), but everyone of us deep inside has need for community. Child’s brain does not develop properly unless he is touched, hugged, kissed by their parents, no matter how much other stimuli you provide. Try enjoying something precious without ever showing it to anybody else. Try not depending on somebody else’s opinion. You can’t! We are made to live in a community.

What does the broken community do next? It seeks God, trying to reverse the effect of the fall on their own strength. Both community building and seeking God culminates in the tower of Babel story. Yet God sends a resounding “No” by confusing people with many languages in Gen 11. People can neither restore community on their own nor restore their relationship with God on their own. Why not? Because trying to be independent from God, and trying to resolve the problem on their own strength was the essence of Adam’s sin that has caused the problem in the first place. No, the restoration must be initiated by God alone. And that’s exactly what he does by appearing to Abraham in Gen 12.

Since then, God was working on restoring the community. Note that his promise to Abraham was that he will become a seed for many nations – a new community. God had to intervene for that to happen, to make sure that this action could not have been accomplished by any human effort. Next, God appeared to Moses and again had to intervene to bring Israelites out of Egypt to become a new community. He then promised David an offspring (Jesus!) to become a beginning of a yet another new community. Jesus started this new community of Christian believers through his sacrifice on the cross and subsequent defeat of death by his resurrection. The new Christian community was no longer limited to a race or a nation. Finally, in the end of time, God will make new Heaven and New Earth, which will finalize the new community.

Understanding this might help us better understand the relationship between salvation and good works. God have saved the Jews from the slavery and then gave them the law. But the law was never supposed to be a way to be saved (they were already saved at that point of time), it was a way to build new community.Similarly, the Christian salvation is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end, which is to create a new community. We are saved by what Jesus has done, but we obey his commands because the ultimate goal is to build a new Christian community with God in the center, made right with God by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes people ask, why go to church? Why can’t we just be individually saved? Because God has never intended this to be the end, only means to an end, which is a new community, a church. Sometimes, we can get busy studying the Bible and yet miss forest for the trees.

In part 2, I will discuss on some of the signs of a healthy Christian community.

Why pray? – Summary of study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 8:00 am on Monday, March 17, 2008

In the my last post (sorry, it was a while back), I promised to address some of the challenging questions on prayer. Even though I wanted to look at all eight questions, the group’s discussion didn’t go much beyond the first two, which can really be further combined into one:

“Why pray if God knows what you will ask him before you actually do? Moreover, God will only grant your request if it is according to his will, but if it is according to his will, he will do it anyway even if you don’t ask him”.

What I learned when preparing for the study is that this question keeps been asked again and again and again. I have heard it been answered by people whose teaching I really respect, e.g. Tim Keller, Don Carson, etc. So what’s the answer?

There is none.

There is no answer. Any explanation you will try to give will not make sense in one way or another. The only way to understand it is that while our prayer has appearance of us asking God for something and trying (in a way) to change his mind, the only thing that changes in prayer is us.

What did this discovery did to me personally? After a few days of struggle, somehow, I feel liberated. I have struggled with prayer for a long time, but now that I know there is no good explanation for why we should pray, I feel free to pray simply out of obedience to God’s Word. And, somehow, I feel humbled by the fact that not everything can be understood by our limited minds. Well, I knew that already, but this time this understanding (that I can’t understand everything and must rely more on God) came really home to me.

The basics of prayer – summary of study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 8:46 pm on Saturday, March 8, 2008

Our church is doing a series of topical studies on prayer in the month of March, and this is the topic we are also discussing in out small group.

1) What is prayer?

There are two main words which mean pray/prayer in the Bible, Hebrew “palal” and Greek “proseuchomai”. The meaning of both words is roughly the same – making requests to God. So in a away, it is completely correct to split the prayers into “thanksgiving prayers”, “petition prayers”, “meditation prayers”, as all prayers should contain some petition. But as the Bible also shows, alongside the petitions, the prayer usually contained meditations, thanksgivings, etc.

2) Why should we pray?

We don’t have to pray, we have the privilege to pray. Deuteronomy 4:7 (NIV)

7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?

Prayer is God’s given access to Him. Until we understand this, prayer will always be a grind, something that we have to do but don’t really want to.

3) What should be the petition part of the prayer for?

Many, many things are mentioned in the Bible, including such things as daily needs, health, withholding of judgment, wisdom, Holy Spirit, forgiveness, guidance.

4) Whom do we pray to?

This is not as obvious as it sounds. All Old Testament and Jesus’ prayers were addressed to God directly. New Testament has one examples of prayer addressed to Jesus, see Acts 7:59. We are also to pray to God by through Jesus Eph 5:20, since he is the one who intercedes for us Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25. Spirit also intercedes for us, but by helping us from inside, Rom. 8:26-27.

So the Christians should be praying to God, through Jesus, in and by the Holy Spirit. Note that this stands in stark contrast with the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teachings suggesting prayers to God through saints (including Mary, the mother of Jesus). Their reason is that since these saints are now with God and have access to him, they can help us with our requests. Yet, in my opinion, this transforms the mediating authority from Jesus to these saints. This practice is never mentioned in the Bible and only appeared (mistakenly or not?) during early church years.

5) What time, where, In what position to pray?

Scripture does not suggest single correct time, place, or posture for prayer. People pray while standing, kneeling, lying down, lifting their hands, sitting, bowing or pounding their chest. They pray in the morning, afternoons, evenings and nights. Some pray alone in secluded locations, some in public.

Having said that, the external factors do matter, as they often are a good reflection of our heart attitude. Desire to pray in public only may stem from pride. Praying while lying on a couch signals our misunderstanding of whom we are speaking to.

6) How to make the prayer more effective?

a) Faith. The faith does play a role – you have to believe that the prayer will be answered, as Mark 11:24 says “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. ”

b) Hypocrisy and Sin. Prayers may be ineffective because of hypocrisy, see Matthew 6:5-8 and

Mark 11:25 (NIV)

25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

or sin, Isa. 1:15-17; Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:21-24.

c) Powerful people. In the Old Testament, the outcome does seem to depend on who prays. For example, Moses and Samuel seemed to have greater access to God. The Lord once said to Jeremiah: “Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. ” (Jeremiah 15:1). However, the presence of an “important person” is no guarantee, as even Moses’ prayers sometimes have been rejected, see Exodus 32:30-35

However, the idea of some people having greater access to God has almost disappeared in the New Testament. The often quoted verse from James 5:16-17

16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.

is often misunderstood. The righteous man here refers to us, people who were declared righteous by God through the sacrifice of Jesus. This grants us the same access to God as Elijah used to have!

d) Attitude. Often biblical characters suggest to God that he should act in a given way because his honor, glory, grace, mercy or trustworthiness demands such a response. The narrative accounts of these prayers leave the distinct impression that God is pleased when his character is appealed to but not presumed upon (Ex 32:11–14; Num 14:13–22; Deut 9:26–29; Neh 1:4–11).

e) Content. The content bears great importance. God would grant us things if it is according to his will:
1 John 5:14-15 (NIV)

14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

7) Remaining questions. The basics mentioned above do not address all the issues. Even after going through all the points, our group still had many questions, of which I mention the main eight:

1) Why pray if God knows what you will ask him before you actually do (Matthew 6:8)?
2) Why pray if God will only grant your request if it is according to his will, but if it is according to his will, he will do it anyway even if you don’t ask him. In other words, can prayer (or its absence) really change God’s mind and if it cannot, why pray?
3) What is the point of praying in groups, should we just do it individually? Is it more effective?
4) Is it a good idea to pray for something or somebody we are not very familiar with or don’t really care about and hence might not care much about the outcome?
5) If we pray for non-Christians, should these prayers be limited to their salvation or we can pray for other things too, e.g. health?
6) Should we continue asking God about the same thing again and again or trust that he has heard us the first time and have faith that he will eventually act?
7) Can we say that if our prayers do not get answered, then we are doing something wrong?
8) What does it mean to pray in and by the Spirit?
9) What can we pray for? Should it be only about important things or mundane ones too? Where do we draw the line? When do we let go and let God?

We will try to address all these question in our study next week.

Daniel Block is speaking in Singapore

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 3:03 am on Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Just found this announcement on Agora Singapore blog. Daniel Block is teaching at Wheaton College and is the author of several well-respected Bible commentaries (Judges, Ruth, Ezekiel) and several other books. Daniel’s talk will be on Saturday (March 18), 10am, Singapore Bible College. The topic is “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians”. Registration is $10, call +65 6559 1532.

The relationship between Old Testament law and Christian life is rather complex. We have just did a study on Romans 7-8 and it appears that there is still a debate on what it means to live according to the Spirit and not according to the written law, see my previous post. I do look forward to what Daniel have to say on the subject!

Romans 7:1-8:17 – summary of study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 8:51 am on Monday, March 3, 2008

If in the previous chapter Paul tried to persuade us why, after been justified, we should stop sinning, he now discusses the subject of law and its role in Christian life.

1) Is the law good or bad?

That is a tricky question. On one hand, “the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death” (Rom 7:5). But one the other hand, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rom 7:12). So which is it?

The law is good in itself but it was bad for us as it was use by the sin to produce sinful passions in us, see Rom 7:8.

2) What is the solution?

We need to die to the law through the body of Christ, to belong to him (Rom 7:4). We are released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, not the old way of written code (Rom 7:6).

4) What is Paul trying to say in Rom 7:14-20?

We all have split personalities. There is a part of us which is good and a part that which is not. Paul calls the good part the mind or inner being and the bad part – the members of the body.

Commentators disagree on the meaning of “I” in these verses. Does Paul talk about himself prior to conversion or after? My personal opinion is that Paul is trying to say is that we all have good and bad parts, whether before or after conversion. These are waging war against each other (Rom 7:23). However, after the conversion the inner part is transformed by the Spirit and now has the power to overcome the sinful part.

So, to summarize, these are two that we have as Christians to help us live a godly life:

Our sinful nature is weaker than before because it’s lost its most powerful weapon – the written law.
Our inner being is stronger than before because it’s gain its most powerful weapon – the Spirit of God.

5) So, then, how should we live?

We should serve in the new way of the Spirit, not the old way of written code (Rom 7:6). Live by the spirit, not by written law.

What does this mean exactly is debatable. Clearly, it cannot mean that Christians should stop obeying the ten commandments, as this clearly contradicts the desires of the Spirit (Rom 8:5). John Stott’s commentary on Romans was of great help to me here. According to him, not living by the written law means two things:

a) Do not use law for justification
b) Do not use law for sanctification

Point a) is quite clear – no one can be justified by obeying the law (Rom 3:20). No one can earn salvation by trying to live a good life.

To understand what Paul means by not using the law for sanctification, it is helpful to read through Colossians 2:13-23

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Application

According to John Stott, the right way of applying Romans 7–8 is to recognize that some church-goers today might be termed ‘Old Testament Christians’. The contradiction implied in this expression indicates what an anomaly they are. They show signs of new birth in their love for the church and the Bible, yet their religion is law, not gospel; flesh, not Spirit; the ‘oldness’ of slavery to rules and regulations, not the ‘newness’ of freedom through Jesus Christ. They are like Lazarus when he first emerged from the tomb, alive but still bound hand and foot. They need to add to their life liberty.

Verse 8:4 is of great importance for our understanding of Christian holiness. First, holiness is the ultimate purpose of the incarnation and the atonement. The end God had in view when sending his Son was not our justification only, through freedom from the condemnation of the law, but also our holiness, through obedience to the commandments of the law. The moral law has not been abolished for us; it is to be fulfilled in us.