Sunday’s Exhortation: Sharing the Fellowship of Suffering

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I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11)

Here the Apostle gives true voice to his heart and expresses the desire of an authentic disciple. To Paul, nothing mattered but Christ. Indeed, he had just finished describing how he counted every attainment as rubbish for the “surpassing greatness of knowing Christ”.

As a young man, Paul had been a rising star with all the advantages of the world. Undoubtedly born to a well-to-do family, he possessed coveted Roman citizenship, and studied underneath the greatest Rabbis of the period. By the age of 20, he had earned the ancient equivalent of two PhD’s in theology.

By his own assessment, he had been “advancing in Judaism” far beyond his peers. No doubt there were people who spoke of this marvellous, energetic, zealous young Pharisee as a potential candidate to become a ruler of Israel and one day ascend to the Sanhedrin Council. He was going to go far in the intellectual and religious world. “We must keep an eye on this man!” A glittering career as a reputable Rabbi lay before him, and some people may have even gone so far as to predict that he might one day become High Priest.

Then he met with Jesus on the Damascene Road.

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Paul lost everything thereafter. He was penniless. He was in and out of prison, at other times running in fear of his life. He was beaten with whips and beaten with rods. Sometimes he was cold and hungry. And doubtless there were people who looked at his life with amazement and astonishment.

You gave up your money, your career, your reputation and for what? What do you have to show for it? Only this Jesus.

Yes, “only” Jesus. That is how unbelievers (and Satan) will attack a person when they suffer for Christ. “You’ve given up [insert loss] and what do you have to show for it? Only this Jesus“. Sometimes that unworthy thought can even occur to a person within their own heart, yet the gospel – saturated in divine reality – tells us this is not so. Christ Jesus is not a mere consolation prize or a second-class inheritance to the really valuable earthy stuff that is surrendered. Rather, Christ is THE gift. To fail to see this is to fail to know him.

To share the sufferings of Christ gives a man fellowship with him and knowledge of him, which is perhaps why St. Peter writes “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” – which is not only counter-cultural, but also deeply alien to the normative human experience. Something divine and supernaturally spiritual must occur deep in a person’s heart for them to be able to rejoice in suffering. How is that even possible for a human person? How? Because Christ meets the sufferer.

What were the sufferings of Christ?

1. Rejection: Christ was rejected by men, but rejected as he held out the hand of fellowship, friendship and salvation. It is hard enough to endure rejection from mere acquaintances or colleagues, it is harder still to endure rejection from people for whom we mean to do good. For people to whom we wish only to offer love and friendship.

2. Knowledge: Not only did the Lord have to endure rejection, but, in his divinity he knew all things and all hearts. He knew every single mind. Thus he preached mercy to crowds of people he knew full well hated him, spoke against him, and even meant him harm. There is suffering in displaying love toward people we know to be our enemies.

3. The “unfairness” of his mission: Of course, God does not ask anyone to do anything unfair or unreasonable, since his will is eminently sensible when considered in the light of facts that only God is able to fathom. But in the Garden of Gethsemane as he struggled to shoulder the penalty for other men’s sins, did that thought ever occur to him? “Why must I suffer such deep agony for other people – why can’t they be responsible for their own sins?” A natural sense of justice must surely have tempted the Lord to allow people to suffer for their own iniquities. After all, they committed the sins.

4. Physical agonies: The agonies of the whip and of the cross, of the soldiers beating him, of the crown of thorns, of the indignities heaped upon his person, and the insults and spitting. These sufferings were terrible indeed, for they fell not upon the guilty, but upon the only innocent man who has ever lived on earth.

Meditating on the many sufferings of Christ will be deeply instructive, for he will join us in our sufferings if we intend to suffer in love, as he himself did.

Coup d’etat in Turkey

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News is filtering in of an attempted coup d’etat in Turkey. According to the news, an attempted military takeover involved the use of helicopters – some still commandeered by the rebels – and jet aircraft flying over Istanbul. About 60 people have been killed, although it seems that pro-government forces are gradually making progress in restoring control over the capital.

It demonstrates a number of things:

1. Civilisation is fragile. It does not take a great number of lawless people to bring a nation to a standstill, and situations like this where anarchy reigns (even temporarily), provide ample opportunities for lesser rebels to make hay while the sun shines. If you look at the crime statistics following this attempted coup, I am almost sure they will register an increase. While the police are battling to save the government, thieves and other assorted villains can do as they please. Yes, civilisation is fragile.

2. Turkey’s admission to the EU is likely to be regressed by a long time, if not forever. Public opinion in Europe was always strongly opposed to Turkey’s accession to the European Union, although the leadership of the project have always been in favour.

Turkey has been strung along for a long while now. They have been promised admission if they make necessary social and political reforms – in other words, to make Turkey align more with the pluralistic, democratic culture of Europe.

Reforms all seem rather superfluous at this point. A country that cannot control its own capital from militants, whose leader has sought to prosecute journalists across the EU for writing disparagingly about his conduct, and a regime that has some seriously awry priorities in relation to the Kurds and ISIS, does not make for a cracking good candidate.

Quite apart from Turkey’s prospects in joining the EU, I wonder whether this coup represents another nail in the coffin for the European Union in more ways than one.

France Terror Attacks

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Although details remain somewhat sketchy regarding the attack in Nice, France, it seems likely that this has been yet another Islamist terror attack, this time in a manner distinct from previous attacks. The most notable feature of this act is the use of a heavy vehicle and, from what we are told, grenades and firearms.

As depressing as these horrendous attacks are, the commentary that follows is generally not uplifting either. In our information saturated times, people are quick to jump onto social media and the comboxes offering condemnations and radical solutions.

People emote rapidly in 2016. In fact, people generally feel through issues rather than think through them. And so we are witness to a welter of anger, sorrow, confusion, and a desire for a target to blame.

We also get to see how terror has become a new normal among many people. Within hours of the attacks, a group of Americans were joking on a major news site about the need for “truck licensing” – this being a reference to gun control laws which are inevitably discussed after attacks that use firearms. And so terror on this scale is now no more than a blip for many people. Its impact is gone. Sad to say, terrorists in the future are probably going to need to dream up bigger demonstrations than merely 80 dead people to drill through the fuzzy conditioning that is now setting in.

During such situations where horror and superficiality abide side-by-side, Christians must always seek to live as a different breed of people. St. Paul reminds the Church that Christians are not to function on the same basis as the world. Christians should not think with the same mental tools – the ideologies, politics, and patterns – as unbelievers, and therefore should not emote or behave like unbelievers. Christians are “children of the day”, not of the night, and therefore see things from a perspective of clarity and purpose denied to the unbelieving world.

How should we process such terror?

1. Repent. 

The Lord Jesus Christ was told one time (Luke 13:1-3) about a terrible massacre orchestrated by the Romans in which Jews had been slaughtered while offering sacrifices in the temple. Their deaths must have been especially brutal, because it seems that their blood had mixed with that of their offerings on the altar. It is not inconceivable that their bodies had been literally thrown onto the altar to burn together with their sacrifice.

It was a horrific act of barbarity. One could even call it state-sponsored terror, since these executions probably took place outside of the rule of law and were probably calculated to intimidate the local Jewish population.

The Lord’s response is instructive:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

It is easy to condemn the perpetrators of horrific violence and to demand that they be brought to book. In fact, that was probably the reason this particular group of Jews had passed the news to the Lord. Was he going to condemn the Romans? Was he going to promise that the wrath of God would surely fall upon the head of the Procurator, Pontius Pilate? Would he promise instantaneous heaven to the deceased?

Actually, no. Although God’s punishment for evil men is certain (something that Jesus taught frequently), the Lord’s focus was upon the spiritual condition of the living. It is easy to condemn outrageous barbarity when it breaks out in the world. It is easy to imagine – as some people have – that the French have been a more wicked nation than others, or that the people participating in the parade were probably “godless atheists”. It is easy, in the midst of horror happening to other people to thereby fail to see that we too are in need of constant repentance and forgiveness, and we too have no idea when or how our life will come to a close. “The end of all things is near“, warned St. Peter. And indeed it is, for each person individually, if not for the world.

The question that hangs in the air, therefore, is not why do atrocities happen to “good” people. But why, on a planet full of rebellious, disobedient, sinful men and women, has God’s wrath – a cosmic truck full of cosmic grenades, so to speak – not landed upon the whole human race? For all are deserving of God’s wrath.

When encountering terrorist attacks, therefore, our first instinct should be toward greater repentance and greater zeal to do what is right in the sight of God.

2. Avoid radical ideological “solutions” – see a Sovereign God at work

It is too easy to jump on an ideological bandwagon and imagine that sharp, speedy, radical action will solve the problem of evil human hearts. “Ban Muslim immigration”, for instance, is a common refrain. People talk of rolling back the religious freedoms that also safeguard the Church, foolishly imagining that secular governments empowered to tackle Muslims will never, one day, come for us.

Muslim immigration brings into deeply secular countries – who have for several generations tried to shrug off God and live in defiance to his law – a new dynamic that secularism cannot cope with. It is shaking up the political and social certainties that many people arrogantly feel have been settled. It is putting a dent into political correctness, and “safe spaces”, and multicultural radicalism, and even knocking holes in anti-Christian sentiment. Trying to build a new, hedonistic and materialistic society without any reference to God and without any basic moral compass, is being seen for what it is: an increasingly brittle structure that cannot endure reality from the outside.

Secular philosophy cannot function in the face of another culture that comes with theistic certainties and an aggressive policing of them. Same sex marriage, advocates, for instance, have primarily gone after Christian cake shop owners, but so far, there have been very few (if any) cases of them tackling Muslim cake shop owners who also refuse to make wedding cakes for homosexual people. Why? Because Muslims are an identity group that must be honoured by secularists, yet that same group often holds views that are inimical to feminism, multiculturalism, and the sexual revolution. Most Muslims repudiate the whole liberal, secular package. In fact, Muslim values and identity logically create a tension in secularism that is not resolvable. For, on one hand, secularism must continue to allow Muslim immigration, yet on the other hand those very immigrants carry with them beliefs that are opposed to secularism on nearly every single possible level.

Gasp! That’s dreadful! Surely, as good Christians, we must salvage our secular states who have done so much to eliminate God and his Son from national discourse? God forbid. We owe a godless state no more than the first Christians owed a pagan one: payment of our taxes, obedience and respect to secular rulers insofar as the realm of society is concerned –  the Church is never to be in the business of leading a revolution – but at the same time, we are under no obligation to protect that which is visibly rotting away. Thus, these social changes should be viewed as good news for people who fear that liberalism of morals, politics, institutions and social beliefs will continue forever.

(Obviously, terror attacks are not committed by the majority of these immigrants, and therefore we should not paint them all as potential terrorists.)

As immigration continues, and as the Church has largely failed in her mission to go to “them”, we are in the blessed condition of having “them” come to us. And Muslims are far more interested in Christianity than secularists are, hence the substantial conversion rates witnessed in Europe.

So it is not all bad, and God is in control.

In the Light of Eternity

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Leonard Ravenhill died twenty-two years ago (1994). Without the advent of the internet, his memory would have remained cherished only without certain circles and his sermons traded on video cassette between a few church groups.

Thanks to Youtube, online sermon archives, audio recordings, and the new orthodox scholarship that is revitalising itself by drawing afresh from the forgotten orthodox wells of the past, Ravenhill is perhaps more widely known in 2016 than he was even during his lifetime. He deserves to be, for he addressed his mission to the Church at large, transcending denominations (most of which he predicted as far back as the 1980’s would diminish and utterly fail because their methods and motives had faded from true, biblical standards of Christianity).

Ravenhill identified himself as a classical Pentecostal, but he was not overly partial to Pentecostals. He repudiated modern Pentecostalism with its dramatics, lights, glitz, hand waving, “praise bands” and so forth. His was a Pentecostalism of the Holiness Movement from the 1920’s; a serious commitment to holiness, to prayer, to contemplation, to reverence, to awe at God, and to the word of God. This species of Pentecostalism is as far removed from the modern variant as a wise elder is removed from a callow adolescent.

One cannot listen to many of his sermons without coming to realise that Ravenhill had a deep abiding love for God and for the holiness of God. Both qualities are rare today, even among people who identify themselves as Christians.

His commitment to God was absolute. He was well-known to pray for six or more hours a day, often beginning at midnight and praying through the early hours of the morning. And his prayers were not trite. He exemplified the very essence of St. Peter’s call to be a “holy priesthood offering up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ“. Ravenhill’s prayers were indeed sacrifices of a spiritual sort. He prayed with tears, with groaning, and with energy. Like Paul, he “travailed as in birth” in the place of prayer in the hope of bringing Christ into the hearts and lives of others – primarily, a Church bound in its 20th century winter.

Prayer was the heart of his service and the cornerstone of his life in a way that is so sadly missing in the Church today. “No man rises above his prayer life”, Ravenhill was wont to say, “No man is greater than his prayer life”, which is certainly true. Moreover, his preaching reflected this depth of prayer. There was the atmosphere when he preached of the throne room of God. Crowds would come to listen to him. At the beginning of his sermons there would often be a frothy, carnival atmosphere among some visitors, but this quickly dissipated as his sermons progressed until people were made solemn and still.

Like his close friend A. W. Tozer, Ravenhill devoted a considerable part of his life to the study of men who had a deep connection with God and who had been involved in serious, meaningful revivals of Christianity. His attention was arrested by men of God who had poured out their entire life into the service of God, and he sought to do the same. His preaching was often ornamented with references to Whitfield, Booth, the Wesley brothers, to Ann Carmichael, and so on. In like fashion, he reflected deeply on the life of St. Paul, and the service of the prophets. Through it all, the motivating force in his life was to stand approved by the One he loved on the awesome Day of Judgement.

He lived his whole life – not merely a portion of it – in the “light of eternity”. Everything in his life was centred on the grandeur and majesty of the throne of Christ before which all men must stand. Indeed, in his office, a plaque was attached to the wall bearing a single word: “ETERNITY”. That was his daily preoccupation. That is what he strove toward.

Occasionally God raises up men upon whom he has bestowed a clarity of vision about the enormity of the life of the world to come, and gives such men to the Church. These servants of Christ burst through the membrane of our pretensions. They are impassioned with the glory of Christ; hungry for eternal blessing and divine closeness in a way that defies so many in our comfortable world of seemingly settled certainties. Such men provoke and sharpen. They are sent to bring holy fire to the cold hearts of their brethren. Leonard Ravenhill was one such man.

Of all his sermons, the one which has probably had the deepest impact is his sermon titled “The Judgement Seat of Christ”, which leaves one spellbound and sombre at the thought of Jesus Christ in judgement, of the great accounting of all things at the end of the ages, of every man’s work being tried by the pure and holy Son of God. It is an uncomfortable sermon and it seriously disturbs one’s own pretensions and self-righteousness, as all good preaching should. It is a sermon that savours of the incense of the heavenly realms, and one well worth listening to and contemplating seriously.

Oh that more men might see the awesomeness of coming judgement and the vastness of eternity. Oh that the Church might arise and embrace again its commission with fervour and with faith. Enough with the rubbish of politics and social commentary. Enough with grubbing about money and risk and investment. Time indeed, to get serious about our eternal destination – infinite hell, or infinite heaven.

There are a million roads into hell, but not a single road out.” – Leonard Ravenhill.

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