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Big house, car, name or disease, poverty and suffering?

This question has been in my mind lately thanks to some wonderful brothers and sisters who we meet with weekly for Bible study. They are very honest about the struggle to believe and live out the things we learn from the Word as believers; some Bible truths are so hard to swallow and occasionally you will have people openly say ‘no’ or ‘I can’t believe that’. Being the one in ‘full time ministry’ has left me sometimes with the task of attempting to answer some of these objections but even then I have always gone home with questions half answered or not satisfied with the answers.

I am seated at my reading table and this question of what’s God’s will for me comes to my mind. I believe it’s a question in the minds of many, caught between the prosperity gospel movement (decree and declare) vs. persecution and suffering. I think that while many disapprove of the former, the latter is not attractive, it’s gloomy and doesn’t sound like good news at all. Surely disease and suffering is not good news. It’s almost a case of fake vs nothing.

I must confess that I do not have a satisfying answer, maybe just a thought. But there is no better place to look for it than in the Bible, the Word of God, his breath and indeed that which he has clearly given for our benefit. It’s able to instruct us and make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). The assumption here is that we believe in God and in Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father and that our Father cares for us and that his word is for our good. If so, then we are on the same page.

Back to the Start

It is clear from Genesis that God had designed the earth to be a beautiful nice place (Gen. 1:31). It was good and man was the epitome of that as God creates him in His own image and places him in a beautiful garden that had everything; food, rivers, different trees bearing fruits (Gen. 2), and God himself is around having fellowship with man. He was even entrusted with the responsibility of managing the earth and everything else on behalf of God. Certainly it’s easy to note that God wanted the best for mankind, nothing you can ever imagine or desire in life now is better than what was in the Garden of Eden – Love, food, joy, power/authority (Adam calling the lions and hyenas). It’s amazing, no hustle, everything is wonderful.

But we all know that did not last for long, man wanted more. More than food, love, authority and fellowship with God. The devil was there shouting ‘yes you can’, ‘you’ve got all it takes’, ‘you have the seed of greatness’, ‘exploit your full potential’. In other words ‘you can be god yourself’. The devil masquerades as a herald of good, as one who wants the best for man yet that is not what he gives. We should be wary of his schemes. He is the father of all lies who always pretends to be on our side, he comes in shoes of peace but brings destruction, dressed in truth but speaks lies. He hasn’t changed! Even so-called evolution has not changed him! Same old! We well know the results of man’s attempt to be God – the curse on the people and of the earth itself. Everything that was good is no longer that good. Even the wife that had excited Adam is no longer that good of a helper; she wants to be the ‘man’ as well.

Away from the garden (and all its goodness) and from God, death and murder now becomes part of man. Rivalry and competition is the order of the day, the ground no longer producing food without hard toil. Instead of love, hatred. God’s will for man was to enjoy God, delight in what He created and to glorify him forever but the rebellion turned everything upside down.

How about Now?

But God’s will is still on course for he had already planned how the beautiful, joyful and tear-free relationship would happen and he continues to call out for man! Where are you? From Genesis all the way through the Prophets, God continues to call man to himself but man continues to believe in a lie, and is clothed with shame and sin (Gen. 3). But God has a plan! His plan is to clothe man with Christ’s righteousness, to restore that fellowship for him to be able to enjoy God and his creation (Rom. 3:21-22). The new creation in Revelation is like the Garden of Eden reloaded! It’s full of rivers, love, power, and more than that God is there 24/7. No thieves or corruption, no unemployment (everyone is a full time worshiper and ‘reign-er’), no tears, no death- we live forever (Rev. 21:1-8).

All that sounds nice and good but what about now? Surely we are not in the new creation yet as is quite evident. We are on a journey towards the new creation (for believers). It’s like being on the way to collect your salary, you might not be able to buy stuff on the way but you will after you have received it. You might be hungry on the bank queue but you are assured of at least being able to buy food in the end. Those illustrations are not exactly suitable as our journey is full of unknowns, brokenness, fear, disease, hunger, death, mourning but the goal is sure, certain and fulfilling. We must keep ourselves focused on the goal and not be derailed on the way. An athlete will have people on the sides cheering him and others ridiculing him and he must be careful not to focus on any of them but to keep looking forward. Whether a ‘fat’ bank account or only an M-Pesa account, whether we suffer want or disease or persecution or whether we have plenty, God’s will is for us to remain anchored in Him and focused on the new creation. His will is not just wishful thinking but a sure, certain and planned joy and fellowship.

So what’s God’s will for me? It is satisfaction, hope and trust in him and Jesus Christ and His promise for an eternity together with him. So whether in suffering or disease, or nice family and car, he wants me to have him forever. God’s will is for me whether in poverty or riches, health or sickness, is to be satisfied and for him to be glorified in me. That I will honour God in awe and he shall be the object of my worship, be thankful to Him and that I will be daily putting my trust in Christ Jesus for salvation.

Peter Kamau

(Ministry Training Facilitator, iServe Africa)

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As we have already seen before, Jesus’ earthly ministry is largely about preaching. Mark the evangelist says “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:14-15). At the start of his ministry, Jesus preaches. Someone said that ‘God had only one Son, and He made Him a preacher.[1] In Matthew’s gospel, we see huge sections of Jesus’ teaching, the most famous being ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7). In Luke’s gospel, after Jesus goes to the temple, he picks up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, reads it and “then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone were fastened on him. He begun by saying to them, ‘Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:17-21). We see again that his ministry is that proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. In John, Jesus powerfully teaches Nicodemus on the need for him to be born-again and about his mission “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:13-15).

Scripture also attests elsewhere to Jesus, the incarnate Son of God being the word of God. He is the Word become flesh (John 1:14). He is the one who was heard and seen, looked and touched by the apostles’ hands. He is the one proclaimed by the apostles- the Word of life. (1 John 1:1-4). The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says “In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom, he also made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus is the Word of God. To proclaim the Word is to proclaim Jesus.

The apostles were charged by Jesus to preach. The great commission in Matthew 28:16-20 has the command to make disciples. This involves a number of things, chief of which is preaching (teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you). ‘Christ Himself knows best how to build and prosper His Church, and we have His order as to what is best done in that connection.[2] We see then after Jesus is ascended to heaven, on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles empowered by the Spirit, proclaim this Christ. Peter opens up Joel and preaches Christ- fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22). He explained the scriptures and “with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:40-41). The church was formed and grew by the preaching of the men who had been with Jesus.

The apostles gave themselves over to the preaching of the Word. We see later on, when there was a temptation to divert their attention to other things, they resolved to give their attention to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. (Acts 6:4). Their writings are full of their commitments to preach Christ and exhortations to preach Christ (Romans 1:16-17, 1 Corinthians 2:2, 15:1-8, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, 1 Peter 1:10-12).

The church in the 21st Century has a lot to learn from Jesus and his apostles. It’s time we prioritised preaching and do it well.

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[1] Greg Haslam, Preach the Word!: The Call and Challenge of Preaching Today (Lancaster [England: Sovereign World, 2006), 34.

[2] Haslam, 34.

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Peter Kamau preaching during iServe Africa Ministry Training Course 3 in May

Throughout the bible, preaching seems to be one common factor that characterizes the church. In fact, from the Old Testament, one distinguishing mark of God’s people is that they are really a people under his Word. This word is brought to them by prophets who acted as God’s mouth-piece. Noah is described by Peter as a ‘herald of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2:5). Moses, as a deliverer of the Israelites from Egypt, had a major role of speaking to the Israelites as well as to Pharaoh. We see in Exodus the first thing that Moses and Aaron do when they go to Pharaoh is to speak “thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people Go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1). After this, Moses’ ministry continues to be that of a preacher. After Moses, God raises up other leaders who continue to speak God’s word to the people. In particular, they remind them of the covenant and their obligations. It is worth noting that whenever there’s were no people speaking God’s word, then God’s people would be in problems. At the time of Eli the priest, problems arose with his children who were so corrupt and forgot what their role was. We are told that “And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” (1 Samuel 3:1). It is in this period when God raised up Samuel to serve him. The rest of the Old Testament has many other people like Ezra, prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea and Malachi who speak the word of God to the people.

Coming to the New Testament, we see that the priority of Jesus during his earthly life is preaching. We read in the gospel of Luke 4:14-15, after he was tempted, his first mission in to go to the synagogue and start teaching. In Mark’s gospel also we read “And he said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.’” (Mark 1:38). Jesus continues with preaching until when he is arrested and crucified. After Jesus, we see that his disciples (the apostles) too concentrated on the preaching of the good news.

The Great Commission itself is a call to preach “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20). This is what the apostles do after Jesus is taken up to heaven. The book of Acts of the Apostles is full of the sermons that the apostles preach after the Holy Spirit has come upon them. Of course there are signs and wonders that are performed by the apostles but the thing that adds to the numbers of believers is their preaching that brings conviction and repentance.

Preaching continues to be very vital in the life of the church today. It is the means through which God’s people get to hear him speak through the preacher as he unpacks the word. It is essential then that the church continues to have a high view of preaching. But the problem is that the value of preaching is somehow being lost in a majority of the churches. “In reality then, overshadowed by emphases on entertainment, felt needs, psychological approaches, and managerial direction of a multifaceted program of activities for all ages, preaching has diminished in importance in the local church.[1] For new churches that have just been planted, it is necessary that they have preaching as their core.

It has been said that the church in Africa is a mile wide but an inch deep. The church seems to be growing numerically but not in depth. This is a general statement that may not be the exact picture but has truth in it. There’s preaching happening but it is most of it is not biblical. There is a lot of ‘Prosperity Preaching’ that is going on. Prosperity preachers are all over in the media. Recently, one popular bishop tweeted that people were going to get the car they have been dreaming about before the end of the year. This led to celebrations from some quarters and backlash from another. Clear biblical preaching that is rich in the gospel is needed. This is essential particularly for new church plants to see to it that from the start, biblical preaching is at the core of what they do.

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[1] Michael F. Ross, Preaching for Revitalization: How to Revitalize Your Church through Your Pulpit (Glasgow, Scotland: Mentor, 2006), 32.

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Book Review

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This is a review by one of our apprentices, Loyce Naula. Loyce is sent to us by Global Link Afrika, Uganda. She serves in Marsabit as a clinical officer.

BOOK; How to read the bible with all its worth

Author: Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

The book addresses what has always been a point of confusion for me and many others. Mistakes and disagreements in Christian faith have arisen over it and yet it’s a vital pillar in Christianity- Understanding the Bible, making right interpretations and applying it correctly the way it’s intended by God.

For a ‘common’ Christian to Bible scholars, Gordon and Stuart give a simplified approach on how to make good exegesis as the first task then faithful hermeneutics without misusing the Holy Scriptures, in that, every text or statement means what it was intended to mean first to the original hearers then to the 21st century hearer. They help us understand how to approach every type of genre, giving practical examples in each; they explain the nature of genre, its historical context, the literary context, cultural relativity and basic hermeneutical observations in each. This helps to understand scriptures from the position of the original readers then turn our minds to us today in our modernized world, different culture and geographical locations.

What really stood out for me is the way they explained the Old Testament and parables, it was great to understand that they are not always allegories with a special hidden meaning but they sounded differently originally due to a different context and therefore would convey a different message to us today. I learnt therefore, that it’s not a place to pick lessons anyhow to apply to us today, but put several factors in consideration before we do so. They made it simpler to understand when they used an example of a joke- it’s never funny when you don’t understand the point of reference used by the narrator. It’s from this that I understand the value of reading outside the bible such as commentaries, historical books etc. They used simple language to understand, not lots of Hebrew and Greek and tried to explain for a lay person to understand.

However, I am not comfortable with the reason they give for God giving the food laws to the Israelites. Gordon gave a reason of protecting them from carrying diseases in the arid climatic conditions and that they would get allergies from such foods. That’s not a satisfying reason to me and maybe I need to read more about it.

All in all, the book is the best guide for understanding the Bible and I would really recommend it for any Christian and Bible teacher to avoid making mistakes. Use the Bible for its worth and avoid being carried away by any heresy commonly taught by our teachers for their selfish interests or just ignorance.

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When there is so much work to be done ‘at home’ should we be sending out missionaries abroad? When our national churches – in Kenya or the UK or wherever we are – are struggling so much with false teaching and lukewarmness and have so few faithful Bible teachers and servant leaders, can we afford to be sending well-trained Christian workers to other countries? In an age of mass migration and refugee flows, when the world is coming to our doorstep (praise God) is there any need to send out missionaries? When sending people across borders is so costly and difficult and when there are still many neglected, functionally-unreached people in our own lands shouldn’t we just concentrate on shedding gospel light into dark corners close to home and de-emphasise ‘going’?

There is a lot of truth and wisdom and gospel-heartedness behind those questions. Undoubtedly there are huge needs and opportunities ‘at home’ and it will be right for many to stay and address those. It is also perfectly true, as many have said, that getting on a plane doesn’t make you a missionary; every follower of Christ is called to Great Commission obedience wherever they are and wherever they go (Mat. 28). And we also need to come to terms with the ways in which global demographics and dynamics are changing – mission from everywhere to everywhere – and root out the deep down ugly prejudice which sometimes makes us (me) anxious about that. And yes, it is often better and more cost effective to send funds to support gospel workers in their own countries rather than sending someone over there.

But here are four suggestions of why, while we want to be doing all those things, we still need to be sending out high quality gospel workers across borders:

These are the days of Elijah

In pastor Joshua D Jones’ strangely titled but extremely good book Elijah Men Eat Meat he draws multiple insightful parallels between our current post-post-modern age and the days of Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel. In one chapter he focuses on mission and notes the phenomenon of sound biblical churches with a good grip on the primacy of word ministry and a clear understanding of the mission of the church “to preach the gospel and make obedient disciples of Jesus throughout the nations…” who nonetheless

“…lose foreign mission as a focus because ‘we have so many problems here at home.’ Given all the spiritual darkness that we see in Israel, it would be easy to assume that God might put foreign mission on hold. Elijah has no shortage of work to do within his national boundaries. After all, there are plenty of fake prophets to combat and plenty of seduced hearts to turn. Yet, God sends Elijah to another nation to spend two years of his life witnessing to one pagan woman and her son. How does one even begin to evaluate whether that was a wise use of time and resources?”

It seems that the LORD is less concerned about strategy and efficiency and cost-benefit analysis than we are. He is driving an outgoing, expansive, generous, nation-reaching mission even in the worst of times. And he uses that mission to shame and rebuke and incite Israel and make them jealous (cf. Luke 4:26-29; 10:10-15; 20:16; 13:46-51; 28:28).

Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed (Proverbs 11:25)

John Paton, the great nineteenth century Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) gives testimonies of this in his classic autobiography. Before he went to the New Hebrides he was a much loved and much used pastor in the Scottish Reformed Presbyterian Church. Many in the church, including elders, tried to persuade him that he was far too valuable to the church in Scotland to risk throwing his life away in a mission to pagans who would probably eat him within hours of arrival (not an unfounded fear since the previous missions to the islands had ended in that way). As it was he was eventually used, after many many trials, to bring pretty much the whole island of Aniwa to the feet of Christ. But perhaps even more significant was the way that he galvanised the Presbyterian churches in Australia and Scotland for a long-term missionary concern for New Hebrides. A very large amount of money was raised from not particularly well off churches and tens if not hundreds of pastors left Scotland and Australia to join the missionary efforts in the South Pacific islands. And what went along with those sacrificial efforts towards foreign missions was a revival in the churches that were giving:

Nor did the dear old Church [Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland] thus cripple herself; on the contrary, her zeal for Missions accompanied, if not caused, unwonted prosperity at home. New waves of liberality passed over the heart of her people. Debts that had burdened many of the Churches and Manses were swept away. Additional Congregations were organized…

For it is a fixed point in the faith of every Missionary, that the more any Church or Congregation interests itself in the Heathen, the more will it be blessed and prospered at Home.

“One of the surest signs of life,” wrote the V.C.R. [an Australian Presbyterian periodical], “is the effort of a Church to spread the Gospel beyond its own bounds, and especially to send the knowledge of Jesus amongst the Heathen. The Missions to the Aborigines, to the Chinese in this Colony, and to the New Hebrides, came to this Church [Presbyterian Church in Australia] from God. In a great crisis of the New Hebrides, they sent one of their number to Australia for help, and his appeal was largely owned by the Head of the Church. The Children, and especially the Sabbath Scholars of the Presbyterian Churches, became alive with Missionary enthusiasm. Large sums were raised for a Mission Ship. The Congregations were roused to see their duty to God and their fellow-men beyond these Colonies, and a new Missionary Spirit took possession of the whole Church. …the Presbyterian Church in Victoria is largely blessed in her own spirit through the Missionary zeal awakened in her midst. Thus, there is that scattereth and yet increaseth; bringing out anew the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

That is paradoxical gospel logic. Foreign missions sending is not a zero sum game. There is a great blessing for sending churches.

Foreign missions can be a powerful means of personal growth for the missionary

God uses many means to grow his people – the primary means of grace of word and sacrament in the local church, the local community of God’s people, the nurture of a Christian parent (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15), marriage and parenting, affliction (2 Cor. 1:9) – but one other that he can use is cross-border mission. An African mission leader in a particular West African country told me that all the guys he knows who are continuing faithfully long term in gospel ministry have one thing in common – they have all been out of the country. That is what has grown in them the spiritual strength and godliness and perseverance for the long haul. This can work on a number of levels – here are six:

  • There is a particular challenge in leaving your home country and people group which forces the missionary to reassess the whole idea of ‘home’ and come to a greater experiential understanding of being an alien and stranger in this world.
  • There is a particular challenge in going into a foreign culture where you are reduced to the understanding and status of a child – unable to express yourself clearly, unable to do simple things without help, constantly making mistakes, unknown and un-respected. A humbling experience that can lead to a greater experiential understanding of being simply a little child in the kingdom of God.
  • There is a particular increase in risk and uncertainty which (hopefully) forces the missionary to rely on the Lord. In some countries the threat level and insecurity is far higher than the missionary’s birth country. I think of two Kenyan brothers who spent last year in countries with very high levels of persecution and threat towards Christians – they testify to how they had to learn new level of trust of God in life and in death. Even if the destination country is quite safe and secure by any objective measure, the missionary almost certainly doesn’t feel as safe and secure as in their homeland – they don’t know which streets are safe to walk, what the noises in the dark mean, who can be trusted, where to get help. And there is a particular vulnerability of legal status as a foreign national – you can always be deported. New battles with fear will need to be fought.
  • There is a particular exposure of sin. This happens in many crucibles that the Lord puts us in – workplace, marriage, parenting – but it is certainly true of cross-border mission that all the unique stresses and insecurities tend to be particularly effective means of revealing the depths of your own heart. A critical spirit or impatience or selfishness that might not have reared its head ‘at home’ comes out strongly in moments of transition and culture clash. We are exposed more clearly as the sinners we are.
  • There is a particular encounter with other ways of thinking and living, other expressions of Christian faith. You are forced to re-examine your own thinking and living and what is genuine Christianity. While living in your own culture your own culture is hard to see largely invisible to you. In some ways, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, reading old books from different times and worldviews can help but there is nothing quite like crossing borders and living in a different place that works to different rules and assumptions to help you see the things you thought were ‘obvious’. You are forced to do some hard thinking about whether you don’t like something because it is wrong or just because it is different. You are given the privilege of having a bit of distance on your own culture as well as a view into a different one and you can start (although you will still be trapped and blind in many ways) to appreciate and critique things in both. In this way your convictions about the really core, trans-cultural, vital things in your faith hopefully get clearer and firmer.
  • There is particular encounter with need. We can read of the unreached millions in Operation World but hearts are stirred by meeting actual people, no longer statistics but precious human souls, people with lives and families and desires and fears. Certainly, wherever we are there are needs all around us – physical and spiritual. But we get so used to the environment we grow up with that we start to filter them out. When we go to somewhere very different from our home country we often see the needs more strikingly and sometimes our very definition of need starts to be challenged. Things we thought we needed, we realise are not needs. Places we thought very needy in one way we realise, through going there, are actually very needy in a different way. I think of a Kenyan who went to the UK and realised that there were extremely spiritually needy people in a wealthy nation. I think of an American who came to Kenya and realised after some time that there was a bigger need than agricultural engineering.

Perhaps this is not the most important reason for foreign missions (all this focus on personal growth can get a bit me-centred) and neither is it an invariable rule (there are plenty of counter-cases of crossing cultures leading to personal hardening and de-sanctification – mission can lead to pride as much as to humility) but it is a genuine positive effect. As Peter found in Acts 10, missions can be just as much, if not more, about the change of the missionary’s heart as anyone else’s.

We need each other

The ideal for the global church is not independency but interdependeny. There will always need to be movement of Christians around the world. Like the circulation of the blood in the body – it is healthy for there to be a circulation of Christians around the body of the church. The weaker parts will need the help of the stronger parts and each part of the body will be simultaneously strong and weak in different ways – in courage, in carefulness, in theological resources, in financial resources, in mission-heartedness, in sacrificial love. The goal is mutual encouragement (Rom. 1:12).

And in the theological endeavour itself, as Amos Yong has observed, the global church has a lot of “resources… to contribute to the conversation” which are currently largely ignored. This is not to romanticise ‘minority theologies’ or to suggest that the Western tradition is always wrong or to go for a relativistic reader-centred view of truth. In fact the majority world will continue to have a huge amount to learn from the Reformation tradition for a long time to come. It’s simply to suggest that God doesn’t give any one part of the global church a monopoly on truth and insight, that the Spirit distributes his gifts across the whole church, across borders, and that we can learn a lot from the way different people in different cultures may be able to see certain aspects of the Word more clearly than we do.

Some mutual learning can happen at a distance (even online) but there is nothing like actually being with and alongside and living and working together in gospel ministry. Much glory goes to God and much growth occurs and much learning happens as people of different cultures interact together and serve churches together and go on mission teams together (BTW multi-cultural leadership and mission teams are an old idea – Acts 13:1-3; 16:1-5; Romans 16).

At the end of the day we will all have blindspots – moral, cultural, theological. We will need to remove our own logs and each other’s specs. And both seeing the logs and the specs can be greatly helped by crossing borders.

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  • The Word sets the agenda-  rather than being relegated to the backseat, the Word of God is in the driving seat. The preacher opens up what is in the Word as opposed to opening up what is his own and using the Word of God as a back-up. Since June, we’ve been doing a series #WhoIsThisMan from Mark’s gospel and it’s been enriching to see the wonderful truths from the Word. You can never lack what to preach if you are doing expository preaching. Also, you can never speak your own things if you are doing expository preaching, you only open up and faithfully apply what the word is saying. Without the word setting and being the agenda, then politics and economics become the agenda.
  • It is really relevant- on the preacher’s mind is the need for relevance. Is what am preaching relevant? Does it really apply to my congregation? Our words may not be relevant but God’s Word is relevant every time everywhere. Sometimes, it’s easy to think that what is relevant to the congregation is fashion, music, politics, money et cetera but actually that’s not the truth. People want to hear how you address the fundamental questions of life & death, justice, living with neighbors, what works practically, how do I deal with my broken/breaking marriage, is there God and what is He doing, why is there suffering and how can I overcome it and many others. They don’t care to know where I went on holiday or where I do my shopping. Last Sunday at GracePoint Church we did Mark 13 and what Jesus says is as relevant today as it was then. Wars & rumours of war, political crises- that’s what Kenya is experiencing right now, persecution, family members rising up against another- you don’t need to go far to see this happening, false teachers on the lose- so rampant! This is the reality of the world we are living in and thus the urgency of Jesus’ call to be alert, be on guard, and to watch as we earnestly await his second coming.
  • You can’t run away from difficult passages- this is one thing I’ve come to appreciate about expository preaching. At iServe Africa, there was a time we did a series through the book of Revelation. It would have been easier to stop at end of chapter 4 with the letters to the 7 churches and avoid all the other stuff that is hard to understand and controversial but no, we soldiered on to the end of chapter 22 and oh how rich and edifying it is! Mark 13 is a controversial passage (even hard preaching it in a family service where children are seated in) but it was wonderful to hear the truth of that passage simply explained and applied in our service on Sunday.
  • Congregation builds trust in God’s Word- as preachers, one of the tasks we can accomplish is to see a congregation that trusts God’s Word. This can happen well when we faithfully open God’s Word and letting it do the work. Our work is not to be clever but clear, not to be fanciful but faithful, not to entertain but to exhort from the Word. Expository preaching achieves this. As we open up the Word faithfully, the congregation sees how you are arriving at your points, what it means and how that applies to them and the need then for them to live in light of the word. As they go out at the end of the service, what they have on their minds is “yes, this makes some sense” and slowly they build confidence in the Word.

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We all love the armour of God. It’s such a great visual aid. Perfect for Sunday School sessions and all age services. Just Google a Roman soldier, find a worksheet to colour in, dress someone up. Perfect.

The armour of God is also a delight to commentators, whether scholarly or devotional. Each piece of armour invites pages of extrapolation on how the particularities of first century Roman armour help us to understand the spiritual point that Paul was driving at.

But what if the armour of God isn’t really about Roman soldiers?

  1. The armour of God is the Old Testament armour of God. As most commentators observe, the clearest allusion made by Ephesians 6 is to Isaiah 59:17 where the LORD God himself puts on his battle garments including righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation. The LORD has a sword (Isaiah 34:5-6; 66:16). Also in Isaiah the Coming Christ has faithfulness (truth) as a belt around his waist (Isaiah 11:5) and a mouth like a sharpened sword (Isaiah 49:2). Looking at the wider OT we find that the LORD is often found giving himself to his people as their shield (Gen. 15:1; 20x in the Psalms), even as their shield and sword together (Deut. 33:29).
  2. The armour of God is Christ the LORD. William Gurnall who wrote 1700 pages on the armour of God put the matter very succinctly when he commented: “By armour is meant Christ.” Paul’s whole letter to the Ephesians, as all his letters, has been dominated by Christ. Christ is the truth (John 14:6). Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Christ is our salvation (Luke 2:30). This is in continuity with the OT where we find that the LORD is our salvation and our righteousness (Ex. 15:2; Jer. 23:6) and it is perfectly consistent with Paul’s thought that we should put on Christ and clothe ourselves in him (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27).
  3. The words for the pieces of armour in Ephesians 6 are not technical terms for pieces of Roman armour. The word ‘belt’ is not actually there in verse 14. The phrase ‘girding round your loins’ has a Hebraic flavour and suggests getting ready for action. Breastplate (v14) and Helmet (v17) use common Greek words found 10 and 9 times respectively in the LXX (the Greek OT), including where they both appear together in the key passage Isaiah 59:17. Commentators are confident that the shoe Paul has in mind in verse 15 is the caliga, the Roman soldier’s battle boot, but Paul doesn’t actually mention boots. He says simply, ‘feet shod with readiness’ – the word readiness calling to mind the ministry of John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3-4; Luke 1:17,76; 3:4-6). The shield might make us think of the famous rectangular red scutum of the Romans, used in their famous tortoise formation, but Paul uses a common word for shield found 19 times in the LXX (e.g. the shield of King Saul – 2 Sam. 1:21). The word for sword is one of two common Greek words for sword, both of which are used extremely frequently and often interchangeably in the NT and LXX. Sometimes a distinction is made between the short stabbing battle sword (machaira) of Eph. 6:17 and the long sword of justice but it is the machaira which appears in Rom. 13:4 as the sword of justice and in Isaiah 27:1 (LXX) as the sword of the LORD himself.
  4. Paul was probably not chained to a Roman soldier in battle armour. While it might be tempting to imagine Paul dictating his letter to the Ephesians while looking at the different pieces of Roman armour, Stott comments, “…it would be unlikely that such a bodyguard would wear the full uniform of an infantryman on the battlefield.” Certainly battle boots and a huge shield would have been strange for a prison guard. If Ephesians is written from Paul’s house arrest in Rome described at the end of Acts then it seems it was not a deep dark dungeon confinement. It may be that the chains are more a way of expressing his legal status and restriction of his freedom and liberty than literal iron chains (cf. 2 Tim. 2:9). There is a danger that we read the situation of Peter in Acts 12:6 into Paul’s references to his chains.

This is not to say that it is impossible that Paul was not thinking at least partly of the Roman soldier or that his first readers might not have thought of a Roman soldier. But it is to say that the most important background to Ephesians 6:10-20 is not the first century imperial legionary or centurion but the Old Testament and also Pauline and NT thought.

So what?

  1. Scripture Alone. Scripture interprets Scripture. You don’t need to be an expert in first century Roman warfare to understand Ephesians 6. Certainly the Bible was written by humans in particular cultures at particular times but again and again we find that all the background we need to know is in the Bible itself. We know what we need to know about Ephesus from Acts 19. We know what we need to know about the armour of God from the OT. Even the flaming arrows of the Deceiver are there (Prov. 26:18-19). The approach that leans heavily on external sources and historical reconstructions a) takes us into uncertain territory (Which expert do you believe? Which rank of Roman soldier are we talking about? Did they all have plumes in their helmets? What if another historical source turns up that changes our understanding of the context?); and b) takes authority away from the text and the reader and gives a dangerous amount of power to the ‘expert’ as he tells me what I could never have known on my own. This has even more important implications in other parts of the NT where the historical reconstructions of liberal scholars tell us, “I know that it looks like the Bible is saying this but if you really know the culture and politics in first century Ephesus then you would know that it actually means the opposite of what it looks like it means.” Scripture is our guide to Scripture.
  2. Grace Alone. The Roman Soldier analogy tends slightly towards seeing the pieces of armour as passive instruments with the soldier (me) as the active fighter. In contrast, if we see the armour of God as the OT armour of God – The LORD himself, Christ the Lord – then it is closer to the mark to see us as the passive ones and God as the active one. He is giving us his armour, he is giving us himself. He is surrounding us as a wall of fire and a fortress and shield. Yes there are imperatives to ‘Put on’ and ‘Take up’ and ‘Stand’ – we need to walk in the calling we have received (Eph. 4:1) but it is first and foremost something received, gift. So let us not turn Ephesians 6 in to a series of things for us to do. That is fig leaf armour. We need the armour of God. We need to put on Christ and glory in his sovereign grace. “According to Ephesians 6 believers need to be armed with God’s own righteousness if they are to be protected against the blows and arrows of their spiritual enemies… The position of power and authority with Christ to which they have been raised is greater ‘than that possessed by their mighty supernatural enemies’. As they appropriate this salvation more fully and live in the light of their status in Christ, they have every reason to be confident of the outcome of the battle.” (Peter O’Brien)
  3. The Church of God. The Roman soldier analogy tends towards making us think of an individual centurion or an army of individuals each putting on their own armour. But the letter of Ephesians has been about the church. In Ephesians 6, as throughout the letter, the address is second person plural (it comes out better in Kiswahili than in English). It’s not addressed to the Lone Ranger solo Christian. It’s not little me being called to stand firm and put on my armour and fight. It is the whole church being called to clothe themselves in the gospel armour. The song, O Church Arise gets it just right. The one new man (Eph. 2:15) – the Church – must put the armour on. The armour of God himself. So that, as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD will surround his people, both now and for evermore (Psalm 125:2).

Much of what has been written and taught from the illustration of the Roman soldier is spiritually true and edifying. But let’s say the right things from the right texts. And let’s rejoice in what Ephesians 6 is clearly saying about the divine armour that we the church have been given and let us put on Christ.

 

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