Month: September, 2013

When to be a Stumbling Block

“We must not smoke, or drink, or go to parties because these can cause others to stumble.” Singapore Christians use the term “stumble” as Christian lingo mainly in the sense of not doing things because it might offend another Christian, and secondarily, as something that compromises our declaration of the Good News to pre-faith friends.

There is a danger associated with a poor understanding of what it means to cause others to stumble (i.e. to trip someone up).  Let’s say, I am pre-faith, and I believe that women should not wear make-up. I go to a Christian meeting, and there I see most women wearing make-up.  “Christian people are just like anybody else,” I declare. “And I am out of here.” The Christian women would have tripped me up in my search for truth.  Are they responsible for my rejection of Christ?

Let’s find a more challenging example. Let’s say I believe smoking or drinking moral failures of some sort. One fine day, I discover that some Christians smoke and/or drink.  I decide, “Christians are like anybody, it’s no use becoming a Christian.” Have they caused me to stumble? Are these Christians responsible for my not coming to faith?

On the other hand, Christians who smoke or drink can try not to be seen doing so. Then I can say, “Christians are hypocrites and smoke and drink but dare not let others know.  Non -Christians are more honest.”

What I am trying to point out is that certain things seem so clear to us because we don’t put it to the test. We think we know what it means to cause another to stumble.  But if we scratch the surface and ask harder questions, we may discover we are not as clear-minded as we first imagine.

First let me bring out a less affirmed truth: It is not always wrong to cause another person to stumble in their faith journey!

John the Baptist is in prison.  He has declared that Jesus is the one who comes after him, and Jesus will usher in the Kingdom of God.  Then John finds himself imprisoned by Herod Antipas with Jesus making no attempt to rescue him. He begins to wonder if Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Jesus is in danger of tripping John up because Jesus is not doing what John expects. Jesus points to a different Messiah and declares blessing on the one who does not stumble over what they see in him.

It is clear that Jesus does not meet the expectation of John the Baptist, and it is John who has to change his expectation, not Jesus to change his action. Right does not always reside with the person who has expectations.  If our expectations of Jesus or other Christians are wrong, they cannot accommodate our expectations.  We have to modify our wrong expectations to make them right.  Then would we be among the blessed.

stumbling-blockMatthew 11 2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

On another occasion, Jesus tells his disciples that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood, they will not share in the resurrection, and will not have life everlasting (John 6:53-59).

John 6 60 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? 62 What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? … 66 As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. (NASB)

Again, Jesus insists on something that the people cannot accept, and these people leave him.  Jesus causes them to stumble.

Not only is Jesus a stumbling block, he is also a crushing block.

Matthew 21 43 I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. 44 Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”

Luke 20 18 Everyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”

There can be a truth from Jesus that is so culturally unacceptable that people reject Jesus on the basis of their cultural assumptions. There is only one solution. The people have to change, their culture has to change.  Stumble over the stone at our own peril, and that stone over which we stumble will eventually fall on us and crush us.

The Apostle Paul explains that Jesus is a stumbling block to the nation of Israel. The Jews just cannot accept the grace of God and insists salvation must be by the law.

Romans 9 31 But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. 32   They stumbled over the great rock in their path. 33 God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble, a rock that makes them fall. But anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.”

(Greek translation of Isaiah 8:14; 28:16)

Paul maintains the claims of Jesus as Messiah through his crucifixion is just not acceptable to the Jews.

1 Corinthians 1 23But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness (KJV).

The Apostle Peter says Jesus is a stumbling block to the Jews, and to those who perish

1 Peter 2 8 and,

“A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

The people stumble over Jesus because “they disobey the message.” Their disobedience causes them to stumble.

What does this mean?  We can understand that Jesus is a stumbling block to Israel, in that he does things, makes claims, and demands that cause Israel to reject him. And in rejecting him, Israel as a nation does not receive God’s salvation. To be a “stumbling block” is not intrinsically wrong. Jesus is a stumbling block. He has to teach truth, and does so gently and patiently.  But that does not change the reality that Jesus does not fit the expectations of those who cannot accept his teachings. They stumble over Jesus because they would not obey the truth Jesus teaches.

Today, people continue to stumble over Jesus. Many today cannot accept Jesus’ teaching that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one goes to the Father except through him. They stumble at this “narrowness.” It is contrary to our Zeitgeist. So rather than change our thinking, many simply reject Jesus. To this day, the teachings and claims of Jesus continue to trip people up. Interestingly, exclusive salvation through Jesus is not a point that would trip Muslims up. They too assert exclusive salvation and can accept that there is one way to God. They claim they have that way.  That is where we differ.  But they understand that there is no issue in claiming exclusivity in salvation. For Muslims, the stumbling block is the deity of Jesus Christ.  Jesus as God in human flesh is their stumbling block.

The world stumbles over the claims of Christ, and in many of these, there is only one solution.  They need to accept the truth found in Jesus. Some Christians try to compromise what is culturally difficult to get across, and in their desperation to convert people or make the Christian faith more acceptable to our culture, we fudge the truth.  One example is that Christian morality does not regard our sexuality as a private matter. The standard of the world is that two consenting adults justifies almost everything.  This is just our modern foolishness. The Greeks used to advocate men to take young boys as lovers and consider this homosexual union to be noble.  Today we call them pedophiles and regard this action as depraved. The world seems to think they have the last word on sexual morality, when, in reality, the sexual mores of today can become the taboos of tomorrow. The Greeks would have found the Christian teachings on sexuality a stumbling block. Today we wonder how the “enlightened” Greeks can stoop so low as to practice homosexual pedophilia openly.

There is a stone that marks the edge of the road.  If we wander off that road, the stone that marks the edge becomes a stumbling block.

We must conclude at this terminal point that the one who stumbles is not always right and the one who causes the stumbling is not always wrong. When it comes to people stumbling over what God tells us about himself and what he expects of us, our stumbling is the result of our disobedience to his revealed truth. God does not change, we have to change. We trip up not because what God says is bad, but that we reject  God’s clear voice. PE

[Next: When not to be a stumbling block”]

Apostle Peter 08: You are Chosen for a Reason (Part 2)

Bible Reference: 1 Peter 2:9

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Apostle Peter 08: You are Chosen for a Reason (Part 1)

Bible Reference: 1 Peter 1:1-2

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What Awaits a Person who Commits Suicide?

Christians believe that suicide is a sin.

Any sin, large or small would disqualify us from belonging to God who is holy.  We instinctively recognize that not all sins are equally heinous. While any sin remains sin, some sins are indeed worse than others. We can say that in most instances, a sin of commission (the wrong we do) is worse than a sin of omission (the right we fail to do) in most instances.  For example, if you can save a life and you fail to do so (omission), it is not as bad as you take another person’s life in murder (commission).  Both are wrong, but one is more evil than the other. (The Bible has a lot to say about sins of commission, speaks of omission rarely, James 4:17.)

Suicide is the deliberate action of taking a life. In that regard it is sin.  But there are many instances of taking human life.  The most heinous is murder, the pre-meditated, or the intentional and deliberate taking of human life.  Even for murder, we have different degrees of evil. For example: a serial killer is worse than a one-time murderer; a deliberate killing of a wounded person in battlefield so he will not be additionally tortured and then killed by the enemy is intentional and is murder, but it is usually classified as “mercy-killing,” and usually regarded as less heinous.  In the event that one acts to remove life-support from a terminally-ill patient but does not accelerate death, that deliberate act to remove life-support is not considered murder, and is not a sin.

Most Christians do not suffer angst over what happens to a person who commits suicide. Christians generally place suicide as one sin among many.  But this is not true for the Roman Catholics.  Popular Catholic belief is that if a person commits suicide, that person goes straight to hell.  The entertainment industry continues to encourage this representation, and it is not without some basis. I like to help my Roman Catholic friends understand the subject a little better, and bring comfort to all Christians everywhere who have suffered the pain of a suicide among their loved ones.

The Roman Catholic Church classifies sins into two categories: mortal and venial (big sins and little sins).  A mortal sin is one that leads to eternal death unless that sin is forgiven.  The word “mort,” in the Latin based languages, means “death,” referring to eternal death.  That is to say, by the very definition itself, all mortal sins are sins that cause a person to go to hell. Such a sin has to be forgiven through the Roman Catholic Church process that procures forgiveness as last rites before death (extreme unction). Since a suicide is the last act a person commits with no opportunity to procure forgiveness, a person who commits suicide (mortal sin) goes to hell. (There is an exception clause which the Catholic Church under-represents so as not to encourage the use of this exception clause; Catechism #2282.)

What happens to those who commit suicide is tied to the Christian view of sin and forgiveness. Christians outside of the Roman Catholic tradition reject the classification of mortal or venial sins because such a classification is not found in the Bible.  Instead, we believe that all sins, regardless of degree of evil, condemn us to eternal separation from God.  If we use Catholic terminology, we will say all sins are mortal sins because all sins lead to eternal death; all sins bring us to hell; there is no venial sin.

Christians believe that forgive- ness of sin in procured by Jesus Christ on our behalf through his death on the cross and resurrection thereafter.  Forgiveness of sin may be declared by one believer on another, and it is the affirmation of a reality, to bring assurance and comfort. Such affirmations do not confer forgive- ness.  That is to say, no priest, or pastor can either grant or withhold forgiveness. Whether or not we gain eternal life is not dependent on any last rite that forgives us of our sin so we go into eternity with a final forgiveness (as suggested by the Catholic Church).

Our place in the Kingdom of God is secured by faith in Jesus Christ.  This faith is expressed in confession of sin and baptism, and this faith subsequently lived out as a citizen of God’s Kingdom. We ought to seek holiness throughout life and enter eternity into the presence of God with no known sinful habit. Our citizenship in God’s Kingdom is secure unless our way of life denies what we confess in prayer and baptism. If we live by the rules of the kingdom of the evil one, we do not belong to God’s Kingdom. The confession of this or that sin in a final rite is totally irrelevant to our eternal standing before God.

When a believer commits suicide, it is a serious sin, for it involves the willful taking of a life. The Bible has six known instances of suicide or expedited death by request: Abimelech had his armor-bearer kill him (Judges 9:50-54); Samson killed himself while killing his enemies (Judges 16:30); Saul fell on his own sword when his armor-bearer would not kill him (1 Sam 31:2-5); Ahithophel hanged himself in what he knew as a failed coup attempt to depose David (2 Sam 17:23); and Zimri, a wicked king burned himself in a citadel when all hope was lost (1 Kings 16:17-19); Judas Iscariot (Matt 27:3-5). Some of these involved the wicked; some are actions involving not dying under enemy hands.  In the case of Samson, a case can be made that he was carrying out God’s will; and in the case of Saul, his vacillation between faith and failure makes it hard for us to say where he stood with God, but the act of suicide in itself was not singled out for condemnation.

The Bible does not single out suicide as an unforgivable sin on account of some technicality about a rite that cannot be performed before a person dies. It is also against the character of God to be so petty as to penalize a person on account of the failure in one missing rite.

We all enter eternity with sins known and unknown; sins committed and omitted; sins in thought, word and deed.  Where we spend eternity is vitally important, and it depends not on last rites, but on whether we belong to God’s Kingdom. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God’s Kingdom has come and you are invited.  Have you accepted that invite? PE

Apostle Peter 07: Jesus, My Incredible Deliverer (Part 2)

Bible Reference: Mark 2:1 – 3:6

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Apostle Peter 07: Jesus, My Incredible Deliverer (Part 1)

Bible Reference: Mark 2:1 – 3:6

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Promises in God’s Name

Once upon a time, long, long ago, a poor monk named Martin decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome, the holy city, the capital of the Roman Catholic Church, which was the only church in all of western Europe.

On his way to Rome, he  met many other monks and would stay over at their monasteries. Martin was shocked to see that other monks did not live like he lived. To be monks meant they were to give up all money and luxury and live a simple life so they can better serve God and the people.  Martin tried to live that way. But many monks he met along the way lived the opposite of how they were supposed to live. They were cheating the people in the name of God. These wicked monks took the people’s money and lived in luxury on money meant to do God’s work.

Martin hoped the Roman Catholic Church would clean up its act, but it got worse. The church began selling certificates for the forgiveness of sin so they could make even more money.  The people from the RC Church even sold forgiveness for future sins.  So a person could buy forgiveness, then go and do the wrong and use that certificate as God’s promise of forgiveness. The RC Church gave false promises on forgiveness, in God’s name, and that was how they made money.

Martin protested against the Church making false promises on God’s behalf. From this, the Christian Church was born. Eventually, the Roman Catholic  Church cleaned up their act because everybody got to know their swindling of the people in God’s name. In the meantime, some chose to remain   Roman Catholics, and some became Christians.

Today, some so-called Christians are doing what the Catholic Church used to do. They make false promises on God’s behalf and ask for money in return.  The false promises they make in God’s name are not limited to forgiveness of sin. They promise health and wealth to the person who would give one tenth, and more, of what they make.

They  use  the  money  the  people  give to live a luxurious lifestyle exactly like the wicked monks during the time of Martin. They live in luxurious homes and do it openly, saying that it is the right thing to take the money people give to live that way. They say it is like a business. Since their church is big, it is like a big successful business and the one who makes the business successful deserves to get more money.

Dear children, people forget the past and repeat their mistakes. There were many willing victims during the time of Martin as there are many willing victims today. Do not believe any false promises given in the name of God in exchange for money. Seek out the true Church of Jesus Christ and enjoy your Christian life there.   PE


Peter’s Home, Jesus’ Base

We don’t usually pay attention to place names in the Bible because there is no image in our mind’s eye when these places are mentioned, and we do not move from one place to another as we read the story.  If I were to tell you I left Pasir Ris and went to Tampines, those of you who know these places would know it is only one subway stop. But when we read that Jesus left Capernaum and went to Bethsaida, it makes no impression on us because we don’t know these places.

When you read the gospels, you will constantly come across the town called Capernaum.  This is because it was Jesus’ home base when he first started his ministry. When Jesus began his ministry, he spent time in Capernaum and Nazareth (his own hometown). But the people of Nazareth rejected Jesus (Luke 4:23ff; Matt 4:13).

Capernaum was the hometown of many of his disciples. From what we know, it was the hometown of Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew, and others.

What escapes some of us is that Jesus was operating from the home of Peter, the leader of the twelve disciples of Jesus.

In Mark’s gospel, you will notice a constant reference to Capernaum. This is because Peter was recounting the things closest to his heart and home.

Peter and Andrew were not rich people. They shared a home, which was usually not large.  You should not expect anything larger than a two bedroom apartment of today. Andrew was probably not married but Peter was. We do not know how many people lived in this house, but we know Peter’s mother-in-law lived there with him.  His father-in-law might be expected to live there if he were alive. Perhaps his own parents also lived there. Perhaps Peter had children and they also lived there. At least 4 adults lived there (Peter, Peter’s wife,  mother-in-law, and Andrew), perhaps there were as many as 7 adults.  If Peter had children, say 3 of them, with 7 adults, the home could have as many as 10 people (Mark 1:29f).  

It is almost certain that the place Jesus used as home base in Capernaum was Peter’s home.  It is therefore likely that Jesus lived in the home of Peter and Andrew and the ministry of Jesus operated mainly from Peter’s home.

After Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, we notice Peter’s home became the place from which Jesus taught and healed (Mark 1:29-34).  When  he   left   and  returned  “the house he was staying” probably Peter’s home, became packed with people (Mark 2:1-2).  So the story of the men who dug a hole through the roof to let in their invalid friend, dug through Peter’s roof (Mark 2:1-5).

We do not know all the details in Peter’s home.  Perhaps we can indulge in a little imagination.  

Peter’s mother-in-law might have been quite pivotal in how the home was used.  She was severely sick with fever and after Jesus healed her, she was so well, she got up and prepared food for Jesus, and his disciples. If she had objected to the intrusion into their life, we get the sense that from that time, she facilitated the use of Peter’s home.

There is an important take-away for us.  In Singapore, we are limited in how we can use our homes for religious purposes.  But the lesson of Peter was how his home became a vital resource in Jesus’ ministry.

We can imagine Peter telling Jesus, “Come to my home and stay with me. Use my home as the base for your teaching.”  Peter did not emphasize his sacrifice but we can see that he was leading the others by example of how he used his resources to promote Jesus’ ministry.

Gaulanitis Capernaum Bethsaida— Click on map to get clearer picture —

Capernaum, in Galilee was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the Herod who executed John the Baptist. Bethsaida, Peter’s  hometown before he moved to Capernaum, was in Gaulinitis, under the jurisdiction of Herod Philip.  Antipas had stolen Philip’s wife and you can guess that they are not on friendly terms. When Jesus wanted to get out of the way of Antipas, he would go to Bethsaida  which was under Philip’s control. PE

Apostle Peter 06: Jesus, my Saviour’s Secret (Part 2)

Bible Reference: Mark 1:21-45

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Apostle Peter 06: Jesus, my Saviour’s Secret (Part 1)

Bible Reference: Mark 1:21-45

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Not Praying your Request

“Please pray that I win the lottery.” “Please pray my son will recover from his illness.” “Please pray the grading machine will mess up so I can pass even though I don’t know the answers.” “Please pray that my abusive neighbor will die.” “Please pray for the conversion of my spouse.”

You will see legitimate and less-than-proper prayer requests on that list.  When someone makes a prayer request of you, he is assuming that you will pray, and that you will pray according to his request.  You will often hear what the person wants, and that is about it.

We allow people to give us requests as though they can write (almost) anything on a blank cheque. And we politely agree because it is the politically correct Christian action, and promptly forget the prayer request, more quickly than the person who asks you to pray.

Genuine, heartfelt prayer takes a lot of energy and time.  That means it is a limited resource.  Just think of it as money.  Even if you were a rich man with lots of money, you do not give it to whoever asks you for some.  In fact, the way people ask for prayer from other people suggests that prayer cost you next to nothing.

Nothing is further from the truth! If I pray for you, I am denying myself in many ways.  I have less time for work, or rest, or time with family, or personal pleasure, etc.  My time is a non-renewable resource.  Once I spend it on you, I cannot spend it on anything else. 

I don’t accept prayer requests willy-nilly.  I impose conditions when I pray for a person. (1) You must pray yourself. (2) I need to know as much as possible and engage with you on the request, because I may be praying for what you do not want.  You may want me to pray that your nasty in-law keels over and die, and I may pray that you get the wisdom  to  know  your  own  faults, how  to handle your in-laws, and transformation in your heart. (3) This is to say, I may not pray your request.  My prayer must be according to what I know of God’s character and will.  I cannot pray something against God’s character or will. (4) You must be willing to do something about the matter.  If you want me to pray for the salvation of your aged relative, that is naturally a good item for God is not willing that any should perish.  But you must be willing to be the agent of good news to that relative.

We carry over too much of pagan thinking into Christian prayer.  Pagan prayer allows us to pray for anything, and by ritual or words, we harness the forces of nature and the gods to do our bidding.  Coming into the presence of our all powerful God is a different matter. We make our needs known, and surrender our will to his.     PE


Mark’s Gospel & Apostle Peter

There is significant early Christian record that Mark’s Gospel was a record of Peter’s preaching in Rome.  Early Christian tradition is not to be regarded as the Word of God, or to be totally reliable.  But they give us the background to things that the Bible does not talk about.

Mark_4x6 Papias was the Overseer of the church in Hierapolis, and he died as a martyr in Smyrna (AD 155).  Many of his writings are no longer extant, but he was cited by Eusebius the church historian (d. circa AD 340) concerning Mark’s Gospel:

The Elder (John) said this also: Mark, who became Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately, though not in order, all that he remembered of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had neither heard the Lord nor been one of his followers, but afterwards, as I said, he had followed Peter, who used to compose his discourses with a view to the needs of his hearers, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord’s sayings. So Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them. For he was careful of this one thing, to omit none of the things he had heard and to make no untrue statements therein. (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15)

We do not know who the Elder John was.  Some believe it was the same person as John the Apostle, or it could be John Mark himself, or some unknown John. But this represents very early tradition. 

There was strict journalistic rigor in the  first centuries about representation, unlike the liberties some journalists practise today.  The     recording    was     not    chronological probably because they were Peter’s preaching, which would not be chronological.  But when the gospel was written, Mark did place the events in general chronological order.

We are told that Mark’s job was as an interpreter to Peter.  It could well be that Peter did not speak Latin and Mark did. 

When I preach with an interpreter, I give him a detailed outline so he knows ahead of time what I will be saying.  Perhaps Peter did that also.  If so, Mark would have the preaching notes of Peter.

The Anti-Marcionite Prologue (AD 160-180) has a surviving fragment that reads:

“… Mark declared, who is called `stump-fingered’ because he had short fingers in comparison with the size of the rest of his body. He was Peter’s interpreter. After the death of Peter himself he wrote down this same gospel in the regions of Italy.”

This tradition affirms Markan dependence on Peter and places the composition somewhere in Italy.

Irenaeus (c. AD 180) a church father when writing to refute heresies mentioned Mark’s Gospel thus: “And after their [Peter’s and Paul’s] death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also handed down to us in writing the things preached by Peter.” (Contra Haereses 3.1.2).

When we read Mark’s Gospel with this awareness, it is really not difficult to see Peter as the content provider.  For e.g. Simon Peter was the first disciple in Mark 1.  This is Simon Peter’s point of view.

800px-Fra_Angelico_-_St_Peter_Preaching_in_the_Presence_of_St_Mark_-_WGA00464Fra Angelico’s depiction of Peter preaching and Mark taking notes.
Depictions are stylized, not period accurate.
Peter and Mark identifiable by their halos.