Monday, July 27, 2015


Sermon: Philippians 3:7-4:1

Audio of this sermon is availabe here

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained. 17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. 4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! (NIV)

Any spirituality – whether Atheist, Buddhist or Christian - has three, organically related parts: Beliefs, Attitudes and Actions. To alliterate, spirituality is about the integration of Head, Heart and Hands.

First of all, our minds believe various things to be true or false. For example, we believe that Jesus is the crucified and resurrected Lord who will transform ‘our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.’

Second, our hearts make a response to what our minds believe. For example, we consider everything we once prized to be ‘garbage’ in comparison to ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ’. Actually, the NIV is rather tame at this point. The Jubilee Bible 2000 is on target when it speaks more bluntly of ‘my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and do count them but dung’!

This combination of head and heart, of a belief that and a belief in, is what the Bible means by ‘faith’. Contrary to recent New Atheist propaganda from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christian ‘faith’ is not a matter of ‘blind faith’. Rather, Christian faith is ‘a trust in and commitment to what we have reason to believe is true.’[i] 

Making time to investigate, at an appropriate level, the reasons for believing Christianity to be true is a biblical part of Christian discipleship. Paul not only describes his own ministry in Philippians 1:7 as ‘defending and confirming the gospel’ but in Colossians 4:6 he commands Christians to ‘be ready to give answers to anyone who asks questions.’ (NIV) Listen to Professor William Lane Craig’s impassioned plea for Christians to learn to ‘give answers’ - he says: 

'Christian teenagers are intellectually assaulted with every manner of non-Christian worldview coupled with an overwhelming relativism. If parents are not intellectually engaged with their faith and do not have sound arguments for Christian theism and good answers to their children’s questions, then we are in real danger of losing our youth. It’s no longer enough to teach our children simply Bible stories; they need doctrine and apologetics. It’s hard to understand how people today can risk parenthood without having studied apologetics… It’s insufficient for youth groups and Sunday school classes to focus on entertainment and . . . devotional thoughts. We’ve got to train our kids for war. We dare not send them out to public high school and university armed with rubber swords and plastic armor. The time for playing games is past.'[ii] 

Let me encourage you to look up Craig’s Reasonable Faith website and to consider coming to the next Reasonable Faith? course here at Highfield, which starts on Sunday 11th October.

Third, Christ-centred faith, the combination of Head and Heart, influences behaviour. As James writes: ‘Faith without deeds is dead’ (James 2:26). Thus, to have Christian faith means ‘trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true, in the face of difficulties.’[iii] 

Now, in Philippians 3:7-4:1, Paul takes Christians from ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ’ to how we can ‘stand firm in the Lord’ in the face of difficulties. Philippi was ‘a favourite location for settling Roman soldiers whose term of service in the army had ended’[iv], and the Greek term for ‘stand firm’ is ‘the same as that for a soldier standing fast in the shock of battle . . . or a combatant in a Roman amphitheatre fighting for his life.’[v] This is a metaphor for the spiritual warfare of Christian discipleship. As Paul says in Ephesians: 'our struggle is not against human opponents, but against rulers, authorities, cosmic powers in the darkness around us, and evil spiritual forces in the heavenly realm. For this reason, take up the whole armour of God so that you may be able to take a stand whenever evil comes.' (Ephesians 6:12-13, ISV)

Paradoxically, Paul’s Philippian battle-plan for standing firm is a matter of pressing on and ‘straining toward what is ahead’!

As 2 Corinthians 11:24-26 makes abundantly clear, Paul knows a little something about having faith despite external difficulties. As he says earlier in the same letter: ‘this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure’ (2 Corinthians 4:17). Yet the difficulties we face in following Christ aren’t primarily external. Paul knows that having faith means facing-up to the difficult internal realities of our own sinful nature. We must begin by realizing that we have not already obtained all Christ has called us to: 'Striving for perfection through intellectual and spiritual enlightenment was a common religious ideal in Greco-Roman antiquity… Paul had seen such ideas infect the church at Corinth, where some believers claimed that they had already been perfected by their spiritual knowledge...'[vi] 

While disciples of Christ must desire that sinless perfection that is our heavenly destiny, and must pursue both maturity and maturation in Christ in the meantime, discipleship begins with the realization that we can’t gain salvation by perfectly obeying the law of right and wrong, but only through the ‘salvation’ or ‘righteousness’ that ‘comes from God on the basis of faith.’ Taking our stand on this faith we can ‘leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God’ (Hebrews 6:1).

Note that while Paul considers himself to be a mature Christian - ‘All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things’ - he also says ‘I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of [that] for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’ In other words, while ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ we aren’t there yet! Nevertheless, ‘God has called us heavenwards in Christ Jesus’.

The term translated as ‘citizens’ could ‘refer to a distinct ethnic group that lived away from its homeland and was governed by its own constitution – a “city within a city.”[vii] So, how are citizens of heaven to cope with living in a foreign land? How should we handle the tension of desiring heavenly perfection whilst knowing we are sinners? How can we ‘stand firm in the Lord’, trusting and acting on what we have good reason to believe is true, despite external and internal trials? Paul says we should join together in following his example: 'Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.'

The imagery here ‘comes from the athletic arena… where runners would fix their eyes on the post that marked the end point of the race and winners received a prize’ (a ‘wreath of dry celery’ worn as a crown).[viii] Instead of ‘going for gold’ one supposes that ancient Greeks talked about ‘going for celery’! What Paul means is that we can and should ‘forget’ the difficulties of discipleship in light of ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus’, where ‘forgetting’ isn’t a matter of failing memory, but a deliberate choice to live out the gospel. The Greek translated as ‘forgetting’ can mean to forget ‘in the sense of neglecting… given over to oblivion…’[ix] This ‘forgetting’ is an attitude of the heart to the effect that, on the basis of knowing Jesus, we will live as forgiven sinners; that we will shift our goals from ‘earthly things’ towards our heavenly goal. Indeed, as Nicky Gumbel says: 'Like a runner, the Christian must not look back . . . We cannot live on past successes or rest on former laurels. Nor should we be bogged down by past failures, despair over past sins or bitterness over past wrongs done to us. We are not to dwell on the past.'[x] 

Paul explains that to ‘know Christ’ is to know ‘participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’. As Paul writes in Romans 8:17: ‘we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’ (NIV) Again, Paul writes: 'we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives… So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus…' (Romans 6:4 & 11, NLT)

Taking our stand upon true beliefs about our sin and God’s grace, in combination with the appropriate heart response to these truths, we can choose to ‘forget’ what is behind and to ‘press on’ to what lies ahead, ‘the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ And although we can’t experience the fullness of our ‘prize’ until the new heavens and earth, Paul says we can draw ever nearer to God through knowing Christ Jesus as we await the fullness of his coming: ‘As all of us reflect the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, we are becoming more like him with ever-increasing glory by the Lord’s Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3:18, ISV)

In sum, to be mature disciples we need to believe our identity lies in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we need to set our hearts upon the prize for which God has called us heavenwards in Christ, and in the light of knowing where we come from – forgiveness - and where we are going – glory - we need to strive to live as citizens of heaven on earth, despite the ‘light and momentary troubles’ (2 Corinthians 4:17) this inevitably involves. As the writer of Hebrews says: 'let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.' (Hebrews 12:1-3, NIV)

So, let’s join together and follow Paul in ‘going for celery’!

[i] J.P. Moreland, ‘Living Smart’ in Paul Copan & William Lane Craig (ed.’s), Passionate Conviction (B&H Academic, 2007), p. 22.
[ii] William Lane Craig, ‘Apologetics: Who Needs It?’,
[iii] David Marshall & Timothy McGrew, ‘Faith and Reason in Historical Perspective’ in True Reason (ed.’s Tom Gilson & Carson Weitnauer: Kregel, 2013), p. 125.
[iv] Frank Thielman, ‘Philippians’ in Clinten E. Arnold ed. Zondervan Illustrated Background Commentary: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Zondervan, 2002), p. 45-46.
[v] Nicky Gumbel, A Life Worth Living (Alpha, 2004), p. 92.
[vi] Thielman, ‘Philippians’ in Clinten E. Arnold ed. Zondervan Illustrated Background Commentary: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Zondervan, 2002), p. 63.
[vii] ibid, p. 64.
[viii] ibid, p. 63 & 65.
[ix] Joseph H.J. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Hendrickson, 2012), P 240.
[x] Nicky Gumbel, A Life Worth Living (Alpha, 2004), p. 83.



Sermon - Mark 4. 35-41

Audio of this sermon is available here 

35 On that day, when evening had come, He told them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the sea.”
36 So they left the crowd and took Him along since He was already in the boat. And other boats were with Him. 37 A fierce windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking over the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But He was in the stern, sleeping on the cushion. So they woke Him up and said to Him, “Teacher! Don’t you care that we’re going to die?”
39 He got up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Silence! Be still!” The wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 Then He said to them, “Why are you fearful? Do you still have no faith?”
41 And they were terrified and asked one another, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey Him!” (HCSB.)

Before immersing ourselves in this passage, it’s worth noting that in the 1980’s a drought exposed a well-preserved first-century fishing boat in the mud of the Sea of Galilee, giving us a good idea of the sort of vessel featured in this story:

Under the direction of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, archaeologists began a race against time to carefully extract the boat from the mud before the waters returned… Pots and lamps found inside the boat dated it to the first century. Carbon-14 testing further confirmed the dating. The design of the boat was typical of fishing boats used during that period on the Sea of Galilee. In the back of the boat was a raised section like the one where Jesus could have been sleeping, as indicated in the Gospel accounts. The boat could accommodate 15 people including crew. This archaeological discovery confirms the description given in the Bible.[i] 

Writing around the middle of the first century, and probably drawing upon the eye-witness testimony of the apostle Peter, Mark presents his account of one of the more unusual miracles of Jesus. The miracle is unusual because it’s not a healing or an exorcism. Rather, it’s a ‘nature miracle’, like Jesus walking on the water or feeding the five thousand, which highlights God’s power over nature.

I’d like to clear aside a traditional reading of this passage that I think is a miss-reading, here represented by the introduction to Mark 4:35 f in William Neil’s One Volume Bible Commentary:

'Four stories are now added showing the power of the Messiah over the demon world. Mark makes no distinction between the stilling of the storm (4: 35-41) and the healing acts of Jesus. All are evidence of his authority over Satan’s domain. Jesus uses the same word: "be muzzled", in exorcising the demon who caused the storm, as he does in the case of the demoniac in 1:25.' (William Neil’s One Volume Bible Commentary, Hodder & Stoughton, 1962, p. 365.)

Jesus’ use of one word several chapters ago is a thin foundation upon which to build an interpretation. It seems to me that in fact only two of the four stories in this section of Mark clearly have to do with Satan (the daemoniac and the woman with the issue of blood). Moreover, there’s no evidence elsewhere in scripture that demons can control the weather.

Finally, Mark’s account simply doesn’t read like Jesus is responding to a satanic assassination attempt! Jesus doesn’t address himself to a demon, but to the wind and the sea: ‘39 He… rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Silence! Be still!”’ Yes, Jesus’s command anthropomorphized nature; but who among us hasn’t rebuked a computer when it fails to work?! Our rebuke doesn’t mean we think the computer is demon-possessed and neither does Jesus’ command for the wind to ‘shut up’.

So, if that’s not what’s going on in the calming of the storm, what is happening? I think we can better appreciate Mark’s story if we think about the biblical understanding of miracles. The New Testament uses various Greek words to describe miracles, including:

·      Dunamis – an act of power (‘Dunamis’ is the root of English words such as ‘dynamic’ and ‘dynamo’)

·      Teras – a wonder

·      Semeion – a ‘sign’

Michael Poole brings these terms together when he explains that: ‘Dunamis focuses attention on the cause of a miracle in the power of God. Teras refers to its effect, and Semeion to its purpose.’[ii] As a nature miracle, Jesus’ calming of the storm is clearly an act of dunamis. One effect of this teras is obviously to rescue the boats and their occupants; but another effect of the miracle is to leave Jesus’ disciples as frightened or awestruck of him as they had been of the storm he stilled. You see, the significance – the semeion – of this miracle is definitely not a comforting message about how those who carry Jesus in the boat of their lives can find peace in knowing that he will calm all the storms of life and rescue them from danger (an application William Neil’s commentary unfortunately makes)! For one thing, such a take-home message clearly wouldn’t be true. Plenty of people find life all the stormier, and sometimes shorter, for being a Christian.

So what was it that put the fear of God in to the disciples on this occasion? Jesus’ command of wind and wave would surely have brought to mind the following verses from Psalm 107:

‘Others went out on the sea in ships, they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunken men; they were at their wits’ end. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.’ (Psalm 107: 23-29)

You see, it’s not demons that scripture describes as controlling the sea, but the Lord God of Israel who, directly or indirectly, lifts the waves up high or stills the storm. And here is Jesus, addressing himself to the storm as God. In other words, Jesus’s miracle of calming the storm is an enacted claim to divinity – and one that carries with it powerful supernatural evidence of its truth. And that’s why the disciples end the story as much in ‘fear’ or ‘awe’ of Jesus as they were of the storm he stilled. Amen.

[i] Ralph O. Muncaster, 101 Reasons You Can Believe: Why the Christian Faith Makes Sense (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 2004), p. 72-3.
[ii] Michael Poole, Miracles: Science, The Bible & Experience (London: Scripture Union, 1992), p. 32.


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