Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Vital Protection......The Shield of Faith

Continuing with our focus on the Armour of God, it is interesting to note that when asking true believers to ‘take up the shield of faith’ the Apostle Paul prefaces his instruction with the words “above all”. In doing so he is emphasising the importance of this piece of armour to believers living out their faith in a hostile environment.

The Roman army used different shields at different times for different tasks. Cavalry carried a light oblong shield while legionaries carried the small, round buckler or ‘parma’ whose design incorporated iron and was about 36 inches in diameter.
The Apostle is however alluding to the ‘scutum’ a much larger and more effective weapon which eventually became the standard shield in the Roman army.

Measuring 4' x 2 ' and curved to the shape of the body, these shields were made of wood and were covered on the outside with thick leather. This design minimised the impact of any rough missile and also protected the legionary from the fire-tipped darts used in the artillery of Roman times.

Roman legionaries used their shields expertly in different formations the most famous of which is the ‘testudo’.  In this formation, legionaries formed a packed square for either attack or defence which was protected on all sides and overhead by their scutums.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, quotes the Roman historian Cassius Dio’s description of the formation from Mark Antony’s campaign of 36 BC: "This testudo and the way in which it is formed are as follows…..The heavy-armed troops who use the oblong, curved, and cylindrical shields are drawn up around the outside, making a rectangular figure, and, facing outward and holding their arms at the ready, they enclose the rest. The others, who have flat shields, form a compact body in the centre and raise their shields over the heads of all the others, so that nothing but shields can be seen in every part of the phalanx alike and all the men by the density of the formation are under shelter from missiles."

The Apostle Paul is very specific about the function of this shield. It is to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.

The Apostle was no fool. He recognised the reality of Satan and the fact that he would constantly be on the lookout for chinks in the believer’s armour to attack with his main weapon which is doubt. Satan’s strategy is to cause believers to doubt every aspect of their faith in Christ, their salvation, the presence of the Holy Spirit and even the reliability of God’s word.

The great 19th century evangelist Charles Hadden Spurgeon in a sermon delivered in 1861 called upon believers to take up the shield of faith and become offensive as well as defensive warriors in the spiritual battle:

 “Like the Spartans, every Christian is born a warrior. It is his destiny to be assaulted; it is his duty to attack. Part of his life will be occupied with defensive warfare. He will have to defend earnestly the faith once delivered to the saints; he will have to resist the devil; he will have to stand against all his wiles; and having done all, still to stand! He will, however, be but a sorry Christian if he acts only on the defensive. He must be one who goes against his foes, as well as stand still to receive their advance. He must be able to say with David, 'I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have defied.' He must wrestle not with flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. He must have weapons for his warfare—not carnal—but “mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.”

Knowing God’s word inside out both individually and corporately as church fellowships, and putting it into practice, are vital aspects of the shield of faith. Where 21st century Scottish evangelicals are genuinely prepared to take up the shield of faith, they can truly begin to push back the powers of darkness in the land.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Shoes of Peace

Today we come to the third item in the ‘Armour of God’ as described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Church at Ephesus…. “Stand firm then……………….with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”

As a historian with a keen interest in military history, I am well aware of the prowess of the Roman army and its great leaders whose strategies, tactics and exploits are still taught to 21st century officers in military academies across the world.

Well trained, disciplined and led, the sheer professionalism of its legions enabled Rome to conquer and hold most of the known world 2,000 years ago.

Roman soldiers were well armed and equipped from head to toe. While most Roman civilians wore thin sandals, soldiers had special footwear which time after time proved to be a decisive factor on the battlefield. Indeed some historians credit the military successes of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to their soldiers’ feet being well enough shod to enable them to undertake long marches over seemingly difficult terrain at speed.

The soldier wore the caliga, a thick-soled, hob-nailed, half-boot with leather straps tightly tied round the ankle. Studding with metal nails gave him stability in all forms of terrain. Good footwear ensured a firm footing when charging forward in battle and helped him to hold his ground and make quick moves without slipping, sliding and falling.

What then does the Apostle Paul mean when he says that believers should “Stand firm then……………….with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”

The author John Piper writing on his website at www.desiringgod.org sheds some light on the ‘gospel of peace’: “Sometimes commentators point out how strange it is that Paul should mention a gospel of peace right in the middle of a passage dealing with spiritual warfare and conflict and armour. But it isn't strange is it? The aim of our warfare is that people would accept the terms of peace that God holds out, namely, faith in Jesus. And the only reason there is any conflict at all is because the power of sin and the powers of Satan are dead set against making peace with God.”

The Apostle Paul’s analogy here is one of having our feet shod so that we can resist Satan and stand firm when we are attacked. In ‘military-speak’ believers are to stand firm, hold their position and not run away. In order to do that their feet need to be both protected and equipped to keep from slipping.

In his Epistle to the Romans the Apostle gives this wonderful assurance to believers under pressure: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Standing firm with, ‘feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace’, true believers in 21st century Scotland are more than conquerors.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Breastplate of Righteousness

Continuing our series of posts on the ‘Believer’s Armour’ we come to the second of the Apostle Paul’s list of defensive items…..the ‘breastplate of righteousness’.

In the Apostle Paul’s day, this piece of armour was designed to protect the heart and lungs or ‘vital organs’ of the Roman soldier. Initially made of leather and strengthened with pieces of horn sewn in, the breastplate was improved over time. Later more sophisticated versions were manufactured from metals such as copper and were highly polished with elaborate designs on the visible frontal segment.

What then does the Apostle Paul mean when he talks about believers protecting themselves with the ‘breastplate of righteousness’?

The answer to this question lies in the holy nature of the Living God, a characteristic which some believers find hard to understand.

Blogger Tim Challies has recently attempted to clarify the issue: “Holiness is a difficult term to define. Most Christians know that a dimension of holiness is God’s set-apartness, his being essentially different from everyone and everything else, but there is far more to it than that……  If holiness is very near the heart of what it means for God to be God, it would make sense that it will be difficult for finite minds to understand and to distil to just a few words.

What does it mean that God is holy? Entire books would not come close to exhausting it. It means that God is different from everything else that exists in the universe. God is unique and set apart. Everything God is, everything God has, everything God does is saturated with holiness and flows out of his holiness. He is pure and good and perfect in all his works and all his ways. God’s goodness is good because he is holy; God’s justice is just because he is holy. Whatever God is, his holiness is right at the very heart.”
The great theologian Charles Ryrie wrote, “…holiness in the Bible means separation from all that is common or unclean.  In respect to God, holiness means not only that He is separate from all that is unclean and evil but also that He is positively pure and thus distinct from all others”.

This fact alone, abundantly clear in the Bible, places all human beings in a quandary: we are separated from God, the very source of life by something which we cannot fix by our own efforts…our sinfulness.

Today many people continue to put their faith in their own righteous deeds. Jesus however was very clear that self-righteousness cut no ice with His Father:
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

As every born again believer knows, God sacrificed His Son on a cross for their sin, and because of this every true believer is righteous in the sight of God. They stand justified and free of condemnation. This is God’s great gift to all who believe.
Blogger Dele Oke explains two key aspects of righteousness: “Firstly, it is imputed to us: this means something we are given free of charge without effort. This gives us the right to stand before God and speak to him as if we were sinless. Secondly righteousness is imparted into us: this means something that Christ works in us and with our cooperation. This grants us the inner strength to live and conduct ourselves in a manner that is pleasing to God.”
Despite the challenging spiritual environment of 21st century Scotland, God still wants His people to live holy lives, not walking in sin or compromising their faith.

This means being properly equipped inside and out with the power of Christ by wearing the breastplate of righteousness 24/7.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Truth....The Absolute Gold Standard

There are new levels of hostility to born again Christians in 21st century Scotland.

Enmity and opposition to the Gospel is increasing daily in society at large. Even within what can be loosely described as the church, orthodox Bible believing evangelicals are increasingly assailed on the one hand by liberals who deny the foundations of the faith.

On the other hand, they are faced with the covert infiltration of the church by a new breed of self-appointed church and ministry leaders who promote their own pronouncements over the veracity of scripture.

Orthodox true believers have two options in such a situation……curl up and withdraw from life, or do what the Bible says: recognise they are in a spiritual battle taking their stand for Christ while wearing the armour of God for protection.

The Apostle Paul describes this armour in terms of 6 items that a Roman soldier of his day would have worn: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Interestingly, the Apostle begins with the ‘belt of truth’.
The belt was a very important item of the Roman Soldier's armour. Worn round the waist the belt was very wide to give it the strength to hold a variety of items….at least one sword, a rations sack, a rope and other specialist pieces of equipment. The belt was tied in several places so that it would stay in place no matter how the soldier moved about.

It’s no coincidence that the belt the Apostle Paul talks about is the ‘belt of truth’.
In an article entitled, ‘The Battle for Truth’, the late Dave Hunt wrote:
“There is a battle raging for man's soul and for control of the universe. It is a very real war between the "God of truth" and Satan, "the father of lies" in whom there "is no truth". One either believes God's truth or Satan's lie. There is no neutral ground. The cosmic battle of the ages is the battle for truth. But what is truth?

An editorial entitled "Truth" in the Los Angeles Times noted that:
"in a contemporary eight-volume encyclopaedia of philosophy, 'Truth' has only three lines……. Yet in the King James Bible the word "truth" occurs 235 times in 222 verses. …….It is to God's Word, then, that we must turn to learn of truth.”

A Christian's survival in the world requires a firm grounding in the absolute truth of the Bible.  The power of truth is that it sets us free by breaking the power of Satan’s lies.
In the Genesis account of Eve in the Garden of Eden, Satan downplays the consequences of sin and promotes its pleasures.  When true believers are firmly rooted in the truth, they are best equipped to recognise lies, stand up to Satan and do God's will.

In modern warfare, Intelligence data and its interpretation plays a vital role in the outcome of conflict.  The Bible as God's word reveals the truth which enables believers to recognise and decisively defeat Satan’s lies.  The writer to the Hebrews sums up the role that the Bible should play in the life of a true believer:
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” 

When we put on the ‘belt of truth’ every day, we arm ourselves with the power and truth of God’s word.
Absolutely trustworthy and applicable to every situation…it’s ‘gold standard’ protection.       

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Standing Strong in the Storm

Given the moral, social and political upheaval of recent years, born again Christians in Scotland could be forgiven for feeling that their faith and way of life is under attack.

Assailed on all sides by a wide variety of aggressive, unholy forces, 21st century Scotland has become a hostile environment for true believers.
On the one hand there is a seemingly unstoppable rising tide of humanism, secularism and militant atheism. These ‘politically savvy’ progressive forces are supported by a mass media with an agenda that is determined to ridicule, satirise and relegate Bible-believing Christians to the margins of society.

On the other hand Christians, particularly evangelicals, have done themselves no favours. Decades of inept, self-promoting, self-absorbed leadership simply ignored the far reaching changes taking place in society. Recent frantic activity by those who have wakened up to what was happening was ‘too little too late’ to prevent same-sex marriage becoming enshrined in law.
The failure of Christians to prevent this measure reaching the statute book has simply opened the way to future discrimination against those who take a stand for Christ in the workplace and in other settings.  Already branded as irrational, bigoted, practisers of a faith that is out of date and out of step with contemporary Scotland, mature true believers are now under no illusion of the magnitude and intensity of the spiritual battle that they are now in.

Tragically many of those who are part of Scotland’s varied evangelical community have no idea that they are even in a spiritual battle. Weak and selective Bible teaching designed to appeal to the ‘felt needs’ of the unbeliever has undermined the authority of the scriptures.
In some of our more ‘hipster happy-clappy’ evangelical churches, the realities of sin, confession, repentance and holiness have been consigned to the back burner. In this environment, the faithful rarely read their Bibles, preferring the books of ‘pseudo-Christian’ psychologists and dream interpreters which on close examination are ‘more Harry Potter’ than Holy Spirit. 

The Apostle Paul knew a thing or two about standing for Christ in a hostile environment, ultimately laying down his life. In his letter to the believers in the city of Ephesus he said:
“Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

If the world was perfect, we wouldn’t need any armour, but Paul wrote about being a Christian in a hostile, non-Christian world. Like it or not, we can’t live our whole lives surrounded by Christians.

In the coming days, we will consider in detail how true believers can take practical steps to arm themselves for the battle. In the meantime we can take heart from the Apostle’s uplifting and motivating words to these early believers:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Weird is not the 'New Normal'.

I came across a blog called The Internet Monk, written by Michael Spencer. Although Michael succumbed to cancer in 2010, his work has been carried on by others.

Today I’m simply going to leave it to Michael to sum up what I feel today by quoting from one of his blogs entitled ‘Signs’.

“So they said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?" John 6:30

So the Jews said to him, "What sign do you show us for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." John 2:18-19

And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation." Mark 8:12

I am tired of hearing people I work with say that God is talking to them like He talked to Moses at the burning bush or like He talked to Abraham. I'm weary of people saying God speaks directly to them about mundane matters of reasonable human choice, so that their choices of toothpaste and wallpaper are actually God's choices, and therefore I need to just shut up and keep all my opinions to myself until I can appreciate spiritual things. I'm tired of people acting as if the normal Christian life is hearing a voice in your head telling you things other people can't possible know, thus allowing you a decided advantage.

I mean, if all this were really happening, wouldn't these people be picking better stocks?...................

I'm worn out on people doing weird things that aren't in the Bible and saying it's the "leading of the Spirit." Falling over.  Acting drunk.  Jumping around like a wasp went down your dress. I'm tired of turning on the TV or the radio and hearing Christians making more noise than a riot at a mental hospital. I'm out of patience with Christian spirituality equalling some form of clown college graduation. 

I'm seriously fatigued from constantly hearing reality explained as spiritual warfare between angels, Christians, demons, and various conspiracies. The drama of blaming everything from illness to bad credit to all your bad choices on the devil is getting old. I'm tired of people being delivered from demons when their problem is their own rebellion, stupidity, meanness, and determination to get their own way.......................................

Isn't the Christian life the "Victorious" life? The "Purpose Driven" life? The "Spirit Filled" life? The life with Christ living in you and through you? It's not a normal life, and it's not ordinary. Right? Do I get an "amen?"

Or maybe you are like me. You are an ordinary Christian living an ordinary life. You don't hear voices, see visions, or believe you are under constant attack by demonic forces. You may have some experiences that you call supernatural or miraculous, but they are the exception, not the rule. When you pray for people, things usually don't change; you change. You have no authoritative insight into what is going to happen in the future. You suspect that if you were filled with the Spirit, you would love God and people more, and do the right thing more often. You'd be more like Jesus. You wouldn't be running around in circles pointing out angels on the roof. The fruit of the Spirit would make you a person others would want to be around, not someone who would frighten animals and small children.

My point is not to trash anyone who believes in any of these things. Not at all . My point is that "normal" Christian experience is increasingly seen as "bad" or "abnormal," while weirdness is increasingly seen as "normal" and proof that a person is really "spiritual." This shift has enormous implications for Christianity in its essence, its witness, and its experience in the lives of believers.

The principle that I would like to put forward is this: The supernatural character of Christian truth and experience does not remove the basic, normal, human experience of Christians. If "normal" humanity is eclipsed, Christianity ceases to be Biblical, truthful or helpful...................................

"Normal" Christians are living without these "signs." They are living by faith in what the Bible says, and not looking to their experience to be a daily demonstration of God's still being around and in the miracle business. In comparison to those who live with daily miracles and prophecies, these normal Christians may have experiences that seem dull or even absent. It is no wonder that many "normal" Christians struggle with feelings of resentment, envy, or anger toward those Christians who claim constant miracles and manifestations of God's power. Part of my own weariness is from years of feeling second-class and left out of "real" Christian experience. Then I was angry at myself for faking it in an attempt to fit in. Now I'm tired of playing this game, and disturbed by what I see as the misrepresentation of the Gospel, and an insensitivity to the effects of weirdness on those in and out of the church.....................................................................................

Discernment is what we most owe to our weirder brothers and sisters. Not condemnation or rejection, but discernment and simple truth. We need to know our Bibles, and be able to point out the truth of the Gospel. Our lives need to be shaped by Christ, and display evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification and renewing our minds and characters. Even those who have given themselves over fully to every kind of weirdness are usually well aware of their own need of what is real. Many solid Reformed Christians spent a sojourn in this camp, and starved to death while everyone pretended there was a feast.

Bishop Ryle put it plainly: "Feelings in religion are worse than worthless, unless they are accompanied by practice." Many of our sincerely deluded brothers and sisters know this, and are afraid of what this must mean. It will do them good to see in us genuine experience and a true, substantial working out of what Christ has done for and in us.”

I’ll be raising a glass to Michael Spencer tonight. He was a true, courageous, honest and normal Christian. Speaking out on these issues while inviting the ire of some is essential.

You can read more of the late Michael Spencer’s brilliant insightful and courageous observations at: www.internetmonk.com