Bible in One Year

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August 13 Day 225

Who You Need to Know

We lived in Oxford for three years. I was training for ordination in the Church of England and studying for a degree in Theology at Oxford University. One of the things we noticed while we were there was that, compared to London, Oxford seemed to be relatively non-materialistic. People, on the whole, were not impressed by wealth. Success was measured differently.

The people in Oxford tended to be more impressed by brains than by money or beauty. Success was measured in starred firsts, distinctions, PhDs, professorships and published works. It made me wonder whether intelligence and ‘knowledge’ could be as much a false god as money and wealth.

Knowledge is, on the whole, good. The facts are your friends. Education is good – reading, learning and discovering are all good activities. However, as Lord Byron wrote, ‘The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.’ We need to see ‘knowledge’ in perspective. Our knowledge is very limited. The more we know, the more we realise how little we know. God is our creator and he alone knows everything.

There are also different types of knowledge, and they are not all equally valuable. In French, there are two different words for ‘to know’. One (savoir) means to know a fact, the other (connaître) means to know a person. God is more interested in us knowing people than facts. The most important knowledge of all is knowing God and being known by him. Even this is not the end though. It is never enough simply to have knowledge – you must also have love.

August 12 Day 224

Enjoy Life in the Present

Some people see life today as the Three Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth put it, ‘Double, double toil and trouble.’ My own perspective on life changed when a friend wisely pointed out to me that, in a sense, this life is a series of problem-solving exercises. We will never be without problems in this life. If, in the midst of all the challenges, you cannot learn to thrive in the situation in which you find yourself, you will never find contentment.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says, ‘We should make the most of what God gives, both the bounty and the capacity to enjoy it, accepting what’s given and delighting in the work. It’s God’s gift! God deals out joy in the present, the now’ (Ecclesiastes 5:19, MSG). Learn to enjoy this wonderful gift of life in the present. If you do not, life will pass you by and you will never enjoy where you are right now.

August 11 Day 223

Anxiety and Peace

Anxiety can rob you of the enjoyment of life. The causes of anxiety are numerous: health issues, work (or lack of it), finances (debt, unpaid bills and so on) and much else besides. Some of the biggest causes of anxiety are those dealt with in today’s New Testament passage: relationships, marriage (or lack of it), sex (or lack of it), singleness and divorce.

In our Old Testament passage, the book of Ecclesiastes suggests that much of the anxiety we experience is caused by something deeper. This could be described as the anxiety of meaninglessness. In the midst of all this, you are called ‘to live in peace’ (1 Corinthians 7:15).

August 10 Day 222

Good Judgment

When I practised as a barrister most of the judges I appeared before were extremely good. However, I remember one occasion when I appeared before a judge who was not good. It was a terrible experience.

I was representing the defendant in a criminal case. It was only the second case I had ever done in front of a jury. I was young and inexperienced. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that there was something very wrong with the way in which the judge was conducting the case. She kept interrupting me whenever I was speaking. She intervened over and over again with her own questions. I ended up having what the court usher described as a ‘stand up row with the judge’.

The judge’s summing up was more like a second prosecution speech; my client was duly convicted and sent to prison. We appealed, on the basis that the defendant was entitled to a fair trial and he had not been given one.

When I appeared before three very senior judges in the Court of Appeal, I was extremely nervous that they might not approve of my part in the ‘stand up row with the judge’! To my relief they were as appalled as I had been by her conduct of the trial. They overturned the original decision and my confidence in the British legal system was restored.

Good judges are scarce. In many parts of the world, judges are subject to bribery and corruption. There is no rule of law. The result is terrible injustice. The poor, in particular, tend to be the victims.

August 9 Day 221

Only Holiness Leads to Happiness

Our magazines and TV screens are filled with stories of the rich, the beautiful and the strong. Our culture places these things on a pedestal and many of us aspire to achieve them. There is nothing wrong with these things – but they certainly don’t always lead to happiness.

The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, spoke of three orders of greatness. Riches, beauty and strength fall into his first category of superficial ‘physical greatness’.

Above this is a higher, second level of greatness. It is the greatness of genius, science and art. The greatness of the art of Michelangelo or the music of Bach or the brilliance of Albert Einstein – these stand way above superficial physical greatness.

However, according to Pascal there is a third kind of greatness – the order of holiness. (And there is an almost infinite qualitative difference between the second and the third categories.) The fact that a holy person is strong or weak, rich or poor, highly intelligent or illiterate, does not add or subtract anything because that person’s greatness is on a different and almost infinitely superior plane. It is open to every one of us to achieve true greatness in the order of holiness.

The word ‘holy’ (hallowed, holiest, holiness) appears over 500 times in the Bible. God is holy. He gives you his Holy Spirit to sanctify you, and you are called to share in his holiness.

The word ‘saints’ means ‘holy ones’. In the New Testament it is applied to all Christians. You are ‘called to be holy’ (1 Corinthians 1:2). Holiness is a gift you receive when you put your trust in Jesus, receive his righteousness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Seek to live out a holy life in grateful response to God’s gift, through the imitation of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, only holiness leads to happiness.

August 8 Day 220

Money: A Blessing or a Curse?

Laurence was in charge of the finances of the church. He was also a deacon. There was a great revival taking place all around him. It was said that, ‘All of Rome were becoming Christians.’

As a result, persecution broke out under the Emperor Valerian in around the year AD 250. Christians who owned property distributed all the church’s money and treasures to the city’s poor.

Valerian ordered all bishops, priests and deacons to be arrested and executed. He offered Laurence a way out if he would show where all the church’s treasures were located.

Laurence asked for three days to gather it into one central place. He brought together the blind, poor, disabled, sick, elderly, widows and orphans. When Valerian arrived, Laurence flung open the doors and said, ‘These are the treasures of the church!’

Valerian was so angry that he decided beheading was not terrifying enough for Laurence. He ordered that this courageous man be roasted on a gridiron. That is how Laurence died on 10 August AD 258. Apparently, he even joked with his executioners, ‘You may turn me over. I’m done on this side.’ His courage made such an impression that the revival in Rome only increased, with many people becoming Christians including several senators who witnessed his execution.

St Laurence had a profound understanding of the message of Jesus. He understood that the poor are the true treasures of the church.

What should our attitude be to the poor? What about the rich? Is poverty a blessing or a curse? Are riches a blessing or a curse? Does the gospel promise prosperity?

August 7 Day 219

Three Bad Attitudes That Cause Division

During my time at university, I shared rooms together with my great friend Nicky Lee who is now one of the associate vicars of HTB. We did all our own catering; I did the cooking and Nicky Lee did the dividing. He was an expert at dividing whatever was cooked into exactly equal portions! This is but one instance where division is used in a good sense rather than a bad one.

Divisions are a fact of life. They need not necessarily be a bad thing. Indeed, they may even be necessary. For example, placing people in different divisions in an organisation may be helpful and important. We see this kind of division in the Old Testament passage for today.

Then, there is the division that will take place on the day of judgment. This is a necessary division between good and evil. This kind of division can be seen in the psalm for today.

There is also a third kind of division, which is not good, helpful or necessary. Disunity and division in the church is a tragedy. This kind of division is one we must do our very best to avoid. It is this kind of division that the apostle Paul speaks against in the New Testament passage for today.

August 6 Day 218

God is With You

I wonder whether you have ever had this experience: you are talking to a friend about your faith and they are looking back at you with a blank stare. They have no idea what you are talking about. When you talk about a relationship with Jesus, to them it is like you are speaking about an ‘imaginary friend’. It makes no sense to them at all.

The apostle Paul makes the point that you can only understand spiritual truths with the help of the Holy Spirit. The person ‘without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Corinthians 2:14). When God is with us by his Holy Spirit he gives us understanding, ‘that we may understand what God has freely given us’ (v.12).

‘God with us’ (Immanuel) is one of the titles the New Testament uses for Jesus (Matthew 1:23). He is always with you. That the God who created the universe should be with you is not something to be taken lightly. It is an extraordinary and wonderful promise. To experience God with you by his Spirit is life changing.

August 5 Day 217

Perfected in Weakness

I kept getting these phone calls. They came mostly from church leaders. They were from many different parts of the church. They were always long telephone conversations. They all wanted to know: ‘How come you get so many people from outside of the church on the course?’ ‘What exactly is Alpha?’ ‘How do you run it?’

I thought perhaps the best solution was to get them together in one place and tell them all at the same time. As a result, we put on our first Alpha Conference in May 1993. To our astonishment a thousand church leaders turned up. I was relatively new to Christian ministry and was extremely daunted at the thought of a thousand church leaders, most of whom were far more experienced in ministry than I was.

The words of the apostle Paul, in today’s New Testament passage, seemed to sum up exactly how I felt. I read them to the delegates at the start of the conference:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)

I thought once I had explained what Alpha was to this group of church leaders, I would never have to explain it to anyone again. But in fact, by the end of the conference we had been invited to do many more conferences. Over the years we have done hundreds of conferences. At every Alpha Conference I start by reading 1 Corinthians 2:1–5. It is always what I feel; I always feel nervous. There is always an element of ‘weakness and fear, and... much trembling’. But I thank God that it does not depend on wise and persuasive words but on a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. And God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

There is a good side to ‘weakness’, ‘fear’ and ‘trembling’. There is also a bad side. In the passages for today we see both the good and the bad sides of weakness, fear and trembling.

August 4 Day 216

Unity

Years ago, I was speaking to a friend of mine who is not a Christian. He said this to me:

‘I don’t understand. You Protestants and you Catholics, you look exactly the same to me. You both have church buildings that look the same. You both say the Lord’s Prayer and do stuff with bread and wine. Whatever it is you disagree about (and I have no idea what it is) has absolutely nothing to do with my life. However, whilst you are fighting each other I am not interested.’

It struck me then how damaging disunity is to the church and our witness to the world. No wonder Jesus prayed for ‘complete unity’ (John 17:23) and the apostle Paul was passionate that we should be ‘perfectly united’ (1 Corinthians 1:10).

Unity is at the core of our faith. We believe in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is unity in the Trinity. Disunity, on the other hand, has been the curse of humankind ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin.

Jesus died to bring reconciliation and unity. Thank God that today, all around the world, we are seeing a lowering of denominational barriers and a greater unity in the church.