We live in a small town in a quiet little road with few cars and even less pedestrians moving around on our street. Whether this is the reason, I don’t know, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to target our area for their visits. When I was still at school, our pastor told us that you never allow a Jehovah’s Witness to enter your home, you never give them money and you try and get as much literature from them that you can, which you burn as soon as they had left. Among my friends there are only a few that would get into a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness. We, on the other hand, have made a decision many years ago that we will invite them into our home and allow them to speak to us and that we will try and keep the conversation as civil as possible. What’s the use of saying that we are Christians, only to be known as someone who sets their dogs on the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
On Tuesday I had a visit from two Jehovah’s Witnesses again. Having trained a great number of people in personal evangelism, it was interesting to me to see these two men doing virtually every mistake in the book in their approach. I opened the door and greeted them (they were standing outside the security gate) and even before I could open the gate, the one man, who was obviously the leader, started speaking. I invited them in and he went on speaking. One thing I try not to reveal when speaking to them, is that I’m a pastor, because then they will definitely not be willing to speak to me if they knew that. I felt a bit trapped when the man mentioned that he was surprised that I was at home. Before I had time to think of a reason why I could be at home without telling a lie and without saying that I’m a pastor, he went on with the conversation, hardly ever allowing me to interrupt him.
His approach, as many before him, was to prove to me that we are living in the end times – something which they seem to be amazed at when I agree. The only difference is that I have good reason to believe that we had been living in the end times since the birth of Christ and not only since 1914, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
They base their argument on the following: The last king of Judah was dethroned in 607 BC (according to them). This happened at the start of the Babylonian exile. What I’m still wondering about is how they came to choose that date as the start of the exile, as all history sources show that it happened in 586 BC and not 607 BC. Dan 4:10-16 speaks of seven times. Revelation speaks of “a time, times and half a time” (12:14) which is equal to 1260 days (12:6). Seven times should therefore by 2 times 1260 which equals 2520. According to Num 14:34 the Israelites were punished one year for every day that they used to explore the promised land. So now the 2520 days becomes 2520 years!
607 + 1914 = 2520 – that is, if you believe, as they do, that the exile started in 607 BC and that there never was a year 0. And therefore, with the start of the First World War, the end times began. Thus saith the Jehovah’s Witnesses!
What does the Bible actually say about the end times: It tells us that Jesus had come in the end times (Heb 1:2; 1 Pet 1:20), that the Holy Spirit was given in the end times (Acts 2:16-17), that the apostles lived in the end times (1 Cor 10:11) and that Timothy also lived in the end times (2 Tim 3:1-5).
If I had to believe this guy, then we don’t have to worry that Jesus would come unexpectedly. According to him, the United Nations still have to collapse before Jesus can come again. Surprisingly, I had asked him a few minutes earlier whether he believed that Jesus could actually come today, to which he agreed. But then he later contradicted himself by saying that Jesus actually could not come before the United Nations had not collapsed.
Perhaps we should be thankful that their arguments are so totally illogical and that they do not have the faintest idea of how to approach someone whom they want to convince. No wonder people are chasing them away from their homes. But next time, when they come knocking at my door, I’ll invite them in once again. Perhaps the day will come when I will have the chance to share with them the gospel of God’s grace.
I’m part of a male prayer group meeting every Wednesday morning, VERY EARLY! (Those who know me, also know that I’m not at my best at five in the morning!) The group consists of a variety of people, some more mature (both physically and spiritually) and others much younger (also both physically and spiritually). I admit that I have made the sacrifice to be there every Wednesday morning, mostly for the benefit of a group of men who have recently started on the road of faith.
This morning someone mentioned that a prominent South African rugby player will be visiting our town to share his testimony. To encourage the men to attend, he added: “This man is not concerned about doctrines. He’s only interested in serving the Lord.”
I’ve heard the same words or words to the same effect for thirty years or more. It seems as if people want to say that, if you are still an immature Christian, then you will be concerned about doctrinal issues. Once you’ve grown spiritually (received the Holy Spirit!), then you will no longer be concerned about doctrines.
I remember, shortly after I arrived in Swaziland in 1985, that one of the leaders in our church broke away from our church. He also used the argument that he no longer wanted to concern himself with doctrinal issues. The words he used was: “I take the Bible as it is.” Strangely enough, the reason why he broke away, was because of doctrinal differences, particularly regarding his understanding of the sacraments!
I respect people who say that they are not concerned about doctrines. But quite frankly, I don’t believe them. My understanding of salvation (which will probably be fairly close to that of the speaker mentioned) is based on doctrine. This is based on various discourses and explanations found in the gospels, the epistles of Paul as well as other parts of the Bible. Roman Catholicism, as other faiths such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, differ from my understanding about salvation. We differ, mainly because this is a doctrinal issue. All that anyone is saying, who tries to convince others that he is not concerned about doctrines, is that “he’s right, and he isn’t willing to discuss any possibility of being wrong.”
Paul was a theologian, even before he met God on the road to Damascus. He developed an immense understanding of doctrines and the law during his training as Pharisee. The problem with him, as with the other Pharisees exposed by Jesus, was that the laws and the doctrines were all that were important. The intimate relationship with God was exchanged for a life dictated by laws and doctrines which became more important than love for God and other people. After Paul came to repentance, he was still a theologian. Most of his epistles consist largely of theology (doctrinal issues). But what sets him apart from many theologians today, is that the doctrines which he developed became practical in the way in which he devoted his life to God, to the church and to other people. Doctrines enabled him to come closer to God, to understand God more.
I fully understand what people are trying to say when they maintain that they are not concerned about doctrine. But I do think we need to find a better way to formulate this. Not only is it not the truth, but it is also extremely judgmental. And it won’t help to draw people to Christ.
One of South Africa’s coloured church leaders last year spoke, during a church meeting, about the demon of racism which is still alive in South Africa. Although I’m not someone who constantly try and link some kind of demon to every form of sin, such as the demon of alcoholism or the demon of lies, I do think that there is some truth in saying that the fight against racism is something which needs to be won in a spiritual realm.
After my post on the Angus Buchan Phenomenon, I received a lot of reaction. With the exception of one, the comments were really decent, even where people differed from me. Some of the correspondence about this post was done via email and therefore did not appear on my blog. One of my very special e-pals (an “e-pal” is the equivalent of a “pen-pal”, except that we correspond by email rather than by pen and paper), who is a missionary in Ukraine, wrote me a long letter which triggered many things in my mind. In the post I referred to, I asked the question why Angus Buchan is so popular amongst white men. But in my correspondence with my friend in the Ukraine, I asked another question: Why doesn’t God use Angus Buchan more effectively to break down racial barriers?
My friend responded by saying (my own translation from Afrikaans to English): I think that, while big meetings and prominent leaders can create the atmosphere within which believers can live differently, the coming of God’s kingdom which needs to be demonstrated by the church as alternative society, will have to start from “below”. The mass of Christians need to live and do things differently. Then the prominent leaders will merely become catalysts in processes which are much greater than their own abilities. And my heart for mobilisation tells me that now is the time to do it!
On the same day that I received his email, I was attending a small group consisting of white Christians in which I told them that I had been challenged to do something about racism in our community and that I am going to challenge them to take hands with me, to pray with me and to work with me to make a difference.
South Africa had gone through the amazing period of reconciliation after more than forty years of a policy of “Apartheid” and we have experienced great blessings in many ways since 1994. But, to use the words quoted above, the demon of racism is still alive. Or, as I often say: Apartheid is dead. Long live racism! South Africa’s problem is not Apartheid. That was just the name given to an evil policy of government. The problem is racism. And I have traveled fairly widely throughout the world and have seen that it is definitely not only South Africa which is struggling with this.
I will never forget a particular class in Dogmatics which I was attending at university. Our lecturer was the distinguished Professor Johan Heyns, who was assassinated in 1994, presumably because of his strong viewpoint against racism. (His assassin has never been arrested.) On this specific day one of the students asked him what his viewpoint was on racism. Without a word professor Heyns turned towards the blackboard, took up a piece of chalk and wrote: RACISM = SIN! This made a tremendous impact on my life and I could probably say that on that day I vowed that I would fight against racism in my own life.
One of the most popular verses used in South Africa today comes from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
I am getting convinced that there is probably not a more wicked sin that we in South Africa will need to turn away from, than our sin of racism. Can we really expect God to heal our land while so many Christians still refuse to repent from racism?
I have been involved in processes of healing amongst people of different races and can testify that for White South Africans, there is little that can beat the feeling of liberty once they had come to the point of confessing this as sin and reaching out to people across racial barriers.
For those who had attended the Mighty Men Conference and experienced God’s forgiveness and love during the weekend: Are you willing to take up this challenge to help in bringing healing to our country?
Many years ago, our professor in New Testament urged us to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, The Cost of Discipleship. It was amazing to see how he explained the consequences of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) for today. That book had a profound influence on my own life, even though I know that I continually fail to live up to God’s standards. One concept which he introduced in the book was the term, Cheap Grace, by which he meant that Jesus had to pay the highest price in order for us to be saved, but that we sometimes seem to think that, even though we receive grace free of charge, it also cost God nothing.
I’m presently busy reading Alan Hirsch’s book, The Forgotten Ways, (and when I’m through I’ll definitely write more about it). On page 104 he makes an important remark: “…many of our church practices seem to be the wrong way around … we seem to make church complex and discipleship too easy.” The context of this remark is that he is discussing the reason for the growth in the early church, in which, he says, church was simple and discipleship was hard – so hard, in fact, that people who became active followers of Christ often paid with their life for this decision.
I’m convinced that there is a lot of truth in this remark. We have a certain way of doing things in church. We have a certain vocabulary (which I’ve named “Christianese”), things are done in a certain orderly way (and this is true regardless of whether we attend an Orthodox, mainline or charismatic church) and in general for the non church attendee, I have a feeling that it is not easy for such a person to feel comfortable in the church. And then there’s classes and training and Bible Study and catechism – all aimed at making this person a better church attenders. But in my experience little is being done to make church attenders better disciples. In fact, in most cases I know of, if a person’s name is on the register (and we have a rightful claim on their tithe), then we are happy.
I’m not against training and Bible Study and catechism, but let this not be an indication of the commitment of a believer towards God. When we are selling cheap grace, then we say to people that God expects nothing from you in return for being saved. When we proclaim the message of Jesus, then we are offering God’s grace free of charge but also telling people that God asks everything in return. This is what Jesus tried to tell us when he said in Luke 14:28, that we need to calculate the cost before building a tower. This has nothing to do with earning salvation. But it has everything to do with informing people beforehand about the cost of discipleship.
I don’t think I have the answer yet, but I do believe that what Hirsch is saying is true for most churches today. And then we don’t need to be surprised that Christianity in general doesn’t have a very good image in the world.
We watched an excellent DVD last night: Lars and the real girl. I’m not going to write much about the plot. It’s enough to say that, in the hands of a different director, this could have ended up as a filthy piece of junk. But Craig Gillespie, who was nominated for the 2007 Most Promising Filmmaker award by the Chicago Film Critics Association, succeeded in making a movie that has an extremely deep message and speaks to Christians in a remarkable way.
I’m more or less sick and tired (and have been for the past twenty or thirty years!) of movies where pastors and priests are nearly always shown to be corrupt, with a total inability to do anything right in their congregations. They either steal money, cheat on their spouses (except for the priests who are not married but who still get involved in extra-marital affairs), act absolutely loveless and do everything Hollywood likes to blame Christians of doing.
This movie was totally different, without being soppy. It shows how the church members first struggle to do the right thing and then, as the movie progresses, they become increasingly convinced that they are indeed right in what they are doing, until eventually the movie ends in a way that is not even considered when the movie starts – but it proves that the church members, under the leadership of their minister, did indeed make the right decision.
If what I’m writing doesn’t make much sense, it’s merely because I don’t want to give away the plot. So if you feel that you want to see something that is a quite few notches above the normal movies shown on big screen, I can wholeheartedly recommend this movie.
I’d like to hear how you experienced this movie.
This past weekend I was involved with the training of a group of church leaders in Witbank (a mining town in South Africa) in evangelism. The group of eight leaders came from two different churches. The one church is actively involved in evangelism, using Evangelism Explosion (EE III) while the other church is planning to start with an evangelism program.
During the weekend I, together with my co-lecturer, emphasised over and over again that evangelism is the core of the New Testament message. Looking at the four gospels, each end with the command to take the good news about God’s love into the world:
Matthew 28:18-20: Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Mark 16:15: He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”
Luke 24:46-48: He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
John 20:21: Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
But somewhere during the course of the lectures, my co-lecturer asked the question: “Why the heck are we doing this? Honestly, we are all overworked, spend too little time with our families, have too little time to relax. Why bother about evangelism? We’re not getting a cent into our own pockets by doing this. Why are we doing this?”
The short answer is because God wants us to do it. The story is told that on the day when Jesus left the earth and he had given the almost pathetic group of disciples the command to go into the world and to preach the message of salvation, an angel asked Jesus: “Tell me, if those disciples fail to become your witnesses as You told them, what are You going to do? What is plan B?” And then, according to this story, Jesus answered the angel: “I do not have a plan B! If they fail, the whole plan fails!”
But I also have another answer. And this answer is that I have seen the effects of the gospel on people’s lives. I have seen how radically people can change once they have encountered the love of God in their own lives. I have witnessed this too often to explain this merely as coincidence. I have seen how really tough guys break down before the Lord once they come to realise how much God cares for them.
But possibly, more than anything else, I have seen how people get hope, not only for themselves, but for their families, for their country and for the world, merely because they have personally discovered the source of their hope.
As the weekend progressed, I just wondered why it is necessary to convince people within the church about the importance of evangelism. Shouldn’t this come naturally to each one who had experienced the love of Christ personally in their own lives?
I’ve been busy with some reading from the book of Deuteronomy (just slightly more interesting than reading from the book of Lamentations – or so I thought!) We had a professor in Old Testament when I was still busy with my theological studies who really helped us to focus on these seemingly uninteresting parts of the Bible to find out why God had wanted these parts to be written. I was focussing on chapters 24 – 26 and it was just amazing once again to realise how much God cares for the poor and the destitute. Some of the laws God made sounds really crazy. If a poor man offers you his cloak as a pledge after borrowing something from you, you may keep the cloak up to sunset but then you have to return it to him so that he can sleep in it! Why do you take the cloak in the first place if you are going to return it in any case? Because by returning it, “it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God” (24:13). If you hire a poor man to work for you, make sure that he receives his wages daily before sunset. He’s dependent upon that money to live. When beating the olive trees to harvest olives, do it only once and whatever is left belongs to the poor, the orphans and the widows.
The motivation for this gracious conduct lies in the fact that the Israelites were ill-treated in Egypt and that God had saved them from the Egyptians. Therefore they also had to live graciously towards others and allow them to live with dignity. And in doing this, we discover the true source of joy in our lives.
I realise that I write a lot about the joy we’ve experienced in Swaziland since we started with our home-based caring projects. But things were not always like this and in fact, there are still people in our church who have not made this paradigm shift in their lives. The amazing thing is to see how people change once they start focussing outside of themselves. It is as if they get a new meaning in life (which in fact, they do) and this new life which they have discovered brings them true joy.
When a Christian really starts focussing on the needs of others and witness the joy that it brings into those people’s lives, it becomes impossible not to be filled with joy because of the joy that the others experience. We know that Acts 20:35 says that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”, but for most people, Christians (and churches) included it sounds far-fetched. And yet, every person involved in helping the helpless will know that this is indeed the truth. True joy is found when we learn to focus outside ourselves.
This was our experience in Swaziland as well.
Yesterday I was preaching from the book of Jonah. He was probably the greatest missionary that ever lived, preaching a short sentence after which the entire Nineveh came to repentance. What a man! But of course, his life followed another route before he eventually became a missionary. The book of Jonah is truly remarkable. Although Hebrew was one of my main subjects at university, unfortunately I’m not fluent enough in reading Hebrew, which is actually the ideal in order to understand this wonderful book.
There’s a number of themes in the book. One (I think my favourite) would be something like: If God calls you to work for Him, you’d better listen, because He’s not gonna let you go! Another (the theme I used yesterday) is: God has the freedom to shower His grace upon any person, regardless of who or what they are. But there was also another theme which came out as I was busy preparing my sermon: Where do your priorities lie?
At the end of the book, after Jonah had been on the ship going in the wrong direction, then in the belly of a fish and then back to Nineveh where the people of Nineveh actually listened to his sermon, he became totally depressed. Why? Amazingly because God had shown grace to these murderous people. The prophet Nahum calls Nineveh the city of blood (Nahum 3:1) because of the terrible things which took place there. But once they repented, God accepted them and showed mercy to them. So Jonah was angry, saying to the Lord: O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (Jonah 4:2)
God then sends some kind of tree or shrub which grows overnight, a la Jack and the beanstalk style, to such a height that it gives shade to Jonah as he is sulking in the desert. But the next day God sends a worm to destroy the tree and directly afterwards He sends a boiling hot wind which almost causes Jonah’s death. At this point Jonah is so angry with God that he really wants to die (the third time in the story.) And then the book ends with God’s rhetorical question: You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? (Jonah 4:10&11).
What God is saying to Jonah is something like: Your priorities are wrong. You’re more concerned about the vine than about the 120,000 in Nineveh. I, however, am more concerned about the lost people in Nineveh than this vine.
And that was the question with which I left the congregation: What is your main concern as Christian: The vine (your personal needs and comfort) or the people of Nineveh?