Friday, April 11, 2014

Isaiah 53: Prophecy of the Suffering Messiah

Luke 18: 31- 34    
31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

This painting is called The Shadow of Death. It is not portraying any event recorded in the Gospels. Rather, it depicts an imagined scene. Here Jesus is portrayed as a young man in the carpenter’s workshop before his public ministry had begun. Tired from work, he stretches his arms. His face carries a mix of rapture and agony. His shadow is silhouetted against the wall across his tool board, creating the impression of his body on the cross. In the corner, his mother Mary looks up, aghast to see the shadow of the cross looming over her. If you look carefully, you see that she is opening a chest that contains gifts from the wise men – gold, frankinscense and myrrh which represent his kingship, his divine glory and his death. Although this painting is not historical, it does truly depict a biblical insight that the shadow of the cross hangs over the entire life of Jesus.

In the ancient world, there were three “supreme penalties” that people fear the most. What are the worst methods to punish criminals to death? Beheading was a horrible way to go, being burnt alive was worse (more painful but sometimes, people died from inhaling the smoke before the fire reached them). But the most extreme death penalty one can have was by crucifixion. You catch a glimpse of how violent and agonizing a crucifixion looks like in the movie The Passion of the Christ.

And that is Jesus’ destiny prophesied in Scripture. It is his mission on earth. It is the reason He came.

That’s not something you would expect. Our Muslim neighbors would stress that the prophet of God cannot be allowed to be mocked and crucified. Or suffer defeat. Surely God will protect his servant by rescuing him and replace someone else to be crucified instead. We don’t want that kind of hero. According to a 16th century document called the “gospel of Barnabas”, Judas Iscariot was supposed to have substituted Jesus on the cross. You may like to know that manuscript written in Italian is more than 1500 years removed from the actual event. So it’s not a reliable historical source.

But the Gospel of Luke, written within only a few decades from the death of Christ, shows us that our Lord was not surprised by what’s going to happen in Jerusalem. He knew it was coming. He anticipated it. He was going to travel to the holy city one last time to celebrate the Passover. Jerusalem is the city where the temple is located, the sacred place where heaven and earth meets.

So Jesus rounds up His disciples and tells them that He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him. They will flog him and kill him. 

You may think: “Oh well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. John the Baptist his predecessor was also executed earlier. There was no freedom of speech in those days, right? So what’s so special about Jesus’ death?”

Well, in the case of Jesus, look at verse 31 here, his death and resurrection happened so that “everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled”. It has been foretold in Scripture. It has been predicted beforehand.

In other words, it may look to bystanders as though Jesus is the victim of betrayal and political conspiracy and mob violence and mock trials and corrupt religious leaders. Yes, we see that a lot in this cruel world. But what Jesus says is breath taking: I am in charge here. It’s all taking place just as Scripture has foretold. Nobody takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up. Jesus already predicted when he died, how he died, and when he rose from the dead. Yet he still made that journey to Jerusalem. Why?

1) Because all that prophets have predicted hundreds of years ago must be fulfilled.

You see, Jesus is not just another human prophet. Rather he is the ultimate goal of all prophecy. He is their purpose. He is the fulfillment of what the prophets have foretold. What was predicted hundreds of years before had come true in his life. If you are considering the claims of Christ and wonder if there is any good reason to suppose that His life and death are unique, here is a powerful clue: Fulfilled prophecies.

Let me read to you a prediction written in the 16th century and you tell me what event is being fulfilled here:

The great man will be struck down in the day by a thunderbolt,
An evil deed foretold by the bearer of a petition.
According to the prediction, another falls at night time.
Conflict at Reims, London and a pestilence in Tuscany.
(re-kan-s, tas-kanee)

Whose death do you think is being predicted here? You would never have guessed by just reading it. The answer is: The assassination of John F Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. Who do you think wrote these four lines of prediction? Nostradamus.
OK, thunderbolts and gunshots: not terribly dissimilar. And the great man was struck down in the day, as John F. Kennedy was. The other falling at nighttime would be Bobby Kennedy (five years later).

Science Channel: Now, it can work if you want it to, but do you really think a Secret Service agent reading this passage in 1963 would have cause to be concerned?
Probably not. It is so vague, vague enough to mean any other great leader killed during day or night. And it doesn’t even say there were related as brothers. And what of Reims, London and Tuscany? Their deaths were not related to any conflict or pestilence in those places. Not a terribly impressive prediction.

Now let us return to the death of Christ. Where was it prophesied that the Promised One, the Messiah will die a violent death and rise again from the grave? It would be amazing if such prophecies were true. But were they really talking about Jesus? Or were they just too vague like this one?

Around 700 years before Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah made one of the clearest predictions of the Messiah’s death and resurrection. It shed so much light to what He was doing that the book of Isaiah came to be known as the ‘fifth gospel’ apart from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  

I would like to read with you a portion of this prophecy about the suffering and vindication of the Messiah in Isaiah 53: The God of Israel says:

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. (resurrection, ascension, exaltation?)
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.
 Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (rejection by people in life)
Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, (the Roman spear pierced Jesus’ side)
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (substitutionary atonement language)
He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth. (Did not fight his arrest, accepted suffering)
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested? (False accusations, corrupt trial)
For he was cut off from the land of the living; (means: His suffering led to death)
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death, (Even though Jesus was poor and crucified people are left to the dogs, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea)
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth. (He has committed no crime or sin deserving death)
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his seed and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
(This is all about the resurrection. Jesus would suffer, die, and buried in a rich man’s tomb. And then, after the suffering, he’d get out of his grave, he’d see the light of day, he’d enjoy life again, he would accomplish his mission to justify many and take away sin, that he’d reconcile us to God. “It is finished.” He will be satisfied to see His people, his seed prosper)
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Sin bearer)

Now, who is This Servant of the Lord? Who is Isaiah talking about in its original context? Some interpreters would say, in its original context, the servant of the Lord refers to the nation Israel. Israel has always been persecuted by the sinful Gentile nations and suffered greatly because of the transgressions of others. Think of Nazi Holocaust and similar tragic episodes throughout their long history. Yes, sometimes in the book of Isaiah the servant of the Lord is clearly the people of Israel (Isaiah 41: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.”). And sometimes the servant refers to the prophet Isaiah himself (Isaiah 49:5) "And now says the Lord, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring back Jacob to him." Here the prophet Isaiah is the servant who brings the people of Israel back to God.

But in Isaiah 53 the servant cannot be the prophet or the people. Because the Servant is portrayed as substituting himself for both the prophet and the people of Israel. Verse 4: "Surely he [the Servant] took up our pain and bore our suffering." Verse 5: "He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities." "Our" means "me, Isaiah" and the people of Israel. So this mysterious Servant is not the people of Israel and not Isaiah, because he is the substitute for both of them. His job is to restore Israel and bring light to the Gentile nations.  

Who then is this Servant of the Lord? Ancient Jewish rabbis understood it to refer to the Messiah. So it is not surprising to find that Jesus clearly understood this prophecy as being fulfilled in his own life and ministry. He is the suffering servant who is crushed for the sins of the people. What will soon happen to Him in Jerusalem is fulfillment of this prophecy. He himself said, "The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve (to be a Servant) and to give his life a ransom [a substitute!] for many" (Mark 10:45).  

In all the history of Israel, no one comes close to fulfilling this prophecy apart from Jesus. In Acts 8 there is an Ethiopian eunuch (a diplomat) who was reading Isaiah 53 when Philip joined him in his chariot. The eunuch asked, "Of whom does the prophet Isaiah speak, of himself, or of someone else?" Philip opened his mouth and beginning from this scripture he proclaimed Jesus to him (Acts 8:35).  

Let me remind all of us that this was written 700 years before Jesus was born and there was no way Isaiah could have known it unless it was revealed to him. This passage is packed with details about the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

2) Why did Jesus die? Why did He press on to Jerusalem knowing certain death awaits him?

What is the meaning of His death? Actually it would be more accurate to say there are multiple layers of meanings in the Cross of Christ. Like a diamond, it has many sides. The cross is God’s victory over the powers of Satan because sin and death have no dominion over those who are in Christ. It is Jesus’ non violence unmasking the corruption behind oppressive powers. The cross is Christ satisfying God’s holy requirements in the law. The cross is a demonstration of how much God’s love is for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us so our indifference melts away. The cross inspires us to follow Him in self-sacrifice and self-giving.

All these are precious ways of understanding the cross of Christ that should we should recover. And I would also point out that all this is true because sacrifice is at the heart of the cross. Jesus took up our pain and bore our sins. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. It was the Lord’s will to crush him as a sin offering.

What the movies like Passion of the Christ or the historical books cannot show us is what goes on spiritually on the cross. They cannot show us the reality that we are separated from God by our sin. That God is alienated from us by His holy anger. God doesn’t lose his temper for no reason at all. His anger is provoked always by sin.

 Some people say this is not fair. This is like me saying “You offended me. So in order that I can forgive you, I must go and beat up Yoong Zhen first”. Some even call it ‘cosmic child abuse’ – an angry Father punishes his own innocent son for the wrongs of others. But that’s a serious misunderstanding of what the cross is about.

Firstly, Jesus is not an unwilling third party here. He is not forced to do it. He willingly embraced the Cross for the joy set before him. He and the Father are one in this plan.

Secondly, God the Father so loved the world that He gave his only Son. It is not as though he is reluctant and needs to be pacified by Jesus. Precisely because God is love that He has made a way for sinful men to be forgiven without ignoring sin… without downplaying sin. It is not just another man that the Father is punishing for our sins, but Jesus the embodiment of God took upon Himself the sins of us all. The One who passes judgment now steps down and receives the penalty.  

It is in the death of Christ as a substitute and sacrifice that sin is removed and God’s wrath is absorbed, so that God can look on us without displeasure and man can look on God without fear. Sin is cleansed (expiated) and God is satisfied (propitiated).

It is not justice. But it is grace. God is showing us the love and mercy that we do not deserve.

3) When Jesus predicted His death, the disciples were clueless. They did not get it. Does it surprise you? How can that happen? Is it because they couldn’t hear properly or what? Or are they confused because what Jesus predicted was not what they wanted to hear? Could it be that their misunderstanding is caused by their refusal to understand? 

They are ever hearing but never understanding because they wanted a kingdom that brings judgment down on the bad guys. The Messiah should not suffer. He should cause our enemies to suffer. We want a Messiah who brings power, prestige and deliverance to us. A crucified Messiah is not what we would expect. He is supposed to be the one crucifying others. Lest we become too harsh on the disciples, let’s ask ourselves: Do we really understand any of this? What kind of Savior are we looking for? What kingdom are we expecting?

Do we seek a kingdom where God blesses us with a lovely spouse who is always loving; always understanding and agrees with us all the time? A kingdom where we are blessed with above average children, always fun to play with, always healthy and obeys us all the time? A kingdom where our nasty colleagues get fired and evil people get zapped right now? A kingdom where our bank account grows steadily and keeps us safe and secure?  

But the focal point of Jesus’ mission is not our comfort. It is sacrifice. And that’s hard to understand and if understood, it’s even hard to accept. Take up your cross and follow me. Die to sin, be alive to God.

Here is Jesus saying: I must go to Jerusalem. I must go to the cross. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone and lonely. But if it dies, it breaks forth into new life and produces much fruit.

The Christian life begins when we are forgiven of our sins and the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us. So our discipleship is shaped by the cross and the resurrection from first to last. As we die to our selfish pride, die to our greed and sinful ambitions, die to the mindset of the world, we become alive to God, alive to His purpose and design for our lives, alive to what it means to be in community.

Only through death can we experience newness of life and joy in Christ.

And I wonder: How would we die to sin today? Is there a legitimate pleasure that is controlling us, entangling us from walking closer to God? Is there something that our Lord is asking you to let go? Is He calling you to obedience in some area in your life? Perhaps He is calling you to sacrifice comfort to pursue something much greater? Are we shaped by the self giving pattern of Christ?

Friends, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is a once-off event that changed history. But death and resurrection is also an ongoing process in our spiritual life… dying to self and being raised to new life is the shape of Christian discipleship. We have a cruciform spirituality. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Manifesto For Evangelism

Once upon a time, there was a village of fishermen who loved to fish. They gathered to form a fishing society with the vision to promote fishing all over the country. They published books on the benefits of fishing as a hobby and as a career. They organized seminars on the latest technology for boats, baits and fishing equipment. At these forums, they sang songs about the joys of fishing. They also hired experts to research on the migration patterns and breeding habits of various fishes. They were so busy with all these activities that there was no time left… to fish.

Until one fine day, a young girl actually decided to sail out to the ocean and cast a net into the waters. Lo and behold, she caught a huge load of fish. Instantly she became famous. She was invited to write a book about her adventures. She was asked to share her amazing experience at fishing conferences and travel the world to lobby for cross-cultural fishing. Of course, she too became so busy that she forgot… to fish…

This is a parable... Spend 2 minutes to discuss what this parable is about. When Jesus called his disciples, He said: Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.  This is a call for them be with Him, to give their lives to Him and bring people into His kingdom. It’s a call to evangelism… to make disciples of all peoples. And you can’t make disciples unless you are first a disciple. We find those fishermen funny but more often than not, we Christians can be a lot like them. We can attend trainings, read books and sing songs about evangelism so much so that the only thing we forgot to do is to evangelize. Really… how much of our personal life or even our church activities can really be intentionally evangelistic?  

Ouch… this is going to be a tough sermon this morning. Whenever the topic of evangelism crops up, I think a lot of us squirm with a sense of guilt… a sense of inadequacy… believe me, I know that feeling all too well. But there is hope because Jesus says come to me, follow me, learn from me, trust in me and I will make you fishers of men. There’s a promise. He will do it. He will make us fishers of men. But will we follow?

Romans 10:13-15
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?                                                                         And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

CDPC Puchong: We are a SIMPLE church. We are committed to preaching through chunks of Scripture week in, week out to see how all of them point to our Savior the Lord Jesus. Our desire is for all of our lives (in the workplace, family and in the city) to be shaped by His truth, His grace and His justice. One of our key values is to make disciples of all people groups… ergo, City “Discipleship”. This year, we really want to focus on Making Disciples (through evangelism, pastoral care and growing leaders). That’s our top priority. Why? Because we want to be a gospel-centered church. Because if we don’t do that, then we are not living up to our name. And because “gospel”, “community” and “mission” are at the heart of the book of Romans.

As you may know, this month, we are continuing our exposition on Romans 9-11. We have journeyed through 8 chapters last year and it’s good to just back up a little bit and see where we are. What is the purpose of this letter? Well, Paul is writing because he plans to go and bring the gospel to Spain. And he plans to stop over at the church in Rome first for evangelism, for ministry and for mutual encouragement. So it’s like a mission newsletter – Paul needs some assistance to preach the gospel somewhere which no one has gone before. He needs the church’s support in prayer, help and perhaps finance. Mission is always a community project, a church project. Even an apostle doesn’t want to go it alone. But the church in Rome doesn’t know him personally so he wrote this epistle to introduce himself as an apostle to the Gentiles and what his gospel message is all about. He ended up writing up one of the most important and influential books of all time but it’s good to remember that he didn’t set out to write a theological textbook. Its core concern is missional. It’s a manifesto, a public declaration for evangelism.

And the other main purpose of writing the epistle relates to a problem faced by the church itself. It was culturally mixed with a Gentile majority and a Jewish minority. The controversy of whether obeying the law and circumcision as boundary markers that segregate you as a member of God’s people was unsettling the church. There were those who wanted to obey food laws and ceremonial regulations, and others who didn’t. Paul wanted to step in and say: The people of God are defined by faith in Christ alone. Your cultural, ethnic differences are transcended by Christ so you now stand united in the gospel of grace.

Guess what? That means gospel, mission and community are at the forefront of the epistle. David Chong didn’t come up with these brilliant ideas by himself, in case you are wondering. It’s not just a CDPC idea. It is a biblical priority. They are all central concerns in the book of Romans, and if you miss those things, you haven’t grasped it yet.
From the passage we read just now and the rest of Romans 9-11, we can see at least 3 things about

1)      The urgency of evangelism
2)      The hope of evangelism
3)      The purpose of evangelism

If you recall, the broad outline of Roman goes something like this imaginary chat. Paul says: “I am eager to preach the gospel. I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of salvation for everyone who believes (first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles).”                                                          Why, Paul, who do they need to be saved? “Because God’s holy anger is revealed against all who suppress the truth in wickedness.”                                                                    

Well, how have they done that? “The Gentiles have suppressed the knowledge of God available to them in creation and the moral law written in their hearts. They are without excuse. The Jews have the revelation of God’s written law but they break the law. They cannot keep the law. So all of humanity have sinned and come short of God’s standards.”

What then is the solution? That’s why the gospel is so urgent. Why it’s so necessary.   
We need the righteousness of God that is given though faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. All who believe are declared righteous (not guilty) on the basis of what Christ has done on the cross. He redeemed us from sin. He turned away God’s holy anger through His sacrifice for us, on our behalf. Not by obeying the law, but by what Christ has done for us – His life, death and resurrection.

That’s why there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, bumiputra or non-bumiputra: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Saved from what? Our universal need is to be freed from the guilt of sin. From the controlling power of sin. From the condemnation of sin. Saved from God’s holy judgment. There is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, Indonesians, Malaysians, Egyptians and Americans. We are all sinners and we all need Christ for salvation. All nations (the entire human race) must hear the gospel. That’s the scope of evangelism: It’s world-embracing. Among us are young people who have traveled hundreds of miles, away from home and family, to be here in Malaysia precisely because of this urgency, this longing to see Christ lifted up, adored and treasured in hearts of peoples from every nation. A sister here told me of a Bible study she’s part of with a Mongolian, Mainland Chinese, Omani, American and Egyptian. Like United Nations. Wow, wouldn’t you like to be part of a Bible study like that? Isn’t that beautiful?

My heart’s desire for CDPC is that we become partners in the gospel with these young people and support them in any way we can. My heart’s desire is that we all catch a glimpse of Paul’s heart, his longing, his agony, his yearning for the salvation of people… “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”  (Romans 9) Of course, it is not possible for him to trade places with anyone… but he so loved his people so much, that if it were at all possible, he could wish that he was condemned in hell for the sake of his people, that they may know and enjoy Christ. Can we say the same thing for anyone who is spiritually lost? Paul can’t die for anyone’s sins, but Christ was cursed so we could be blessed. Christ was cut off from the Father so we may enter into His fellowship. There is only one Savior.

But Paul is reflecting His Master’s heart… he yearns for their salvation so much that he was ready to cursed for their sake. That’s the heart of carrying the cross. The only people for whom I have that kind of anguish and sorrow are for my own father and mother who are not yet believers. For them, yes, I could gladly and willingly wish if it were at all possible to trade places with them. But that’s nowhere near the kind of sorrow and love that Jesus and Paul had for the salvation of even their enemies. Those who rejected and opposed them… So our prayer this morning is that the Holy Spirit would melt our hearts and give us the same intensity, the same love and longing. That’s the heart of mission, the urgency of evangelism.
The hope of evangelism:

To call on Jesus’ name is to ask Him to save us according to who He is and what he has done. See, you are the one who must call on the name of the Lord. Nobody can do it for you. And everyone who calls on His name will be saved. There is no such thing as a person trusts and obeys the gospel but gets turned down by God. “Sorry, I know you decided to put your trust in Christ alone but so sorry, you are not one of the chosen ones.” It doesn’t work that way. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  

But the problem is: there are a million and one reasons why people would not want to call on His name. They are too busy. They are too obsessed with what the world has to offer. They are too self-satisfied with their own achievements. They thought it would cost them too much freedom. You know, if you have ever tried to share the gospel, there are just so many, many obstacles/excuses that people give for not coming to faith. What hope is there for us to bring our friends into our homes, into this church to listen to the gospel? It seems like a distant fantasy… Maybe in our hearts we have given up hope long ago so we have stopped even trying. What’s the use? What’s the point? I know that feeling…

But then again, that’s exactly how we once were, right? We too were once hardened in rebellion against God, we too were once too proud to acknowledge Him, we too were once substituting other gods instead of worshiping Him. We were too worldly. We were just like that. What hope did we have?

That’s why Paul says in Romans 9: “It does not, therefore, depend on your human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. He has mercy on whom he has mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” There is no hope unless and until God overcomes our rebellion by His love. There is no hope unless and until He opens up our blind eyes by the light of His word, and until the Holy Spirit melts our heart of stone and replace it with a heart beating with new life.

The only thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless is the sovereign grace of God… The only thing that gives you and I hope in pressing on with the gospel is the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. The only thing that keeps us going when all hope is lost is the assurance that God so sovereign that he can bring the most hardened sinner to faith… That’s the hope of evangelism that drove missionaries and evangelists to the ends of the world. That’s the hope that drives us (CDPC) to be salt and light in Puchong.

Back in those days, people do not have the Internet or television so important news from the king travel by means of a herald. The herald would run for many miles to the marketplace and announce the good news: Our king has returned to Jerusalem. He will restore the nation. You will all return from exile. So Paul quoted Isaiah: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace and salvation. The logic is simple there can be no salvation without calling on Christ, and no calling on him without faith, there is no believing in Him without hearing him, no hearing without the preaching of the gospel and no preaching without preachers sent. And so Christ sends you and I to be heralds of the gospel.

Now, what is the purpose or goal of evangelism? Evangelism is not an end in itself. Mission exists because worship does not. Evangelism gathers and unites us with the people of God, an inclusive community that transcends racial barriers… a family united in Christ of both Jews and Gentiles. In Romans 11 the picture is that of an olive tree where believing Gentiles like wild olives are grafted in and believing Jews are grafted back. We share the same history of faith that extends back to the promise to Abraham. We stand in solidarity with the persecuted people of God all over the world. The way we worship together, the way we serve each other and treat one another especially when we disagree and have theological differences should model the gospel of grace.

But the ultimate goal of evangelism is the glory of God! That’s why Paul ends chapter 11 with worship – “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen”. All that exists came from Him… He is the creator… all that we are and all that we have are sustained through Him… and why everything came into being and what is the reason for their being? The answer is: For Him and to him are all things. He is the source, the means and the goal of all things.

So we have seen the urgency of evangelism, the hope of evangelism and the goal of evangelism… You may wonder: How can we evangelize? What should we practically do?

Let me share this true story from Michael Ramsden, whom I met at a youth conference in Bali. He is an evangelist in Europe

Conversations over the course of normal, ordinary life that points the way to Christ … Sometimes we just plan a seed, other times we soften the soil. Sometimes we water the plant, other times we reap the harvest. It is God who makes it grow and bear fruit.

And I really have nothing more profound to say today than that.

Talk to the people you meet in church this morning… especially those whom you have never met before. Our guests who are here for the first time… The last thing you want to see when you bring a friend or student from Oman to church is to see her checking her Facebook alone at one corner while the rest of us were chatting among ourselves… Be welcoming, get to know people and where appropriate, pray for them… invite them over for lunch… Show them the hospitality of Christ… Serve them… Fetch them home, if necessary… Befriend the families who come to the library… Play and read story books to their children… It is holiday season with the Lunar New Year coming this Friday. A lot of us will balik kampong, visit relatives, friends, colleagues and open houses… Those are the contexts in which conversational evangelism can happen. 

Let’s not become fishermen who were so busy singing and talking about fishing that they have no time left to fish.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

What Is The Bible? Is It God's Word?

Can I have a show of hands? How many of you here have read the entire Bible at least once? 

No matter what your view on Bible is, whether you have confidence and trust in it as being from God in any special way or not, I would like to encourage you to pick up a Bible and read through it with an open mind, with a critical mind at least once in your life. Even if you are Christian or not, the Bible has such a profound impact on the English language as literature (it’s the number one best seller of all time) and on human culture and civilization that some Bible knowledge is essential just to make your educational development more complete. If you do not have a copy, just google and you are ready to go.

Now, what is the Bible anyway? Is it historically reliable? Is it relevant for our lives today? These are the three questions I like to address today.
What’s the Bible?  
Here’s a trick question: How many books am I holding in my hand now? The answer is not one. Actually, the Bible is a collection of 66 books written by about various authors (kings, prophets, fishermen, poets, wise men, song writers, even a doctor named Luke), in three different languages (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic). They were written over a period of approximately 1600 years (1500 BC until 100 AD). It has been translated into more than 2000 languages around the world in either complete or partial form. And the Bible contains many different styles of writing such as poetry, songs, stories, history, law, letters, proverbs and prophecy. To understand what they say, we need to read them in context of those styles.
Even though everything seems so different, the amazing thing is that the entire Bible tells one Big Story. In spite of all that diversity and complexity, there is an overarching unity of theme. Now some people think the Bible is a book of moral rules, to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Well, there are some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should do. It’s about God and what He has done for you.
Other people think the Bible is a book about heroes of faith, showing good examples you should follow. There’s truth in that but people have been quite shocked when they find that these heroes in the Bible like Moses, Abraham, King David, Samson, Solomon, Peter and Paul are often not very good role models after all. All of them made some pretty horrible mistakes, sometimes on purpose. The fact is: they are all broken people (sinners) just like us and they are all signposts that point us beyond themselves, they show us the only one true Hero in this Story: His name is Jesus the Christ. By the way, Christ is not his last name. It’s His title – the King, the Anointed One, the Chosen One.
That’s why the Bible is divided into two parts: Old Testament written before the coming of Jesus and New Testament written after His life, death and resurrection. The Old Testament prepares and promises the coming of this perfect King. It gives people clues, hints and symbols about who He is, where and how He will come, what He will do and so on. The New Testament records eyewitness accounts, it reveals and explains to us what Jesus has taught and done in history about 2000 years ago. So Christ is prophesied in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament. He is the main character in the story.  
For Christians, this unity in such diverse writings and fulfilled prophecies are not by random accident. The Bible itself claims to be inspired by God: “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus Himself says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” God is the Author behind all the human authors.
Now, what is this Big Story that runs through the whole Bible? What’s the message?
Well, to summarize it briefly: you can think of it as a love story with 4 chapters. A story of how God loves His children and comes to rescue them… Right at the beginning (in the first book called Genesis), we are told that God made the whole universe and everything in it – the oceans and mountains, whales and lions, planets, quasars, atoms and human beings – the wonderful design of our bodies, nervous system and encoded DNA in every cell. We are created in God’s likeness with great worth and dignity – with special ability to think, feel and we can have a special relationship with God and with one another. Life is full of purpose, beauty and harmony when it works according to His original design.
Until the day when everything went terribly wrong. In Chapter 2: We decided to run our lives and seek happiness apart from God. We became self-centered, our desires turned inward. As a result, we seek our own good above others' and exploit the world out of greed and violence. But there is no happiness apart from God. Death, sorrow and sickness entered the world. The wonderful relationship with God, with each other and with nature itself was broken. Evil has corrupted our hearts.
But God loved the world too much to leave it that way so he came to our rescue. Chapter 3: At the heart of this Story is God coming to earth in the form of a human person – Jesus. Not because of how good, humble or smart we are. Jesus lived the perfect life that we should have lived. He died the sacrificial death that we should have died for our sins. He died an innocent death on the cross and came back to life again so that our relationship with God can be restored. Last chapter: Jesus will return one day and His kingdom will turn back all that is evil and heal all who suffer in the world. Every tear of sorrow will be wiped away from our eyes. Death shall be no more. In the meantime, Jesus invites all who follow Him to live in the way of His love, justice and grace.

 So that in a nutshell is the big Story in the Bible.

You see, the best thing about this Story is – it’s true. If the Bible is just about moral rules, it doesn’t matter if all this is just a fairy tale. Even myths can tell you to do good without being historically true. But the gospel or good news is not about what you do but what God has done. So it’s important that Jesus lived and died and rose again 2000 years ago.   

Which brings us to the next question: Is the Bible historically reliable? Did it really happen?

More than any other book, the Bible has been analyzed, criticized, dissected and defended by scholars, scientists, philosophers and historians for hundreds of years. So you can easily find arguments on both sides disproving and proving the Bible on Google and Youtube. And this will go on forever.

So first, let me just say something about the discipline of archaeology and history. We need to know that only a small part of ancient artifacts or documents survived the ravages of time, war and humid weather. And only a fraction of ancient sites were found and dug up for research. Some of them were never found. So the evidence that we now have are fragmentary, limited and partial in nature. They cannot finally prove or disprove the Bible because new findings may come.

So archaeology is valuable to tell us more about the historical context and background information of the Bible, but not to prove the Bible. And the absence of evidence is never proof that something did not happen. For example, for a long time, people doubted if King David and Pontius Pilate the person who sentenced Jesus to death ever existed because we cannot find the evidence: Ahh… this is just a myth. But with further research, documents and inscriptions have now been found to confirm that they both existed. Sometimes, we just have to be patient and wait for more evidence.

When it comes to the life of Jesus, we are lucky that quite a few ancient documents outside of the Bible (even by enemies of the Christian faith) provide details about him. Talmud (Jewish source): “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged.”

Lucian (2nd century, Greek writer): “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.”

Tacitus (A.D. 55 - 117, Roman historian): “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…”

But the earliest and most complete historical source about Jesus’ life is the Gospels and other documents in the New Testament itself. The life and death of Jesus are historically verifiable, not an imaginary fairy tale. There were eye witness accounts. Faith is not blind, “take it or leave it”. Biblical faith is based on historical facts that can be checked.

Now, how do historians check whether an ancient document is reliable or not? Well, they ask these questions:

1) How many surviving copies of that ancient document do we have to compare and test? The more manuscripts we have, the easier it is to detect differences and check for any copying errors.

2) What is the time gap between the oldest surviving copies and the writing of the original? The closer to the original, the more confidence we have in the manuscripts.

First let us look at the statistics for non-biblical texts:
Caesar's The Gallic Wars has 10 surviving manuscripts with the earliest copy dating to 1,000 years after the original writing; Herodotus' History (8 manuscripts; 1,350 years elapsed) and Tacitus' Annals (20 manuscripts; 1,000 years). The best preserved of ancient non-biblical writings is Homer’s Iliad with about 650 surviving copies (500 years elapsed).                          

In comparison, there are more than 5,000 existing Greek manuscripts that contain all or part of the New Testament! They were was written from about A.D. 50 to A.D. 100. Two major manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 325) and Codex Sinaiticus (A.D. 350) date within 250 years of the time of composition. Most fascinating of all, the earliest fragment of a small portion of John’s Gospel dates about A.D. 120.

If skeptics dismiss the Bible as unreliable, then they must also throw out virtually everything we learn from ancient history. 

OK, so far we have seen how the New Testament is a basically reliable historical document but is it really God’s word? A lot of ancient documents can be historical but we don’t think that they are from God. How is it relevant to my life as revelation of God?

That’s a great question and we need to start with Jesus who is at the center of the Bible’s Big Story.

You see, Buddha did not claim to be God. Moses never said that he was Yahweh. The prophet of Islam Muhammad did not claim to be Allah. Yet Jesus said: He who has seen me has seen God the Father (John 14:9). From the Bible, we also discover that Jesus claims to have authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:5–7) and equal with God (John 5:18). He claims to be the Son of Man who will judge the world, rule over the nations and receive worship from all peoples (Matthew 26:63-65).

Someone who claims to be equal with God cannot be just another human teacher. He is either mad or bad or really, He is Lord of all.  

When some religious teachers said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you. Show us a miracle to prove that you are from God,” Jesus answered, “Just as the prophet Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 28:38-40)

Three days after he was dead and buried in a grave, Jesus rose back to life and proved that His claims were true. The resurrection is a miracle, a sign that vindicates His claims to be true. All his disciples except Thomas had seen him alive. So Thomas said he would only believe if he could put his fingers on the nail wounds of Jesus’ hands and into his pierced side. So finally Jesus appeared and told him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side.” 

Thomas cried out: “My Lord and my God!” and worshipped Jesus. Jesus accepted his worship: “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who haven’t seen me and believe anyway.” (John 20)

Jesus conquered Death to prove His claims to be true. Therefore we trust and accept His teachings that the Bible is not only historically accurate but also God’s word for our lives. Therefore we receive the answers Jesus gave to the big questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? What is purpose of life? Where do we go after death? All these questions are relevant to our personal lives.

If the Bible is a reliable record of God's word, then it is essential that we take time to read and study it. It is sad indeed that many Christians can devote hours to their hobbies or studies but often give so little time to studying His written revelation. Many Christians have never read the whole Bible even once, despite coming to faith years ago. If you are not already in the process of studying the whole Bible, let me encourage you to do so.

Not only should we read the Bible, we must also live it. 'Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.' All of us are dying and it is the message of the Bible, that alone can give us hope and salvation.

As you read the Bible, don’t take it as just moral laws or religious rituals that teach you to be a better person. The purpose is not that you may impress God and earn your ticket to heaven by good deeds. The Bible shows you God’s holy standard is so high that you will never reach it on your own. It shows you what God has done in history – Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He doesn’t just show you the way. He is the way. You come to God through Him alone. He is your hope. If you turn away from living for yourself and trust in Jesus as the One who rescues you from your sin and as the King who now rules over your life, you can have a living relationship with God. Today.

He can cleanse you from all your guilt and sins. Then the Bible will be a joy and a fountain of wisdom to you. Because it always points you to Jesus, the God who became human and gave His life up to save you.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Watching Movies Through The Eyes of Faith

Sermon podcast for download and listening is available here

Let’s have a show of hands: Who hasn’t heard of Nicole Kidman? Brad Pitt? Shahrukh Khan? Or Andy Lau? Karl Barth? Probably more people here know more about these movie stars than about famous theologians. For those of us in their teens or twenty-something’s, movies are just a part of life. Our young people are more up to date with what’s coming soon from Hollywood, TVB or Korean drama than perhaps, any other topic.

Because we live in an image-driven culture, a film-watching culture. Otherwise Tanjong Golden Village and Golden Screen Cinemas would not be jam packed during weekends. Or if you need more evidence, try to find a home that does not have at least one television set. Or walk around the neighborhood and count the number of homes now installed with Astro satellite dish that can transmit more than 50 different channels to your living room at the press of a button. How wonderful is that?

When the lights dim and the silver screen is lowered, something magical happens. Movies are a magical portal that transports us into another world. To the grand fortresses of Gondor in Middle Earth. Or the wonderful ecosystem of Pandora. Or a galaxy far, far away where Jedi knights roam amongst strange alien creatures. Movies can enchant us and thrill us, make us laugh out loud or scare the living daylights out of us. They can change the way we think and how we feel. They convey values and meaning, what is good and what is important.

A good movie takes raw materials from the stuff of life – friendships, conflict, our quest for significance and redemption – and turn them into an experience, creating characters and a picture of reality that we can all relate to. It’s a visual storybook that could show us new insights about our world that would otherwise remain hidden from our untrained eye.

Like the short clip we watched a moment ago from the Pixar movie “Up”… It not only makes you smile and draws you emotionally into the story. It drives home gently some lessons about life too. It’s not just a cartoon for kids, I tell you. The scene where Ellie lost her unborn baby especially brings back memories of a similar episode in my own married life. Combining the ancient art of storytelling with cutting edge special effects, movies are, of course, very entertaining. But at the same time, they have also become a powerful medium by which people today discover and interpret meaning in their daily life.

Let me show you how different patterns of communication have evolved in human society: at the dawn of history, stories are passed down by word of mouth, focusing on the ear: an oral culture. Think of our grandfather’s stories or the penglipur lara. Then we move into a literate age where the focus is on the eye: Think of libraries, reading books, the Renaissance, the invention of the printing machine. About a hundred years ago, we crossed over to a post-literate age that focus on both the ear and eye: think of television, movies, and news broadcast. And now with the Internet, Youtube, smart phones and social media, perhaps we are coming to a digital age where people not only consume culture, they also want to actively create arts and culture. People want to share stories, create music videos and short motion picture of their own. In fact, some talented youths in CDPC are already doing that, aren’t they? Have you checked out the recent cover songs uploaded by Eugene See and others? CDPC’s got talent!

If that is how people tend to communicate today, how should our Christian faith relate to the movie world? Or put another way, what has Jerusalem to do with Hollywood?

Well, for a long time, the church has a love-hate relationship with movies. They are often frowned upon for promoting worldliness, profanities, violence and sexual permissiveness. And that is quite often the case. And we are right to reject these elements. But sometimes, we can throw the baby out with the bath water.

For some people, movies are sometimes seen as helpful or acceptable when they depict biblical stories like the Jesus film used for evangelistic rallies. Apart from that, some of us don’t see much spiritual value in them.

On the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps more descriptive of us city folks, we may just mindlessly go along and consume whatever is offered at the box office. “All my friends watched it so why I cannot watch? Aiya… I just want to have some fun only. Don’t think so much lar.”. We don’t discern between good and bad movies. We just switch off our brain and allow our minds to “drift” along with the show. Just as a fish in water doesn’t realize that it’s wet; television and movies are so much a part of our lives that we hardly notice their impact on us. For better or for worse.

So I would like to reflect with you today how we can engage with movies with an open mind and yet, to do so in a discerning way. It’s a practical application of earlier CDPC sermons on “being culture maker” and “cultural engagement”. So, here are three ways we can approach movie culture

1) Dare to say no! (Avoidance and caution)

It may sound obvious but there are many movies that we should intentionally avoid. We mustn’t be afraid of saying no. There’s benefit in leaving some films unwatched, some horrible music unlistened to, some junk food unconsumed. We must not worry about being labeled uncool, uncultured, or legalists. It’s more important that we learn to discern what we see in the light of the gospel and know where our own limits are.
For example, food (nasi lemak) like every gift in God’s created world is a good thing. But it can become a bad thing if we eat it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good if we consume it not as something we must have (“My preciousss... Gollum must have it”) but as something we can have, delighting in God’s good creation.
So ask yourself: Am I free to abstain from these good things as much as I am free to enjoy them? Am I able to say no? There’s no clear command in the Bible against watching movies or drinking coffee. But if we are not able to go without television or Starbucks for a whole day, then it has become an addiction. Or if we are so insistent on our Christian freedom to enjoy these things, that we look down on others who don’t like arty films or whatever, that’s also a form of legalism pretending to be “free”.
There are times when we need to say: Yes, I am not forbidden from watching this film. It is not evil, but because of my particular weakness and tendencies in this area and so that it won’t stumble my children and friends, and for the sake of my gospel witness, I think the wise thing to do is to abstain. I choose to, not because I have to. For example, if you give me a remote control I can surf channels for hours. If that’s also your weakness then you need to be extra careful how you exercise this freedom.

Cultural exposure is always related to a person’s spiritual and personal maturity. Even an excellent movie like Shawshank Redemption may not be appropriate for a 12 year-old.

You are in the best position to decide what films you are comfortable with, and where to draw the line. Ask yourself: How is my habit shaping my desires? Are they drawing me closer to God or to self? To holiness or to worldliness?

We all know of the glorification of guns, sex and materialism in some films. But there are less obvious spiritual dangers. French philosopher Jacque Ellul notes that the person who has the power to edits images in sequence chooses for you; he condenses or stretches what becomes reality itself for us. We are utterly obliged to follow this rhythm.”

Remember how our mainstream media covers the Bersih rallies last time? Someone has already decided for us what is “reality”– you don’t get to see a peaceful multi racial crowd of thousands. We are just fed with images of a few scattered samseng walking down an empty street, throwing bottles at police. A movie director has the same power of propaganda by making fun of certain people as stupid or intolerant in an unfair manner. As passive spectators, we are constantly being fed with a stream of images. Reality is substituted with an artificial construct like the Matrix that distorts our perception and manipulates our opinion. 

Kairos research director Dr Kam Weng warns us that this image-driven culture can have negative impact on our education and spiritual health. TV, i-Pads and video games may over-stimulate children with fast paced sights and sounds. If we are not careful, it can stifle their ability to sustain attention on their own, to read patiently and use language actively. They just can’t sit still: Here we are now, entertain us!

CDPC Puchong has a library ministry that seeks to inspire children to be a lifelong reader. Why? Well, reading a book allows you to control the pace of information input. It invites you to think over and connect the words printed on the page. You can sit down and pause to explore this imaginary world of wonder, beauty and adventure that the author describes. Real learning needs patience, careful reflection.

After getting married, having a son and working on projects at the office, I can hardly find the time to watch a lot of movies these days. So I need to choose carefully which movies to watch so time/money are not wasted. One way to do this is to find out what is the genre of that movie: Is it a romantic comedy? Is it an action thriller? Is it a ‘slasher movie’ like I know what you did last summer? If it is a slasher movie, it is usually about a mysterious psychopath on the loose killing a lot people in all sorts of interesting ways until the final girl (it’s always a girl, don’t ask me why?) defeat him or escaped. Once I know the genre, I have some idea what is the formula of the story and I’d say: No, thank you. And that’s just me.

There are also solid online Christian resources that can help us make such decisions. They give you a good summary of what to expect, background info about the production and biblical evaluation of its major themes. Sometimes I would browse around and pick one or two recommended ones

2nd Approach: Dare to say yes! (Dialogue and Engagement)

Having said all that, we cannot totally abandon the movie world that modern folks are already immersed in. Otherwise, we will only let this conversation be dominated by other voices and lose our ability to take part and influence it.

We need to talk about the movies we watch in order to celebrate what is good and perhaps clarify our own position on many of life’s questions. This means that we need to "train" our eye to understand the language of movies and not just offer knee jerk response like just counting how many curse words are spoken in it.

In fact, there are many movies that can be watched “redemptively” – when we enter into a conversation with the film on its own terms. As we listen to the story, to ourselves and to God, we may leave the cinema with fresh insights and new inspiration. But to do that, as with any work of art, we need to lay aside our preconceived ideas and biases and listen fairly to what the film has to say. We must first allow another point of view to enter in, to interact and dialogue with our own view before making any judgment. Theological analysis should come AFTER (not before) the aesthetic experience of appreciating a movie. It’s a kind of open minded/suspend-judgment approach that says: “I hear what you say, but I don’t have to believe all you say”.  

When we do that, we may be surprised by some “A-ha” moments that enrich our outlook on life. I’m sure many of you have encountered magical movie moments like that before.

But let me share with you a real story how the movie Awakenings (1990) can impact the life of young man named Yoke Yeow. It appeared at that time of his life when, as a pre-U, he worked hard to get good grades but he has no idea what to do with his life! In this movie Awakenings, Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a neurologist who ends up devoting his life to victims of a coma caused by degeneration of nerve cells. He accidentally discovered a wonder drug that brings these coma patients back to life! They have a short but exciting timeframe to recapturing their lost youth. But unfortunately the effect is not permanent. They are doomed to slip back into a prison of catatonia again: living zombies, trapped behind frozen, empty stares.
Struggling through the tragedy, Dr Sayer says: "We can hide behind the veil of science,.. but reality is we don't know what went wrong anymore than we know what went right. What we do know is as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place. The human spirit is more powerful than any drug and that is what needs to be nourished."

That movie changed Yoke Yeow’s life. He cried bitterly as he felt for the patients’ suffering and inspired by Dr Sayer’s passion for his work. Unknown to him, a vocation was being defined: to involve himself passionately in the lives of suffering patients and share in their struggle to keep alive their God-breathed identity. He has found his calling to be scientist, healer and friend.  
Good movies can serve as vehicles of common grace and touch our lives just like that. He who has eyes, let him see.  

Of course, the fun part of a movie is not only in finding some hidden spiritual message hidden inside. But many films actually explore and confront us with themes that relate to faith, relationships and important social issues. They convey our society’s myths, symbols and fundamental beliefs about the meaning of human experience. So we are invited to enter into a dialogue over these overlapping themes where the Bible and film meet together. We need to watch with eyes wide open to appreciate them. Here is just a short sample of such films.

Abortion (Cider House Rules)
Death punishment (The Green Mile, Dead Man Walking)
Biotechnology/eugenics (Gattaca)
Faith and Reason (Life of Pi / Contact)
Freewill/consciousness/Artificial intelligence (I, Robot/The Matrix/Minority Report)
Environment/consumerism (The Lorax, Wall-E )
Conflict diamond trade/child soldiers (Blood Diamond)
Social control/Media ethics (The Truman Show)
Nuclear war (The Sum of All Fears, Terminator 2)
Slavery (Amazing Grace, Amistad)
The Holocaust (Schindler’s List, Life is beautiful)

So as parents and Christian leaders, we can wisely select and use some of them to guide and explore such issues with our children or cell groups for group conversation. A movie study may keep more people interested than a book study, right?

To do this effectively, we need to ask the right questions. In almost any movie, the story of the main character(s) is an argument for a way of living or a world view in the form of a drama. Something is lost and needs redemption: But, how? As the hero changes his attitude or assumptions about the world through his experiences in the ‘reel’ world, so we see what the filmmakers are trying to persuade us about how we see the real world.
When watching a movie, ask yourself,
·                      “What is the character flaw or problems of the hero at the beginning?”
·                      “What makes him change his mind in the story about the way he sees the world?”
·                      “What does he learn about the way life ought or ought not be lived?”
·                      “What is different about the way he sees the world at the end from the way he sees it at the beginning?” (Brian Godawa, “Hollywood Worldviews”)

This could be a good way to start a conversation. Asking such questions and offering answers biblically help us to apply and connect our Christian beliefs both in the ‘reel’ world as well as the real world.

3rd approach: Divine encounter  

A lot of people experience a sense of awe and wonder when they are confronted with something heart-stoppingly beautiful – whether it is listening to an orchestra playing Handel’s Messiah, or gazing at a masterpiece painting in a museum or even scuba diving on a breath-taking coral reef. People often come way from encountering beauty with a small glimpse of the divine. 

Have you experienced something similar? In the movie American Beauty, a broken young man from a dysfunctional family came across a plastic bag swirling around in the wind. It was just dancing around, like a little kid begging him to play with it. And he stood there and video taped the whole thing for fifteen minutes. He said:
“That's the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Sometimes there is so much... beauty... in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” It may seem like a mundane event but that encounter with a graceful dancing plastic bag gave him a sense of transcendence.

So it is with a well made film like any great work of art… It can be an opportunity for a burning bush experience if we watch with our hearts open. Common grace is everywhere, ready to burst forth when we least expect it.

Now, let us try to apply these three broad Christian approaches and see how they work with a Steven Spielberg war film “Saving Private Ryan”. Then you can compare and see which one(s) works for you. This is a story of 8 soldiers who were given a mission to rescue one man Private James Ryan from behind enemy lines. Why is he so important? Because his three brothers have all recently been killed in action; leaving him as the only child of a single mother. So the military leaders want him to be brought back alive. At one point, Captain Miller (the Tom Hanks character) says, “This Ryan had better be worth it. He’d better go home, cure some disease or invent the longer lasting light bulb or something.” And it turns out that the rescue mission claims the lives of all these eight soldiers, one after another. At the final battle scene, as the Captain himself dies, his last words to Private Ryan were: “Earn this – earn it”. In other words, look at the sacrifice we have made to save your life. You must earn it. Live a life that is worthy of our sacrifice.

Fifty years pass, and in the closing shots of the film, we see an elderly Ryan returning to the Captain’s grave with his wife, children and grandchildren. He kneels, and as tears fill his eyes, he says: “My family is with me today… Every day I think about what you said to me that day. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me”. Then he turns to his wife and asks anxiously, “Tell me I’ve led a good life… Tell me I’m a good man”. He has lived his entire life with the last words of his savior ringing in his ears. Earn it.

How should we respond? Some Christians may choose to avoid this R-rated film because of the graphic, violent battle on the beach of Normandy at the opening sequence. Or they may be offended by the soldiers’ foul language. That’s one possible response.

But others may recognize that this is a realistic description of World War II. They may be cautious about excessive violence, but they will seek a dialogue on the theme of war. Can war ever be just? Or is war always evil for everyone involved? The discussion becomes less abstract as you ‘see’ the concrete messiness of war. Or we may engage the human values of self-sacrifice and courage portrayed by Captain Miller and his men? How would you feel? How would you live differently if someone really gave away his own life so you may live yours?

Perhaps, some may even be drawn to a divine encounter though it is not be the director’s intention. Jesus says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command.” The fact is, Someone has already died for us and gave His life on the cross so that we might live to the full. And if we really get it, emotionally and personally, how can we live in the same old way again? It’s going to change everything. Your life is not your own. You have been bought with a precious price. How can we not love and sacrifice for others? How can we not live in a way worthy of the gospel? But there is a big difference: The Savior’s last words were not “Earn it. Earn my love”. His last words were: “It is finished!” It is done. The price has been paid. I have earned it for you. My love is costly and yet it is free.

As we talk about the movies we have experienced, we celebrate what is good and reject what is evil. It can serve as a bridge to connect with others who otherwise would never walk into a church or talk openly about their beliefs. Imagine your small group or family coming together to watch a good movie and then discuss and pray about them together. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Movie, like art and culture, is a wonderful thing. It’s a gift immersed with general revelation and at the same time, tainted by sin. So we must be good stewards of it.

Sometimes that means having the courage to say no. Other times, it means we need the courage to engage and have a meaningful conversation. On some rare and sacred occasions, they can even be the humble tools by which the Spirit of God works to change and enlighten us. Or perhaps for some of you gifted young people seated here - you may consider film-making as a calling from God .

Phillipians 4:8 – Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.