We Christians can sometimes be a little too preoccupied with sin, especially other people’s sin. We tend to give ourselves a lot of grace. When I sin, it’s because I’m human. When others sin, well, God needs to sort them out, and they need to repent. We want mercy for ourselves and judgement for everyone else!

We also have favourite sins and others that we ignore. For example, the sin of gluttony is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible but rarely mentioned in church. I’ve been in countless green rooms at Christian’s conferences over the years, where lots of XXL evangelists fill their huge frames before preaching about the sins of others.

But one sin we rarely hear about is the sin of discrimination. It’s something I’ve studied as we’ve formed Bayside Church’s Inclusion Statement. I confess I was surprised at the multitude of Bible verses that address this sin.

First-Century Discrimination

First-century Jews considered non-Jews (gentiles) as unclean. A Jew would not enter a gentile’s home or eat with them as either act would lead to ceremonial uncleanness. Imagine Peter’s horror when he was praying on the roof of the house one day and experienced a vision from God. In the dream, he saw a sheet suspended by the corners and crammed with all kinds of unclean animals that a Jew would never eat. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter’s response dripped with spiritual pride, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

What’s fascinating in this story is that Peter was staying in the home of Simon, the tanner. Simon was in the business of treating animal hides to produce leather, a trade that was considered unclean by the Jews. Through this vision, God dealt with Peter’s hypocrisy and discrimination, two things that made Peter’s heart impure.

The Divine Reply

God’s response is stunning, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). The Spirit was moving, and the newly-formed church would need to welcome “unclean” gentiles into their communities. It took decades for the Jewish church to wrap its heart around this truth. Much of Paul’s letter-writing ministry was aimed at the pushback by Jewish Christian leaders against the acceptance of gentiles in the church.

Over the centuries, the Holy Spirit has placed a finger on various other aspects of “Christian” discrimination. Jesus’ people have been guilty of racial bias in supporting slavery and treating people of colour as second-class citizens. We have shown prejudice towards women, single parents, illegitimate children, mixed-race couples, the separated, divorced, and remarried. For decades the church has discriminated against LGBTIQ+ people.

Sin of Discrimination

All this discrimination has been justified by quoting Bible verses, but rarely has the sin of discrimination been called out. And yet, the Bible has so much to say about it. James names it bluntly, as he does so well, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism(James 2:1).

Favouritism is “the fault of one who when called on to requite or to give judgment has respect to the outward circumstances of men and not to their intrinsic merits.” It’s forming an opinion of someone based on externals like skin colour, clothing, mannerisms, wealth or lack thereof, and either accepting or rejecting that person. Note what James says, “believers in … Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.” A few verses later, he asks, “have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” And then verse nine, “But if you show favouritism, you sin ….” (James 2:4).  The sin of discrimination!

Be Like God!

God doesn’t discriminate, and neither should his people (Romans 2:11, 10:12). “To show partiality in judging is not good” (Proverbs 24:23). Christians are required to follow God’s Word “without partiality, and to do nothing out of favouritism.” (1 Tim 5:21). We should treat everyone the same because “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

The apostle Paul said that the Royal Law, “Love your neighbour as yourself”, is the fulfilment of the law because “Love does not harm a neighbour.” Jesus taught what is now referred to as the golden rule, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Notice that the Royal Law AND the Golden Rule both fulfil AND summarise the entire Bible. That’s how Christians should live, behave, and interact with others. There is no room for discrimination.

Ready to Change?

The church has not always treated others in the way we would like to be treated. I have not always got this right either. I apologise for my missteps. I aim to do better. So does our church.

With that in mind, we have crafted an Inclusion Statement as a public declaration that all people will be treated equally by our church community:

At Bayside Church, we believe that every person is created in God’s image. All are equally worthy of respect, dignity, and love, regardless of gender, sexuality, age, ability, race, or ethnicity.

Everyone is invited, welcomed, and supported to grow in their relationship with God and each other. Everyone is encouraged to use their gifts and abilities to serve God and others.

At Bayside Church, we are committed to creating a safe space for all – we do this through clear policies and pathways so that everyone can feel safe and nurtured.

At Bayside Church, we courageously love and empower people to become like Jesus.

Of course, it’s easy to write and read this. The challenge comes as together we seek to live it out as a reality and no longer commit the sin of discrimination.


I recently read a comment from a pastor who was angry about the behaviour of a politician. Nothing strange about that you may think, and I agree. What was a little out of the ordinary, though, was that the pastor suggested he’d like to do something painful to the politician and, to justify his viewpoint, he quoted the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple.

“WWJD: he would have made a whip and beat the crap out of him!”

I’ve heard a few people over the years use this story about Jesus and the whip as a license for some act of violence against another person (or people). But is that really what Jesus is doing here, and does this story encourage the use of violence?

Jesus in the Temple

Even though the account of the cleansing of the Temple is found in all four Gospels, it’s only the apostle John who mentions a whip (John 2:15). There is no mention of Jesus using the whip against a person; in fact, John reports that he used the whip to drive both the sheep and the cattle out of the Temple. John doesn’t say Jesus hit the animals either.

Jesus’ Purpose

The most important question here is, why did Jesus act in this way? What did he want to teach his followers? It certainly wasn’t to “beat the crap” out of someone with whom we disagree.

All the way through his ministry years, Jesus faced resistance from the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus came with the revelation that God, the father, was compassionate (Luke 6:36). In contrast, the predominant theme of the first century Judaism was purity, not compassion: “You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” The Gospels record the constant clash of cultures between Jesus’ compassion for people and the purity code of the day. That’s what the cleansing of the Temple was all about.

Old Testament Temple law didn’t restrict the access of women or non-Jews. But over the centuries, purity laws were extended. By the time of Jesus, women and Gentiles were excluded from the Court of Israel on pain of death.

It was Passover, and space that was meant for people in the Court of Gentiles was taken up by merchants, their tables, and their animals. And that’s why Jesus’ anger boiled over. He had come for those on the margins of society, those who were often excluded by the purity laws – the unclean, the poor, sinners, tax collectors, women, lepers, the disabled, and so on. He came to bring IN those who were kept OUT by man-made religion.

Jesus’ Anger at Injustice

As Jesus is clearing the Temple, he quotes from the Scriptures, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Isaiah 56:7; Jeremiah 7:11). Isaiah goes on to speak of the Temple being for the Gentiles as well (a house of prayer for all nations), a fact that many of Matthew’s readers would have been well aware. And so, Jesus’ action here becomes clear. He’s providing room for those who have been left out. Matthew tells us, “and the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.” Hang on a minute! The blind and the lame weren’t allowed in the Temple. Ah, that’s the point. Jesus consistently brought in those who were left out – and so should his church today!

Grace & Compassion

This story has nothing to do with excusing violence against someone with whom we disagree and everything to do with extending grace and compassion to people in distress. If Jesus were here today, he wouldn’t make a whip and beat the crap out of anyone.

Another occasion makes Jesus’ peaceful intentions clear. He and his disciples had been rejected by a Samaritan town. James and John (the ones most likely to make whips to beat people) suggested they could “call fire down from heaven to destroy them.” Jesus rebuked them because “the Son of man didn’t come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” But Jesus, don’t you want to beat the crap out of them? “No, I’m the Prince of Peace, not a man of violence!”

During the early months of Jesus’ ministry, he was seen as a teacher (Rabbi) who travelled around the Galilean countryside teaching in their synagogues. People loved Jesus right from the start. His message was fresh and insightful and often came with a demonstration of the power of God in signs, wonders, and miracles.

On one particular occasion, Jesus returned to Nazareth, the small rural town of about 400 people where he had been brought up. “On the Sabbath day, he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:14-21).

The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Jesus for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he was teaching them from the Scriptures, so they were focused on him and secondly, Jesus had stopped reading halfway through a sentence, and they probably wondered why.

Focus on the Good

We don’t know what Jesus taught the people that day. For whatever reason Luke didn’t deem it essential to record the sermon, just the text, and to let us know that Jesus had told the people that this 700-year-old portion of the Hebrew Bible was fulfilled in their hearing on that day!  Wow!

The fact that Jesus stopped reading the Isaiah prophecy halfway through a sentence was very profound. Those in the congregation who knew their scriptures well would have realised that Jesus didn’t complete Isaiah’s sentence: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God.” There’s no comma or full stop after the word “favour”.  Jesus just stopped reading, rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.

Jesus came to declare the beginning of a period known as “the year of the Lord’s favour.” It’s worth noting that favour is spoken of as a Year whereas vengeance is a Day. These are symbolic rather than real periods, but it’s encouraging that favour lasts a long time whereas vengeance or judgement passes quickly. Jesus didn’t come to bring judgement – he warns of it as a future event, but his emphasis is on the favour, which is the good news, the gospel.

To realise more deeply what Jesus is referring to, it’s helpful to have some understanding of the Hebrew calendar. The Torah mandated a seven-year agricultural cycle for the land of Israel, something which is still observed in contemporary Judaism (Lev 25:10). Every seventh year was to be a Sabbatical year in which the land was rested. No ploughing, sowing or harvesting was to be undertaken. The fields would rest and then be ready to produce crops from the next year, and the cycle would begin again. Then every fiftieth year was to be a Year of Jubilee (or year of the Lord’s favour). It was a sacred time of freedom and celebration when everyone received back their original property, non-commercial debts were cancelled, and slaves would return home to their families. Clearly, this was very GOOD NEWS for many people.

A Modern Jubilee

In modern terms, the closest thing we have to a jubilee is an amnesty. In 1996 the Howard government responded to the Port Arthur massacre by allowing owners of illegal firearms to hand in weapons without penalty. “All up, more than 700,000 guns were removed from the community and destroyed. No other nation had ever attempted anything on this scale” (The Age). More than 50,000 guns were collected at the second amnesty in 2017. Usually possessing an illegal firearm would incur a penalty, but not during an amnesty. That’s what Jesus declared by his statement about the year of the Lord’s favour – a time when we can literally hand over all our sins, and mistakes (that would usually incur a punishment) with no questions asked and no penalty to pay. That’s the time we’re in right now – living in God’s favour; our debts have been cancelled, our sins are forgiven, and past offences are forgotten or overlooked.

The year of God’s favour is a whole new age in which God lifts his people out of their distress. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are continually living in his favour. While I was meditating on this a few days ago, the Holy Spirit impressed upon me that Bayside Church is coming into a Year of Favour – not 365 days but rather a new beginning, a fresh start. Christie and I are so excited about this. We’ve shared it with the church board and staff, and now I share it with you too. May I encourage you to draw close to your church at this time and benefit from all the Lord is doing.

Over the years I’ve heard many discussions about law and grace.  Those who focus on God’s law can invariably be heard expressing concerns about extreme grace (although I believe that grace, by its very nature, is extreme).  Others focus on grace to the exclusion of law and accuse those that emphasise the importance of the law of being legalistic.  So where should we land between what appears to be two polar opposites?

The answer is well illustrated in the life of Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father.  When he found out that Mary, the woman he was betrothed to be married to, was pregnant the Bible records, “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19 NIV).

At this time Joseph didn’t know about the miraculous conception (that information came later from an angel in a dream) and so, faced by his wife-to-be’s unfaithfulness and resulting pregnancy, how did Joseph act?  “Joseph … was faithful to the law.”  These words mean that Joseph was a person who obeyed God’s law and applied its rules fairly and without favouritism.  So, what did the law proscribe for Joseph to do?  The answer is found in Deuteronomy 22:23:

If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”

According to the law Joseph was within his rights to have Mary stoned to death (as well as the man she committed adultery with).  But “Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet …” What two marvellous words they are, “and yet”.  If there was no “and yet” Mary could have been stoned to death thus killing the baby Jesus inside her womb – no messiah, no salvation!  Or Mary could have been ridiculed with a public divorce that would mean she’d be an unmarried mother and unlikely to ever be married.  When her parents died she’d have no means of support and it’s likely that her and Jesus’ lives would be cut short – no messiah, no salvation!

Joseph was faithful to the law and yet he chose to express grace – and so should we.

We see this sort of justice beautifully illustrated by the prophet Isaiah in Scripture on which Joseph had no doubt meditated many times.  In Isaiah 42:1-4 the prophet foresees the coming Messiah and what He would be like: a man filled with God’s Spirit and bringing justice to the nations.  But this justice would not be about retribution, punishment, judgment or the application of the law.  Isaiah used a metaphor to describe the justice Messiah would bring: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.”  Justice in this context means “Compassion for the weak and exhausted.”  Reeds were used to make pens but damaged reeds were broken and thrown on the fire.  Smouldering wicks would fall into a bowl of water on the floor under the lamp and be extinguished.  But the servant of God spoken of in Isaiah 42 (and fulfilled in Jesus, Matt. 12:18-21) would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick.  He would be compassionate to the weak and exhausted, to the bruised and burnt out.

This is the sort of father Jesus grew up with and no doubt observed for many years as he operated in grace rather than the legalistic application of the law.  And this is the sort of man Jesus became, as we see all through the Gospels, as He met battered and bruised people with love, tenderness, compassion and grace.  Like father, like son – and we’re called to be like Jesus!

Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them.  Paul the apostle taught, “Love is the fulfillment of the Law” because, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour” (Romans 13:10 NIV).  The most-often quoted verse in the New Testament from the Law is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

In your dealings with people you will sometimes feel tempted to quote or execute the Law but remember the character of Joseph – and Jesus – who were faithful to the Law, and yet …


The New Testament Gospels don’t record everything Jesus did or said. The Apostle John made that clear when he wrote, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” We know little of Jesus’ life from the time he was a toddler to when he started his ministry about the age of 30.

We know that Jesus had an education because he could both read and write, but just like the Bible only tells us once that Jesus wept, it also states only once that Jesus wrote – but what he wrote was incredibly significant.

The story is found in John chapter 8 and revolves around a woman who had been caught by some religious leaders in the very act of adultery. It was an obvious set up to trap Jesus in order to have a basis for accusing him.

These religious leaders “made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”

Many have hypothesized about what Jesus wrote in the dirt – one suggested he was writing Sanskrit (Sand-skrit). I appreciate the attempt at humour! John doesn’t tell us what Jesus wrote because he knew his audience 2,000 years ago wouldn’t need an explanation.

Whenever someone was caught in adultery, both the man AND the woman would be brought to the Nicanor Gate and accused. This gate was the entrance to the Women’s Court of the temple. At least two witnesses must be present to confirm that adultery had indeed been committed, and then there was a certain ceremony conducted in order to bring judgment. However, in this instance the Pharisees only brought the woman, and there is no mention of any witnesses. The Teachers and Pharisees just say she was caught in the act but they don’t say by whom. Both of these things were a violation of the Law of God.

Next, the priest was required to stoop down and write the law that had been broken, along with the names of the accused, in the dust of the floor of the Temple. In fact, the priest could write the law and the names anywhere, as long as the marks were not permanent. The dust on the floor of the Temple was the most common place for this to be done. And so by doing this Jesus showed the woman’s accusers that even though THEY were not keeping the law, He would anyway.

The Scribes and Pharisees ignored the law but then continued with their accusations. And so Jesus stood up (after plainly demonstrating they were violating the law themselves) and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”   After saying this Jesus again stooped down and wrote on the ground. What did he write this time?

It’s important to note that this event occurs around Yom Kippur and the Feast of Tabernacles. Every year on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) the High Priest would baptise himself about 11 times in order to be ceremonially cleansed between each separate portion of the day’s sacrifices. At the end of the day there was a celebration at his home where the people would rejoice that their sins had been forgiven. To end the festivities the High Priest would quote Jeremiah 17:13, “Oh Yahweh, the Immerser (Baptizer) of Israel, all those who leave your way shall be put to shame (publicly embarrassed), those who turn aside from my ways will have their names written in the dust and blotted out, for they have departed from Yahweh, the fountain of the waters of life” (Literal Hebrew Translation).

Religious Jewish men would hear this verse quoted every year – the older they were the more times they’d heard it. Thus when Jesus wrote this verse in the dust the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees were “convicted by their own conscience” (KJV), put to shame, and departed from Jesus from the eldest to the youngest, the older having heard the verse quoted more often. It’s likely Jesus also wrote the men’s names in the dust in fulfillment of Jeremiah 17:13.

There are some stunning lessons to be learned from this story but the most mind-blowing is the wonderful insight it gives into the grace of God. Women had few if any rights in the first century world and yet Jesus treated this woman (and all women) with great dignity. This woman had broken the law and the law demanded capital punishment and yet Jesus responded with compassion and forgiveness. He believed in her – despite others rejecting her – and gave her the opportunity to be redeemed: Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus wrote in the dust because what he wrote wouldn’t be permanent – it could be rubbed out. That’s what he did to this woman’s sins – that is what he has done to your sins too.

From time to time I hear Christian people being critical of some explanations of the grace of God.  The terms they use to describe these teachings of God’s grace include “extreme, hyper, and cheap.”  The term “cheap grace” was originally used by German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.  Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

Others use the terms extreme grace or hyper-grace “to describe a new wave of teaching that emphasises the grace of God to the exclusion of other vital teachings such as repentance and confession of sin. Hyper-grace teachers maintain that all sin, past, present, and future, has already been forgiven, so there is no need for a believer to ever confess it” (Elmer Towns).

Grace by its very nature is not cheap – it’s free!  Grace is the radical, undeserved kindness of God towards us as expressed in Jesus Christ.  Grace is extreme but certainly not cheap.  To describe the grace of God with either of these terms is theologically incorrect.  While I agree with Bonheoffer – and greatly admire his work – putting the words “cheap” and “grace” together is an oxymoron.  In saying that, I totally understand the concern of people who express opinions about a perverted view of God’s grace.

The danger with any truth is that if you push it too far it slips into error.  This includes the truth that Martin Luther reinforced through the Reformation – that faith in the grace of God alone, apart from the law, was necessary for salvation.  Even during Luther’s time there were those who taught all one had to do was believe in Jesus.  The way a person lived didn’t matter; it was unnecessary, they said, to hold to any moral law.  In response to this, Luther coined the term Antinomianism (taken from the Greek words meaning “against law”).

For more on this read my blog on The Purpose of the Law at this link: https://baysidechurch.com.au/blog/the-purpose-of-the-law/

The apostle Paul gives some excellent teaching on God’s grace in his letter to Titus, the pastor of the churches on the Island of Crete:

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It (i.e. God’s grace) teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11-14).

The context here in Titus 2 is about living our lives “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (verse 10).  God’s grace teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions.  In other words, the grace of God is NOT an excuse to live an impure life.  Ungodliness refers to those who believe in God while behaving in a way that seems to contradict that belief.  It’s commonly called hypocrisy and is one of the main barriers to people coming to Jesus and joining a church.  People who are guilty of ungodliness will have thoughts such as “I know this is wrong but … God will forgive me.”

Worldly passions refer to the tendency to follow the crowd even when the crowd is going the wrong way and doing the wrong thing.  This perverted view of God grace was alive and well in the Roman church in the first century: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Romans 6:1) – and the Galatian church: You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13).

Author Paul Ellis puts it this way, “Grace is no more a license to sin than electricity is a license to electrocute yourself.”

God’s grace teaches us to “say no.”  It also teaches us about saying “Yes.”  God’s grace teaches us … to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.  That is, our lives will be decent, honest, respectable and consistent with our belief in God.  We will exercise self-restraint and not engage in excess.  Self-control is doing what I need to do when I don’t feel like doing it.  And it is not doing what I should not do when I do feel like doing it!

“Jesus gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”  I encourage you to appreciate afresh the amazing grace of God. There is nothing you could ever do to put yourself outside of His grace but that is not an excuse to live a sloppy life!

One of the stories trending this week on Facebook concerns Fred Phelps, the founder of the highly controversial Westboro Baptist Church, who is said to be dying at a hospice center in Kansas.

The news originated from Nate Phelps one of Fred’s estranged children, who wrote this on Facebook a few days ago.

“I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the “church” back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.”

The Westboro Baptist church was pioneered by Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. To this day the church remains small in numbers but big in impact because of its controversial statements and pickets – over 52,000 of them since the church began. Its websites include “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates America,” “God Hates Islam,” “Jews Killed Jesus,” and “Beast Obama.”  You get the idea. God’s pretty ticked off with just about everyone except the people at Westboro Baptist. There’s even a “God Hates the World” website which lists all the countries and why God particularly hates each one. The Westboro website includes a tally of the “people whom God has cast into hell since you loaded this page.”

The church has become particularly well known, and despised, for protesting at the funerals of high-profile people as well as American soldiers who’ve died in combat. A number of laws have been passed in order to keep these misguided “Christians” away from grieving friends and relatives.

As a Christian I have found the Westboro Baptist Church to be a great embarrassment over the years. I frequently find myself disappointed with their hate filled rants as well as all the media attention they receive. They present God in a way that only repels people away from a Creator who loves and cares for them. They will be remembered in history in the same category as those who misquoted the Bible to defend slavery (think “Twelve Years a Slave”), the subjugation of women, and the persecution of scientists.

So how should we respond to such a hateful man as Fred Phelps as his life draws to a conclusion? It would be easy to cheer and spew the same hate back at him that he and his family have dished out over the decades. After all, he’ll reap what he’s sown right? But does that reflect the teaching of Jesus? I think not. Jesus constantly encourages us to take the high road in our reactions towards those who mistreat us. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). In chapter 9 of his gospel, Luke recounts the story of a Samaritan village that rejected Jesus and His disciples. James and John asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” After all, God hates Samaritans!  Jesus “turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”

The apostle Paul picks up the Master’s teaching when writing to the Roman Christians, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse … do not repay anyone evil for evil … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12).

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook last night, “Can you imagine what a powerful statement it would be if the LGBT community showered the Phelps family with love during Fred Phelps’ funeral?”  I replied, “Well said, that would be awesome to see and hear – unexpected, unpredictable and a whole lot better than spewing hate back at hate.” This guy suggested a response that takes the high road – a response that Jesus encourages us to choose. Is it easy? No, it’s difficult. But the world will never be a better place if we only fight fire with fire. There’s got to come a time when we stop firing hate, bullets, bombs and harsh words at one another.  Fred Phelps will pass away and there’ll be plenty of hate-filled people to take his place. We can’t stop them, but we can choose the higher road of love that Jesus taught us to take.

With growth come many benefits.  With the benefits come countless responsibilities and complexities.  And it is these things that sometimes make us look back with longing for the simpler, less complex days.  And here lies the challenge as we grow to Christian adulthood – what was once simple and uncluttered becomes complex and chaotic.

It was this dilemma that the apostle Paul addressed when he wrote these words to the Corinthian Christians who had complicated their faith: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).  I love those words: “the simplicity that is in Christ.”  The simple message that even a child can understand.

That’s why, when Jesus was asked by His disciples, “who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus’ disciples were jostling for position – grown men acting in a childish way.  Jesus reminds them that even as they grow into maturity they are never lose their childlike qualities.

I have been studying the Bible for over 30 years.  It’s an amazing and life-changing book but it’s not all easy to understand. One of Jesus’ disciples acknowledged this in his second epistle referring to the writings of Paul, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand…” (2 Peter 3:16)

I love the story of Karl Barth who is often regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century.  His prolific theological studies and writings shaped a century and were instrumental in combating liberal theology.  His commentary, “The epistle to the Romans” is considered by many to be one of the most important theological treatises of all time.  Barth’s theology found its most sustained and compelling expression through his thirteen-volume magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics that is widely regarded as one of the most important theological works of the century. The Church Dogmatics runs to over six million words and 8,000 pages and is one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written.

And yet when Karl Barth was at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago during his lecture tour of the U.S. in 1962, after his lecture, during the Q & A time, a student asked him if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth responded, “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Karl Barth, a man of great learning, understanding and maturity had not lost touch with the simple gospel – a message so simple that even a child can understand it.

As I write this blog on Wednesday 31st October 2012, Hurricane Sandy (dubbed “Frankenstorm”) has smashed into the American northeast, leaving 16 dead, millions without power and parts of Manhattan underwater.  Conditions remain dangerous as this one-of-a-kind storm moves inland bringing blizzard conditions and massive amounts of snow.

While Sandy is still blowing cold air, predictably we have a “Christian” preacher blowing hot.  Author and chaplain John McTernan has said God’s judgment of gays caused the hurricane.  On this website http://defendproclaimthefaith.org the preacher says the storm must be God’s judgment on gays, and punishing the president Barack Obama for coming out in support of marriage equality.  He also believes “America has been under God’s judgment ever since George Bush Senior signed the Madrid Peace Process to divide the land of Israel in 1991.”  McTernan said: “Obama is 100% behind the Muslim Brotherhood that has vowed to destroy Israel and take Jerusalem.  ‘Both candidates (Obama & Romney) are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda.’”

His reasoning for this is that it has been 21 years since the “perfect storm” of October 1991.  He says, “21 years breaks down to 7 x 3, which is a significant number with God. Three is perfection as the Godhead is three in one while seven is perfection.”  The online preacher also blamed Hurricane Isaac on homosexuals.  He said gay festival Southern Decadence was to blame, as God was “putting an end to this city and its wickedness.”

It saddens me greatly that every time there is a natural disaster somewhere in the world there’s always at least one self-proclaimed Christian minister who will get up (after the event) and pinpoint the reason for it – and it’s always God’s judgment and it’s usually because of gay people.

I disagree with these judgment preachers for three main reasons:

Firstly, New Testament prophecy isn’t about proclaiming the reason for a disaster after the fact.  In Acts 11:27-30 a prophet by the name of Agabus “predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius).”  Armed with this knowledge the Christians gave financial gifts in order to help those who were affected by this famine.  Please note that there is no inference in this prophecy that this event was God’s judgment on anyone.  In His love, God gave a warning so that His people could be ready to help NOT judge.

Secondly, the Bible teaches that God always removes His people BEFORE He judges the ungodly.  Lot and his family were taken out of Sodom before the judgment fell, Noah and his family was safely in the ark before the flood.  Abraham got it right when he said to God, “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from you!  Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).  I know many Christians who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy.  It is not the judgment of God.

Thirdly, right now is the time of God’s favor not vengeance or judgment (see Luke 4:19; Isaiah 61:2).  There will be a time of judgment in the future, but right now is the time of grace and a message of good news of Salvation to EVERYONE.   People like John McTernan seem to miss this truth, and their unbiblical proclamations end up turning people away from God rather than to Him.  That saddens me greatly.  How about you?

The danger with truth is that when you push a truth too far it slips into error.  That is true when it comes to the belief that Martin Luther reinforced through the Reformation – that faith alone, apart from the law, was necessary for salvation.

During Luther’s time there were those who pushed this truth too far by teaching that the law was unnecessary and all one had to do was believe in Jesus.  The way a person lived didn’t matter; it was unnecessary, they said, to hold to any moral law.  In response to this, Luther coined the term Antinomianism (taken from the Greek words meaning “against law”).

Now I most certainly believe in salvation by faith alone in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The apostle Paul makes it clear when he says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Even though I believe this truth it doesn’t mean that I hold to antinomianism.  I believe that God’s law is vitally important for four reasons:

Firstly, the law gives us knowledge of sin.

Romans 3:20, “…through the law we become conscious of sin.”

If it weren’t for laws we wouldn’t know what was right and what was wrong.  If there was no speed limit, for example, we could drive at dangerous speeds that would harm others and us.  Having speed laws means that when someone exceeds the speed limit they can be justly punished and hopefully amend their behaviour.  Parents want to instil knowledge of right and wrong in their children so they become responsible citizens.  God’s law does the same for us.

The second purpose of the law is to declare the whole world guilty.

Romans 3:19, “all the world may become guilty before God.”

Just like the law of the land, the law of God shows us what is pleasing and displeasing to God.  If God hadn’t told us that lying, murder, adultery and the like are wrong, we wouldn’t have an understanding of them being wrong and so wouldn’t feel guilty for engaging in behaviour that is not only destructive to ourselves but also to others.

Thirdly, the law gives place to the justice of God.

Romans 4:15, “… law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.”

When we break a law justice says that it is right for the lawbreaker to be punished. When we break God’s laws He is just and righteous in punishing us.

Finally, God’s law is to lead us to Jesus Christ our Saviour

Galatians 3:24-25, “…the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”

And so, through the law we realize that we are sinners, that we are guilty and that we deserve to be punished.  Then comes the good news – Jesus has taken our punishment for us so that we can be free from guilt and shame.  The law is like a tutor that brings us to Christ, but once we have been introduced to Jesus we are no longer under the tutor (the law) – it has served its purpose, we are forgiven and free.

The Old Testament has many complex laws; the New Testament simplifies them all into one statement: “The commandments are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10; Galatians 5:14)

Once we have been forgiven by Jesus He calls us to live a life of love – a life that does no harm to its neighbour.  That is the purpose and fulfilment of the law.

Christians are accused of being too focused on getting converts and likened to telemarketers according to research conducted by David Kinnaman for the Barna Foundation.

While it horrifies me to think that Christians are seen to pester, in response to this criticism I would say, “Yes, I am out to convert people to Jesus because I believe He is the way and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him” (See John 14:6).

I believe people need to come to a point of personally accepting what Jesus Christ has done for them through His death and resurrection.  I believe that apart from Jesus people go to an eternity that is separated from God.  I believe that God’s will is for no one to perish but for everyone to come to repentance.  I believe God wants everyone to experience His abundant life now and eternal life forever.  On the basis of these beliefs, I share my faith in Jesus with others.  I tell people what He has done for me.  I tell them that He loves them too and wants the very best for them now and forever.

The problem, however, is the approach of some Christians to this task so that people feel targeted rather than befriended – a love with hooks.  In the book Unchristian, David Kinnaman says, “While we’re trying to convey the most important message in human history – that Jesus offers a new life through faith in him – something gets lost in translation … rather than being genuinely interested in people for their friendship, we often seem like spiritual headhunters.”

The solution to this perception is developing genuine relationships.  It is vitally important for Christians to demonstrate genuine interest and care towards others – love without hooks!  Listen to what the apostle Paul says about this: “Just as I myself strive to please [to accommodate myself to the opinions, desires, and interests of others, adapting myself to] all men in everything I do, not aiming at or considering my own profit and advantage, but that of the many in order that they may be saved.”  The word “please” literally means, “to seek to be agreeable.”  There is no room for obnoxious Bible-bashing in real Christianity!

Check out these words of wisdom:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15-16).  “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone … Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth…” – gentleness, respect, kindness.  Now that’s refreshing!

Being a real Christian means that you will develop genuine relationships with others whereby they may be influenced (over the process of time) and transformed by Jesus who lives in and through you!  But if people never embrace your faith – never stop embracing them, because real Christianity is genuine!