Monday, May 29, 2006

Faith and Healing

This is my personal summary of the expository preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on James 5:15-15 on 14 May 2006

The verses talk about sickness and healing.

In the first 1900 years of church history, healing for the sick was not really emphasized. In 1901, there was one person who sparked the charismatic movement. In 1905, there were 5 people. Now we have more than 200 million people. They believe that we are living in the era of the Holy Spirit where there Church is returning to the faith of the Apostles.

Apostolic faith according to their understanding consists in the following phenomena: healing, exorcism, tongues and miracles. In the 20th century numbers of charismatic believers grew a lot and people took it as the sign on the power of the Holy Spirit. Is it true? Now, in the 21st century, we can review on the 20th century with a cool mind.

Acts 2 said that the early church followed the apostolic teaching. So the apostolic teaching is the standard. This is an important principle. The New Testament always mentioned the Apostles and the Prophets, not the other way round (Eph.2:20, Eph.4:11-12). Why is the apostles always mentioned first? It is because only through the New Testament we understand the Old Testament. The New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is perfected by the New Testament.

Phillip met an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading the book Isaiah (Isa. 53) but could not understand whom the book was referring to. Phillip explained that prophet Isaiah was talking about Jesus Christ. So prophets could see ahead, they saw the Christ to come but did not live to see Him, except John the Baptist. John the Baptist declared Jesus and saw Jesus personally. He was the only prophet that saw Jesus Christ. The rest of the prophets only saw Him in faith. And John the Baptist was also the last prophet. Jesus Himself said, “The all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” (Matthew 11:13) which means that the office of the prophet has ceased!

As the office of the prophet ceased, the office of the apostles began. And the faith of the apostles was the mark of the true Church. But had the apostolic teaching been missing from the first to the 19th century? What is the work of the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit's works consist in the following. He inspired the Scriptures, the written Word of God. And through the Scriptures, He led us to the Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. Through this, He regenerates people to become part of the Church.

People who preach the most about the Holy Spirit are frequently those who do not understand. They say we are limiting the Holy Spirit if we only confine Him to work through the Scriptures. However, God is a self-limiting God. God the Father uses His absolute willingness to exercise His absolute freedom within the constraint of His attributes. God the Son constrained Himself when He came as God in the flesh. The Infinite God limited Himself to the finite, from eternal realm into history, became a human being that was constrained by space and time and could be killed. This is His own will. In 1 John 4:2-3, the apostle John asserted that we need to believe in this self-limiting God (Christ came in the flesh) to have orthodox faith. God the Holy Spirit is self-limiting too. He reveals to us all things within the constraint of the Holy Scriptures. The Truth is infinite, but He has inspired it in the constraint of words in the Scriptures. He is the Spirit of Truth that constrains the revealed Truth in the revealed Word. It is in all these constraints that we have our orthodox faith.

Is it true that if we pray in faith, all sicknesses will be healed? If so, then we cannot die of sickness and probably can only die by accident. If so, then God would be under our command. Then, is sickness always because of sin? It can be related to sin but it is not always so in every case. There are those who suffer illness not because of sin, like Job. It is not so simplistic.

This passage (James 5:15-16) seems to say that if we pray in faith, we will be healed for sure. But we need to observe that it gives the context of sin here. It tells of the relationship between sin and sickness. Not all sicknesses come because of sin. But sicknesses that come because of sin can be healed if we pray by faith and confess our sin. Therefore we cannot say that if we are not healed it means we have no faith. And we cannot also say that it is because of sin that our prayer of faith is not heard. There are sicknesses that might come for trying the saints of God, not because of sin.

The next question is, if we pray in faith, would God definitely hear us?

There are 3 examples of the prayers of people of faith that God denied.

Elijah asked for death and God rejected his prayer. He assumed that death was better than life because “I am just like my ancestors.” In the first place, he subconsciously had a wrong concept, thinking that life would be meaningful only if he could surpass the rest. Not only God did not answer his prayer, God gave him food and rest so that he would be stronger to continue fighting the life of faith. But is it wrong to desire to be better? God would not obstruct our great ambitions. Jesus said, “If you want to be great, you have to be a servant of all.” So you can desire to be great. But good motivations have to be combined with right methodology.

Jesus prayed 3 times for the cup to pass from Him and God was completely silent. It was the loneliest time of His life. He had lived only to please God perfectly but that night He pleaded and what He experienced was a vacuum of love.

What is this ‘cup’? Is it the death on the cross? It cannot be because He clearly came in the flesh in order to die, so why escape at the last moment now? He also said, “Not My will but Yours be done.” Why are there two wills? This does not mean that the Father and the Son’s wills are different, but it shows that Father and Son are two distinct Persons of God. When Jesus said, “Not My will”, He is a representative of humanity, giving us a perfect example of how human should submit his will to God. The ‘cup’ is the wrath of God. It is the separation of the Father and the Son. Both the Father and the Son’s will is the same. The Father is not willing to part with the Son and the Son is not willing to part with the Father. But it is a paradoxical moment. There is no unity without separation. The separation is an absolute necessity which only happened once in all history, where salvation is accomplished.

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” is the cry of that ‘cup’ He drank.

So, if God once did not even listen to the prayer of His Son, why should He listen and submit to your prayers? We need to correct our theology of prayer.

Next, Paul prayed 3 times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, but God rejected him. In response, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you for My strength is made perfect in weaknesses.” God often puts difficulties in His especially beloved saints. On one hand He blesses them with great grace, on the other hand He gives them trials and difficulties to keep them humble and reliant on Him. This is God’s love which is hard to understand. What is this ‘thorn’? It is not specified by Paul. There was a document in first century about Paul seeing a doctor because of his eye problem. If the document was true, then the ‘thorn’ could be illness.

So we cannot force God to heal our illnesses. We summarize a few points below.

When we pray in faith for healing, is this faith the faith that comes from hearing the Word of God, or is it self-confidence? We cannot approach God with human-centered faith after the Fall. This is faith in faith.

The passage says clearly that if we sin, we will be forgiven. When Jesus healed, He often said, “Your sins are forgiven.” This shows that sometimes sicknesses are the result of sin. The Apostle Paul also mentioned this once when he expounded regarding the Holy Communion in 1 Corinthians.

The faith of the Bible is centered on Jesus Christ and His sovereign will is above our will. It is the faith which is based on His revealed Word. And the faith consists of obedience within the promises of God.

After we understand all these things, we can pray for healing properly.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

GRII Retreat 2006 Session 1 - Who Am I?

This is my personal summary of Rev.Stephen Tong's sharing on Session 1 of "Seeking and working out your calling in God's big picture" in GRII Singapore Retreat on 11-13 May 2006

We ask this question “Who am I?” because we have a consciousness about our existence. Aristotle said that man is the only being with rationality, to do induction or deduction. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. What does this image consist of?

Ephesians 4:24
“and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (NIV)

There are 3 aspects mentioned in the verse:

1. Truth
2. Righteousness
3. Holiness

From the aspect of truth, humans are beings that have the capacity to understand and rationalize. From the aspect of righteousness, humans not only can know truth and falsehood, but can also make valuation with a standard of justice. In the aspect of holiness, humans are moral beings that are to remain holy. Morality is the foundation of culture.

The study of anthropology in fact borrows ideas from reformed theology regarding all these important aspects of the essence of humanity. But reformed theology has strong anchor because it not only discusses it, but also acknowledges the origin, that is, God made men in His image. All these aspects which reflect God in human beings are still there but have been largely marred by sin. Without the understanding of the creation and the Fall as revealed by the Scriptures, men can never understand the huge gap they see within themselves.

Man is the only being that is aware of his own existence. I know I am me and I know what is not me. Existence and the sense of existence are two different things. Human beings often live their lives being numbed of their sense of existence. When hurt and mistreated, the sense of existence becomes very strong and suddenly they realize they exist again. “Why am I treated this way?” “I am also a human being like others, but why am I mistreated?” This is the cry that springs from our realization of our existence. We should not look down on sufferings that often would bring us to a deep realization of our being.

But why is it important to have that strong sense of our existence? When was the first time we seriously ask ourselves, “Who am I?” Animals live day by day by their instinct for food and sex, unaware that they are going through a passage of history and their ‘kronos’ (time) will soon be gone. But humans are different from animals. We have a sense of crisis and it is important that we know our existence.

When a person begins to ask this question “Who am I” seriously, he has reached a very important moment of his life. He is moving towards the truth.

This sense of his existence leads to a second level of realization, that is, a sense of responsibility towards his existence. When life is too smooth, we live like a machine without demanding ourselves of higher pursuits. We do not realize that there is meaning in life. So we do not think that we are supposed to seek for meaning.

Sharp thinkers frequently emerge from places that have a lot of difficulties. They begin to have a strong sense of their existence, a sense of responsibility towards their existence and think of how they can contribute to the society and history. But in many places where life is too smooth, like Singapore, there is no such sense. Despite all the advancement in economy and technology, it is a very poor place spiritually.

The greatest question a person can ask concerning himself is, “Who am I?” This question itself contains within in another 3 basic questions.

1. Who asks? I ask.
2. Ask whom? I ask myself.
3. Ask about what? I ask about myself.

We can go on and on with further questions that come from those questions. Why do I ask myself? Do I have the right to ask? If I ask myself about myself, can I answer myself?

We should not just live like a machine. If we know the right questions to ask, we have already understood 50%. Asking the right questions is the beginning of the solution.

Further, am I satisfied with myself?

Actually, we all know that deep inside we are not satisfied with ourselves. However, when others criticize us we are still very unhappy. This tells us that we still want a false satisfaction and often times we deceive ourselves.

Is there a greater target in life I am supposed to reach? Who sets the target?

We are not created by ourselves, through ourselves, for ourselves. This basic understanding is still very blurred in worldly philosophies hence the philosophical foundation stands on very faulty and shaky ground. In all their analysis, they are still looking at themselves as the center, as both the subject and object matter, hence frequently make the mistake thinking humans can solve their own problems. When men think they can be their own savior or the savior of the world, they are sicker than the rest of the world.

If I myself do not know who I am and therefore I ask the question “Who am I?” how then can I give myself the answer of who I am?

But if I do not ask myself, if I cannot answer the question pertaining myself, whom should I ask? It is true that if we do not have faith, we can only ask ourselves.

Kierkegaard says a very deep statement regarding the essence of existence. He says that that to exist is to be one and alone before God. Everyone lives and dies before God as a distinct individual hence everyone must have the courage to ask God about his own life and sufferings. If we do not have a right relationship with the Creator, we can never answer the important questions concerning ourselves.

Asking back to ourselves the questions regarding ourselves is like an ‘evil circle’. It is anthropocentric approach where the subject and object are mixed. It is possible for a person to lift up things heavier than himself, but he still cannot lift up himself. The whole world is trapped in their search of who they are because they forget that they are created by God. If we ask God, the subject and object are now separate.

When I think, I am a subject. So I can think and analyze objects. I can study the nature and the stars. I can think far, deep and wide. But if I turn within and begin to think how my thinking is thinking, how can I think properly about how I think when I am thinking? It is again the mixture of subject and object where we cannot get the answer.

We need to get back to God. “God, show me Thy will.” “Who am I?” “What is my position in the universe?” “Is there anything I should do?” This ushers us into a serious realm where we begin to take our existence seriously.

GRII Retreat 2006 Session 2 - Why Am I Made This Way?

This is my personal summary of Rev.Stephen Tong's sharing on Session 2 of "Seeking and working out your calling in God's big picture" in GRII Singapore Retreat on 11-13 May 2006

Every human being is created distinctively, differently and individually. This becomes the foundation of the essence of existence said by Kierkegaard, “To exist is to be one and alone before God.”

Following from the first session, if I cannot answer the question of who I am, can I then find an answer from another human being? Obviously the answer is no. Every other human being also has the same question to ask pertaining himself.

This is the qualitative difference between Christian philosophy and other worldly philosophies. Worldly philosophies and psychologies are complicated because they act as if they are God who can solve fundamental human problems, forgetting that they themselves are also humans who have the same problems. They will not get to the root and hence will never succeed. Humans are not their own savior. The only exit route from this deadlock is to go back to the Designer.

When we go back to our Maker, our status is passive instead of active. This is an important concept that is not realized by sinners. Sinners always take themselves as the subject while they should be the object. Those who rebel against God knowingly and willfully think that they are the subjects who have successfully rejected God. Is God still sovereign? It seems that they win and God loses. But they do not realize that in reality, they are the objects that God has rejected. Indeed, if God wants to reject a sinner, all He needs to do is just to leave the sinner alone to curse Him and rebel against Him.

God's sovereignty has 4 aspects:
1. God's eternal will
2. God guides His people
3. God permits but will restore later
4. God lets and just leaves alone the reprobates

Romans 1:26 and 28 speak particularly about the last aspect of God's sovereignty where He allows sinners to do whatever they want. This confirms His rejection hence God's sovereignty still stands.

As beings created in the image of God, we have attributes that reflect Him. One is our realization of our own existence, which we have discussed in the first session. Another attribute is the freedom to choose. This freedom is not absolute. There is qualitative difference between our freedom and God's freedom. Human freedom is a created freedom, not an absolute one. The highest creation is creation that is created like God, but still is not God.

Because of this attribute, humans become very crucial beings. That is, their existence is in a state of crisis because there is potential of danger. It is like giving your own son a sword with both the potential and the chance to kill you. Then he did try to kill you so that he can get your inheritance, but instead of getting what he wants, his choice ends him up in jail.

After the fall of angels, God created human beings and gave them this gift of freedom. This ‘sword’ given to us is meant to slay God’s enemy, not to slay Him. But humans fell too. The whole humanity failed, till Jesus came on earth as the only perfect human being who could pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done.” Jesus changed “me” (self-centeredness) to “You” (God-centeredness).

The question “Who am I” will leads us the important fundamental question of where we should be. When Man fell, the first question God asked human is, “Where are you?” and not “Who are you?”

The answer to “Who are you?” is that you are made in the image of God. The question of “Where are you?” is the question of whether you have shifted your position, i.e. have you sinned? Have you been redeemed?

Why did God create us in that kind of state of crisis? Why not just create us such that we can never have the potential to disobey Him (read: no freedom of choice)?

This gift of freedom is where our dignity lies. This is our given privilege. Everything that is happy has its dangerous element. Everything good has its crucial element. For instance, is it more dangerous to be beautiful or to be ugly? Is it more dangerous to be intelligent or to be stupid? We know that a beautiful lady might face more danger and a smart person has the potential to scheme very bad things, however, do we pray for an ugly and stupid child? This requires us to understand the essence of great gifts. Great blessings are hidden within the crucial status of human beings.

Since it is a given privilege, the responsibility expected by the Giver in giving us this privilege is the question that needs to be considered seriously. The balance between grace and responsibility is the measure of one's spirituality.

The question now is how to actualize the hidden blessedness in this crucial existence that we are. Hence we need a compass to direct our lives. We truly need God's help.

Because I am created, my existence is not absolute and independent. I am created in relation to God. Therefore I need to take care of proper relationship. The word ‘religion’ comes from Latin word ‘religere’ which means relationship, i.e. relationships with God, yourself, people and nature. Relationship with God is the foundation for all other relationships. It is the relationship that brings all relationships to harmony.

After we are awakened to the sense of our crucial existence, we learn who we are, and begin to see that we need to take responsibility before God. The question of “Who am I” will lead to either you submitting to God or you rebel against Him. When you know that you are not an independent creature but made for Him, when you realize that you are supposed to seek His Kingdom and His will, you are at a critical crossroad that would lead either to life or to death.

As a preview to the next topic, is there any meaning in life? If there is, where does the meaning lies? If there is not, why do we keep living on? For most of us, we fear death. Since we have lived and have not tasted death and do not know what it is like, it is better to live on. And if we do not even know how to live properly, how do we know how to die? There are people who are brave enough to commit suicide because they have come to a very strong sense of their own existence through sufferings in life. So strong is their sense of existence in their sufferings that they do not want to have any more relationships. So they decide to end their existence to cut themselves from all relationships in this world of sufferings. This is a mockery to God as implicitly they are saying that they do not agree that God created them. Again, this aspect of value judgment is another attribute of human beings made in the image of God.

Consciously and subconsciously, we are making decisions at every moment based on certain valuation system, therefore we truly need God!

GRII Retreat 2006 Session 3 - Is There Meaning in Life?

This is my personal summary of Rev.Stephen Tong's sharing on Session 3 of "Seeking and working out your calling in God's big picture" in GRII Singapore Retreat on 11-13 May 2006

One of the most important lessons in life is the knowledge of self. Socrates said there is no use in accumulating so much wealth if your own children were spoilt. Karl Barth also said that there is no use for a person to explore every knowledge but not knowing himself.

Knowing oneself is the foundation of knowledge. It is the starting point of knowing everything else. Indonesian language frequently uses the phrase “tidak tahu diri” (literal translation: not knowing one’s identity) as a severe criticism for people who live and act as they ought not to. It is true that a person who does not know himself can do a lot of things that are contrary to his identity, i.e. his proper position.

Are all who have acquired high status in society people who have truly known themselves? Not necessarily. And there are also many people who can criticize others, especially leaders, very severely, but when they become leaders they do worse things. This is the crisis that results from not knowing oneself.

We need to examine ourselves frequently and present ourselves honestly before God. The Scriptures give profound revelation on who God is and who man is.

Augustine said, “If you ask me what I want to know in my whole life, I will answer, only two things. It is to know God and to know my own soul. If you ask, is that all and nothing more? My answer is, yes, absolutely no more.”

Calvin's writing is inspired by Augustine. In the Institute of Christian Religion, he expounded on the knowledge of God and the knowledge of oneself as the foundation of knowledge. Which one comes first? It is difficult to say which one comes first because both have very tight relation with each other.

Within a human soul, there is already the knowledge of God because His image is stamped on us. So the true knowledge of oneself is related to the knowledge of God too. As Augustine said, “I want to seek God outside of my life. Then I find that God is inside of me. And I find God much deeper than the deepest part of myself.”

God is the foundation of all existence. Therefore a person who returns to God has returned to his real self. When we stand on the promises of God, we are actually standing on the right foundation of ourselves in Him.

Now that we know we exist, the next question is, is there meaning in life? If there is meaning in life, why is it that so many people live without direction, without essence, without meaning? Why is it that so many people live as though so long they have money they are happy?

If life has no meaning, why are we always asking about meaning of things? This concept of meaning is embedded very deeply in our heart. We are meaning-connected beings.

If there is meaning in life, why is it that I search high and low but still cannot find it? If there is meaning in life, is it outside or inside myself? If the meaning is inside , why do I keep going outside to find it? If it is outside, why is there relentless search for meaning inside?

If there is meaning in life, where does meaning lie? How can I find where it is?

It is very beautiful for a person to grasp all these concepts from his youth – of his existence, of his gift of freedom, of the meaning of life. A person who knows this will be very stable no matter what happens. But we are often so anxious about job, marriage and future, but not about the meaning of life.

Most books have no proper center point. Therefore, bestsellers today will be swept away later on. A lot of people have big potential and great opportunities, but no clear center in life therefore their lives are off balanced and topple very easily. It is like a wheel with wrong location of center point so it is unable to turn properly. It is like a book that topples quickly because it is supported with one finger that is not located at the correct center of gravity.

The center point is the will of God. With that center, we will never lose stability in life.

If we know the meaning of life, with the potential and opportunities we can achieve what we should. We should not be satisfied with what we have already gained, but we should be conscious and sad of what we have missed that we could have gained. This judgment is not based on our personal dreams.

This leads to the issue of value judgment. How to valuate values is a very important lesson we must learn.

The meaning of life exists but is not widely accepted. Our society is a market-oriented society that moves and is driven by market forces. But who set the meaning of life for you? Who should set the target for our life? Who are we trying to please in our lives?

There is meaning in life, hence humans ask about meaning of life and interpret the meaning of life. There are many interpretations of the meaning of life but they might not be correct.

1. Life is for fun
Therefore we should just go to nightclub, gamble, do speeding, etc. Life is a playing field. This is the subconscious interpretation of majority. Many people have this idea but they do not play as much because they do not have the money to play. We need to be careful about this kind of people because we can simply be another toy. The term for this interpretation is hedonism. This is the most shallow but also the most popular interpretation of life.

2. Life is a product of chance
We do not choose to be human beings, we do not choose our gender, our race, and many more. It is all by chance. Therefore we live by luck and chances. This kind of thinking traps many immature thinkers never to progress.

3. Life is a torture from mystic world
To live is to suffer. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Others’ existence is hell”. The higher the level of life, the higher the torture. So human beings suffer the most. Arthur Schopenhauer is one such person who lived in bitterness and jealousy all his life and saw life as torture and disaster. This pessimistic view of life is similar to Buddhism (Buddhism teaches 4 sources of sufferings: birth, old age, sickness and death). His famous book, “The World as Will and Representation” influenced Friedrich Nietzsche, who later on influenced Adolf Hitler.

4. Life is determined by fate
Those who believe in closed system believe that everything is determined by nature. Those who believe in open system believe that everything is determined by God.

How about Christianity? Does it teach fatalistic view of life? Hebrews 11:30-36 gave examples of people who overcome themselves and their circumstances by faith. Faith is the first basic essence of Christianity of the three, faith, hope and love.

5. Life is a duty
There are those who take everything as a matter of responsibility.
They study, find a job, marry, have children and go through all their lives because they think it is their responsibility to do so. They think all those things are a ‘must’ that cannot be compromised. But the question is, ‘responsibility to whom’? Most people do not know. So we do our duty blindly as we do not know before whom we are doing our duty.

6. Life is war
Fight in emotions, fight in school, fight in work, everything. People who believe this do not care what principles they live by so long as they get what they want. This is very dangerous. A fighting spirit in itself is very important. In our economic era especially, we need to have this or else we will be left behind. But we need to realize that this is not the only battle in life, and is not even among the most important ones. We are created between good and evil. Only when we understand our status in this crisis, will our fighting spirit be directed differently. We begin asking questions like, is it eternal? Is it good? With what morality do we war? How do we fight with faith? Directed in this way, the actualization of our fights will be according to the will of God.

8. Life is to be a representative of God (the correct one)
This is the correct interpretation of the meaning of life. We are to reflect the glory of God as beings made His image. How do we express our life? How much of His image do we shine forth in this dark world? Because of this meaning, we work very hard and are willing to suffer. The unseen God becomes visible through us. Have our lives made such impact? If not, we are still living like a ship without a compass and a house without foundation that drown when swept by waters.

GRII Retreat 2006 Session 4 - The Position of Human in the Universe

This is my personal summary of Rev.Stephen Tong's sharing on Session 4 of "Seeking and working out your calling in God's big picture" in GRII Singapore Retreat on 11-13 May 2006

Where is our position? If we are not located where we ought to be, we will mess up. A shift of identity is sin. This definition is based on the totality of principle. Sin cannot only be judged from actions. This level of judgment is too superficial. A country's constitution measures right and wrong on this level.

Reformed theology has contributed much to the world in the past 500 years. However, it has not expounded much into human sense of existence (This is Rev.Tong's contribution to Asian theology). Our sense of existence is something more fundamental than morality. Morality itself still rests on another foundation, that is, freedom to choose what is wrong but chooses not to do it.

We need to know the position of our identity in the universe.

The first question which God asked when human fell is, “Where are you?” and not “What did you do?” It is fundamentally about location, not action.
It is about shift in identity. The book of Jude talked about fallen angels who did not keep their original position, i.e. their identity. In 1 Cor.15 Paul expounded that the sun has its own splendor, the moon has its own splendor and the stars likewise have their own splendor. Therefore each one has its own identity and testimony.

Knowing our identity is of foundational importance. Human lives are not dangerous because of their high achievements, but because of weak foundation. Hence God entrusts souls of men first to mothers, not to professors. We should not underestimate the importance of basic structure in life.

But where is the position of men? Is it higher or lower than the angels? It is important for humans to know who they are and to keep their proper position. Otherwise, they will fall by anything, whether money, pleasure, fame, etc. Have I found my identity in God? If not, however I live I am still wasting time and opportunities in my life.

In Psalms 8:4-10 David sees the stars above, the creation below, and then finds his position in the universe. When his physical eyes behold the stars above, his eyes of faith see the Creator of the stars. Hence faith sees the unseen. Then he asks, “What is man that You are mindful of him?” After looking at the stars, he looks at the animals on earth and the fishes in the waters. Then he realized that God had created man a little lower than the heavenly beings (or can be translated as God). Hebrews 2:7-9 also quoted this part of Psalms to affirm that man was created a little lower than angels. We can derive that angels are also created in the image of God since they are higher than human beings who are made in God's image.

David summarized that God had made man to dominate over the birds of the air, the animals on earth and the fishes of he waters. Why did he summarize using only these living things without mentioning dominion over the stars? Living things have greater significance than non-living things, therefore this summary is enough. So although by physical size, we are so tiny, yet by significance we are more important than all these God have created.

Therefore we come to the conclusion that in order, God is above man and man is above matter. Direction wise, matter is to serve man, and man is to serve God. The whole universe is created for men. Men are created for God. So Jesus summarized, “What is the use of gaining the whole world but loses your soul?” We are more significant, glorious and honorable than all the things you can get on this earth. But we make God our tool to get material stuffs. This is wrong religion.

In John 16:11, the prince of this world referred to the devil. However, God is the Lord of the world. In the temptation of Christ, Jesus refused to worship the devil as He did not want the riches that were not from the true Source, who is God. Human beings often reverse their position so they become upside down, and they interpret the world in this reverse state. We should make use of everything created for us but serve God alone.

What is glory and honor in God's eyes is different from man's judgment. When would men realize their glorious and honorable position?

GRII Retreat 2006 Session 5 - God's Target for Us

This is my personal summary of Rev.Stephen Tong's sharing on Session 5 of "Seeking and working out your calling in God's big picture" in GRII Singapore Retreat on 11-13 May 2006

If our life does not have a purpose, we will live wastefully. But if we believe there is purpose in life, we will seek after the purpose. The concept of sin in the Bible includes the word ‘hamartia’ which means off target. To live is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. A person who glorifies God has a very high value. Jesus said the Father will honor Him.

If we look down on God's ministry, He will reject us. If we serve Him, He will honor us. God desires that we have deep hunger for Him. He is pleased with those who truly seek after His spiritual blessings. What are God's targets for us?

There are 4 aspects of being God's representatives on earth.

1. We are mandated to rule, to have dominion, to protect and preserve the world. This is the culture mandate where Christ is to have preeminence in all aspects of life.

2. We are to reflect His attributes and character. In moral attributes, we are the representatives of God.

3. We are to be vessels of His grace. We need to realize that we can receive a lot more grace than what we have already received.
But because we limit ourselves we let a lot of His graces pass by. We should open our hearts humbly and allow ourselves to be filled with His grace. First, we need to receive the grace of salvation, and then we need to continually fill ourselves with His Word of Truth. We should not hurry to ministry before we are filled with the living water.

4. We are to do the will of God. This is very difficult. When we do the will of God, we have accomplished ourselves.
All that is used to serve self will be lost, but all that is dedicated in the hand of God will be protected forever. No one who loves God will lose out. God gives a lot of grace. The devil never wants to make a deal where he loses out. But God never makes deals that cause men to lose out. We need to prepare our hearts to offer everything back to God.

All the four targets above are general targets for all of us. We should ask ourselves how we can do all those things most efficiently.

As for specific target in our lives, the principles are embedded in Romans 12:1-5. We are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God. This phrase ‘living sacrifice’ only appears once in the Scriptures. All other sacrifices mentioned are killed and died. After Jesus, there is no more priest, king or prophet in Jewish history, only rabbis. After the sacrifice of Jesus, no more sacrifice is needed. Now all of us who have been redeemed are the living sacrifices who are to live our lives for God's glory.

We are to search the good, pleasing and perfect will of God. This is done by renewing our mind so that we become able to discern. So as far as specific target is concerned, this is God's personal guidance which no seminary can tell us, we are supposed to seek Him ourselves and hear from Him!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What Prayer Life Should Be Like

This is my personal summary of the expository preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on James 5:12-15 on 7 May 2006

Last week we expounded on being a witness to the Truth. Lies will last a moment but Truth lasts to all eternity. All our words are heard by God who will bring us to judgment some day. Recapping the earlier chapters, James shows that faith and works are united. The book of James was addressed to the 12 tribes of Israelites, the people who have received the law. The law reveals to us that we cannot fulfill the law. Therefore if we try to be righteous through the law, we will surely fail. But by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have a new life and now we can walk out a righteous life by faith. Speaking the truth is an important part of this life of faith. If we always lie, we will trap ourselves and betray the Truth. Before the throne of Judgment which we all have to face some day, we will not be able to stand.

Verse 13 asks us to pray when we are in trouble. What is the connection with being a witness to the Truth? What troubles are meant here? Many people avoid many things they ought to do for their own interests. They think it is better to be relaxed, to be silent on what is right such that they can escape trouble. Therefore, many Christians will not bear testimony when they should. They play safe and for their own safety they constrain their speech.

In order to bear testimony for the Truth, we need to be prepared for persecution and difficulties. This is where verse 13 comes in, exhorting us to pray when we are in trouble. Prayer is different from supplication. The verse here says to pray. It is not saying to raise supplication that God delivers us from troubles. When we tell God our difficulties, it is not really supplication. It is a communication. It is pouring out our hearts to God. A person who can only ask of God but never knows how to pour out his heart to God cannot be spiritual.

None of us likes a friendship where people keep demanding of us. However, this is the most prevalent religious motive. It is mostly out of self-seeking motivation. We make use of God to fulfill our own needs. Many so-called prayers of faith are for self-interests so they are not of much value.

Phil.4:4-7 says to rejoice and to have no anxiety. It teaches us to pray, to supplicate, and to give thanks. All these 3 elements of communication, of asking, of appreciation, are the different aspects of prayer. We cannot just keep asking and never pour our hearts to God and never give Him thanks.

Psalms 2 says that the Son can ask from the power of God and God will hear Him. Jesus Christ in John 17 said, “Glorify Me as I have glorified You on earth.” Christ asks of what is indeed His, but He has also fulfilled His responsibility.

Verse 13 goes on to say to sing when we are happy. Christianity is the only faith that sings. When we have true relationship with God, we are inspired by Him and will naturally create great music.

Great religious music is only found in Christianity because it has the concept of God's creation, of salvation, of revelation, of forgiveness of sin. The blessings are so abundant that if we do not sing songs of praise to God, the rocks will cry out! So great is God’s grace that after being beaten badly and thrown to prison, Paul sang praises to God. So great is God’s grace that while marching to His greatest sufferings, Jesus sang hymn on His way to Gethsemane. Christian joy is the true joy that is not shaken by circumstances.

At the height of thanksgiving, not only will Christians sing others' songs, they will write songs for others to sing. In the Guinness Book record, it is written the Christianity is religion that has produced 500,000 hymns (according to Rev.Tong, there are definitely more than that because his hymns are not yet numbered in the list and there must be a lot more that are missed out). No religion can produce all these songs. By looking at the aspect of music alone, we can choose Christianity as the best faith.

Verse 14 is the only place in the Bible that talks about asking elder to use oil to pray for the sick. Oil represents anointing, which means the presence of the Holy Spirit with us. Verses 14-15 mention quite a lot of things: we can pray for the sick, it is best to get elders to pray, we need the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the prayer must be done in faith, it comes together with confession of sin, and the prayer is to be done in the name of the Lord.

Who are the elders?

There are 5 offices that are appointed by God – Apostles, Prophets, Preachers, Pastors, and Teachers. The first 2, Apostles and Prophets, are of greater importance than the other 3, because they are the foundation of the Church (Eph.2:20-21), which rests on yet another foundation, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the cornerstone. The Old Testament bears the sign of the Prophets, while the New Testament bears the sign of the Apostles. The offices of the Apostles and the Prophets have ceased because the Revelation is complete and the canon is closed. The other 3 offices appointed by God, Preachers, Pastors and Teachers are still continuing for all generations.

There are 3 other offices that are appointed by the apostles. They are the elders, deacons and other ministry workers. Paul says to appoint elders from among us. Elders have shepherd function in the church and are not to rule over the sheep. They are to have very clear understanding of the Truth, to be pastoral and love the sheep, and to watch over the church.

When we pray for the sick, we rely on the Holy Spirit's anointing. We come to God through Jesus Christ. It is important to come through Jesus' name otherwise we will be stopped by the principalities of the air. We need to call on Jesus' name which is above all names. In the name of Jesus Christ, God recognizes our prayers because of His promises in Jesus Christ. So God is willing in Christ to heal us, we will be healed.

This is to not to be mixed up with the wrong healing theology that teaches us as though we can manipulate God by using Jesus' name to get anything we want. We need to understand that praying in Jesus' name means God grants what Christ wills. It means our prayers must go through Jesus' approval. As to Christ's will, we can see from the prayer He taught us. “Father in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” If we cannot hallow the Father's name, we have no right to pray in Jesus’ name.

There is a lot of profound meaning just in these 2 verses on healing as it tells the relationship among sickness, sin, faith, confession, etc. Sometimes God might allow us to be attacked because of our sin. But not all diseases come because of sin. Similarly, God has the power to heal but we cannot turn around and trap God in “Jesus’ name” and say He must heal us. The prayer we are taught is the prayer of faith and submission. We have faith in God Almighty to heal, but we also submit to His sovereignty in not healing us, if He so wills it for His own reason. So we let God be God, Almighty and Sovereign.

So in our response, we can pray. We can ask church elders to pray for us. We should ask in faith. We should remember that sickness and sin have a relationship so we need to examine our lives. We have to pray in Jesus' name. We have to pray in submission. We need to see all these elements in totality so that it gives us a balanced view to correct our faith. He is both the sovereign and the powerful God.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Being A Witness of the Truth

This is my personal summary of the expository preaching of James 5:10-13 by Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 30 April 2006

Verse 10 and 11 remind us to think of the prophets' perseverance. They did not lose faith in difficult times and have become eternal models and historical examples that enlighten us. The bankruptcy of religion consists in the lack of good examples. Many religious leaders and politicians have great power but they are very corrupt and compromise on sin. But the kingdom of God is eternal. With faith towards God and self-discipline, many saints become examples for all generations. They are remembered for their perseverance and how they stand firm in trials.

The book of Job is one of the most precious literary works in history. It deals with the issue of injustice and sufferings. The root of these problems is connected with eternity so they cannot be solved completely in the finite process of time. We cannot use temporal attitude to solve problems which are eternal in nature. They are very complex. God's leading in our lives is also not simplistic.

All Job's 10 children died in one day. All his possessions were gone in one day. He was even filled with diseases. His wife asked him to curse God. Job's initial life that was smooth and blissful all of a sudden turned into complete bankruptcy. He had to solve the problems regarding the meaning of life. Unless one has the understanding of the eternal will of God, he has no strength to face such sudden sufferings.

When we cannot see any glimpse of hope, can we still say, “God, You are full of mercy and compassion.”? Probably we will begin speaking words just like non-believers. We will begin asking whether God is real, whether our faith is based on empty foundation or God's throne in heaven, whether God's love has any relationship with our sufferings, etc. In times of sufferings, our spirituality is tested.

We know that Job is blessed. But we can say that now because we can see the outcome after his sufferings. During his sufferings, he could not see what was to come. Often times, we make mistakes by trusting in our feelings during times of sufferings. Normally we behave like a good Christian but deep in our heart, our feelings are our god. We use our feelings to drive our fallen reason, and use our fallen reason to direct our will, and then use our will to form our prayer.

A great man of faith would not do such thing. He will not take the part to replace the whole. He will not take his personal sufferings to question the far bigger, complete picture. He will not use his temporal feelings to judge God's eternal will. Hence Job replied to his wife who asked him to curse God, “You are talking like a foolish woman.”

Job therefore, become a good representative of humanity in a right response towards sufferings. From the book of Job, we know that things that are happening in the visible world are the results of dramatic battles happening in the invisible world. Those who only look at phenomena will not be able to understand. We must learn to see the unseen. The invisible is forever while the visible is temporary. Paul also said that our hope is also in the unseen, as there is no need to hope for what is seen. So the Scriptures give us very strong principles and great teaching in our response towards sufferings. May we not bring disgrace to God's name during our times of sufferings, but glorify Him and make use of sufferings to break through and overcome.

The book of Ephesians says that the people who live in the world live without God and without eternal hope. There are no promises of God as the content of their lives and there is no eternal life as foundation of the temporal life they are living. However, Christians are different. We have God, His promises and eternal life. So our response towards sufferings should be very different.

We need to learn from the examples of the saints and thank God for their examples. A person can be a teacher of history if he can overcome the temporal world and in his short life time transcends history to build connection with the eternal will of God. So we have Abraham, David, Daniel and many others as our teachers and we are their students. They only lived a few decades on earth but they have victory over history, transcend history so they have become teachers of history. May we not only thank God for them, but also learn to be like them.

During sufferings we often cannot feel the grace of God. But blessings are found not only in the presence of the graces we normally feel. Great blessings are also found in spirituality that stays strong when all those graces are taken away from us. God will not let the temporal sufferings to take over our eternal blessings. He has the power to enable us to overcome so that in the midst of the greatest sufferings, we can still enjoy our eternal status with God in heaven.

After speaking of the example of the prophets, James suddenly said that above all, do not swear. What has swearing to do with teachers of history he just mentioned? And why did he say “Above all”, making this swearing issue of utmost important? How important is it and what is its relationship with the previous verses?

Often times, we can escape sufferings if we just compromise on the Truth. If we live in dangerous place, would we still hold up our faith? Verse 12 says that our yes should be yes and no should be no. We have to say what we ought to say and there is no need to borrow other powers, whether heaven or earth, to increase our credibility. It means that we need to be simply a witness to the Truth. This is very important and James is not exaggerating his point. Saints suffer because they are witnesses of the Truth. On temporal earth, the most precious thing is to be a witness to the Eternal Truth. But often we need to pay price for being witnesses to the Truth. There are no sufferings greater than the sufferings borne by witnesses of the Truth.

When we swear, we are using other powers to improve our trustworthiness. Many people like to borrow others' reputable and trustworthy names to increase their own reputation. People even come in Jesus' name to advance their own ends, because His name is trustworthy. Jesus Himself forbids us from swearing so that we learn to be simply witnesses of the Truth.

Generally in life, if we are trustworthy, if we always speak truthfully, we will be able to stand in times of sufferings. Trustworthiness, as the Chinese saying goes, is like our second life that can sustain us when our life falls apart. We can rebuild what we have lost if we have a trustworthy reputation because people will trust us.

Would an honest person be disadvantaged? Yes it is possible. But it is only temporal and will not last forever. Would a dishonest person become rich through deceit? Yes it is possible, but while accumulating dishonest wealth he is also inviting sword in his household which will end in bloodshed, so his gain will not last forever.

Our human body is created with implicit wisdom of God. He gives us two eyes and two ears but only one mouth. Representatively, we can use our eyes to see good and evil things and use our ears to hear both truth and falsehood, but we only have one mouth which should only speak the truth. A righteous person is not an ignorant person. He knows both good and bad things, but would not go against his conscience and will only be a witness to the truth.

The last phrase of verse 12 says that our yes should be yes and no should be no, or else, we will be condemned, that is, to face God's judgment.

So we have two choices. The first is to be the witness to the Truth. If we bear witness to the Truth, we will face trials and sufferings. Trials can be really tough, so tough that sometimes people just prefer to die than to live on. The second choice is not to bear witness to the Truth. If we do not bear witness to the truth, we will face God's judgment.

The question is, which one is worse? To face trials or to face condemnation? Can we take God's judgment? How do we know we can bear God's condemnation? The Scriptures say that those who persevere through trials will overcome but those who are condemned are the real failures. We must have courage to stand up for the Truth.

Verse 13 tells us that if we are suffering because we are standing for the Truth and we feel weak and troubled, we ought to look up to God and pray that He will deliver us. When God delivers us from our trials and we are enjoying good times, we ought to give thanks to Him. In this way, we learn to submit all our anxieties to God and to rejoice all the days of our lives as witnesses to the Truth. So we can stand firm and not flirt around with history and be made obsolete by the decadence of the world.