Vines, Branches, the Church, and You

This year hasn’t really been all we had hoped so far, has it? We’ve just ticked over to the second half of the year and most of the world is living in limbo; some things are open, some things are closed, and some things are somewhere in between. No doubt your life is a mix of these states. 

If you are a believer in the risen Jesus and God’s Word to us that we carry in our Bibles, you are by extension a believer in a Sovereign and all-powerful God where nothing happens within His creation that He has not decreed or allowed to proceed. He either said it or sanctioned it. He either actioned or allowed it. Now, just because you believe in a God like this, doesn’t mean you always understand why He is proclaiming or giving permission (Romans 11.34).

So this is all happening, that we cannot deny. We know that God has a plan and a purpose behind it all whether we see it or not, and we know that for those who love Him, all things, both good and bad, work together for ultimate good (Romans 8.28). So, let me make a suggestion, just think;

Could part of this season be a shaking, stirring, and sifting of God’s people?

Jesus said in John 15 that “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (v.2). Sadly, we’ve seen people fall away from engaging with church this last four months. Maybe that was you, maybe that is you, maybe not. Aside from numbers, statistics, and metrics, we’ve seen people be lethargic to connect, commune, and communicate with one another. Yes, there is a committed core of people who have risen to the challenge, but, for many, John 15.2 seems to be happening in real time. 

The sad reality of this is then expanded on in v.6 wherein Jesus says “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Maybe you know some of those who have seriously disengaged this last four months, some of those who when the tree has been shaken have fallen away. Maybe that was you for a period. The second half of v.6 stands as strong motivation to hold on to the tree when it’s being shaken. 

Sadly though, we’ve seen those with a Friday-only-faith drift away, wither away, and slowly back away from the encouraging, edifying, and equipping covering that being part of a church of God’s people provides. This hurts. As those who know the Word, this hurts because you know, in essence, what they are choosing by removing themselves. Yes, this last four months has been altogether odd and strange. Yes, this has certainly not been ‘normal’. However, there are enough people who have risen to the challenge and clung to the tree to show that it is possible, and that whether we are experiencing lows or highs, plenty or hunger, that as individuals and as a community we can survive and thrive in all circumstances through the root and vine that strengthens us (Philippians 4.11-13).

What do we do with all this then? Well, as Paul writes to the Romans about the Gentiles being grafted into the family of God’s people (11.11-31), so we ought to try and emulate this in our earthly station. No doubt you know some who have slowly slipped away from the fellowship of one-another this last few months. We hold to the unshakeable hope that if they do not continue in their unbelief, [they] will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again (v.23). 

In this season of uncertainty, of change, and of shaking, stirring, and sifting, our task as believers is threefold;

  1. Let us see this season as one of pruning and let us be ready for the season of new growth that necessarily follows (John 15.2). Perspective is paramount. Endurance is essential. Don’t be left behind.
  2. Hold fast to the vine from which life comes. Apart from this vine, we can do nothing (John 15.5). The tree is being shaken. Hold on. We will never Philippians 4.11-13 if we are alone. 
  3. Reach out to those who, in all appearances, have fallen away from the branch or removed themselves from the root (John 15.2, cf. Hebrews 10.23-25).

Friends, our Sovereign, all-powerful, wise, and loving God is moving in the world and in His church right now.

The question for you is, are you moving with Him?

Labelling or Loving

Throughout the often-overlooked book of Amos we read that social injustice will not be tolerated (8.4-6 for example). If you Google a definition of social justice, you will probably get something like this,

“Social justice is the equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.”

Society’s version of social justice will tell you that we need to look around and see everybody’s differences, we need to acknowledge just how different we are, and we need to affirm and accept all these differences. 

Society’s social justice says I see your differences, we need to recognise them, then treat everyone the same despite the fact we are all different. But first though, let’s differentiate between ourselves as much as we can. Then, when we’ve done that, let’s work towards equality for all these groups we’ve just made.  

Gospel social justice says it doesn’t matter what colour skin you have, or what passport you hold, or what social status you have.

Gospel social justice says we are all made in the image of God (see Genesis 1), that we all have inherent and intrinsic dignity, worth, and value, and that is what we need to affirm and acknowledge, not our perceived and conceived differences.

Saying, “I am going to treat all nations the same” still acknowledges that there is a difference. 

Gospel social justice just doesn’t see the difference. 

Saying, “I am going to treat all people the same, the rich ones and the poor ones” still acknowledges that socioeconomic levels are noticeably different to you.

Gospel social justice just doesn’t see the difference. 

Social justice sees difference but works to treat people equally. 

Gospel social justice simply sees everyone as equal

We live in a fallen world that expects submission based on social status, country of origin, the colour of your skin, but, as Christians we know this is not right. We know that true submission is given to God, who does not distinguish by race or colour or gender or bank balance.  


Gospel social justice is not equality

it is impartiality. 


Jesus came to redeem all, regardless of social status, country of origin, religious background; all.

Galatians 3 summarises this well, 

28 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.

On the Day of the Lord, Jesus died for all. He died to bring all into His kingdom, no matter who we are, no matter where we are from, no matter what we do, no matter our social status, our career path, who we were, Jesus died for all. So what do we do with this?

Perhaps this is marginally easier for me to grasp given that where I live, I am the minority. I am the minority linguistically, socially, religiously, dermatologically, and economically. Where I live, whenever I go anywhere to do anything, I am talking to and interacting with people who look different to me, who think differently to me, who speak differently to me, who worship differently to me, and who spend differently to me. I am the minority in this demographically rich and diverse place. 

This means that when I go anywhere other than my own house, I see people who are different to me. I see people, not categories of people. It would be utterly exhausting to differentiate between them all based on society’s social justice framework and then do the work needed to treat them all equally. A trip to the supermarket would require military-grade planning and precision just to make sure I don’t offend anyone. So, instead, when I go out, I see people. Period. I don’t see a Bangladeshi man, a Filipino lady, a Bahraini family, an American, a Brit, an Indian, an Aussie, a Kiwi…I see people. I would encourage you to do the same. Stop differentiating and labelling and putting people into societal boxes, and just see people. Be salt to people. Be light to people. Don’t see them for who they are on the outside, see them for who they are on the inside; created in the image, formed in the womb, fearfully and wonderfully made, loved to the point of death, and redeemed by resurrection.

Simply then, Gospel social justice is not equality, it’s impartiality. See people as people. Stop labelling, and start loving. 

Why Read Old?

Do you like reading books or texts that were written a long time ago? At the moment I’m reading a little book that has mini-biographies of some heroes of the faith in, William Wilberforce and Charles Simeon for example. The rich ideas and different way of phrasing things really does make you think. Trying to read works that were written long ago (over 100 years) can be a real challenge though!

The writing style, sentence structure, vocabulary, and overall length is in sharp contrast to how our contemporary culture consumes content (how long is a tweet?).

What can become a difficulty can either make the text something to savour, or something to stumble over. This is purely down to the personal opinion of any given reader; maybe you love reading old, maybe you really don’t!

Why, then, is it important to occasionally pause and look back? Well, we see that the faith we are contending for now in 2020 is the same faith, with the same Saviour, with the same wonderful, sure, steadfast foundation as the faith of those who lived in a time gone by. It points to the eternality of Christ, the endurance of the faith, the generation-spanning character of our great and awesome God. Our 2020 faith, squashed and squeezed by temporary COVID restrictions is the same faith that fought slavery (Wilberforce), endured hostility, and allowed men to serve in one place for half a century (Simeon), and more.

So, reading something that was written in the 1800s might not be for everybody every day, but it is certainly useful for us all once in a while!

The grass withers,

the flower fades, 

but the word of our God will stand 

forever.

Isaiah 40.8

Today then, try and read something written before you were born. If you’re not sure where to find something, try here;

Charles Spurgeon – https://www.blueletterbible.org/commentaries/spurgeon_charles/

John Calvin – https://www.blueletterbible.org/commentaries/calvin_john/

Anathanasius of Alexandria – https://www.blueletterbible.org/commentaries/athanasius/

D.Martin Lloyd-Jones – https://www.monergism.com/search?f%5B0%5D=author:34450

Charles Simeon – https://www.monergism.com/search?keywords=simeon&format=All&f%5B0%5D=author%3A36498

William Wilberforce – https://www.gutenberg.org/files/25709/25709-h/25709-h.htm

Where Is The Hope I Need?

We read Scripture and want to be like this, don’t we? We want to be the ideal and perfect person we see there. We want to keep the laws immaculately, we want to be everything that God wants us to be, don’t we? But without exception our flesh is weak and alone we will never do it, and that repeated failure can create a hopeless feeling. We need help, and we need hope. 

Often people reminisce about years gone by and lament that they didn’t live in previous generations. Just think though, if we found ourselves living in yesteryear, in Old Testament times and under the Old Covenant, then we would be bound to keep laws that try as we might, we would never be able to keep. We would want to, so badly, but whilst the mind is willing, the flesh is so weak (Matthew 26.41). This Old Covenant, this old way of relating to God was rooted in what we needed to do; keep the laws, maintain righteousness (Deuteronomy 30.15-18, 1 Samuel 12.14-15).

The New Covenant, a new way of relating to God, was promised by Jeremiah and was brought into play by the death of Jesus (Jeremiah 31.31-33, Luke 22.20). It sits internally within us, it has the power to actually change you, but it is rooted externally. It no longer rests on you in order to be affective. Can you feel the burden lifted and the hope restored?

The hope we need is not found in anything we do,

in anything we can earn,

or in anything we deserve. 

The hope we need for the future is found in the promise and person of Jesus. He is the guarantor of this covenant, He promises better things for you;

Jesus promised rest (Matthew 11). Burdens are lifted at Calvary and hope came alive.

Jesus promised abundant to those who follow Him (John 10.10). Following Jesus brings us more spiritual fulfilment than we could have ever anticipated. We leave any traces of a boring, restless, unfulfilled life behind.

Jesus promised eternal life to those who trust Him (John 4.14). The Good Shepherd also promised to hold us securely.

Jesus promised that He will return for us (John 14.2-3). From then on, we will be with Him always.

No matter how many promises God has made, they are all yes and amen in Christ (2 Corinthians 1.20). 

Don’t look outwardly for hope as if it rests on circumstances, behaviour, or others. The world as we know it has just crumbled and melted away this past couple of months, hasn’t it? Everything we put stock in for contentment, fulfilment, or security has been found wanting. 

Don’t look inwardly as if it rests on you.

Where is the hope we all need? Look upwardly.

Whatever we are going through, no matter the circumstances, there is no greater hope for today and for the future than the hope found in Jesus.

There is no promise of a trouble free life, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. There will be hardship, there will be tough and troubling times, but, there is the promise that you will not go through it alone.

There is the promise that whatever you are going through, that He knows, that He cares, and that it is all working together to change you little by little more into the image of Himself.

The hope we need is found in the person and promises of Jesus. 

Beyond The Headline

Have you ever been taken in by a headline? It was just so shocking or attention-grabbing you had to watch, or read, or listen?

Every time we switch on the T.V., or pick up our phones there are headlines to read. Some true, some partially true, some not at all true. There are, research says, around 2million blog posts, 864,000 hours of video, and 400million tweets put out into the world every day ¹. Each comes with a headline that wants you to fully consume, digest, and act on their content. 

What does this mean for us, then? Well, it means the headline and the first bits of information we take in are very, very important. It’s important to think, do I want to pursue this information, or not, and how am I going to act once I have? Let’s look at a Biblical model and draw a conclusion.

In 2 Samuel 1.1-16 we see David getting information, investigating the information, and then responding accordingly to the information, and it’s a model for us in our Christian walk.

In vv.1-4 David gets the headline – Saul and Jonathan are dead. He lets the messenger give the news, in full, before asking any questions or even before speaking. How often do we want to jump in and ask questions, clarify things, argue, or interrupt?

In vv.5-10 David actually checks and investigates the claim with astute questions. 1 Samuel 31.4-6 and 1 Chronicles 10.4-7 seem to suggest that this guy was not telling the whole truth. 

In vv.11-16, David responds accordingly.

So David got the information, checked and investigated, and responded accordingly. If, though, David took the headline and acted on it after v.4 without asking questions, then this Amalekite could have been rewarded for his dishonesty, and David wouldn’t have had the full picture.

For us, it’s important that we look beyond the headline. It’s important that we don’t get caught up in and act upon stories that have a grain of truth in them covered with a large helping of opinion and conspiracy and agenda. 

Let me say it this way – Christian, you have no business in the proliferation, promulgation, or proclamation of highly charged cultural commentary, conspiracy, or agenda-driven soap-boxing.

Let me make it simpler – Don’t read it, watch it, listen to it, share it, post it, or comment on it.

Let me make it even simpler – Don’t.

Jesus didn’t die to give you a spirit of gullibility, conspiracy, or susceptibility. He came, lived, died, rose, and ascended to give you a spirit of power, love, and self-control (2 Timothy 1.7). Believer, control yourself when presented with content that contains more falsehoods that verifiable facts.

Control what you listen to, watch, share, and indulge in (Philippians 4.8).

Control what you are fixing your mind on (Colossians 3.1-2). 

Filter what you take in through what you know to be true (John 17.17). 

Be very careful, it’s a slippery slope.

As Charles Simeon once said, 

“Once a man engages in [controversies like this] it is surprising how the love of it will grow upon him; and he will find both a hare in every busy, and will follow it with something of a huntsman’s feelings.”

Simply, once you get started in this kind of story watching, this kind of keyboard-warrioring, it will be very, very difficult to stop. Use that spirit of self-control to regulate what you allow into your life, use that spirit of love to think of others before you post or comment, and use the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to keep your mind fixed firmly on things above, where Christ is.