The raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John is one of the most significant stories of Jesus’ ministry, not least because it reveals the heart of God for us. While Jesus was in Bethany of Perea, he received news that his dear friend Lazarus in Bethany of Judea was seriously ill. He knew he would not get there on time to heal him because as soon as the message arrived, Lazarus had already departed (it was two days’ travel between the two places).
What Jesus did next was inexplicable to his disciples, for he tarried another two days before journeying to Bethany of Judea. Why delay to go to Lazarus if he truly loved him? Unbeknownst to his disciples, the delay was deliberate as the miracle he would soon perform would also be his last; it would trigger an irreversible chain of events that would inexorably lead to his crucifixion, the timing of which must be dictated by God rather than by the contingencies of man. Put simply, Jesus waited another two days because was working according to divine schedule rather than human urgency.
No sooner had Jesus arrived at the village than he was greeted by the sorrowful lamentations of Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then Mary also ran to him and fell at his feet in an uncontrollable outburst of grief, weeping and lamenting, “Lord, if you had been here…” Following close behind were her mourning family and friends.
Even though Jesus knew what he was about to do would render all these grieving pointless, he was, nevertheless, deeply affected by the scene before him. Anyone who has been to a funeral would experience how moving the grief of others can be. While one might barely know the deceased and not feel much at his passing, the sight of mourning family and friends is enough to move one to sadness. Moreover, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were close friends of Jesus whom he loved dearly. How could he not be moved? Yet, what Jesus felt was not merely sorrow. The language used connotes a degree of anger, which some commentators posit to be a strong feeling of indignation. Witnessing the pain felt by Mary and Martha, and surrounded by all their grieving family and friends, sadness and anger swelled up within him like a tempest, and Jesus wept along with them.
On seeing him weep, the crowd exclaimed, “See how he loved him!” Their utterance was certainly true, but they were ignorant of its greater significance, for they rightly understood Jesus’ love but failed to comprehend the extent of it. The Church Father Cyril of Alexandria reckoned that Jesus wept because he saw “the man made in His own image marred by corruption … He wept out of compassion for all humanity, not bewailing Lazarus only, but understanding that which happens to all, that the whole of humanity is made subject to death.” John 11.35 may be the shortest verse in the entire Bible, but behind it lies the immense love God has for a humanity gone awry. No, Jesus did not weep out of love for Lazarus only, but also for a humanity sore oppressed by the tyranny of suffering and death.
This was a cause of indignation for Jesus because suffering and death are alien intrusions into God’s creation and not part of God’s will for his creatures. Since God is all-good (1Jn 1.5) and created the world out of nothing (Jn 1.3), it follows that what is made must possess the properties of its Maker – “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1.31). Evil – or the lack (privation) of goodness according to Augustine of Hippo – has nothing to do with who God is nor with who we are created to be. When Jesus witnessed the anguish of Lazarus’ mourners, he perceived not the face of God but the face of evil, hence his indignation.
Since God never intended suffering and death to be part of his creation, they have no ultimate value or meaning in and of themselves. A good God neither brings about evil nor has any need for it. It was only with the assent of Adam to the Tempter that sin entered the world, and creation became corrupted by evil. Suffering and death became an inextricable part of the human condition only as we became beholden to sin (as the narrative from Gen. 4 onwards seeks to tell). Due to creation’s fall from its original goodness, God then works to make evil serve his good ends, overturning it to bring about his Kingdom on earth. As Jesus declared to his disciples that Lazarus’ illness was “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” so in his resuscitation of Lazarus he was indeed glorified as the Resurrection and the Life such that many of those present believed in him. Evil may do its worst, but God is able to make it serve his good purposes and bring meaning to what is meaningless.
Of course, to speak of something happening apart of God’s will seems to imply that creation possesses some autonomy from God. This may disturb those anxious to preserve God’s sovereignty: surely, God controls everything like how Shakespeare dictates the life of King Lear? Yet, it is the testimony of the New Testament that there are autonomous “powers and principalities” in creation antagonistic to God and his Kingdom. Jesus himself regarded the Tempter – Satan – as the chief of these, the “ruler of this world” (Jn 16.11). It was Satan who tempted Judas to betray Jesus, not God. When Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his passion, Jesus attributed his action to Satan and not to God. Sinful creatures can choose to rebel against God and cause each other harm, and virulent microorganisms can emerge from natural processes to wreak havoc on humanity. God permits these within creation’s autonomy.
Why then does God sustain the autonomy of creation when evil may result? Because God desires for humanity to freely give of themselves to him in love. Yes, the genuine autonomy of creation makes room for Lazarus to fall ill and die. Yet, it also gives room for the witnesses of his miraculous resuscitation the true freedom to believe in Jesus and love him. None of this impugns the sovereignty of God. As he is utterly transcendent above all creation, God can allow creation its autonomy and still eventually bring about his “Kingdom on earth, as it is in Heaven.” Nothing in his run-away creation will confound his goal to “reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1.20) for the happiness of his creatures, and for his glory.
Perhaps apprehending this might be cold comfort for a world embattled by the SARS-COV2 pandemic, but in a time when manifold theological answers are sought and given, we should not be muddled like Thomas (in Jn 11.16). God did not send the pandemic as if he synthesized the virus, directed it into the bodies of the hundreds of thousands infected, and killed the tens of thousands who succumbed. In human history, pandemics have come and gone, and that is purely an outcome of the primordial fall. God has, by his inscrutable will, allowed them to happen but is in no way the cause of them. Nor is it appropriate for us to deem it his judgment on the world. If the canon of Scripture has closed, and God’s will is inscrutable, which of his finite creatures can make such a claim with certitude, as if they were privy to his innermost thoughts? On the contrary, Jesus foreclosed such speculations for us when he bade his followers not to presume that tragic circumstances are God’s judgment on sinners (Lk. 13.1-5; Jn 9.1-3).
No, God did not bring us the pandemic; he meets us in the pandemic. Like Mary and Martha in the wake of their brother’s illness and death, we are experiencing the tyranny of natural evil more than ever. Amidst strict social distancing measures, stay-home notices, quarantines, and even the suspension of church services, we may wonder what God is doing. We do not know. Yet, one thing is certain: he truly loves us and is at the threshold of Bethany coming to us. We remember how Mary and Martha were driven by their grief to Jesus with tears and lamentations, “Lord, if you had been here!” Now too, he is awaiting us to run to him, “Lord, if you had stilled the pandemic!” In his compassion he will listen to every lamentation we have, and weep with us, for his steadfast love never ceases and his mercies never come to an end. Then he will gently whisper to us, “Take courage, the ruler of this world has been condemned, and I have conquered the world.”
Japan, like other temperate countries, enjoys four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. One of the amazing experiences of living here is getting to see how people celebrate and adapt to each season as they come and go. Over the years the Japanese have developed many unique customs and traditions for each season. For example in Spring there is 花見 (hanami) the celebration of the blooming of the Sakura flowers. Summer is full of fireworks and festivals as numerous gatherings are organised. Autumn is the time to enjoy 紅葉 (momiji) where people gather to see the beautiful autumn colours. Finally, in Winter there are moonlight festivals where temples are brightly lit up while freshly fallen snow blankets their roofs and pagodas. Each season brings its own set of unique smells, colours and tastes such that, in the blink of an eye, the physical and human landscape changes quite dramatically.
The regularity and starkness of these changes is fascinating for someone coming from a country with a stable predictable climate like Singapore. In Singapore I was used to being able to go out in the same clothes all the time and being able to buy the same foods and produce whenever I wanted. Not so here in Japan where items and activities can be dependent on the time of the year. These changing seasons and the impact it has on what we can and cannot do brings to my mind the verses of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
In that manner, no one dons swimwear and goes to the beach in the dead of winter (at least not anyone I know). Nor do people put on heavy jackets to go skiing down grassy slopes in the heat of summer. To do so would be ridiculous or unheard of. Each activity has its own appropriate season and timing as the writer of Ecclesiastes knows. It is thus wise to accept the current season and embrace it for what you can do at the time rather than trying to do something you cannot. However, with that in mind what season is it that we are facing right now?
All over the world, many people, my family included, have been confined in their homes because there is a risk posed from the spread of COVID-19. In Japan all public schools closed 2 weeks ago following the government’s direction. This caused other institutions like universities, museums and even our language school to follow suit as a precaution. During this period we were told explicitly to minimise going out to public places, to avoid gathering in groups and to not travel unnecessarily. In some places additional measures or precautions have also been taken to halt the spread. For example, while our church continues to meet with lunches canceled indefinitely, other churches have closed or have encouraged congregants to disperse immediately after the service. Some of our missionary colleagues have also had to cancel outreach activities out of concern for the elderly people they are trying to reach out to. This has led to some uncertainty and frustration, as no one knows when things will go back to normal. As many of us sit helplessly at home, it is as if the Lord has hit the pause button. Or has He?
While browsing the internet for how others are coping, I was encouraged to read that for some believers in China being confined at home has led them to read their bibles in earnest and depend on God’s Word again. One elderly gentleman remarked that,
’During this time of isolation, I read the Bible without stopping for 10 days and I could not stop reading about God’s forgiveness and love for me. Now I want to spend the rest of my life reading the Bible!’
When I read this quote, I realised that, for many of us who are in the fortunate position to do so, being confined to our home can actually be a blessing in disguise as it reveals things that we should focus our energies on that we may have otherwise been neglecting. For some this may be a time of healing & reconciliation as families are made to spend more time together. For others it could be an opportunity to help others who are less fortunate, such as our Malaysian neighbours who are unable to return home. For me, I know that this has given me no excuse to neglect my prayer time with the Lord… after all I don’t have a lot going on for me right now.
Like the elderly Christian mentioned above, refocusing on prayer and God’s word plays an additional role for us as Christians. While the world goes crazy stocking up on toilet paper, we need to constantly affirm to one another that God can use such events to accomplish His plans. One thought that struck me in my reflections is how the largest and strongest countries in the world are being stopped by one of the tiniest organisms on the planet and how consistent this is with God’s nature to use the weak to humble the strong. This virus has revealed just how vulnerable we all really are, that despite massive resources, wealth and technological advances, mankind’s ‘strength’ is but a fabrication. We are simply powerless against our God’s Will. In fact it makes me grateful that I have been saved by and am loved by such a mighty Lord!
So my dear Brothers and Sisters, as we ponder the times, what does this season mean to you and I and how will we make the best of it? What is the Lord calling us to do right now? As is the nature of seasons to come and go, this one too will surely pass. At the Lord’s anointed time a new season will soon follow where we will then be enabled to do different things. Therefore, for those of us who are blessed to do so, let us not ‘waste’ this chance afforded to us this season but live it out in fullness and obedience to the Lord for His Glory.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
As a result of the recent COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea, a religious group known as Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ) is now under greater public scrutiny. This is because a female member in her 60’s who had continued to attend worship services despite being unwell ended up being tested positive for the coronavirus. Upon further contact tracing, the South Korean health authorities found her to be responsible for infecting more than 400 other members and causing one of the local branches of SCJ to become a virus cluster within the city of Daegu.
In Singapore, SCJ is also embroiled in some controversy now that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has begun to investigate their activities due to some accusations of this group being known as a cult. In their official statement, MHA mentioned that “A controlling influence is exerted over young members requiring them to comply with strict instructions to conceal the local existence of SCJ and their involvement with it”. In addition, “members are not allowed to contact one another, verify teachings with other churches, or inform their families of their involvement”.
Upon further investigation, MHA has discovered that not only has this group failed to officially register in Singapore, it has also put up several front companies to carry out their illicit activities. Given that this group is known to have little qualms resorting to deceptive recruitment methods in order to get people to be involved with them, it is no wonder that the MHA has chosen to step in and is considering banning SCJ’s activities in Singapore.
As Christians, we can take heart that a move like this will certainly help curtail the influence of such an unorthodox group in our nation. Judging from the experiences of a handful of Singaporeans who were initially drawn to SCJ, there is a real danger that many other young Christians would have been lured into their trap if not for this timely exposé.
This danger arises because to those who attended SCJ’s “Bible study” sessions, much of what SCJ taught and practiced appear to be similar to mainstream Christianity. For example, they would conclude each session by reciting “The Lord’s Prayer”. Furthermore, the songs sung during worship are familiar ones such as How Great is our God.
In fact, to many undiscerning believers, SCJ could have easily passed off as being biblical and adhering to Sola Scriptura. This is because the teachers from SCJ often portray themselves as being passionate about the Bible and seem to be always able to back up their teaching points with Scripture. As time passes by, the new “recruits” would be led to hold their teachers in high regards and consider them as credible and knowledgeable even when they were actually distorting Scripture and taking verses out of context.
Apart from their teachings which are touted as profound truths that can only be perceived by the spiritually mature, SCJ has also been rather successful in offering a sense of community. They would extend hospitality through offering cooked meals before each session and are very intentional about helping newcomers feel like they belong there. Unfortunately, their real intention is not to help the individual grow in their obedience and reverence of Jesus but encourage a blind and unquestioning allegiance unto SCJ’s human founder.
According to one young adult who joined them for some sessions, she was under the impression that the people she met were all very genuine and patient. It was only upon her father sharing a newspaper article on SCJ that she started to suspect that some of the other newcomers may not be actual seekers but were being “planted” as positive influences.
It is not surprising that even in today’s context, there are a myriad of religious groups who claim to have affiliation with Christianity but are actually far from orthodoxy. After all, Jesus as well as his disciples have warned believers against false prophets and false teachers (Matthew 7:15, Acts 20:28-29) and how the latter may arise from within the Christian community (2 Peter 2:1). Here it is worth noting that SCJ’s founder Lee Man Hee himself used to part of a fringe religious group whose founder once served as an Elder in a Presbyterian Church in Korea!
When it comes to handling false teaching, Apostle Paul even had to on certain occasions publicly name some of the false teachers (Hymenaeus, Philetus – 2 Tim 2:17). Such an action was needful so that the churches could watch out for such individuals and guard against their influence. Likewise, Christians today, especially church leaders would understand why there is a need to be wary and help minimise the spread of false teaching. It is no coincidence that Apostle Paul would unreservedly describe false teaching as gangrene.
Given that social distancing is being encouraged today in view of the COVID-19 outbreak, there would be a need for Christians to practice “theological distancing” whenever appropriate and necessary. In some instances, it could mean simply refraining from forwarding an inspirational quote or a sermon excerpt of some “celebrity” pastors of questionable theological inclination even when it feels and sounds so right.
In our church library, we do not carry some titles even though they may be bestsellers in the Christian bookstores because some of their content is not consistent with what Scripture teaches or are found wanting in their theological reasoning. Hopefully, our worshippers will understand that it is not a matter of allowing the believer to enjoy the “meat” and spit out the “bones” by themselves in the name of learning from others when there are other titles with sound teaching on the same topic.
However, distancing does not mean that we stay away from individuals who are enamoured by false teachings or deceived by some heretical groups. In such cases, we certainly need to humble ourselves in prayer and ask God to grant us wisdom and love in a manner where we can be winsome and instrumental in helping others come to their senses (2 Tim 2:24-26).
If we desire to grow in discernment and maturity, we will need to cultivate a hunger for God’s Word and be properly rooted in “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). More often than not, old is gold when it comes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. More than just head knowledge, Christians must seek to put God’s Word into practice together with the rest of God’s people. And as we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us to reverence and deeper delight in God’s truth, we will find ourselves far closer to God than any new “revelation” can ever offer.
As we come to the end our preaching through the book of Esther, the Jews are celebrating Purim this week. It began on Monday and continued through Wednesday. The definition of Purim on a website reads, “It commemorates our nation’s miraculous salvation more than two millennia ago.” In a nutshell, this is their story of Purim*
The Persian empire of the 4th century BCE extended over 127 lands, and all the Jews were its subjects. When King Ahasuerus had his wife, Queen
Vashti, executed for failing to follow his orders, he orchestrated a beauty pageant to find a new queen. A Jewish girl, Esther, found favor in his eyes and became the new queen—though she refused to divulge the identity of her nationality.
Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic Haman was appointed prime minister of the empire. Mordechai, the leader of the Jews (and Esther’s cousin), defied the king’s orders and refused to bow to Haman. Haman was incensed, and convinced the king to issue a decree ordering the extermination of all the Jews on the 13th of Adar—a date chosen by a lottery Haman made (hence the name Purim, “lots”).
Mordechai galvanized all the Jews, convincing them to repent, fast and pray to God. Meanwhile, Esther asked the king and Haman to join her for a feast. At the feast, Esther revealed to the king her Jewish identity. Haman was hanged, Mordechai was appointed prime minister in his stead, and a new decree was issued granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
On the 13th of Adar the Jews mobilized and killed many of their enemies. On the 14th of Adar they rested and celebrated.
The story of Esther remains a profound and powerful event in history because of God’s divine providence at work even in the face of such evil. It serves to inspire believers of every age and ethnicity today, not just the Jews.
As I wrote in the last perspective, each Purim requires the retelling of the story, the story of their ancestors’ experience so that in hearing the story of crisis and deliverance, they may recapture the joy that the festival celebrates and remembers.
About a month from now, the Jews will be celebrating Passover, which requires the retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In a nutshell, this is their story of the Passover*.
On Passover, we celebrate how God took the Jewish People (Israelites) out of Egypt, where they had been enslaved by Pharaoh. With Moses as His representative, God brought 10 plagues upon the Egyptians until they agreed to send the Jews from their land.
About a month from now, as believers of Jesus Christ, we will also remember and retell the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The redemptive story of God in history that God became man and died for our sins so that we might be saved from sin and have eternal life (John 3:16).
At the original Purim and Passover, blood was shed. Esther chapter 9 gives us a bloody description of how the Jews killed 75,000 of those who hated them. In the Exodus story – the Passover, the blood of unblemished lambs protected the people from death so they could pass through the sea to freedom. It is interesting to note that it was during the Passover celebration that our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified. He became the Paschal (Passover) Lamb that was slain so that through the shedding of His blood, the ultimate sacrifice was paid of our sins.
Every Sunday, we gather to retell and remember God’s redemptive story and how it continues to this day. We look back at what God has done as we sing, read and hear of God’s mighty acts. This is the reason we preach through books like Esther. We look forward to Christ’s return and share the good news with the world even as we hear God’s word being preached to us so that God’s action, which came to us at an incalculable cost, does not become sterile for us.
As we approach Good Friday, as Bobby Cross rightly puts it, ‘we need to crack open our doctrinal casings’ so that the meaning of the cross becomes anew again.
Atonement: His blood sacrifice on our behalf
Justification: His acceptance of our legal sentence
Redemption: His payment to buy us out of slavery
Reconciliation: His absorption of pain to restore relationship
Salvation: His expenditure of life to rescue us from death
May we retell and remember what Christ has done for us even as we often sing:
All praise to Him Whose love is seen
In Christ the Son the servant King
Who left behind His glorious throne
To pay the ransom for His own
All praise to Him Who humbly came
To bear our sorrow sin and shame
Who lived to die Who died to rise
The all-sufficient sacrifice
(Lyrics by Bob Kauflin & Matt Merker)
When someone did something good for you and to you, what will your natural response be? You would not ignore him, right? Instead, you would utter a word of thanks to him, giving him your appreciation. In the church, for those who are serving in various ministries, whether as an usher or a sound crew or a support singer, the head of these ministries would hold an appreciation lunch for those who are serving in that particular ministry. On the third Sunday of the year, we would have all those serving in various ministries in the Four Pillars (see the True Way website) to stand so that the Elder in charge of that Pillar will pray for people serving in those ministries under that Pillar. So, we already have in place such kind of appreciation rendered to those who are serving. In contrast, individually, are we exercising this attitude: “appreciation” to each other in the Community of Believers at True Way?
Recently, someone shared a video done wonderfully by Faith Methodist Church showing and expressing their appreciations to the health care professionals, the operations staff, the immigration officers or someone working on the frontlines. I was encouraged and amazed by the encouraging words that they uttered in the video. The amazing thing was that the pastor of Faith Methodist Church encouraged their worshippers to forward this video to those whom they know, who are working in the frontlines courageously attending to the COVID-19 situation and crisis.
In the Scriptures, we can also see a situation of an appreciation given to someone. Let us look at the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19 ESV ~ “Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers.” In verses 15 and 16, it was mentioned that “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.” This leper, having being healed by the Lord Jesus, returned to express his appreciation to the Lord Jesus for healing him. See how Jesus responded to his appreciation: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus continued by saying: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” The Lord Jesus was very pleased with this leper who was appreciative of the miraculous work done in his life.
The thought of this word “appreciation” has often been on my mind. I recalled those who prayed for me or those who are my intercessors, I sent them a word of appreciation, expressing my thanks to them for upholding my family, me and my ministry in prayers while I am serving here at True Way. Some years ago, I had texted my second brother expressing my appreciation to him for bringing me to Christ. He was the one who shared the Gospel of Christ to me and that very night, I knelt beside my bed and uttered the Sinner’s Prayer, receiving Jesus Christ into my life as my Lord and Saviour. I also did express my appreciations to those who supported me financially during those times while serving at CEF Singapore and currently, those who occasionally gave me love gifts at True Way, especially during festive seasons.
So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us acknowledge others’ good intentions, good advices, good gestures and good deeds, etc. done to and for us by giving our sincere appreciations to each one of them either personally through verbal expression or directly through sending them an email. May we be the kind of worshipper and believer in Christ whom the Lord is pleased with! Amen.