Friday, 23 December 2011


At Christmas Christians celebrate the birth of the Messiah … the coming of a special one, sent from God to rescue us from the effects of our own sinfulness, restore us to God’s favour, and inspire us to a positive purpose in life.  According to a recent survey a significant number of people in the UK today believe that Simon Cowell is the promised Messiah … a thought which, for me at least, conjures up that immortal line from the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian … ‘He’s not the Messiah … he’s a very naughty boy!’ 

The idea of a ‘Messiah’ a redeemer figure expected or foretold in one form or another … is prominent in each of the monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For Jews, Christians, and Moslems the coming of the Messiah will bring about significant change in the state of humanity and the world. In later Jewish messianic tradition the  Messiah is a leader anointed by God, a future King of Israel, physically descended from the Davidic line, who will rule the united tribes of Israel and herald a Messianic Age of global peace. In Islamic tradition Jesus is the promised Messiah, sent to the Jewish tribes living in Israel, who will return to earth in the end times and descend from heaven to defeat the ‘great deceiver’ or ‘anti-Christ’.

Christians believe that prophecies in the Hebrew Bible (especially Isaiah) refer to the coming of a special one, sent from God to rescue us from the effects of our own sinfulness, restore us to God’s favour, and inspire us to a positive purpose in life,  and believe Jesus to be that Messiah or Christ. The translation of the Hebrew word Mašíaḥ as Khristós in the Greek Septuagint became the accepted Christian designation and title of Jesus of Nazareth, indicative of the principal character and function of his ministry. Christians believe Jesus to be the Messiah that Jews were expecting. Certainly those who first followed Jesus believed that he was the promised Messiah. The Apostle John tells us that the first thing, another of those whom Jesus initially called Andrew did, was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah (that is, the Christ) … and he brought him to Jesus’ [John 1:41,42].

The big question about Jesus, however, is did Jesus think of himself as the Messiah? Did he believe that he was the distinctive person that had a really pivotal role to play in God's plan? Scholars are divided about this. Personally I believe that Jesus did think of himself as a Messiah, he did think that God had specifically anointed him to do his work and that he had a special task for him to do. Jesus, at least twice, claimed to be the Messiah. In conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well he responded to her comment ‘I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes he will explain everything to us’ by declaring ‘ I, the one speaking to you – I am he!’ [John 4:25,26]. And, when hauled before the Jewish High Priest after his arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus responded to the High Priest’s blunt question, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ by stating, equally bluntly, ‘I am! And (referring to the Last Days and the Final Judgment) you will see the Son of Man (Jesus’ favourite description of himself) sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven!’ [Mark 14:61,62].

Jesus was also convinced that he had to suffer as part of God's plan and this caused controversy with his disciples. On one occasion he took his disciples aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles (i.e. the Roman authorities in this case). They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again’ [Luke 18:31-33].  It seems that Jesus wanted to push the idea that he was going to suffer – and that somehow this was integral to God’s plan to rescue us from the effects of our own sinfulness, restore us to God’s favour, and inspire us to a positive purpose in life!  Jesus’ disciples were really worried about this idea, probably expecting Jesus either to be some sort of priestly Messiah or some sort of warrior Messiah but certainly not a Messiah that would end up on a cross. They saw this as hugely problematic and a lot of Christians said for years afterwards that this was still a stumbling block to many people, a scandal – the idea that the Jewish Messiah could be crucified. This just didn't make sense to a lot of people … and yet it remains the essential truth at the heart of the Christian message … that ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ [John 3:17]!

The big question for us, therefore, is who do we think Jesus is? And how does our answer to that question affect our lives? There is deep truth contained in the verse of the old poem:
‘What think ye of Christ is the test, to try both the reason and rhyme,
Ye cannot be right in the rest, unless ye think rightly of Him!’

It is only in Jesus Christ that we begin to understand what true life is really all about – where we came from, why we are here, where we are going to, what the purpose of life really is!
A young man went into a crowded café for a coffee and found himself sitting opposite a clergyman, complete with clerical collar, who was reading a small book whilst drinking his coffee. The clergyman wore a badge in the shape of a question mark in his lapel. Although the young man was agnostic, and not a great lover of church or the clergy, he was intrigued by the lapel badge … and suddenly found himself asking the clergyman what it signified? ‘Why,’ said the clergyman with a knowing smile, ‘it stands for the most important question in the world!’ and annoyingly went back to reading his book. The young man couldn’t help himself and butted in once again, ‘What is the most important question in the world?’ The clergyman looked up once again and, smiling, turned the pages of the little book he was reading … which happened to be a New Testament … and read the words of Pontius Pilate to the crowds at the trial of Jesus, ‘What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ [Matthew 27:22]. ‘That is the most important question in the world!’ said the clergyman, suddenly becoming very serious, to the young man. ‘May I ask you’ he continued, ‘what are you doing with Jesus?’  

Tuesday, 8 February 2011


According to Dr Patrick Dixon, the futurologist, the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt mean that countries such as Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are all now at far greater risk of popular uprising. Dixon’s views cannot be easily dismissed as he has had some 13 million visitors to his web page (, 3.5 million video views, is the author of 14 books, and is reckoned to be one of the 20 most influential business thinkers in the world today. Dixon’s views would appear to be shared by Barak Obama and David Cameron, who are concerned that regime change in these countries will lead to them ultimately being taken over by militant Islamic extremists … with the obvious threat to world peace.

Although David Cameron was at pains to distinguish between the religious and political aspects of Islam, in his recent speech at the 47th Munich Security Conference, he is clearly naïve in believing such a division is possible. Islam is, and always has been, as much a political movement as a religious one and sees no real division between religion and politics, indeed for a Moslem the political element is a key dimension of true religion. The aim of every true Moslem is to ultimately see the whole world governed by Islamic ideology and law. In many respects this is not too dissimilar from the idea of a State Church ideology held by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (primarily at the time of the Reformation) Christians. (The exception to this were the ‘evangelical Anabaptists’ who were seen as the ‘left-wing of the Reformation’ and wanted to carry the reformation of the church further than Luther, or later Calvin, were prepared to do.) Now faith should influence the way we vote, and even which political party we support, so it has a religious dimension, but that is not the same as saying that religion and politics are head and tails of the same coin. Indeed, I would want to argue that, religion is indeed the cause of much of this world’s problems. The tragic religious conflicts between countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serbia and Bosnia, and Israel and Palestine are only a few examples of what happens when religion and state are united and not separate. Jesus, however, did not come to shore up religion … indeed most of his criticisms were reserved for the religious. True Christianity is not a religion but a relationship … and relationship with God in Christ … and a relationship with other people as a result.

When Jesus began his public preaching and teaching ministry, his first recorded words (to a couple of fishermen standing by their nets) were, ‘Come, follow me … and I will send you out to fish for people’ [Matthew 4:19]. Nothing about being religious, nothing about observing all kinds of religious rules and regulations, nothing about any kind of fanaticism … just a simple invitation to follow Jesus, as a person and in a particular way of living. Jesus calls them saying something like, ‘Here, after me.’ This call clearly points to a lasting association … Jesus is not inviting them to a pleasant stroll along the seashore but inviting them to a life of discipleship, a life of personal attachment to, and relationship with, Jesus himself. To this Jesus adds a promise. Follow me in this way, he says, and ‘I will make you fishers of people’. What we have here is a somewhat cryptic saying, a ‘condensed parable’ if you like. At this early stage these fishermen could not have known Jesus well, nor could they have had any depth of insight into his mission … but clearly fishing for people had a greater dignity than fishing for fish so in this allegorical connecting of their present and future ways of life they must have discerned that Jesus was inviting them to a way of life that was very worthwhile. It is no longer a question of taking fish from the lake, but drawing men and women up out of the abyss of sin and death, of mere religion, of an empty and wasted way of life, catching them in the great net of God.

Political systems are essential for the smooth running of national and international affairs … take away politics and you are left with anarchy … but any political system, in and of itself, is at best simply a framework. It is what that framework supports that is important … the values and virtues that make society a good society. Religion, in and of itself, does not necessarily provide the answer. Whilst the word ‘religion’ is used on occasions in the New Testament to signify ‘the reverential worship of God’, it is more often used to signify ‘religion in its external aspect’ … the politics of religion if you like. Sadly, as a result, all of the world’s great religions have too often been characterised by pride, exclusiveness, legalism, intolerance, violence and bloodshed. What a contrast to the lifestyle Jesus espoused and modelled, and wants us to espouse and model also. When the religious people of Jesus’ day ganged up on him, and attempted to entrap and discredit him with a trick question about God’s commandments, Jesus told them that basically there were only two things God requires of us, namely that we should ‘Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind … and love others as we love ourselves’ [Matthew 22:37,39]. What God requires of us is not simply a personal commitment of our lives to him, through Jesus Christ, but a lifestyle modelled on Jesus himself: loving God and others, being inclusive, accepting others for what they are, doing the right thing, tempering judgment with mercy, being a people of peace, exercising a ministry of reconciliation, and so on. It is this kind of life, rather than a ‘religious’ life, that draws people to God and ultimately makes a difference.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


The aptly named Bob Diamond, Barclays Boss and the UK’s best-paid top banker, was recently asked why he thought it was so hard for a rich banker to enter the kingdom of heaven. According to Robert Peston, Business Editor for the BBC, in his excellent blog, Peston’s Picks - - the Treasury Select Committee versus Bob Diamond was gripping theatre. According to Peston the best moment was when Diamond was asked by the Labour MP John Mann why he thought it was so hard for a rich banker to enter the kingdom of heaven. Diamond ducked out of giving a direct answer to the question by saying that he was still stuck on why it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich banker to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

The reference, of course, is to a saying of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels:

Truly I tell you, it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven … it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Parallel versions of this saying appear in Matthew 19:23-24, Mark 10:24-25, and Luke 18:24-25. The saying was a response to a rich man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, to which the man stated he had done. Jesus responded, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ The rich man, we are told ‘went away sad, because he had great wealth’. He was unwilling to do what Jesus suggested … an attitude that elicited this response from Jesus about rich people and camels, a response that left his disciples astonished.

What on earth did Jesus mean by this saying? Actually, it is not that difficult a saying to understand … so here for Bob Diamond, and anyone else for that matter, is the explanation. The reference was not to a literal ‘eye of a needle’ but to the needle gate of an ancient middle-eastern city, so called because it was shaped like the eye of a needle. After dusk, when the main gates of the city were closed, the only entrance was through the much smaller needle gate that could be easily guarded. Thus, a rich merchant with a loaded camel, arriving at the needle gate after dusk would be forced to unload his camel in order to gain access to the city via the needle gate. It was this teaching that astonished the disciples – not the impossibility of getting a camel through the literal eye of a needle – but the fact that in order to gain access into the kingdom of God or heaven it is necessary for rich people to unload! This is not to say that one cannot be a good person, or even a Christian, and be rich at the same time. It is all about seeing that any riches we may have must not be used purely selfishly – hoarded away like the Foolish Farmer in another of Jesus’ stories – but used for the good of others and the glory of God.