Torch Times – Issue 2 2016

A Christian magazine for the thoughtful reader

Produced and published by
Torch Trust
Torch House,
Torch Way,
Market Harborough,
Leicestershire,
LE16 9HL UK
Tel: 01858 438260
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website: torchtrust.org

Editorial note

We may not necessarily agree with the particular views of an article, because on certain controversial subjects there are several acceptable evangelical viewpoints. It is our aim to give a fair representation of these in this magazine.

Unless otherwise stated, articles in this magazine are transcriptions of material received and as such are unedited.

Contents

Editorial

When you find yourself in a really tough situation, who do you turn to for help? Your pastor, a relative or neighbour? I'm pretty sure it would not be to someone who was dying and only had hours to live!

Yet in Luke's carefully researched gospel we read the account of someone who did just that. One of the two robbers who were crucified either side of Jesus is commonly referred to as the dying thief. He asked Jesus to remember him when he (Jesus) came into his kingdom. What a strange request. The thief himself was dying; what difference would being remembered by someone make at this late stage? Furthermore, he was making this request of a man who would surely be dead before sundown.

Yet this was the most profound request anyone could make, as repentance and saving faith combined in his heart. What joy when he heard the words of the Saviour, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.' He asked to be remembered some day in the future, but Jesus promised he would be in Paradise that very day!

The thief discovered that Jesus is indeed able to do, ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.' (Ephesians 3:20). You will see this verse clearly illustrated in the life of John Caldwell as you read his story in Christ in the Concrete Jungle. We hope you will be encouraged by his testimony along with the other articles in this issue of Torch Times.

Sue Richards and the editors

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Christ in the concrete jungle

by John Caldwell

Taken from Evangelicals Now, October 2015

[A story of the Lord of life at work today on the tough housing estates in Scotland. John Caldwell is now the ministry assistant at Bracadale and Portree Free Church on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and also teaches RE at Portree High School. Sixteen years ago that would have seemed unlikely.]

Scotland is no stranger to crime and addiction. Stories of senseless evil and tragedy are brought to our awareness on a daily basis.

I grew up in a housing scheme. One of the things that marked life in this scheme was its intense depth of darkness. Darkness did not just appear periodically; darkness dwelt in the scheme permanently.

Graduate of the school of chaos

By the time I was 18, my own life had spiralled completely out of control. While many of my peers were celebrating their 18th birthdays by an initiation to a pub or a club, I was immersed in a drink and drug culture that went beyond party time. While many other 18-year-olds were leaving school and heading to university, I had fully qualified in the school of dysfunction and chaos.

Many school associates would go out for a social drink; in the scheme there was no such thing as a social drink. You drank to get wrecked. As an 18-year-old I was at the end of myself and felt there was no hope. There was no purpose, only desperation and drug and alcohol dependency.

The Holy Book

I eventually reached the stage where I knew I needed help. I realised I was not going to be able to sort things out on my own. I felt a strange desire to read a Bible. I had a vague recollection that we had a ‘Holy Book', which resembled what may have been a Bible, somewhere at home. Being Catholic, we had all sorts of religious paraphernalia in our house, but rather than being highly visible and on display (as they were at my grandparents´ house), they were stashed away in a cupboard or drawer.

I went over to the storage unit at the back of the living room. I opened the cupboard and raked through countless useless items in search of a Bible. The cupboard was full of dead batteries, old keys and adaptors for things that no longer worked. I knew that this was where the religious stuff was also kept.

As I raked through the cupboard, I found holy water, confirmation candles, crucifixes and a prayer book, but no Bible. What I had thought was a Bible was simply a book on Catholic liturgy, and most of it was completely unintelligible to me. I gave up my search and resigned myself to the fact that there was no Bible in the house.

A short while later my sister came home from school. Upon coming through the front door, the first words that came out of her mouth were: ‘The Gideons were at school today, and they gave me this Bible.' A strange feeling came over me; it was like fear mingled with intrigue.

I tried to play it cool. I wanted the Bible, but I did not want it known that I had any interest in it. I made some sarcastic comments about ‘Bible bashers' and in a dismissive tone of voice asked her to ‘show me the book anyway'. ‘What's all this about?' I sneered, flicking through the pages.

Trembling with fear

As I opened the first few pages, I glanced at the words on the page and found myself trembling with fear. The words on the page grabbed my attention in a vice-like grip: ‘Where to find help when in time of need ... Desperate (at your wits´ end) ... Distressed or troubled ... Tempted to commit suicide ... Drink abuse ... Drugs abuse.'

What on earth is going on? I thought to myself. These are the very issues that I am facing. How can this book, which is thousands of years old, speak to these modern problems? What does the Bible have to say about these issues? This is supposed to be a religious book.

Up until now, I'd considered religion to be something that was completely irrelevant to everyday life. I had no idea that the Bible spoke right into the very questions and struggles of human existence.

At times when I felt really low I would turn to that little red Gideon New Testament and Psalms. One day I turned to the Book of Revelation, and I stumbled on the part which speaks about the final judgment. I very quickly understood the heart of this passage. There was a day to come when God would judge the entire world. The book spoke of people in white robes. I figured that these were Christians. It spoke of the condemnation of the wicked. I immediately knew which category I fell into.

Although I was occasionally consulting the Bible, very little changed outwardly. I was still drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, getting into fights and occasionally having encounters with the police.

Church with open gates

One dark winter's night, while drinking with a few of my uncles, we ran out of cigarettes and I agreed to walk over to my flat and get some tobacco. I was heading away from the pub when I noticed that the little church building next door to the pub had its lights on. The gates were open and it looked as if a service was on. Feeling quite confident, since I had a bit of a drink in me, I ducked through the doors of the church. I had turned up half way through the meeting, but the folks were very friendly and after the meeting had finished they invited me back the following Sunday. I did go back the following Sunday, and there I heard the gospel of salvation by grace preached for the first time.

I knew what I had to do

A few days after going back to the church, I was alone in my flat. I went to my bedroom and picked up a Bible I had been given and a leaflet that an old preacher at the church had given me. I flicked through the leaflet; it spoke about Jesus being the only ‘safe door' and that in order to be saved we need to enter through this door. It was all a bit too metaphorical for me, but there was a prayer at the back of the leaflet. It was a prayer which invited the reader to trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

I knew what I had to do; I needed to ask Jesus into my life. I immediately fell on my knees and began to cry out to God. I poured out my heart in a confession of sin, telling God how sorry I was for the mess I had made of my life.

Washed in love, joy and peace

Later on that day I headed out for a walk All of a sudden I began to feel something. While I struggled to describe it at the time, a feeling of love, joy and peace began to wash over my entire being. Fear, guilt and shame evaporated and love filled its place. It was so strong. I looked out the window again, and the whole world seemed to have been transformed. Every part of creation seemed to radiate with life and light. I became deeply aware of Jesus. I didn't really understand what was happening; I had never heard of such experiences or that they were even possible. Although I was unable to explain what was taking place at the time, I now realise that my eyes were being opened to the glory of God.

I had no idea how much my life would change the day and the hour I placed my faith in Christ. Since that time, the Lord has brought deep transformation into my life. In many ways, my experience reflects that which is recorded in Psalm 107.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
He sent out his word and healed them;
he rescued them from the grave.

[This article is an edited extract from Christ, the Cross and the Concrete Jungle by John Caldwell, published by EP books, ISBN 978 1 783 970 759 and is used with permission.]

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Why don't yesterday's sermons still speak today?

Taken from Christiantoday.com, February 2016.

[Mark Woods shares his thoughts on what's changed.]

What makes a great sermon? Some people will talk about the preacher's skilful use of illustrations, some will value deep Bible knowledge, others will talk about the preacher's ability to relate the text to everyday life, while others will point to the indefinable sense of the Spirit's anointing.

These things are all true. But what's interesting is how our sense of what makes a great sermon has changed over the centuries. What strikes one generation as new, fresh and exciting is just tedious to another, or odd.

I thought of this while browsing through a fascinating book picked up for a few pence in a charity shop. Famous English Sermons, edited by Ashley Sampson, was published in 1942 and contains 16 sermons, beginning with the 7th-century Jarrow monk, the Venerable Bede, and ending with CS Lewis, whose wartime radio broadcasts were widely popular. Among others it includes are Hugh Latimer, who was to be martyred, the famous poet John Donne, John Wesley and CH Spurgeon.

The interesting thing is to see how they changed. Those old preachers said things that wouldn't occur to us today. For instance, Bede points out that Peter is called ‘Bar-Jona', which means ‘son of a dove'. Quite right, he says: ‘For the dove is without guile, and Peter followed his Lord in prudent and pious guilelessness.' And the Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, so that works too. It's rather lovely, but it's not the sort of thing we'd say today.

Richard of Wimbledon, in 1388, used the parable of the labourers in the vineyard to talk about the different roles of priests, knights and labourers in society. It's a bit tenuous. Hugh Latimer (1552) preached on the Lord's Prayer. He scatters Latin about, but on the whole he is homely, witty and straightforward. There is a long and rambling story about a woman he visited in prison who was accused of murdering her child; it turned out she didn't do it and he got her set free, but it's not clear how the story relates to anything in particular.

John Donne's famous Death's Duel sermon is included; it was his last, and he preached it as he was not much more than a corpse, dying of cancer and in great pain. It's not easy, and there's even more Latin, but it's just wonderful. ‘Whether the gate of my prison be opened with an oiled key (by a gentle and departing sickness) or the gate be hewn down by a violent death, or the gate be burnt down by a raging and frantic fever, a gate into heaven I shall have...'

On the other hand, Jonathan Swift, the famous author of Gulliver's Travels, was a better novelist than preacher; his sermon on A Project for the Advancement of Religion and the Reformation of Manners just argues that the state ought to promote religion because it's useful.

I liked John Wesley's sermon on Temptation, which is full of stories. Some modern Methodists keep a copy of his Forty-Four Sermons to hand in case the preacher doesn't turn up, though I don't know how it would go down nowadays. John Henry Newman's on The Invisible World is excellent; he compares the world of animals to the world of angels. We move among animals and never think about how mysterious their world is - we don't know whether they can sin, whether they will be judged, whether they will survive death. Isn't this ‘as mysterious as anything which Scripture says about angels?'

Spurgeon preached a thunderous sermon on the Immutability of God, about eternal punishment, among other things. ‘When a million ages have rolled away, and you are exhausted by your pains and agonies, you shall turn up your eye and still read, ‘SHALL BE DAMNED', unchanged, unaltered.' And when we come to the later 19th and early 20th century we read very clever, erudite sermons indeed, from people like Henry Scott Holland and Campbell Morgan.

Would any of them still be preachable today? Not really, at least not as they stand. They might appeal to people of a literary bent, but the language and ways of thinking of even the most up-to-date of them are hard work. That's not to say that they aren't worth reading – there are good things in all of them – but they wouldn't grip a congregation today.

And this is quite telling, and we can learn at least three things from it.

First, sermons are temporary. We aren't producing something intended to last, and shouldn't be surprised or disappointed if it doesn't. Preaching is performance art. It might be recorded, either on paper or aurally, but its meaning is in the happening, not in the recording. Preachers who worry their congregations aren't learning from their sermons have got the wrong idea of what a sermon is. Think of it as a concert, not as a class.

Second, sermons are conditioned. A lot depends on the interplay between congregation, culture and the preacher himself or herself. So much of what we think of as ‘good preaching' depends on what we're used to. What would go down a storm in a Pentecostal-type church would bomb in a cathedral. A sermon that would be appropriate for an Anglican evensong would mystify an evangelical megachurch.

Third, sermons – at their best – are Spirit-filled. They are not just human productions, though they are the result of hard work and deep study. They come out of prayer, the preacher's and the congregation's, and attentive listening to God. God's Spirit takes inadequate words and makes them strong, even when on the printed page we might wonder why.

The power of the preached word through the ages has been enormous. Sermons have fed the hearts and minds of God's people in congregations large and small. Preachers have fearlessly judged kings and queens. Somehow, God has spoken.

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Apostles: a new reformation?

Taken from Evangelicals Now, April 2016

The ‘New Apostolic Reformation' has had a new lease of life recently – what are we to make of it?

Throughout the world today the church is encountering a growing collection of ministries in coalition called the ‘New Apostolic Reformation'.

For short this is referred to as NAR (pronounced ‘NAHR'). The people involved do not all believe exactly the same tenets but all have variations on a mixture of Dominionism and Prosperity Gospel (Word-Faith).

Of particular note is their doctrine concerning their spiritual leaders. They put these new self-styled apostles and prophets on a par with the biblical apostles and prophets and demand that churches and individuals submit to them and their doctrine in order to advance the kingdom and prepare for Christ's return. To do this they are also acquiring growing political and cultural influence and they use Christian media and the internet to disseminate their ideas. Leaders include Rick Joyner, Bill Johnson, Cindy Jacobs, Randy Clark, James Goll, Kim Clement and Mike Bickle.

To some their teachings seem to be new, exciting and powerful. But we need to be Bereans (Acts 17:11).

Dominionism

Much of their teaching is based on the false doctrine of Dominionism. NAR members are promised miracle-working powers to enable them, in end times, as an army of God, to loose divine judgments in earth and even overcome death for themselves. They believe they can be trained to do this. But does this square with the Word of God? And does not Christ say: ‘when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?' (Luke 18:8).

These ideas have not suddenly appeared. NAR has been growing for more than 30 years. Its roots are in the Latter Rain and Manifest Sons movements of the 1940–50s. These suggested the church should quit looking forward to the rapture (the physical return of Christ) and start ruling over the world itself. In short, the church is to replace Christ or become Christ to bring about revival. Who would not want revival? But is it not Christ who makes the church holy and victorious? (Revelation 1:5–6).

Quantum Christianity?

Recently added to their Dominionist belief that the church can transform the world is the concept of Quantum Christianity. This is a take-over from New Age that human beings can tap into the spiritual forces of the quantum realm to bring about a new world order. Bill Johnson believes Christians can today bring into being the millennial prophecies that Scripture tells us will occur when Jesus returns. Quantum Christians can't wait for God's time. Is God double minded? Is not his Word eternally valid? (Psalm 138:2). Quantum Christianity is too involved to include in this article but should it interest you, go to www.mediaspotlight.org put Quantum Christianity in the search box and then click on Deceptions, with the subheading ‘Quantum Christianity: Has the gateway to heaven been discovered?'.

‘Don't disagree'

Unity is a big concept with NAR and anyone who disagrees with them is described as having a ‘Jezebel spirit'. People are told to ‘judge not, else they will be judged' (Matthew 7:1). God's church may not seem to have much organisational unity, but every true believer is already united in the Spirit. When we try to manufacture what God has already given us, we move away from God's purposes. We have every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). To seek more than God gives opens us up to deception.

Territorial spirits

C Peter Wagner's unbiblical strategic spiritual warfare which seeks to dislodge demons from geographical areas, rather than deal with the strongholds in men's minds and hearts, is another NAR teaching.

Does God's Word have no authority? They seem to think they can make it mean what they wish. Is this gross ignorance? Or unbelief? Cultivating ‘experience' is considered more important than seeking God and his truth in and through the Scriptures.

Own version of the Scriptures

NAR now has its own version of the Bible: The Passion Translation, produced by Dr Brian Simmons. In it the text is manipulated to support NAR teachings which are to a large extent based on contemporary revelation even though they agree these revelations are not 100% accurate. Sometimes, it seems too, their prophets do not even understand their messages (Jeremiah 17:9).

The church at the centre of the Toronto Experience is now part of NAR and calls itself ‘Catch the Fire'. Originally the signs and wonders were hailed as revival but true revival sees people serious about repentance and holiness of life. NAR churches major on experiences and trance states. Adherents are encouraged mindlessly to ‘soak' in ‘god'. Which god? Not Jesus, the Truth, the Word of God. The fact that ‘signs' ‘work', does not mean they are necessarily ‘of God'. Spiritual zeal which is not Christ-centred is a sure recipe for irrational manifestations. The Wesley brothers experienced this before they became Christians.

Roots in ‘Christian Science'

Since the manifestations stem from a Prosperity Gospel background, the roots of which are in Christian Science and the occult, it is not surprising that the inane laughter, uncontrollable shaking, the drunkenness etc, and moans & groans, come from demonic sources. Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) and can counterfeit miracles to deceive and control. God commands us to test and weigh all phenomena and doctrine (Deuteronomy 13:14: ‘inquire, probe, investigate thoroughly'; Deuteronomy 13:1f; 18; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; I John 4:1; Romans 12:2), but in NAR this does not seem to happen. However, the manifestations cease when rebuked in the name of Christ and God-given spiritual gifts are controlled by the recipient (1 Corinthians 14:32f).

Turn off the mind

It is clear also that phrases like ‘Come Holy Spirit' become triggers for hypnosis so, again, rendering people liable for demonic intrusion. Some leaders encourage people to turn off their minds and ‘just receive'. But the Scriptures tell us to bring every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Our minds are God-given to use to block demonic entrance.

‘Impartation' is another significant NAR word referring to an ability, by the laying on of hands, to pass what one person has to another in order to bring about change. But there is no godly transformation. Touch is a way demons can be passed on. All that happens in NAR can be found in New Age circles, eastern religions and Theosophy. Sadly the hyping of experience denigrates true proclamation of the gospel, the love of God's Word, knowledge of how to meet God through it, and transformation to Christ-likeness. Steadfast adherence to Jesus as one's all-in-all is the Christian's safeguard against alien intrusion. Paul had many supernatural experiences, including Christ appearing to him, but he centred himself on the one ‘who loved me and gave himself for me' ( Galatians 2:20) – Christ's death on the cross for him.

Same authority as Jesus?

NAR activities and teaching seem exciting stuff. Word-Faith or Quantum Christians also base their theories of supernatural ministry on the false premise that believers have the same power and authority on earth that Jesus had. However, God chooses the foolish and weak things of the world and things that are despised to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no flesh should glory in his presence (1 Corinthians 1:28f).

How does God depict the end times? Jesus says: ‘Watch out that no-one deceives you. For many will come in my name claiming ‘ I am the Christ', and will deceive many ... false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible' (Matthew 24). 2 Thessalonians 2:9f speaks of ‘the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders'. God will meet a refusal to love the truth by a powerful delusion so that people believe ‘the lie' (Genesis 3:5) and be condemned. May God have mercy.

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Is there revival in Ethiopia?

Taken from Evangelicals Now, February 2016)

In the last 20 years something like 70,000 people have come to Christ in Ethiopia.

This is a story untold by the secular media, but it is a vibrant movement of God's Spirit in this land presently facing food shortages. Most of the people whose lives have been touched are from an Orthodox Church background, but many Muslims have found Christ too. Those who have seen what the Lord has been doing have been astonished.

The book in the monastery

The story of the gospel in Ethiopia begins in Acts 8 with Philip preaching to the Ethiopian eunuch, an important treasury official from the court of Queen Candace. But the gospel was revitalised in the country during the 19th century by Samuel Goldblatt and a very interesting story began to unfold. Goldblatt was a Lutheran missionary who stayed only about six years in Ethiopia, but translated the New Testament into the Ethiopian language, Amharic.

On his departure he left a copy of this New Testament with a monastery. There it collected dust until, 25 years later, one of the monks took it off the shelf, read it and was overcome by the truth of the gospel. He got other monks studying, with the result that they came to saving faith and out of this came the Mekane Yesus evangelical church.

Underground church

Mission organisations including SIM began to work in the country, but mainly evangelisation was restricted to the South. It did not touch the North of the country or most of the East and West. There were two bursts of growth during the 20th century. When the Italians invaded the country, then known as Abysinnia, under Mussolini, missionaries had to withdraw, but these years saw the number of Christians increase markedly. Then, following the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, there was a Communist government until 1991, with a ‘security service' inspired by the East German Stasi and the evangelical church had to go underground. Some church leaders fled the country, many others spent years in prison and some were killed. Believers met in homes in secret. But again there was growth. This was partly due to the Government's determination to bring education to poor people. They sent educated people into distant villages to start schools. Many of these people were Christians, who not only taught the basics of reading and writing, but the gospel as well.

Stories that connect

But then, just about 20 years ago, a group of missionaries in the country became very burdened for the 80% of people in the country with very low literacy – perhaps they could write their name but that was all – who had no access to the gospel. They looked at finding Bible stories that connected with the culture of village Ethiopians that would communicate the gospel. These were broadcast on short-wave radio (FEBA was involved). At a similar time a couple of Orthodox bishops, who were believers, realised that the Orthodox Church was losing their young people to secularism and to Islam. They saw that they needed to get the Bible to the people. A newer translation from the 1960s was put into the hands of deacons, priests, monks and into the churches. This meant that the Word of God began to travel into the North of the country.

With this background God began to work. Inspired by Jesus´ words in John 4 that the harvest fields are ripe for harvest, and pursuing a method rooted in Luke 10:6 of looking for a ‘man of peace' as the door into untouched communities, the gospel began to be shared using story telling.

On the first occasion, Evangelicals Now was told, the one sharing the gospel very diffidently challenged his contacts that if they wanted to, yet they didn't have to, they might like to come to Christ and make a covenant with him there and then. The response took him aback. ‘Of course we want to. Why haven't you told us to do it before?' Later he encouraged them to share the gospel with others, perhaps two or three friends. One woman asked, ‘Do you mind if I tell ten or 20 people?' And so this movement began to grow exponentially as people told the gospel and trained their friends to share with others.

The heavenly way

One leader had the experience of driving his car to a new town, walking around the narrow streets and then being unable to find his way back to his car. He said to a group of people (knowing that his words had a double meaning) ‘I have lost my earthly way.' ‘I will show you,' said a man in the crowd, ‘but have you found the heavenly way?' ‘Yes, I have', said the leader, ‘and if you show me back to my car I'll tell you about it.' As they walked he shared the gospel.

They walked right past his car, because his guide insisted on taking him back to his home to hear more. Here was a ‘man of peace' from whose house the church was planted in the town.

Two villages

This same leader had the joy of leading a young man, David, to Christ during his time in the city of Addis as a university student. David wanted him to come back to his village. The village was on a mountain. On one side was a Muslim village and on the farther side the Orthodox village from where David came.

On their journey, as they entered the Muslim village, a young girl tending goats asked the group if they would like to have coffee at her house. Almost immediately a woman insisted that they go to her house instead. The group divided. In the woman's house the leader was given very meagre hospitality and when he said ‘I have a story for you' and shared the gospel the woman made him pay for his coffee! However, in the little girl's house, the father of the home heard the gospel and came to the Lord. It turned out later that, although he could not read, he was the chairman of the committee which, being a poor village without an imam, looked after the running of the local mosques.

The group then proceeded over the mountain to the Orthodox village. There, in David's father's house, the gospel story from Creation to Christ was shared. David's father, who also could not read, made a commitment, a covenant with Christ. Teaching the new convert and his family went on until midnight. But it was also explained to the man that he had a new ‘brother' who had become a Christian in the Muslim village on the other side of the mountain. When he heard that this man, like him, could not read, his response was ‘I have two sons who can read and so tell me the Bible's stories. I must give one of my sons to him.' This resulted in David going to live with the man in the Muslim village for six months.

During this time, under the committee's influence, the preaching at the mosques changed, with the gospel now being proclaimed. Many in the town came to Christ, including the woman of ‘meagre hospitality' and a church started. She later apologised and made the man she had charged for his coffee a large feast!

Need to pray

With the gospel being passed on so quickly by those who have only recently become Christians themselves, there may be a danger of doctrinal weakness and vulnerability to false ideas. Christians need to pray. But certainly lives are being changed and the work of God is proceeding with great joy.

The acceptance of believer's baptism has proved a strength in this area. A big breakthrough came in the minds of people from an Orthodox background when they realised that though Jesus was circumcised as a child he was baptised at the age of 30.

[For security reasons we cannot properly name any of the people referred to in this article.]

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John of Demascus - an early Christian response to Islam

Taken from Evangelicals Now, February 2016

[Professor Michael Haykin brings us past wisdom for present faithfulness]

The last 20 years or so have thrust to the fore of evangelical consciousness our great need to share the gospel with Muslims.

But Christian concern about the salvation of those devoted to the teachings of Muhammad is nothing new. One ancient vista from which to see the way that Christians responded to Islam during the very earliest period of Muslim expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries are the writings of the theologian John of Damascus (c.655/675 –c.749). John had clearly taken the time to understand Islamic views and thinking, and was quite familiar with the Qur'an in Arabic, though his language about Islam could at times be somewhat intemperate.

A biographical sketch

John is often described as the last of the so-called Church Fathers of the ancient church. An Arab by ethnicity, his grandfather had played a key role in the surrender of Damascus in 635 to the Muslim army of Khalid ibn al-Walid, a great early Muslim general. The Muslim rulers of Syria were tolerant of the presence of Christians and John's grandfather became a key administrator in the Muslim government of the region. John's father, Ibn Mansur, was known as an extremely devout Christian, but also one of the most trusted officials in the Muslim regime.

John succeeded his father as a key advisor to the Muslim ruler, Caliph Abd al-Malik. After a long life of service in the public realm, John left his position early in the eighth century in order to embrace life in a monastery near Jerusalem. He was a prolific writer and among his writings there are two that specifically address Islam: On Heresies, a work that catalogues various heresies that had and were afflicting the church – chapter 101 is devoted especially to Islam – and A Dialogue Between a Saracen and a Christian.

Identifying key differences

In On Heresies chapter 101, John locates Muhammad historically and then identifies some of his main theological teachings. According to John, Muhammad asserts that ‘there is one God' and that ‘Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit, only a creation and servant, and that he was born without seed from Mary, the sister of Moses and Aaron.' John also notes that according to Muhammad ‘Christ...was not crucified nor did he die, for God took him to himself into heaven because he loved him', an accurate rendition of what is said in Qur'an 4.157. Obviously this assertion strikes at the heart of biblical Christianity in which the death of Christ for sinners is absolutely central for their salvation.

After mentioning the fact that the revelation of Muhammad, though it claims to be in succession to the Old and New Testaments, was not foretold by these earlier witnesses, John proceeds to deal with the Muslim critique of the Trinity: ‘they call us Associaters, because, they say, we introduce an associate to God by saying Christ is the Son of God and God.' John is responding here to a fierce monotheistic declaration like this – one of many in the Qu'ran: ‘People of the Book, do... not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God... So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity'...God is only one God, He is far above having a son...' (4.171).

How to answer

John's response must ultimately be our response: the teaching of the deity of Christ, and the Trinity, is what is found in the Scripture. Though the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed difficult to comprehend, it is biblical truth. As John writes about the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire in another work, The Orthodox Faith: ‘Altars and temples of idols have been overthrown. Knowledge of God has been implanted. The consubstantial Trinity, the uncreated Godhead is worshipped... Hope of the resurrection has been granted through the resurrection of Christ... Yes, and most wonderful of all is that all these things were successfully brought about through a cross and suffering and death. The gospel of the knowledge of God has been preached to the whole world and has put the adversaries to flight not by war and arms and camps. Rather, it was a few unarmed, poor, unlettered, persecuted, tormented, done-to-death men, who, by preaching One who had died and was crucified in the flesh, prevailed over the wise and powerful, because the almighty power of the Crucified was with them.'

As was the triumph of the gospel then, may it be so again, and that among the followers of Muhammad!

[Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.]

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The gospel in the trees

Taken from Evangelicals Now, February 2016

[Professor Julian Evans opens up a fascinating line of enquiry in Scripture.]

Since God's Trees – Trees, Forests and Wood in the Bible was published two years ago by DayOne, there has been an unexpected consequence.

Not only has the book sold well and been reprinted, but numerous requests have been received for talks. In 2015 alone, 28 presentations were given to all sorts of groups – prayer breakfasts, ladies´ meetings, evangelistic and one-off church events, as might be expected, and surprisingly to non-church audiences too such as U3A, WI, science societies and forestry groups. The appeal seems to be the unusual perspective on how trees and wood in the Bible affirm Scripture and can enrich our understanding of the gospel. The talk is not dry botany, but takes seven contrasting topics on the tree theme; here we look briefly at three.

The tree Zacchaeus climbed

Only Luke's Gospel records the conversion of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). We all know the story of how this diminutive, wealthy tax collector ran ahead to climb a tree as Jesus was coming that way and he wanted to see him. What Luke also tells us is the kind of tree Zacchaeus climbed, a syco-more-fig (Ficus sycomorus) – incidentally no relation to our familiar sycamore spelt with an ‘a'. Knowing this, that the tree was a syco-more-fig, enriches in two ways.

Firstly, sycomore-fig trees are common around Jericho. Indeed, they are widely distributed as a species and found in many parts of sub-tropical Africa. But secondly, and importantly, it underscores the care Luke took over his Gospel for even something as trivial as identifying the kind of tree. It is just the sort you'd expect to find in Jericho. Even today tourists are shown one claimed to be the tree he climbed!

Their presence in Jericho and the Jordan valley has another story. Twice in the Old Testament we read of individuals who tend sycomore-fig trees. Amos is the best known – he was a shepherd and he tended such trees (Amos 7:14). Part of what this involved was to help the figs sweeten by incising them and wiping with a little olive oil. The figs were not as good to eat as the common fig and needed this treatment to make them palatable. This was early autumn work and shepherds, who had brought their flocks down from the parched Judean highlands to find fresh pasture by the River Jordan, would climb up sycomore-figs to do this and perhaps cut off foliage as sheep fodder too. This would be a familiar sight in and around Jericho.

When Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus not only was he, a despised, wealthy citizen, demeaning himself, but by climbing a sycomore-fig he was identifying with what everyone knew lowly and equally despised shepherds did. Surely this added to the crowd's ridicule, but so pressing was his desire to see Jesus nothing would stop him. If only more of us were as passionate to see and serve our Lord.

The bitter waters of Marah oasis

Just three days after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea the Israelites complain about nothing to drink as the water at their first resting place is unfit. God shows Moses what to do – throw in a piece of wood (or tree). The water becomes drinkable (Exodus 15:25).

Commentators almost invariably skip this verse, but as someone writing specifically about trees and wood in the Bible I couldn't. So is it an old wives´ tale or a myth in the sense of being questionable or just made up? I don't think so. Thirty years ago I wrote my first book: it was about tropical plantations and I recall coming across an article published by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation about the tree that purified water. The tree is a moringa and several species occur in arid parts of North East Africa and the Middle East. Research when writing God's Trees turned up both a leaflet by Germany's overseas aid body (GTZ) recommending moringa seeds for village-scale water purification and a scientific paper comparing moringa seeds with alum for sewage treatment! So does this shed light on the curious verse in Exodus?

We know that in the desert of Shur, through which the Israelites journeyed away from the Red Sea, the moringa or ben-oil tree does occur, though today they are sparse. The species is Moringa peregrina. We also know that seeds of this tree when added to water cause impurities to settle out – to precipitate or flocculate. And when this happens some 98% of bacteria are removed too. But could this be the explanation of what God revealed to Moses, who had thousands of thirsty Israelites to satisfy? It might be: seeds from just one big tree are sufficient to purify about 30,000 litres (7,000 gallons) of dirty water and the process only takes about two hours.

It remains a miracle that Moses performed, and it remains a fact that there is a tree that would have been present that could have done the job. Our Bible is reliable in every detail; it is not awash with myths and old wives´ tales.

Christ's crown of thorns

Israel is a dry country and there are many trees and shrubs that are prickly, spiny or thorny. We do not know which was used by the Roman soldiers who tore off twigs to fashion a crown to hurt and to mock the ‘King of the Jews'. The relics don't help us; they are all of dubious authenticity and their long intact thorns are plainly wrong as Christ was repeatedly beaten around the head (Mark 15:19): the thorns would be broken and stained.

One candidate is a buckthorn, the Jerusalem thorn (Paliurus spina-Christi), as is suggested by its Latin name. Also known as the European Christ-thorn, it is still found in northern Israel and in New Testament times could well have been in and around Jerusalem amongst the scrubby oak of the Judean hills. Other suggestions include box-thorn, or the common thorny burnet, or even the idea that spines from the base of date palm fronds were used. The latter were readily available in Jerusalem and could have been woven around a headband to mock Christ's divinity as well as his kingship, though it would not have been an instrument of torture.

The most plausible candidate is ‘Christ-thorn' itself (Ziziphus spina-Christi), with its mix of upright thorns and recursive, bent-back ones. The tree can be found today around Jerusalem as well as throughout Galilee. Christ-thorn may also be the tree in Jotham's fable, as the most likely meaning of the Hebrew word atad in Judges 9:14–15, and if it is what the soldiers twisted to inflict pain and bleeding then we have a twist indeed. Did the Romans collude with the Jewish leaders so that the only earthly crown Jesus wore was the very symbol of bad kingship in Judges and so heap yet one more humiliation and insult on our Saviour? Jesus the carpenter and country preacher would have known the tree well.

These examples, and the many other biblical mentions of trees, forests and wood, enrich our understanding of Scripture. As I say at the end of God's Trees: ‘Appreciating better the trees we find in the Bible's narrative has helped me appreciate better its far greater story.'

[Professor Julian Evans OBE FICFor is a forest scientist and chairs the Forestry Commission's Expert Committee on Forest Science. He is in the leadership team of his church and was formerly a member of the board of Tearfund. He is author or editor of 16 books and many scientific papers on forestry.]

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