Teenage Apostles

Today, while I was at a gathering of Christian ministry people involved in young adults ministry, something struck me to wonder how old the apostles were when they first followed Jesus. A quick Google search gave me surprising results. Two sources suggest that the apostles were likely in their 20s or younger (https://www.jstor.org/stable/3136128?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents; http://bibleq.net/answer/4801/). 

The apostles were teenagers, while Jesus was about 30 years old. 

Boy, that blew my mind. Not least because I have been so influenced by the mental pictures of the apostles as bearded old men. Also because I realised how the apostles were youths who were discipled by Jesus, and who then led the early Church in their early adulthood. 

It also then struck me that as I was soon reaching the age that Jesus commenced His public ministry, I desired to follow Jesus’ footsteps in discipling young ones. I have been occasionally praying for disciples but have not presently so found 12. No I figure I can’t manage 12. So just a few would do. 

Whatever it is, it struck me how we assume many things about age. Perhaps especially so in the cultural context of the world. But in God’s Kingdom, it is not age that matters but faith, which is tied to humility. 

We need to disciple our young, like how Jesus discipled His young teenage apostles. It is they who will carry the message of the Kingdom of God in a spectacular way to a watching world. 

Have We Disintegrated Mission and the Gospel? 

(7-10 minute read)

A Singaporean Christian was on his way for a short-term mission trip to a village outside Phnom Penh. He saw an injured man lying along the road. He thought to himself, if I can preach the gospel to him after I help this man, then I will go help this man. As he approached the injured man, someone else came and tended to the man. So the Singaporean stopped in his track, and continued on his way to his short-term mission trip. Was this Christian a Good Samaritan?

No? But that’s what many Singapore Christians and churches do in missions–a false view of missions which we inherited unthinkingly.

Continue reading “Have We Disintegrated Mission and the Gospel? “

Reflection: Punishment or Protection?

Have you ever experienced a negative event wondering if it was punishment for your past transgression?

Like when things are going well, and suddenly you’re beset with a decapacitating illness?

Like when you enjoy your work and colleagues and feel like you’re really contributing, and suddenly you’re posted out to a different workplace or job scope?

Like when you feel that you’re in the right ministry, right relationships, right place–it feels like you’re right smack in the centre of God’s will–and suddenly, you hear a call to move out?

I have (though not all of those.)

Because of Judah’s transgressions, God sent Babylon to invade them. A group of Judah aristocracy and skilled craftsmen along with the King of Judah were then taken as captives into Babylon, sent by God into exile. One of them was the young man who would become the great minister and prophet Daniel.

Imagine then you were one of them. The thoughts and emotions which must be surging through your soul. Defeat. Resignation. Guilt. Shame. Doubt about God’s goodness. Doubt about your own actions. What should you have done differently? How could it have been prevented? What would the future hold? How would you live now? What difficulties and suffering would lie ahead?

Then you look at the other people around you. Why are they in their positions of comfort and peace? Why do they deserve it and not you?

So it might have been with the exiles. Then God revealed to Jeremiah (in chapter 24) that actually things aren’t the way they seem to be. God showed Jeremiah two baskets: one of very good figs and one of very bad figs.

Those who had been exiled into Babylon, they were in fact regarded as the very good figs. Those who remained in Judah in seeming peace, they were regarded as very bad figs.

The good fig guys will be protected in exile. God will plant them, build them up, prosper them, and grant them one of the highest blessings possible: “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” – Jeremiah 24:7.

The bad fig guys who remain in the appearance of security back in Jerusalem, God declared: “I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them.” – Jeremiah 24:9.

Things do not always appear as they are. And one of God’s modus operandi seems to be that only after we have been sent into the seemingly negative thing, are we later shown that what we thought was divine punishment is in fact loving protection. Beating turns out to be blessing.

Is this just a coping mechanism? Are we just trying to make meaning of our suffering? Perhaps. But if it is God’s intent and meaning unto us, it does not then discount the validity of such meaning. How then do we know it’s God’s meaning and not self-constructed? Perhaps we may never know for certain. Perhaps we might know. Whether God reveals, it is certain that such revelation can only be possible in contemplative connectedness with God.

Punishment or protection. Beating or blessing. Seek the intent of God to discern between them. Then you will find peace.

(📷: A church in Munich; can’t recall which church this is. St Paul’s? Glockenspiel? Frauenkirche?)

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In Divine Council

The Pantheon, Rome, Italy
The Pantheon, Rome, Italy

 

In Divine Council

In the Lord of the Rings universe, after Gandalf sensed something amiss at Mirkwood, he consulted the White Council, the Council of the Wise, comprising Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman, Radagast and others. They deliberated the possibility of dark lord Sauron returning. The Council would later take action in rescuing Gandalf and defeating and evicting Sauron from Dol Guldur.

The White Council is portrayed as a group of wizards and elves entrusted to keep watch over Middle Earth and to protect its peace. Though Gandalf was wise and able, he could not do without the wisdom and power of the Council in resisting Sauron.

The Bible refers to a similar concept infrequently talked about today. The Council of the Lord God.

Psalm 89:7 refers to a council of the holy ones. In Genesis, God refers implicitly thrice to a council of spiritual beings along with Himself. When He created humanity. When humanity fell. When He dispersed humanity at Babel. The prophet Daniel was shown a vision of a divine court which judged the anti-Christ. In Revelation, John on Patmos saw God the Father on a throne, Jesus the Lamb of God on a throne, twenty four elders on thrones, and a whole host of heavenly beings. (See http://thesowermagazine.com/gods-divine-council/)

But the Council of the Lord is not only about judgment or worship. The Council stands that the word of the Lord may be revealed and proclaimed. The amazing thing is that as prophets and priests of God, we have access to stand in this Council.

For who among them has stood in the council of the LORD to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened? – Jeremiah 23:18

But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds. – Jeremiah 23:22

I imagine a huge assembly of hundreds or thousands of heavenly beings, archangels, standing in a large circular stadium before God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son sitting on elevated thrones. Above them, the clouds in the sky swirl reflecting a multitude of pastel colours. A thunderous boom reverberates through the stadium as a crack of lightning shoots up from earth to the centre of the stadium ring and forms a spinning wheel of light and fire. The voices of people on earth praying to God, pleading with God, questioning God, consulting God, praising God, rise as they gently vaporize as sparks from the spinning wheel.

The Council listens intently. King Jesus speaks. He chairs the deliberation. The watchmen angels appointed over different provinces and communities of earth give their input. The archangels nod in agreement. The King asks if there are any objections to His will. There is none. There are only yes and amen to His word. Then the King pronounces His decree.

The archangels proceed to issue directions to the watchmen angels. The watchmen angels make their way to the saints on earth entrusted with the word of the King. The Holy Spirit takes their message and forms them into words and images, sounds and smells, emotions and ideas, visions and dreams, and plants them into the souls of the hearing saints. The saints see themselves standing in the Council of the Lord, listening to the proceedings and the edict. The saints see and hear. The saints are convicted in their hearts and minds, with all their strength and soul they go forth to speak forth the word of God.

Are we seeking to stand in the Council of the Lord today?

Threads of History

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It’s the 1900s. He had a pole hanging baskets of fruits on his shoulders. Up and down Prinsep Street he went, selling fruits in the tropical heat. Then he heard singing.

He stopped to listen.

The chorus of voices ascended above the ceilings and the walls of the building. A white man noticed him and came out to greet him. He saw the white man coming, and quickly grabbed his pole of fruits and dashed. But that was not how this ended.

Up and down Prinsep Street he went day after day. And the singing rose again. Voices erupted and spilled onto the street. The fruit hawker stopped again outside the building.

The white man came out again. The fruit hawker was just about to make a dash, but the white man called out to him in Hokkien. The fruit hawker stopped in his tracks. Come in, that white man said. He was probably a kind stately Reverend with a deep gurgling voice.

The fruit hawker followed him into the building.

That was what is today Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. The Reverend might have been Cook. It was probably the Straits Chinese Church or the Malay Mission Chapel. The fruit hawker’s name was Chew.

Chew stepped into the church. He heard the Gospel preached to him, probably in Hokkien. He believed. And it was counted to him as righteousness.

Some time later, Chew returned to China to marry the woman who was betrothed to him. Together they returned. They would eventually have a daughter, Annie. Annie would later marry Peter Yap, father of my father-in-law.

Chew would later become a rich rice merchant. He would own the land in what is today in Serangoon. He owned the land from where Yio Chu Kang Chapel stands today to the row of shophouses near Tai Seng Christian Church. In 1927, he donated land to the establishment of Yio Chu Kang Gospel Hall. The church was built on that land.

During World War II, bombs were unleashed on that land. But the church was untouched. The houses which home my father-in-law’s mother were untouched. When the Japanese came to occupy the land, Chew exercised diplomacy and persuaded the Japanese soldiers to spare his family, and his clan living in that village, Chia Keng village. He gave the soldiers food and shelter. The captain established his quarters there and provided immunity. By this, the family and the church were spared the terrors of war.

Out of that family came Annie, my father-in-law’s mother. She would marry Peter Yap, a poor teacher in Nanyang Girls’ High School.

In 1921, Peter Yap’s parents landed in Singapore fresh off a boat. His mother was carrying a child, who would be Peter Yap. An uncle who was already in Singapore received them from their voyage, and within the first few days or weeks of their arrival, preached the Gospel to them. They believed. And it was counted to them as righteousness. Their son then came into this world. They named him Fa Chuan, that is, to proclaim widely, in belief and hope that this son would go far and wide to proclaim the Gospel they had come to hold dearly.

This son Peter Yap would later live up to his name and have an itinerant preaching ministry in Singapore and Malaysia. He would also be the translator for Billy Graham in his crusade here in Singapore. On those few evenings, thousands came to believe in the Gospel. A revival erupted in the Singapore Church in the 1970s as a result.

Peter Yap and Annie Chew would have five children, one of whom is Andrew Yap. He would marry Myrtle Sim. They would have three daughters. One of whom is Ethel Yap. In 2014, she married me.

The church on that land was Yio Chu Kang Gospel Hall. Come next year it would celebrate its 90th anniversary. Some folks from Gospel Hall’s Sunday School would later join Bethesda Bras Brasah, the mother church of the Brethren church in Singapore. That eventually led to the birth of Yio Chu Kang Chapel in 1954. Today I worship together with four hundred people in that church.

In this church, I came to hear and believe the Gospel. The Gospel of an unchanging living Christ. The same Christ whom the fruit hawker Chew heard about and believed in the 1900s from the white Reverend. The same Christ whom Peter Yap’s parents heard fresh off the boat in 1921. The same Christ whom Annie and Peter would believe in. The same Christ whom my father-in-law encountered. The same Christ whom my wife knows. The same Christ whom I call my King. The same Christ who is head of the church, the faith community, I find family in.

There are many stories of history which go untold. There are some stories which are told and retold. Tonight, I heard many stories.

I heard stories of war, poverty, industriousness, creativity, motherhood, camaraderie, ministry, family, faith, hope and love.

The stories all paint a picture. A picture of a person who stands behind, beneath, between, every story, every relationship, and every miracle.

That person is Jesus. He is the Christ of that Gospel.

The Christ who leaves traces of his fingerprints on the endless thread of history which binds generation to generation.

The Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever.

The Christ who is alive and at work even at this moment, working his way in my heart as he is in all of ours.

The Christ who is faithful and surely, as he has said, he is with us until the end of the age.

The Delight of Power – Jeremiah 9:23-24

“Thus says the Lord, let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practises steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, says the Lord.” Jeremiah 9:23-24

Power. Knowledge is power. Strength is power. Wealth is power.

Power is exalted in the world. Few would deny it. Many seek it. We praise those with power. We envy those with power. We delight in power.

We say, that CEO is a Christian, praise God! We say, that Minister professes Christian values, praise God! We say, that pop star said “God”, praise God! We are saying, they have power and we want to be like them.

But this power is nothing. The almighty God judges not by how much power one has. In the verse preceding this, God declares: “Thus declares the LORD, ‘The dead bodies of men shall fall like dung upon the open field, like sheaves after the reaper, and none shall gather them.'” God judged those with much power and sentenced them to a severe penalty. The cinematic scene is vivid. The putrid stench must reach our noses. The closing shot lingers long.

There is only one measure in God’s judgment. That is to understand and know God. To understand and to know His character is not merely head knowledge. It means to internalise His character. It means to become the same as Him. It means to externalise the internalised.

That means to know His steadfast love, His loving kindness, His covenantal faithfulness, His mercy. This is to refrain from exercising power despite entitlement. It is to eschew power to preserve loyalty. It is to exercise power to give others beyond what they deserve.

That means to know His justice. That is to curb power to protect the weak. That is to wield power to enfold those at the margins. That is to exercise power fairly and truthfully.

That means to know His righteousness. That is to live in right relations with every human being and with every creature of the earth and with God. That is to live the good life, not the perverse or corrupt life.

These things–steadfast love, justice and righteousness–are the things God delights in.

What do we delight in? Ice cream after a long day of work? A long awaited sci-fi cult film? The melodies of a favourite artiste? Or the smile of your baby after her intense crying? Or affirmation from one’s employer for a job well done? Do the three things God delights in delight us when we see it in others? Do we delight when we see our brothers and sisters and our children and our friends practise them?

So let us boast only in this. Let us delight in this. That we know God, know His steadfast love, justice and righteousness on earth.

The Word of the Lord to the Church from Jeremiah 7 (2016)

3-4 The King of the Heavens, the God of the Church says to you: change your ways and I will let you remain in your place. Do not believe what some church leaders say: this is the house of the Lord, this is the house of the Lord, this is the house of the Lord!

5 If you truly change your ways, if you truly treat one another with justice, if you do not oppress the migrants, the single mothers, the poor, the marginalised, or commit violence in word or deed, and if you do not chase after idols like fame, fortune, force or fear, I will let you remain where you are Church, secure, in peace, prospering, where I gave your forefathers.

9 Will you steal, exploit, cheat, hurt or harbour anger and bitterness against others, lie, chase after idols of the world, and come and stand in your churches which are called in my name and say “We are saved!” only to go on doing these utterly detestable things? Have your churches become gathering places of evildoers?

18 The children study, the fathers slog, the women strive, to make offerings to the idols of the world, to provoke me to anger. Is it I whom they provoke? Is it not themselves, to their own shame?

23 But listen to this world I gave to them: obey my word, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in the all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you. But they did not obey or lean forward to listen, but walked in their own wisdom and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.

34 And I will silence in your churches the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegrooms and the voice of the bride, for your churches shall become wastelands.

– the Word of the Lord to the Church from Jeremiah 7 (2016).

Finding Rest (Jeremiah 6)

I’m tired. Where can I find rest?

“Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'” – Jeremiah 6:16.

Rest is found on the good way of the ancient paths.

The people of Judah were judged.

Their cities were wells full of oppression, evil, violence, destruction, sickness and wounds (v 6-7).

Their people were greedy for unjust profits. People dealt falsely. Even the prophets and priests declared peace when there was in truth impending disaster which flowed from their evil (v 13-14).

Their people are stubbornly rebellious. They slander (v 28).

The word of the Lord is the object of scorn to them; they do not pleasure in the word (v 10).

This is the picture of people who turn away from the ancient paths.

Where are the ancient paths? How are they to be found?

Stop in your tracks.

Stand by the road.

Look hard with eyes not of flesh but spirit.

Ask for the ancient paths. Seek. Question. Explore.

It is right there. Before you. Beneath your noses. At your bedside. Under your bills and newspapers. In your phone.

The only question then is, will you walk in it? Or will you follow the trail of the people of Judah and say, we will not walk in it?

We need rest for our souls. Rest is waiting for us on the good way of the ancient paths.

Letters of the Law: a letter to my 19-year-old self

Had the privilege to participate in this meaningful initiative by some law students. I hope my juniors at their crossroads will be at least a little aided by this reflection, a letter addressed to my 19-year-old self who just resigned himself to accepting NUS Law.

http://www.lettersofthelaw.org/read-a…/ronald-jj-wong-lawyer

“Dear Ronald,

It may be rough for you right now, I know. You are struggling with intellectual skepticism of just about everything. There’s a gnawing void in your heart and soul. You messed up your application to Oxford. You have neither the funds nor a scholarship to go to any of the U.S. colleges offered to you. Your fanciful idea of becoming an investment banker and earning heaps of money so you can retire early seems out of reach. And you might feel disappointed about having to take up the offer from NUS Law. Everything doesn’t make sense to you now.

Believe me. Those things are some of the best things that will happen to you. Because it is in the ashes of those broken ambitions and the intellectual and emotional vacuum of fallen mental frameworks and fractured relationships that you will soon find purpose, meaning and community.

You will finally encounter in a metaphysical way the one through whom everything will become clear. You will find enjoyment not just in studying the law but also in the justice that undergirds it. You will experience a holy dissatisfaction with the conception of justice, or injustice, you will witness. And you will dig in ancient places for the justice which satisfies. Through that, you will find purpose and significance in the one who out of justice and mercy redeems you from the injustice you are complicit in, who calls you to pursue justice and mercy among those who are often left at the margins. This will be better than money or status or whatever idea of the good life you think you could have with your silly fanciful ambitions.

Don’t fuss about grades. Instead, work hard to receive a proper education. Learn as much as you can to be a good lawyer. And when it is time, you will have to make a difficult decision, a leap of faith, as it were, to follow through with the convictions which will brew inside you after the restlessness you will experience from the dissonance between purpose and reality. Uncertainty is the best place in which faith will reap much harvest. So don’t fear the dark. Go with what has been revealed in the light.

Pursuing the things which are good and right is tiring and difficult. Friendships and community and being are more valuable than activism and fighting and working. That will help you to be faithful to whatever you are called to.

And you will have joy. It’s not the ecstatic kind of joy. It’s a quiet joy. It will co-exist with the sehnsucht which will always simmer in your heart. It is both the joy and the yearning which will sustain you to carry on.

Don’t fear. Have faith. It will all be alright at the end of all things.

Peace,

Ronald”

Faith and Works of Transformation and Action (James 2)

“You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” – James 2:22

The faith vs works tension has been debated by the Universal Church since its birth.

Some people think, even Bible translations like the NLT translate, works as “good works”, that is acts of kindness, charity, justice and mercy.

But the 2 examples James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, raised in the passage suggest it is not “good works”. Instead, the “works” refer to any choices and actions of a person.

James was dealing with some self-centred Jewish Christians at that time. And yes they were guilty of social injustice: they favoured the rich and ignored the needs of the poor.

But in James 2, he broadened “works” as any choice and action which expresses faith. So he conceived “faith” in that passage as mere cognitive assent, mere information.

In other words, James saw a spectrum of meaning of “faith” and “works”.

The spectrum of faith is information to transformation.

The spectrum of works is decision to action.

James mentioned Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and Rahab’s risky act of helping the Israelite spies.

In James 2:2, we see this spectrum of conceptions and we see its application in Abraham’s story.

Abraham’s faith was initially information about God. He was given a promise of a son, but didn’t believe God enough about how it would be done. So he slept with Hagar.

Abraham’s faith later led to his transformation. He realised how small his view of God was when in his extreme old age, God gave Isaac.

Abraham’s faith was then tested. He had to make the decision to take Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed. I’m sure he took a while before the decision translated to action.

Even as he had made the decision, and even as he was carrying out the action, he probably struggled with the faith-information and faith-transformation.

But by then it was already decision and action being worked out. Still, it was enough faith-information and faith-transformation to accompany his decision and action.

And when he arrived at the mountain and proceeded with the sacrifice, the faith-information and faith-transformation was “completed” by the work-decision and work-action.

In truth, if you read James carefully, he was drawing a strawman conception of faith to deal with his stiff necked listeners. He actually was saying “faith” is the full spectrum of INFORMATION to TRANSFORMATION to DECISION to ACTION.

Faith that leads to no transformation to no decision to no action is dead. Such faith does not save a person.

Then we come back to the context of social injustice among James’ listeners. Faith without an expression of love for brothers and sisters in need, the poor, the afflicted, the imprisoned, the ill, the oppressed, etc. That is faith that does not save. That is not true faith.

In our context, it is all of those things and more. Faith that does not transform and lead us to make choices and live lives which reflect the humble destitute salvaged estate of our once wretched souls is not saving faith.

Is our faith a saving faith of transformation and action?