Do you think the Apostle Paul ever felt “stuck”? Did he ever feel frustrated at not being able to obey God’s call on his life because of external circumstances? If I found myself in his shoes, I might have.
This past year, a lot of people (including myself) have felt stuck and hindered by external circumstances, largely as a result of government restrictions in response to COVID-19. Plans have been frustrated and new plans were also frustrated, and then the most gingerly held and tentative plans were also frustrated. “Surely, by such-and-such a time, things should be getting back to normal” was in the thoughts and on the lips of many of us, but that confidence that it would only be a bit longer was continually upended.
But what does the train wreck of 2020 (and 2021?) have to do with the Apostle Paul?
Like most of us have been, Paul was buffeted by external circumstances outside of his control. As I read through the book of Acts recently, I was particularly struck by the stories of his imprisonment near the end of the book. In reality, Paul didn’t NEED to be in jail. If various people, including government leaders, had acted differently, his lockdown could have ended at any time. Paul had places to go and people to see. The apostle to the Gentiles surely would have been better able to fulfill God’s call on his life by being out and about visiting people and preaching than by sitting in jail and conversing occasionally with a corrupt government official. Yet, for reasons of political expediency and greed, Felix kept Paul in jail for two years without any criminal charges against him. And when he was succeeded by Porcius Festus, Felix left Paul in prison because he desired to do a favor for Paul’s Jewish enemies (Acts 24:22-27).
How do you think Paul felt about all this? Did he ever get frustrated or disillusioned with God for not changing the minds and hearts of his captors so that he could get on with his business of being an apostle? How was Paul’s mental health during his lockdown? Did he spend his time moaning and complaining about Felix’s ineptitude and wickedness that kept him there? Maybe Paul had some low points where he gave in to grumbling and complaining. We don’t know. However, even if he did, his letters indicate that that kind of mentality did not dominate his attitude and outlook on life.
Reflecting on a multitude of his life experiences, both good and bad, Paul told the Philippians, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:11-13).
Paul never minimized pain and suffering, either his own or that of others. And the point of this post is not to say that lockdown and restrictions are not a big deal. They are. Whether you agree with the necessity and appropriacy of such regulations or not, they are still difficult to bear. For most of us, there is little in our power that we can do to change the decisions that government leaders make about lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and other restrictions. We just have to live with them and find creative ways to work around them. There are constructive ways for Christians to work for change in society, but continually grumbling and complaining about what’s wrong is not one of them.
Like the apostle Paul, we somehow need to learn to be content in the circumstances in which we find ourselves and recognize the hand of God in the day of narrowed horizons and limited opportunities. Through his time in jail and the opposition of enemies, Paul learned what it was to be brought low and yet still be content in God. Have we learned the secret of being content in all circumstances, including our current ones? If we haven’t (and I confess that I struggle with contentedness sometimes), we need to turn back to reading Scripture, to prayer, to good Christian books, to attending / tuning in to local church services, and to fellowship with other believers in whatever way we are able to do so.
With the apostle Paul as an example, I believe that being content in lockdown and whatever other circumstances is possible because God is good. But we may need to pursue that contentedness and not give up because the world, the flesh, and the devil are against us.
This Christmas season, I’ve been thinking about the incarnation of Christ because of all the restrictions that we’ve lived under due to government responses to COVID-19. The Son of God came to the world in-the-flesh, in-person, but for much of this year many of us have been unable to see each other in person. Everyone has been doing the best they can given the circumstances, and there is much to be thankful for, including the miracle of digital communication that enables us to be “present” to some degree for one another. In messaging from the government, we’ve heard a lot about “essential” and “non-essential” activities, but many times “church” has been relegated to the “non-essential” list. For that reason, in this post I wanted to reflect briefly on why God thought it was essential to send His son in-person, in-the-flesh, for us and our salvation. Was the incarnation essential? How does the incarnation of Christ relate to the limited ability to gather with others in-person in the time of COVID-19?
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
One of the early church fathers, Athanasius, who lived in Egypt during the 4th century, wrote a little book called “On the Incarnation”, reflecting on the nature and meaning of Christ becoming man. In the book, he laid out the problem that people had sinned and wandered from God. Other parts of creation had not rebelled – only us, people. And God, wanting to redeem us from our fallenness, needed to make himself manifest to us. He wanted to make himself known to us in order to draw us back to him. He did this by becoming a human being. Because people are so lowly and unimpressive, Athanasius pondered why God would become man. He wrote:
“Some may then ask, why did He not manifest Himself by means of other and nobler parts of creation, and use some nobler instrument, such as sun or moon or stars or fire or air, instead of mere man? The answer is this. The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it, not diminishing the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it.”
In essence, Athanasius was saying that God becoming a person in order to be with us in-the-flesh was essential because of who we are. Our weaknesses, our limitations, and our nature, necessitated that He become a being like us in order that we might see who God is. In this vein, Athanasius commented further:
“For, being men, they would naturally learn to know His Father more quickly and directly by means of a body that corresponded to their own and by the Divine works done through it; for by comparing His works with their own they would judge His [works] to be not human but Divine.”
More than 300 years before Athanasius, Jesus explained this very thing to his disciples, namely that they should be able to recognize God the Father through the works that Jesus was doing. In answer to Philip’s request that Jesus show them the Father, “Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:8-14)
The Son of God came in the flesh to be with us, to be visible to us, to be really, viscerally, and tangibly with us so that we would understand who God really is. THIS was essential. Nothing less than the incarnation of the Son of God would do.
Now, of course, it would be easy to think, “Yes, of course, the disciples saw Jesus, but now He has gone up to heaven. How do we see Jesus today? How is Christ made manifest to us really, bodily, in-the-flesh?” The answer is “through us.” Are we not, as the Apostle Paul said, “the body of Christ”? Is not God tangibly “incarnate” (so to speak) today through the life of Christian believers?
In one sense, the incarnation is not repeatable. God only became incarnate once, when the divine nature was united with human nature in one person, Jesus Christ. But in another very real sense, God is manifest and visible to us today through other Christians who are the body of Christ.
The church is the visible presence of Jesus Christ in this world. God has deemed the people of God, His church, to be essential in proclaiming and reflecting Christ himself in the world. We are the hands and feet of Christ, and the mouth and ears of Christ, in ministering to the hurts of this world. This can be done to a limited degree through digital communications, through phone calls, through letters, etc… but not fully. With the world as it is, and government restrictions as they are in many places, being fully present for people and fully displaying who Christ is to them is challenging at best.
Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay
However, because God the Father deemed it essential that God the Son come in the flesh to be with us to redeem us in our totality – in mind, spirit, and body - then it is also essential that God’s people, the church, strive to express God’s gospel of redemption to others, ministering to them in the fullness of mind, spirit, and body.
Regardless of how government authorities and society-at-large may view the Christian faith and church gatherings, in-person expression of the love of Christ is essential, both for the upbuilding of the people of God and for reflecting Christ to a watching world. There may be times and seasons to find alternative ways of communicating with others, but they all fall short of actually “being there.” God the Son knew that “being there” was essential for us and our salvation, and the body of Christ is also essential as God’s chosen way to mediate God and His redemption to the world.
One of the perennial questions about Christianity in Thailand is why the church has traditionally grown so slowly compared to other countries where Protestant missionaries arrived around the same time. Ultimately, we don’t know for sure why the church grows more slowly or more quickly in a given place. The Holy Spirit blows where He wills and we don’t know where He will move or when (John 3:8). However, God does use people and methods in his work. So, from a human perspective, it is worth considering some of the factors why church growth has been slow in Thailand.
A primary reason for slow church growth has been a strong association of Buddhism with national identity. This has been true for hundreds of years but received a great boost in the early 20th century when Buddhism began to be strongly promoted as a mark of national pride. Thai leaders were eager to modernize their country in the areas of education, medicine, communication, transportation, etc. but becoming more modern did not mean becoming more secular. Buddhism has always been retained as a force for unifying the people of Thailand. As the Thai say, “To be Thai is to be Buddhist.” In China and Korea, which have both seen strong church growth, no single religion has been tied to being a loyal citizen. The strongest church growth in Thailand has been in the North where minority tribal groups with their own cultural identity have been historically influenced more by local animistic beliefs than Buddhism.
A second reason for slow church growth is likely the American Presbyterian missionaries’ shift of focus from direct evangelistic and church work to educational work in the first part of the twentieth century. They didn’t abandon evangelism entirely but the majority of their personnel and money, both missionary and Thai, were invested in mission schools. After World War II, the American Presbyterian mission diminished and eventually dissolved even as many evangelical and pentecostal churches and mission organizations began work in the country. Some of these new groups engaged in social ministries, such as homes for orphans, but the majority have focused on direct evangelism and church planting. The evangelistic focus of later twentieth-century missions organization and Thai Christians themselves have been important factors in Christian numerical growth in Thailand since World War II.
Other factors often cited for slow church growth in Thailand are a lack of contextualized religious language, worship styles, church structures, and leadership patterns. These are important and relevant for evangelism and discipleship in Thailand but may not the deciding factors in church growth. In comparison with 100 years ago, great strides have been made in trying to proclaim the Gospel in an understandable and accessible way for Thai listeners, and this is a positive development. But the key reason why Thai church growth has seen a dramatic uptick in recent years is likely the work of dedicated Thai evangelists and disciple-makers and the blessing of the Spirit of God. Missionaries have played their part and continue to do so, but the bulk of Christian growth in Thailand comes through Thai and tribal Christians, not foreigners.
In recent years, Thai Protestant churches have seen their strongest growth ever. Though Protestant Christians still only account for less than 1% of the population, half of all the churches in Thailand have been started in the past twenty-five years and the rate of growth for Christians in Thailand is increasing much faster than the growth rate for the general population in the country. So even though there is still the perception that the Thai church is growing very slowly, that is only a perception based on the past. The number of Christians may still be small but the Thai church is growing more quickly than ever before.
As the dynamics of globalization, international travel, and communication change in the COVID-19 era, Christians should be glad for church growth in Thailand in the past, slow though it may have been, and hopeful for the future. Bad things happen and disappointments abound in this world, but the work of God goes on and the present rate of church growth should give Christians everywhere a reason to rejoice.
Animated Heat Map of Church Growth in Thailand, 1870-2016 (credit: e-star.ws)
World War I and II were greatly disruptive to missionary work worldwide but they were also a blessing in disguise to the missionary cause. For years, Western missionaries had claimed that the superiority of Western civilization was due to Christianity. They thought this was a great apologetic for why non-Christian people in other parts of the world should believe in Christianity.
See what fruit Christianity has borne in Christian nations?
You too can have that if you believe in Christ!
Well, the rest of the world certainly did see as the countries of Europe, the supposed pinnacle of human civilization, tore each other apart. So that apologetic was not very useful anymore if it ever was.
When the rug was pulled out from under the feet of this missionary apologetic, missionaries were humbled and forced to ask themselves “What IS the fruit of the gospel?” and “What ARE the real benefits of believing in Christ that we can tell non-Christian people?” The two world wars forced missionaries to draw a sharper dividing line between Christian faith and Western civilization; And that was a helpful thing because missionaries should be preaching the glories of Christ and not the glories of their home countries as supposed proof of the glories of Christ.
In the present day, Western societies, the former “Christendom”, are moving further and further away from Christianity. Church attendance is low. Cultural values and priorities are increasingly formed without reference to the Christian faith, which is often seen as hostile to the progress of a humane and tolerant society. If missionaries one hundred years ago were close to heroes in Western culture, they are now closer to villains in the popular imagination. That is not an all bad thing. If missionaries have a clear idea of how hostile their home culture is to Christ, then they will go out to their field of service without the idea that they should be promoting their home culture as part and parcel of gospel proclamation. Christ stands in opposition to both the missionary’s home culture and the culture of their host country. It is a great thing that the last hundred years have disabused Western missionaries of the idea that the fruit of the gospel and the fruit of Western civilization are two sides of the same coin.
In our humanness, it is easy to get our motives entangled with one another and have a difficult time sorting out what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Christian in a particular cultural context. But praise God that he has a habit of bringing clarity in a myriad of surprising and unexpected ways.
Guest post by Larry Dinkins
Despite being the most scrutinized pandemic in history, the Corona Virus leaves numerous questions unanswered. Many of these questions will no doubt remain unanswered, but there is one that topped the list with SARS as well as Ebola and remains the key question with this present virus: Precisely how did Covid-19 originate? The answer to this $64,000 question could go a long way in helping remove the source of the next potentially devastating global pandemic. Helping scientists in this task has been the work done by Chinese researchers in 2017 who traced the last Corona type pandemic (SARS) “ … through the intermediary of civets to cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in Yunnan province.” In the case of Covid-19 most research points to the wet-markets of Wuhan province that sell live animals like bats and pangolins. The mention of people eating such exotic animals is actually addressed in the Old Testament and has caused me to look afresh at what the Bible has to say about Old Testament dietary laws.
As a Bible teacher in Thailand I noticed that my students would do well reading through Genesis and Exodus, but when they got to a book like Leviticus they got discouraged and would often jump to the more familiar New Testament. Part of the reason is that they didn’t see how Jewish laws, like kosher eating, related to them. Yet a book like Leviticus could have helpful pointers for us living in the midst of our present pandemic - Covid-19.
By God’s design, Adam and Eve started out as vegetarians (Gen. 1:29-30) and then after the fall God allowed the eating of animals (Gen. 9:3). Later in Leviticus 11, Moses specifies both clean and unclean animals for the Jews, including birds, land animals and sea creatures. What is interesting is that God seemed to favor herbivores, those more docile animals that had hooves for mobility in fields and mountains as they consumed vegetation. The unclean animals fell more into the categories of carnivores (meat eaters) or omnivores (meat and plant eaters), many of which survived by scavenging and would be more apt to carry disease.
There are many reasons for the distinction of clean and unclean animals in the Old Testament, not the least of which was related to health. By having detailed laws about which animals to eat, how to drain their blood, and then clean and cook their meat properly, God was protecting his people from many of the diseases that affected the surrounding countries.
For 27 years of my life, I shopped in modern grocery stores and gave no thought to whether the food I put in my cart was edible or tainted in some way. I was confident that the regulations that my government had concerning meats and proper food preparation would keep me healthy. So, my wife and I were in for a shock after arriving in Thailand as we carefully filtered water, disinfected our lettuce with an amebicide, and overly cooked much of our meat. An incentive for this was our periodic encounters with amoebic dysentery, para-typhoid, frequent diarrhea, and the first two dates that I always jotted into my yearly calendar: June 1 and January 1 (Remember to deworm the family).
On top of that was the decisions we had to make concerning the exotic foods that our Thai hosts sometimes expected us to consume. I don’t ever remember eating even one insect in my previous life, but in Central Thailand I was served ant eggs, beetles, and grubs. I’ll never forget sitting with a group of young men on a Sunday afternoon as we watched muay thai boxing on the TV and the large bowl of treats that was placed before me to munch on. However, when I reached in the bowl expecting chips or popcorn, I discovered a bowl full of roasted locust! (I learned to pull off the legs first, otherwise they get caught in your throat). One provocative slide that was sure to get a “rise” from my audience was my two young sons holding BBQed rats on a stick (I always reminded the audience that these were “clean” rats from the fields that only ate rice). You also have situations when you happen to run over a large snake with your car, only to turn around and see someone picking it up to take home and eat.
Probably the most memorable dietary discussion I ever had was with my friend Bill who was co-teaching a class with me at the Asian Theological Seminary in Manila. At lunch we ate with the Filipino students and at the end of the cafeteria line was a large tray of what looked like brownies. Bill has been a missionary in Israel and has done evangelism with the Jews for over thirty years. He scooped up a “brownie” and put it on his plate. Just before he took a bite I said, “Bill, you do know that the “brownie” on your fork is actually coagulated blood.” Bill was taken aback and exclaimed, “Blood? What type of blood?” I replied, “Pig’s blood.” Bill was incredulous, but I reminded him of Jesus’ words in Mark 7:18-19, “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) Bill replied, “Yes, Larry, but pig’s blood isn’t FOOD!”
To this day, my Thai church after the service will often serve “Pork Soup with Pig’s Blood Jelly”. As I look down at my lunch I simply repeat a phrase a senior worker told me early on, “Larry, it isn’t wrong, it’s just different.” I’m also reminded that it is not my role to judge other cultures on secondary matters like food. A rabbi from the states learned this truth on a visit to a rural area of China. His tour director took him to the house of an elderly woman who had a picture on the wall of her with the rock star, Michael Jackson. The rabbi explained, “The tour director had brought Jackson to the village on a tour about a year earlier. In the house, the pop star saw an emaciated cat. He gave the woman a $100 bill and told her to feed the cat. After he departed, she did so. And then, when the cat was fattened up, she ate it. It’s the kind of story you don’t forget, and years later, when I became friends with Jackson, I told him the story and he said he remembered the woman and the village. He wasn’t happy to hear that the woman had eaten the cat. I told him that given the level of poverty in the village, perhaps she had no choice. Who am I to judge a poor woman and what she consumes to survive and feed her family?”
In the West we take access to clean foods and plentiful protein for granted. Yet in many parts of the world, people are willing to eat most anything that will give them the protein needed to survive. That is why it is good to study the teachings of Jesus alongside the dietary laws of Leviticus. Besides his comments in Mark 7, Jesus once said to his disciples in Matthew 15:17-20, “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” Jesus as a Jew adhered to the stipulations of Leviticus 11 and no doubt there are principles in that chapter that we would do well to take heed of as we seek to eliminate the all too frequent pandemics that threaten our world. However, there is a greater defilement that is a continual threat, affecting all aspects of people’s lives: the defilement of sinful thoughts and actions. Fortunately, there is an effective inoculation and cure for this defilement in the cross of Jesus. May God give us the boldness to share this cure globally with as many as we can before it is too late.
 "Severe acute respiratory syndrome" on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severe_acute_respiratory_syndrome, accessed 7 May 2020.
 Shmuley Boteach, "Could the Bible’s prohibition on eating bats have prevented coronavirus?", 26 April 2020, The Jersusalem Post, https://www.jpost.com/judaism/could-the-bibles-prohibition-on-eating-bats-have-prevented-coronavirus-625901, accessed 7 May 2020