On the final evening of my second week in the Far East in January, the local co-ordinator made an announcement. We were told that we must strip our beds and wash the duvet covers, sheets and pillow cases before breakfast in the morning.
Next morning I duly complied. I filled a bucket with hot water, squirted in some soap, and started doing my washing. One of the students happened to look into my room. When he saw what I was doing a look of horror came over his face, as he said, in his own language, ‘You don’t have to do any washing!’
The next moment he grabbed my bucket, walked off with it, and my washing was done on my behalf. I didn’t have to do it myself and I never saw it again!
That reflects the great respect which still exists for the office of a teacher in an Asian society. It also provided an excellent illustration to use in class later that morning.
We had been studying the doctrine of the atonement. The nub of that truth is that, by dying on the cross, Jesus faced God’s judgement on our behalf; we don’t have to do it ourselves, and we shall never see God’s judgement again!
This was my seventh visit to this particular group of theological students in the south-east of their country, and my first since they embarked on a more advanced level course.
We were using the doctrine of the atonement as a sort of test case for how to study any biblical theme. At the start of the week, I laid out a method for discovering the fulness of the Bible’s teaching on any particular theme.
This method involves locating relevant texts in the New Testament, studying the words, examining the context, looking at other New Testament passages where the same words and ideas are found and surveying the Old Testament background. The aim with the students was to be able to write out a summary of any biblical doctrine in logical themes.
At the start of the week, the students were struggling to put this method into practice.
I would turn with them to some part of the New Testament and demonstrate how to go about it. Then I would set them an exercise based on a different part of the New Testament, and they would keep saying, ‘We can’t do this’, to which I kept replying, ‘Yes, you can, if you are prepared to put in the effort’.
The translator told me that slow, painstaking research does not come easily to people in that part of the country, because their whole cultural ethos is to get things done as rapidly as possible.
Well, it was so thrilling on the Friday morning to see how everything finally ‘clicked’. I set them the task of researching the bits of the doctrine of the atonement which we find in 1 John.
One student after another made his presentation and everyone did well. To see the joy and excitement on their faces as I said, ‘Excellent’, ‘Brilliant’ and ‘You see, you can do it’, was really moving for me.
My prayer now is that they will be able to practise this method of studying many aspects of biblical truth, so that they grow towards a fuller and richer appreciation of God’s revelation, and then, in turn, can excite the people to whom they minister with the wonderful truths of the gospel.
The first week this last time we were studying Early Church History. We approached the subject by studying ancient Christian texts, from the second and third centuries, relating to persecution.
I was very interested to observe how theoretical the idea of persecution has become for these students. They found it difficult even to give a definition of what persecution is. When we set the scene by looking at the New Testament teaching on persecution, they kept referring to texts which had nothing to do with the subject.
Clearly, in the parts of the country from which most of them come there has been hardly anything which really merits the name of persecution for over a generation.
Their parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced much persecution, and in other parts of the country persecution continues to be a live reality. But for this generation in this area, it is at most a fading historical memory.
Perhaps that emphasises how diligent we all ought to be in prayer that God would prepare our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world — and also ourselves — for the possibility that we might yet have to face persecution for the name of Jesus.
Sometimes persecution is the very tool which the Lord chooses to use to revive his church and his work.