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Not One Jot, Not One Tittle
Be Strong, Stand Firm
What Price Human Life?
“I Can't Breathe”
Praise the Lord, O My Soul
The Blood of Jesus
You'll Never Walk Alone
How Changed Are We?
A Sunday Morning's Meditation on Psalm 24


(Sunday, 19 April 2020)
by Ong Kok Bin


Life in the past several weeks has not been quite the same for all of us. We are under the Movement Control Order. We are forced into self-isolation, “stay at home”. We cannot move out of our homes freely; we cannot go out to dine, to shop, to hike, to swim, and, for most, even to work. If we have to go out for our groceries or “ta pau”, we have to observe social distancing, which means keeping at least 1 metre away from the next nearest person. We have to stand in long queues just to get into a supermarket or a family-mart. We are advised to wear a mask, use hand-sanitizers and so many other things we have to observe. No family outings. No gatherings in large or even small groups. Life certainly has changed for all of us!

But that only is the physical side. There is the emotional change too. For some, they suffer from stress and anxiety just from being cooped up in the home: not being able to go out to their favourite waterhole and have a drink with their friends; not being able to walk into the badminton court on Friday nights and have a smashing time. Anxiety comes too even when we make that short trip to the grocery store: will I breathe in the deadly ‘V’; will the can of sardines be contaminated; what about the grocery cart or basket? All these and more hit our brains as never before. Then there are others who face real anxiety because of loss of income, or there is a family member who is sick; or, an abusive husband or wife at home and there is no escaping. Any of these can ratchet up stress in a person and change him or her emotionally in big or small degrees.

Change is the operative word. We just had a change of government and in the next clip of an eye we had to endure the changes forced upon us because of the covid-19 pandemic. Even when we recover from this pandemic, there will be changes promised. Experts are talking of a new normal post-covid-19. Yet, these changes are merely temporary and superficial. They do not change us in any profound way. They do not change who we are as persons. They are like a tan under the sun, surface skin only, which soon vanishes when we stay away from the sun. They do not go deep into the bones and the marrows, the sinews and the joints, the heart and the bowels. They do not change our nature and our character. They do not change the way we think. They do not change the way we behave – our regard for others and how we treat them. At least, that's what I think.

Coming to the point of the day, how changed are we? I do not mean these last several weeks under the MCO. But how changed are we as Christians? From the day we were born anew in Christ, how have we changed? The gospel of Christ calls for change. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” is the summary central message of our Lord Jesus Christ (see Matthew 4:17). Preachers in the 1970s & 80s were almost always stressing on the word ‘repent’ or its cognate, ‘repentance’. They invariably would show from the Greek metanoia, the noun form, that repentance means ‘change’; but not just any change. It is a complete change: so complete as to fully reverse one's state of mind and action. I still remember one particular preacher who would illustrate the meaning of repentance this way: he would stand on stage facing one way and walk forward a few steps and then he would turn himself to face the opposite direction and walk forward again; at the same time, he would say out loud and clear: “Repentance is to make a 180° about turn in the direction of our life. The change has to be complete and it must reverse the direction of our life.”

I don't know how many of us would claim to have made this 180° about turn change. I, for one, would not. I have changed to some degree; but, certainly, not 180°. I have turned from a doubter to a believer, yes; but there are vestiges of the old self that would not go away – the impatience with the stupid and the silly, the sudden burst of anger, envy, sometimes even vile thoughts, such as misfortune for the ‘enemy’, instead of love. It's still a long way towards that 180° turn. Don't know whether I'll ever reach it. But it's a mark to strive for.

One person whom I can assuredly say that has reached the 180° change is the apostle Paul (well, give and take a few degrees and minutes, given that he was still human). It is a most remarkable change – from being a persecutor of the church, to a preacher par excellence for the church; from a Pharisee who in his most extreme tradition would not even cast an eye at a Gentile, to a messenger to the Gentiles. What happened? What instigated such a dramatic transformation? He, who as Saul, was a proud Jew; and even more so, a prouder Pharisee. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees, a Hebrew of Hebrews; who was held in great esteem among his peers; who had a most promising future in his own Jewish community, who had the best education in his field, who sat at the feet of the most renowned teacher of his time. How did he make the change?

How was he able to give up his authority and power to create havoc for the church and misery and death for Christians; and to be on the receiving end of being hounded, beaten and jailed with the threat of death constantly on his neck?

How was he, the proud Pharisee, who was “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14), able to become the humble disciple of Christ and be an apostle to the Gentiles, eating and having communion with them?

It is mind-boggling to even consider such a change possible – total, drastic and a complete reversal.

Even as we ask the question, the answer is not too far away from us. The apostle left us with some autobiographical material in his epistolary writings, which provides us a window into his mind and the change.

The catalytic moment came in his journey to Damascus. “Breathing out murderous threats” he was bent on taking captive, men or women, “who belonged to the Way” back to Jerusalem to be tried and imprisoned. But a light interrupted that journey and the whole course of Saul's life was changed. He had a direct epiphany from Christ, a moment of truth with the One he was totally opposed. The gospel he disbelieved and sought to destroy became a “revelation received from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-17; see also Acts 9).

Next, he found grace. It was a word not in his vocabulary, a concept not in his Pharisaic mind. He only knew law – the commands and the statutes of the Torah. He was a disciplined and diligent law-keeper and he expected the same from his fellow Jews. And when this upstart of a teacher known as Jesus taught something so different and so revolutionary as to be blasphemous, Saul perked up. This upstart Jesus had to be stopped. How dare he go against the law of Moses and the traditions of the fathers? Worse, how dare he claim to be the Messiah? The legalistic mind in Saul was working hard and furious. But that light, that blinding light, shone through his Pharisaic legalism and opened him to a new and strange idea – grace. The God-fearing Jew, the Torah-filled Pharisee, suddenly realised that he, Saul, was the blasphemer, not the upstart Jesus; that he, Saul, was the violator of God's word, not the upstart Jesus. Horror struck Saul. He was petrified. He was defying the will of God. He deserved death. But he got something else instead: “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:14). How could Saul not be changed when he had tasted grace – the abundant and loving grace of Christ, the unmerited favour of God!

If the Damascus light was the catalytic moment, if grace was the persuasive argument, then Christ was the convicting and clinching proof of the will of God for Saul personally (e.g., see Colossians 1:1). All was laid clear and plain before his eyes now. God wanted him to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). He, Saul or Paul, had been set apart from birth (Galatians 1:15), to be appointed to the service of Christ (1 Timothy 1:12). He had been foreordained, so to speak. The Jesus he considered a fraud and a false teacher was indeed the Son of God (Galatians 2:20), the Christ. It all made sense to him now. The legalistic mind in Paul made one final calculation. Christ was the end of the law (Romans 10:4). The law was merely a temporary edifice until the Christ should come. Now that Christ had come, there was no longer the need for the law (Galatians 3:19f.). Anyway, the law could not make anyone righteous. It could not give life. It might as well be done away with. With this calculation done, Paul embraced Jesus both as Christ and Lord (e.g., see Galatians 1:3). He gave up everything – his Pharisaic pride and identity, his trust in the law, and his determination to stop the Way of Christ – for he had found his pearl of a great price. All he was, all he had, all he aspired for, was dung, rubbish, garbage (Philippians 3:7f.). Having known Christ and known by Christ, Paul finally saw his true self – not the proud confident Pharisee, not the law-abiding Jew, but the worst of sinners, “blasphemer”, “persecutor”, and a most “violent man” (1 Timothy 1:15, 13), deserving of death under the law. Yet, instead of condemnation he found righteousness. Instead of death, he found life, mercy and grace. How could he, Paul, not be changed when he had found his Passover Lamb, the Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7), the one who died for him!

So changed was he that he wrote to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (2:20a).

How changed are you?


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