Book Review–A Meal With Jesus (Tim Chester)

I got an Amazon Kindle for Christmas so I was eager to try it out. Annoyingly many of the books on my Amazon wishlist don’t have a Kindle edition, or are cheaper to get in paper, but Tim Chester’s “A meal with Jesus” was available at a good price, and after very much enjoying the other books of his I have read, I made it my first Kindle ebook purchase. I had to get the US version, published by re:lit, as the UK edition was strangely unavailable for the Kindle at the time of purchase, but does seem to be there now. I presume the UK edition uses Tesco and the World Cup rather than Walmart and the Superbowl as illustrations.

I wasn’t entirely convinced I would like this book after reading the first chapter. We are told that Jesus did a lot of eating. But don’t we all? Herod also enjoyed a good meal, as did Samwise Gamgee. And living in an age where there was no TV and internet to entertain you in the evenings, it isn’t all that surprising that meals featured prominently in people’s lives.

He starts off by looking at Luke 7:34 – “the Son of Man came eating and drinking”, which he describes as a “statement of method”. Already I was beginning to wonder whether there was going to be some rather strained exegesis at play here. I have always understood this verse as pointing out the obtuseness of the Pharisees for rejecting both Jesus and John the Baptist despite their opposite approaches to diet. Instead, Tim Chester wants us to understand “eating and drinking” as a kind of special missional strategy employed by Jesus.

But enough nit-picking already, because this is in fact another excellent book from Tim Chester. The book is structured around various stories from the gospel of Luke that recount meals Jesus had. He starts by focusing in on who Jesus chose as his mealtime companions. Jesus was known for eating with “sinners”, and this is where Chester’s claim that “eating and drinking” is integral to Jesus’ method for reaching the lost begins to make sense:

This is why eating and drinking were so important in the mission of Jesus: they were a sign of his friendship with tax collectors and sinners.

The implications for our own mission are obvious. Maybe in our desire to come up with all kinds of culturally relevant mission strategies, we have overlooked the very simple and effective approach of Jesus to both discipleship and mission – he spent time with people over meals.

If you share a meal three or four times a week and you have a passion for Jesus, then you will be building up the Christian community and reaching out in mission.

When you combine a passion for Jesus with shared meals, you create potent gospel opportunities.

Meals bring mission into the ordinary. But that’s where most people are—living in the ordinary.

Don’t start a hospitality ministry in your church: open your home.

But this book is about more than just mission. As he works through the stories of Jesus’ meals, Chester treats us to a fascinating theology of food and eating, something I suspect most of us rarely think about.

Neither eating to live (food as fuel) nor living to eat (food as salvation) is right. We’re to eat to the glory of God and live to the glory of God.

He makes a strong case that shared meals should be integral to the life of the church, with communion being celebrated in the home in the context of a meal. He has a number of interesting ideas and insights about communion, such as seeing it as a “foretaste of the messianic banquet” and suggesting that it functions like the rainbow following Noah’s flood, as a reminder to God of his gospel promises.

The Lord’s Supper is a call to God to act in keeping with his covenant: forgiving us, accepting us, and welcoming us to the Table through the finished work of Christ.

It’s not a particularly long book, and he returns to a number of his key themes he develops in earlier books, particularly the link between suffering and glory. It will provoke you to think about how often you eat with both those in your church and those who are not Christians. It is a good reminder for people like myself who are introverts by nature and don’t naturally seek out company at meal times.

Book Review – The Ordinary Hero (Tim Chester)

I’ve just finished my fourth Tim Chester book now, and have to admit up front that I am becoming a big fan of his writings. Here’s my other reviews of his books…

This one, his latest, subtitled “Living the Cross and Resurrection”, seeks to show how the pattern for Christian living is modelled on the cross of Jesus, and our hope for the future is based on the resurrection. The book is broken up into five main sections.

The first section seeks to explain the message of the cross, how it demonstrates God’s love for us, and gives us a new status. He shows how an appreciation of the cross gives us humility and confidence, as we look at God and ourselves in the light of the cross.

The second section then expands on how we live the way of Jesus, which is the way of the cross – a life characterised sacrifice, submission, self-denial, service and suffering. A powerful chapter entitled “Everyday Martyrdom” illustrates very practically what it means to follow the way of the cross each day. Counter-intuitively for our culture, this way of self-denial is actually the way of joy.

The way of the cross impacts on both our big life choices and our small daily actions. It really does include both martyrdom and washing up.

The third section, explores the pattern of the cross and resurrection – suffering followed by glory. There is no route to glory that avoids the cross, and so all evangelism must include the call to follow the way of the cross. Although our mission takes place in the power of the Spirit, it is to be characterised by humility, service and love.

It is in this section that some of his slightly controversial material is to be found. He is strongly critical of the desire to win the world by appearing successful, large, or powerful, and much of what he argues for in these chapters cuts right across the grain of what you might hear in many contemporary evangelical and charismatic churches, especially within the “church growth” movement. In fact, if anything, he seems to be suggesting that being small and weak are an integral part of our witness to the way of the cross.

The fourth section is on the power of the resurrection – power to be weak. Again, this may not be what you are used to hearing, with most teaching on power being related to how we overcome and are victorious in life. Tim Chester points out how often New Testament verses that promise power immediately go on to talk about suffering. We have power to suffer, power to be weak. It is not power for victory over suffering, but power to follow the way of the cross. Again, he is critical of the modern church that has taken its model of leadership from the world, rather than following the pattern of the cross.

The fifth section deals with the promise of the resurrection and hope. Here, he includes a very helpful chapter clearing up some common misconceptions of “heaven”. Our hope is not to go to heaven, but for a future when heaven will come down to earth. Our hope is for a future world characterised by justice, love and joy. This is a world worth living and dying for. It is a world taking risks for. We are to consider ourselves pilgrims, and store up heavenly treasure by being generous with earthly treasure.

Already Not Yet?

There are a few points that will make for difficult reading for charismatic evangelicals such as myself, as he is critical of “power evangelism”, and charismatic “highs and healings”. The difficulty lies in answering the question “to what extent can or should we expect the age to come to break into the future”? Chester does admit to there being a foretaste of what is to come, but seems to have a much lower expectation of God’s power to heal, or even his willingness to relieve us from present suffering, or to bless us in any way that is earthly. I do feel that there are many in charismatic circles who have an “over-realised” eschatology, assuming that we can just claim freedom from suffering and sickness automatically. But I do not believe that there is any problem in our desiring to see signs of the kingdom. As Chester himself acknowledges, the resurrection is not just a future hope, but a present experience.


Despite my slight reservations that he might underplay some of the blessings we can now enjoy through the Spirit, I would say this is another gem of a book from Tim Chester. Seeing the way of the cross as the pattern for the Christian life is thoroughly biblical and it is a tragedy that much of the church has marginalised this message. Also, the call to be a people of hope, based in the resurrection, is too rarely heard, resulting in Christians who live for this age that is passing away, rather than for eternity.

Book Review – You Can Change (Tim Chester)

After reading two extremely good books by Tim Chester (Total Church and Delighting in the Trinity), I was really looking forward to reading his latest publication. You Can Change, subtitled “God’s transforming power for our sinful behaviour and negative emotions” maintains the high standard.

In it, he sets about describing how we can have hope for change, whether we are struggling with a particular sin, or simply feel we have plateaued in our spiritual walk.

As you might expect from Tim, this is a theologically rich book, and points repeatedly to Scriptural truths to be understood rather than to “disciplines” or practices to be put into effect. However, it is also immensely practical, and includes some questions to help you apply the teaching of each chapter directly to your personal life.

He starts off by saying that God’s change agenda is for us to become just like Jesus – we were made in the image of God with the intention that we reflect his glory. This change is not instantaneous however. Sanctification does not usually progress through crisis moments but in a thousand small decisions made day by day.

Chapter two examines why we want to change, and deals with wrong reasons, including trying to make God love us (he already does), or trying to prove ourselves (there’s no point). He moves on to examine how we change. External activities can’t change us, because sin comes from within, from in the heart. He has some very helpful thoughts on the nature of legalism and the power of grace. The Spirit’s role is to give us the desire to do what is right. Sanctification ultimately is God’s work, but that does not mean we are passive. He then examines how God uses our sufferings, hardships and struggles to work towards his purposes in our lives.

Chapter five is particularly helpful, pointing out that behind every sin is a lie, which must be countered with the truth. However, it is possible to have “confessional faith” with “functional obedience”. He identifies four key truths about God that we need to preach to ourselves. There are some very good insights on fearing God rather than man. Chapter 6 deals with the desires we have, and the importance of recognising idolatrous desires. We serve whatever our hearts desire most. We need to put to death sinful desires, not just sinful behaviour.

God always seeks the best for his people and that best is himself.

Chapter seven is perhaps my favourite in the book. He addresses the question “what stops us from changing”. The answer boils down to one of two things: love of self or love of sin. He then goes through several examples which I found very provoking, including proud self-justification, proud self-reliance, and hating only the consequences of sin. In the following chapter he claims that faith and repentance are the only true gospel “disciplines”. What we traditionally call disciplines should rather be thought of as “means of grace” – ways we can reinforce faith.

Though much of the book has been about applying the truth of the gospel to holiness, a chapter is devoted to change in the context of community (which will come as no surprise to readers of Total Church). This was again very provoking as often we view holiness as a strictly personal project. The book ends by reminding us that God intends a lifetime of daily change for us.

Overall I would say this is another outstanding book well worth the time required to read it. It should not be thought of as only for people struggling with a specific large sin. Any Christian would benefit from reading it. It is full of first class theology, but its real strength is how that theology is applied so directly to real everyday situations. The variety of examples used mean that most people will find their own struggles directly addressed in some way.

Do I have any criticisms of the book? Well coming from a more charismatic persuasion I would perhaps have made more of the Spirit’s empowering us to resist temptation, and not just focusing on his giving us the right desires. I suppose you could argue they amount to the same thing. And sometimes the emphasis on God working through our trials can leave you wondering whether it would be a sin to pray to be removed from them!

I thought while I was reading it that there would be benefit in condensing this material into a shorter booklet that could be used as the basis for small group study, especially considering his emphasis on change within community. I think there is probably a little too much material in there for it to be done a chapter at a time (depending of course on what else you do in a your small group meeting). The size of Vaughan Robert’s “God’s Big Picture” would be ideal.

Book Review – Delighting in the Trinity (Tim Chester)

After thoroughly enjoying reading “Total Church“, I decided to get another book from the same author, and the subject of the Trinity was one that I felt I needed a better grasp of. In it Tim Chester seeks to explain the doctrine of the Trinity and show why it is such good news.

He starts off by noting that this has been something of a neglected doctrine, perhaps in part because it can be difficult to explain. However, though it may be a mystery, it is not an absurdity – God is not three in the same sense in which he is one.

The book is broken up into three sections (nice!). The first section deals with the Biblical foundations for the doctrine of the Trinity. He starts with the unity of God, and the Shema, before moving on to consider some Scriptures that speak of the plurality of God, in particular demonstrating the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Finally, he shows how the oneness and plurality of God come together at the cross, and help us make sense of the atonement.

The next section deals with historical developments, starting with the early church, and moving right through to modern times. This is where things can get a little technical, but Chester does an admirable job of making it as straightforward as possible. There is a good explanation of the different emphases of the eastern and western churches, and Calvin is presented as providing a synthesis of these approaches. In more recent times, Chester highlights the contributions of Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, and Zizioulas, amongst others.

The final section applies the doctrine of the Trinity to the areas of revelation, salvation, humanity and mission. He draws on Barth to show that revelation is trinitarian – the Spirit enables us to see in the Son the revelation of the Father. In an excellent chapter on salvation, he explains a variety of theories of the atonement (substitution, moral influence, dramatic), and affirms that all have their place in a multi-faceted view of the atonement. However, he argues that the penal substitution model is primary because it is truly Trinitarian – because it presents salvation not as a transaction between God and humanity, or between God and Satan, but a transaction within God himself.)

The chapter on the Trinity and humanity is also helpful. He draws on a societal model of the Trinity, to show that it is in the Trinity that we see the diversity in unity that should characterise human society. This vision of humanity stands in stark contrast to modern day individualism, and the pressures towards homogeneity. Our identity as human persons, is found not in our independence, but in our relationships, just as the members of the Godhead are persons in relationship.

The final chapter on mission draws out some of the differences between the Christian understanding of the Triune God, and the Muslim understanding of God. The Christian community is called to be a demonstration of the nature of the Triune God.

I feel I have benefited hugely from reading this book, as it has clarified my understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, and also helped me to see how it relates to so many aspects of Christian doctrine and practice.

Update: This book is now available in second edition from the Good Book Company.

Book Review – Total Church (Tim Chester, Steve Timmis)

There seems to be a glut of books on new ways of doing church recently – liquid church, provocative church, deep church, messy church, intelligent church, relevant church, deliberate church, positive church, and here “total church”.

Total Church is co-written by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, who are leaders in the “Crowded House” in Sheffield. The unique thing about them is that while being very conservative doctrinally (I’m pretty sure they are Reformed and cessationist), their approach to church is quite radical.

Their contention is this – churches should be built around gospel and community. The “gospel” part of this breaks down into two aspects – they are word-based, and they are mission-focused. Both of these must be done in the context of community, so the word is taught and applied in community and mission is done in community. They note that many churches are trying to be both faithful and contemporary with their presentation of the gospel, but ultimately find that there are very few opportunities for unbelievers to actually hear that message.

They argue that churches have got so much going on that they transition from “mission” mode, to “maintenance” mode. We need to run fewer evangelistic events, youth clubs and social projects to allow more sharing of our lives with unbelievers. This means starting new congregations rather than growing existing ones.

The type of “sharing of lives” they seek to cultivate in their house churches is one in which the church itself adapts to changes in peoples lives. So when a family have a baby, for example, it is the whole churches responsibility to help them and support them in practical ways, not just that family who have to adapt themselves so they can remain part of church life. And while avoiding “heavy shepherding”, they stress the importance of people making decisions (such as moving house, changing job) with regard to the community and in discussion with them, because they are family, just as a husband would discuss with his wife and family.

By becoming a Christian, I belong to God and I belong to my brothers and sisters.

Having laid a theological foundation for word and mission centred community, the second part of the book moves on to look at some practical topics. The authors do not insist that you give up your existing church models and do things their way, but lay down a challenge to “make community infectious”.

Become a blessing by offering hospitality, showing practical care, dropping in on people. Create around you a group of Christians who will share their lives and encourage one another in the faith. You might start with your home group. Often home groups are little more than a meeting. Make yours a community by acting like a community.

Having laid down the principles of “gospel” and “community”, the book shows how these two strands should run through everything we do. So evangelism must be done in community, sharing our lives rather than seeking out “evangelistic opportunities” to hit people with the gospel message. The conviction is that “our love for one another, to the extent that it imitates and conforms to the cross-love of Jesus for us, is evangelistic”. Evangelism involves sharing our lives and sharing the word, and so we need to introduce people to loving a community, not just to church meetings.

There is a challenging chapter on social involvement, which warns that we tend to build churches aimed at professionals. We may not be racist, but are we truly open to those of a different social class to ourselves? The authors encourage us to move beyond “hit and run” social action, to a model where we offer the poor and needy a genuine place of welcome and community.

Church planting is strongly encouraged as the mode of church growth. “The household model is in some way defining of church. The church is the household of God. … For New Testament Christians the idea of ‘church’ was synonymous with household and home.” The authors do not however give any indication of what they consider an ideal size for such a congregation before a new one is to be started. They try not to be too dogmatic, especially concerning the relation of these households to one another. “It matters little whether these small groups are called churches, home groups or cells, as long as they are the focus for the life and mission of the church.”

Discipleship and training is also worked out in the context of community. New leaders are trained by a leader sharing their life and ministry with others. The conviction is that “truth cannot be taught effectively outside of close relationships.” Pastoral care, too, is to be handled in the context of community, not by simply passing people on to “professionals”, nor by becoming amateur “counsellors”, but by the conviction that as we live in community, applying the word in ordinary situations we will see lives transformed.

A chapter on spirituality takes a bold swipe at ideas of “solitude, contemplation and silence”, arguing that these are the luxury of the spiritual elite. Actually we are called to community, meditation on the word and prayer. The authors encourage that Bible study and prayer (and even sermon preparation) should be done in community, not in isolation. Theology too, “is also the task of the church, because the only theology that matters, and is worthy of the name, is practical theology.”

A fascinating chapter on apologetics asks whether we have mistaken the symptoms for the cause. We have assumed that people reject Christianity because of an intellectual problem, rather than because they don’t want God. Thus our attempts to prove Christianity to be rational, while helpful, may miss the mark. A relational apologetic is required. “Christian community is the ultimate apologetic.”

Equally controversial is their chapter on youth work. They argue that much effort is spent with little fruit in running large scale youth events. Rather, it would be better for Christians to invest their time in community with a smaller number of young people, effectively discipling them. Also, the youth are to be included in the church community, rather than being filtered off into “youth church”. It is certainly an idea worth some reflection, but not without some serious practicalities to be worked through.

Finally, the criteria for success is of course faithfulness rather than numbers. Success is being a gospel-centred community. “It is judged in terms of growing Christians and gospel opportunities.” Ultimately, the authors close with a reminder that “Christianity is not a strategy or a set of principles. It is a relationship of love with the triune God.”

I can wholeheartedly commend this book to anyone wanting to shake up their thinking about church. I didn’t agree with all of it, and was left in some cases wanting to know more (for example eldership was not discussed). But this book stands as a fine example of how we can have a radical ecclesiology without losing our biblical moorings.

The church, … is not something additional or optional. It is at the very heart of God’s purposes. Jesus came to create a people who would model what it means to live under his rule. It would be a glorious outpost of the kingdom of God: an embassy of heaven. This is where the world can see what it means to be truly human.

Read more quotes from this book on underlined bits