Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Jesus Calls Levi (Mark 4:13-17)

Was the calling of Levi (or Matthew) a significant moment? It was obviously significant because Levi was called by Jesus to be an apostle. He was also going to write a Gospel. Yet we are told about his experience and not about the call of some of the other apostles. I would suggest that we are told about his conversion because he was from a different background from most of the apostles. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Nathaniel (Bartholemew) were devout Israelites, individuals who would have been respected in their local communities for their dedication to the Jewish faith. With Levi, we move to a different kind of person.
It is possible to speculate about why he had the name Levi. Parents usually chose names for reasons. Perhaps, in this case, they wanted their son to serve God in a special way. After all, in Jewish history, Levi was the tribe chosen to serve God as priests and Levites. If that was the parents’ wish, then eventually their prayers were answered far above what they would have asked or imagined.
The one thing that is clear is that Levi was not living up to his name. Instead of serving God he was serving the Roman Empire as a tax official. We don’t regard the office of a taxman as sinful, but in those days the tax officials were notorious for their corruption. Levi would have to raise enough to satisfy the demands of his superiors, and on top of that amount he would have to raise enough to satisfy himself. Those demands would have made Levi very unpopular in the community.
So we can see that Jesus chose as one of his apostles a man who was a disappointment to his family, a collaborator with the foreign powers who ruled the country, an individual who lined his pockets at the expense of others, and a person who was deeply unpopular. In fact, we could say that he was everything a presbytery committee would not want! Yet Jesus wanted him, and called him to this role.
Moreover, Jesus called him in public, when he was sitting at his desk, probably with a line of people waiting to pay tax. There is no hint that Jesus had a private meeting with him beforehand in order to discuss things. Of course, Jesus did not have a need for such a meeting, but we could imagine Levi needing one. After all, Jesus did give a private meeting to Andrew before he became a public disciple. The obvious lesson is that we should not be surprised at those Jesus calls into his service.
Prerequisites for discipleship
There are two prerequisites for anyone who becomes a disciple of Jesus. They receive a call from Jesus and respond to the call from Jesus. We cannot do the second without the first, although many may hear the first without doing the second.
We have already observed how the call of Levi was surprising, given his background. No doubt it was very surprising also for Levi himself. Such a possibility would not have entered his mind as he had his breakfast that morning. No doubt, when he commenced work for the day, he assumed it would be a usual day. So the call of Jesus to him would have been very surprising.
A second detail is that the invitation he received from Jesus was very short. All Levi heard was a very brief statement, ‘Follow me!’ There is no indication that Levi had ever heard Jesus before, although he would have heard about Jesus because of his popularity. Levi’s experience is a reminder that a person does not have to hear a great amount before commencing life as a disciple.
A third aspect of the call is that it was very specific. Although it was only two words, they were very demanding. Levi recognised that they were the words of a sovereign, and much more authoritative than the demands he would have received from his political masters. He recognised that he had reached a moment of decision in his life, where his response to the call would decide his entire future. Would he be Levi the tax collector working for the Romans or would he be Levi the apostle working for Jesus?
We can see in the words of Jesus a sense of sureness as well. Where was Levi going in life? What did his chosen path have to offer him? Where did his daily actions take him on his journey of life? Did he have a sure destination? As he looked at Jesus, it seems that Levi realised that the path to fulfilment lay in following Jesus.
The response of Levi was immediate. He did not wait long before taking Jesus at his word. His response was also indicative, because it was as public as the invitation he had received. He made it very clear that he wanted to follow Jesus. And his response was also inclusive, because he omitted nothing when he decided to leave all and follow Jesus.
Practice of discipleship  
Mark then describes what Levi did as a disciple. He opened his home for Jesus to use and he invited his colleagues and others to meet with Jesus. What can we say about his home? First, it was a home in Capernaum, the town to which Jesus had moved to after leaving Nazareth. Jesus already had a home there, and he also had access to other homes such as the home of Simon Peter. But it looks as if part of the strategy of Jesus was to use homes of willing people.
Second, it was a suitable home in Capernaum because it was capable of hosting large numbers of people. Perhaps Levi lived in an upmarket part of town in contrast with where Peter and even Jesus lived. What is clear is that the house was capable of hosting a lot of people – many of Levi’s friends were there and many of Jesus’ disciples were there.
Third, it was now a sanctified home because he made it available for Jesus to use in furthering his influence. The obvious aspect of the gathering was that Jesus was not ashamed to go there. It is evident from the response of the scribes and Pharisees that they regarded with disapproval his willingness to be there. Of course, they had never given anything to Jesus for him to use.
Fourth, his home now reflected the simplicity of discipleship, which was to have fellowship with Jesus and to introduce others to him. We talk a lot about how to win people to Jesus. This passage gives a straightforward strategy, which is use your home and invite people you know to discover something about Jesus.  
Physician available
Whenever someone does something for Jesus, that person will not have too long to wait before the critics will come along. It is interesting that the critics did not focus on Levi, but on Jesus. Perhaps they were not too sure about how long Levi would be a disciple, and maybe they did not want to criticise someone who worked for the government. But they were prepared to have a go at the existing disciples about what their Master was doing.
The disciples must have told Jesus what the critics were saying. In their example, we have the best response to criticism. Maybe they could not give a coherent answer to what the Pharisees were questioning them about. Yet they had learned to bring issues to Jesus. Of course, they could do so physically and watch what he did in response. We have to do so in prayer and then wait for him to work.
The critics did not understand Jesus at all. If they really wanted an answer to their question, then they should have asked Jesus personally. Nevertheless, he gave them the answer, and we should be very thankful that he did because his words reveal to us who we are, who he is, and what he was doing.
Jesus uses an obvious daily experience to illustrate spiritual realities. We can easily see the connections: those who are well are the righteous, those who are sick are sinners, and the physician is Jesus. In this sense, there is no one who is righteous among sinners.
But we have to ask what kind of illness do sinners have in a spiritual sense? The answer is that they have a widespread illness, a spreading illness and a lethal illness. It is widespread in that it affects every part of them, it is spreading in that it increases in its influence, and it is lethal in that it will lead to what the Bible describes as eternal death.
 What kind of doctor is Jesus? How easy is it to have a meeting with Jesus? One of the obvious details with a doctor is that usually he can only deal with one person at a time. In contrast, Jesus can deal with all of his patients at any time. Moreover, he comes on repeated visits and does not wait until we make an appointment. Levi had not asked Jesus to come to his desk that morning, and his friends had not asked Jesus to come to Levi’s house to see them. The fact is that Jesus delights to bring his ability to heal right to those who are ill.
Where did Jesus find his cure? We are aware that some doctors and others have spent many years trying to find a cure for certain health problems. He provided it himself when he died on the cross to pay the penalty of our sins. The provision of this cure required that he spend his lifetime obeying God and then offering himself as a perfect sacrifice instead of those who were ill.
How does Jesus implement his cure? Sometimes when we go to a doctor he has to send us to a specialist because the problem requires that process and the patient needs the best treatment available. Jesus is the Specialist when it comes to dealing with the problem of sin and its consequences, so he does not send us to anyone else. He is the Specialist because he is both God and man.
What kind of cure does Jesus provide? Often, the cures that we receive come in stages and may take a while to appear. The cure that Jesus provides also comes in stages and here are four of them. First, when we repent of our sins we are forgiven and receive his righteousness as ours because we have responded in faith. Second, we are given the Holy Spirit to indwell us and he begins to change us and make us holy, and he will do this throughout the rest of our lives. Third, when our life comes to an end, our souls will go to heaven to be with Jesus, and we at the moment of death will become perfect in holiness. Fourth, our bodies will be resurrected and we will be glorified when Jesus returns.

How much does Jesus charge for his services? The answer to this question is that every stage in the healing process is provided free. The biblical term for this is grace, and Jesus is full of grace. In any case, none of us could purchase the remedy because all our assets are worthless. What is required of us is that we respond to the invitation of the gospel and commit ourselves into the care of Jesus. When we do that, we will discover that he is the good Physician for everyone, which was the message that he gave when he called Levi to be an apostle.
Preached on 14/7/2016

Friday, 19 August 2016

Peter Rebuked (Matthew 16:21-27)

Earlier Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). Obviously he now realised who Jesus was. He regarded Jesus as the Deliverer of Israel (the Christ) and was convinced that he was divine. Yet it is obvious that Peter did not yet understand that the journey of Jesus as the Messiah involved his death because he now objects strongly to it.

Jesus had informed the disciples in great detail about his coming arrest, death and resurrection. Peter’s objection was a contradiction because he managed to combine in a sentence his acceptance of Jesus as Lord and his disagreement with Jesus’ intention.

Why did Peter make this response? He did it because he loved Jesus with all his heart. There was nothing clinical in Peter’s response. It was an expression of strong love, but it was an uninformed love because he refused to listen to what Jesus was teaching about his death.

How did Jesus react to Peter’s rebuke? His response shows the seriousness and the sinfulness of Peter’s desire. He was now acting like the devil and suggesting that Jesus should not fulfil God’s plan. Peter is a reminder that uninformed love is only a step away from becoming a hindrance. The rock has become a stumbling block.

Peter’s mind had been enlightened by the Father, but the enlightenment was not static. He had grasped profound truth, but there was much more to know. It was basic to discipleship for a disciple to think about what he had been taught by his teacher. Peter had not done this, and now he found himself standing in front of Jesus as a hindrance rather than as a disciple following behind Jesus. In attempting this role reversal, Peter discovered the inflexibility of Jesus.

The duty of disciples
This interaction with Peter led Jesus to give further instruction to his disciples about genuine discipleship. The order of his words are important. A disciple of Jesus is marked by three things: deny himself, take up his cross and follow Jesus. What does Jesus mean by these three details? I think he means repentance, trust and commitment.

What is denial of self? It is not giving up chocolates – that kind of activity is easy. Instead denial of self is leaving whatever we were and becoming different in our aims. A person who lives for self has not repented. Living for self can mean different things to different people. The issue is whether or not I have repented of who I am and what I did when I was not following Jesus.

Jesus used many pictures of faith and I would suggest that one of them is ‘taking up his cross’. I suppose the significance of a cross was identifying fully with something that could lead to dying for it, no matter who will try and prevent it. That is faith in Jesus – wholehearted allegiance.

But that is only the beginning. The disciple who repents and trusts in Jesus engages in a life of ongoing commitment. Of course, the good thing about discipleship is that it always involves the company of Jesus because disciples follow him.

Such disciples are helped in their choices by the process of evaluation. Should they live for the world? Even if they gained all of it, they would have missed out on the essential meaning of life, which is to follow Jesus.

Jesus here is not describing a special kind of disciple. Instead he is describing the only kind of disciple. We are not to assume that there is any other kind of disciple apart from someone who repents, trusts in Jesus and then obeys him. Jesus is not saying that they will be perfect, because Peter was not behaving perfectly at that moment. But he did want to follow Jesus.

The day of decision
Once more Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, a reference to the prophecy in Daniel 7 of the Messiah receiving universal authority. In the context he adds another detail to what he has mentioned in verse 21. There he listed what would happen to him in Jerusalem. Now he informs them about an activity he will engage in after his resurrection. He does not indicate how soon or how distant this appearance will be. But we can say that he knew where he was going and what he would be doing?

What will Jesus have on that day? He mentions two things. One is the angels and the other is glory. With regard to the angels, they are said to be ‘his angels’. Of course, this could be reference to his deity because as God he owns everything. But it is also a reminder of the extent of his exaltation that the most powerful creatures are his agents.

What role will the angels have on that day? One way of answering the question is to think of them as an army – the heavenly host. We are used to soldiers in times of crisis helping some people and capturing and imprisoning others. In a way, that is a picture of what angels will do when Jesus returns. They will gather together God’s people and they will also be the ones that ensure the wicked enter the place of punishment. The question to ask ourselves is, ‘Will we be glad to meet an angel on that day?’

Jesus will also come in the glory of his Father. This describes his appearance and his activity. Glory includes splendour and the activity he will perform will be to judge the world. This is going to be the occasion when every knee will bow to Jesus and listen to what he has to stay. It will be awesome sight. Perhaps the closest human illustration would be when a conqueror sat on his throne after a battle and passed judgement on those who had helped him and on those who had opposed him.

I wonder what Peter thought as he heard this. Did he say to himself, ‘I wonder what Jesus will look like on that day? I know have done wrong in speaking to him the way that I did. I do love him, but love should be expressed in serving him, not in advising him. I am glad that I can make my peace with the Judge before the Judgment Day comes.’ Or maybe, he resolved to be more careful with his words and to take up the cross of discipleship and follow Jesus as close as he could.

Preached on 14/8/2016

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Peter’s Great Confession (Matthew 16:13-20)

We can see from the passage that Jesus asked his disciples regarding opinions people had of him. His first question assumes that they would know, which means that he was aware that they had opportunities to find out. We are not to assume that Jesus was ignorant regarding their opinions, so we must deduce that he asked the question to test his disciples. Jesus expected his disciples to be informed about public opinion about him. And there is no reason why he should not expect the same of us.

The Saviour called himself the Son of Man. This is an Old Testament title for the promised Messiah. One place to see where it is used of Jesus is in the Book of Daniel in a prophecy about the Messiah receiving a kingdom from God the Father (Dan. 7:13-14).

In that vision, the Son of Man comes to the Ancient of Days, which is a title of God the Father. It is a prophecy of Jesus appearing there after his ascension, and he is there to receive the reward due to him for his work on the cross. The reward is the bestowal of universal authority, of the assurance of subjects, and of the permanence of his kingdom. Jesus’ disciples should have known about that promise, even although they did not yet understand the significance of the cross.

It is clear that people had a high regard for Jesus – they thought that he was a prophet. They probably came to this conclusion because of the teaching role that Jesus engaged in. Yet their assessment fell far short of who Jesus actually is. We are familiar with something similar happening today. Many people can speak of Jesus in positive ways connected to him being an example and being a teacher of religious behaviour. Yet that is not enough. There is much more to appreciate about Jesus, and those other details are essential to hold if we wish to be regarded as genuine disciples.

The Second Question
On this occasion Jesus was not primarily interested in what other people thought about him. What was of interest to him was a public confession of him by his disciples. And one was given by Peter when he said who he thought Jesus was. His answer reveals that he had grasped two important details about Jesus.

The first detail that Peter confesses is that he believes that Jesus is the Christ. In using this name, Peter was stating that he believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, which causes us to think back to how Andrew described Jesus when he witnessed to his brother for the first time about Jesus. This confession does not mean that Peter understood everything about Jesus because shortly after he would object to the statement that Jesus would be arrested and put to death (Matt. 16:21-23). Yet he had grown in his learning about Jesus.

We can see more of that growth in the second title that Peter uses when he confesses that Jesus is the Son of the living God. Other passages indicate that for someone to claim to be the Son of God was a claim to deity, of being equal with God. So we can see that Peter has made real progress in his understanding of who Jesus is. As a Jew, Peter would have held tenaciously to the doctrine that God is one, but while still holding to that belief here he is stating that he now believes that there is more than one person in the Godhead.

Some may wonder why Peter wanted to describe God as the living God. One reason might be their location. Caesarea Philippi was near to a pagan temple and its existence could have caused Peter to be thankful that he knew that the true God was not like the idols connected to that temple.

The titles that Peter uses remind us of the greatness of Jesus. Peter was discovering more and more about how great Jesus is, even although he had a lot more to discover. And he is still discovering how amazing Jesus is.

Importance of Peter’s confession
Jesus responded to Peter’s confession by teaching him new truths. The first concerns how Peter knew so much about Jesus. Maybe Peter had imagined that he had worked it out for himself, that over the last few months he had been thinking hard about Jesus and now he understood. It is interesting that Jesus does not claim to have revealed those details about himself. Instead he links the instruction to the Heavenly Father. This does not mean that Jesus was not involved in teaching Peter, nor does it mean that somehow Peter was taught heavenly truths without the Holy Spirit. Instead we have an example here of how the Trinity works in harmony to communicate their intentions to the apostles, and then through them to us.

The way that Jesus speaks to Peter here is striking because it is possible that he is saying that the old Simon has now become the new Peter. Jesus first calls him by his old name and then says to him that he now is Peter who has become a very different person from what he was when he first met Jesus.

What did Jesus mean when referred to a rock? Personally I would say that Jesus’ words point back to the conversation that he had with Peter. The rock is the words of the confession that Peter made when he said that Jesus was the Son of the living God. The confession is a rock because it is true. We can see that the confession is reliable because it is connected to the truth about Jesus who is both God and man (the Son of the living God and the Messiah). The other opinions that were expressed by different people were not rocks because they were untrue, which meant that no one could build anything on them.

Peter and the church
Peter discovered that Jesus was going to build something, here called the church. Needless to say, we know that Jesus was not referring to a religious building. The word translated church is ecclesia (from it we get words like ecclesiastical and ecclesiastic), but in itself the word is not about a religious gathering. Instead it refers to any kind of official gathering that occurred when people were summoned to meet together. Jesus here indicates that he is going to summon people to form a community that belongs to him.

Who is going to summon people to join this group? Jesus is, but in the main he is going to do it through his servants and through his people as they witness to who he is. When is he going to build his church? The answer to this question is that he will do so throughout the subsequent centuries as sinners are brought into his kingdom, and he is still doing so today. How will he build his church? He will do it as people discover who he is and what he has done for sinners. Simple statements like the one Peter had just made, even although it contained profound truth. After all, the speaker may be Peter but the teacher would be the triune God, as we see on the Day of Pentecost and afterwards.

Jesus would be opposed in his building project by those he calls ‘the gates of hell’. There is more than one suggestion as to what is meant here. One view says that the gates of a location were usually the places where the city rulers met to discuss matters connected to the town. Here Jesus says that the powers of darkness will engage in efforts to stop the growth of his kingdom. Another view is that the gates of hell refers to the power of death, and death is an opponent who always seems to win. Yet Jesus, under this meaning, is promising resurrection for those who belong to his church.

If I have to choose between the two options, I think it is probably the first because Jesus’ use of the word ‘prevail’ suggests an attack made by enemies of the church. Moreover, the word ‘prevail’ suggests a close conflict, almost like a wrestling match, but Jesus will ensure that his church will be built. The opposition will not succeed in preventing one of Christ’s people from being delivered from the state of sin.

Then Jesus says that he later will give to Peter and the other disciples what he calls the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is another name for the church. The apostles would be responsible for who should become members of the church and we see in the Book of Acts that they did set up a visible church and they indicated who could be in it. This does mean that they possessed infallible insight into whether or not a person was converted. All it means is that they let people into it or prevented them from entering. This is what is meant by binding and loosing. And that authority is still given to those who rule in the church on behalf of Jesus.

This incredible statement about the community of Jesus is followed by one that seems surprising initially because Jesus ‘strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ’. Of course, Jesus is only referring to the immediate future and the likely reason is that, while the apostles now knew who he was, they did not yet appreciate what he had come to do. We can see this was the case from the way Peter objected to the teaching of Jesus that he had come to die (v. 22). They were not yet fully ready to be his witnesses, but they were making progress.

There are several lessons we can take from this incident. The first is that we cannot simplify doctrine, but instead we have to keep teaching it. While it is true that obscure teaching should be avoided, it still remains the case that the gospel has concepts that people find hard to grasp and they often need to be told about such concepts many times before they grasp what is being said.

The second lesson from the incident is that we should first focus on who Jesus is, before thinking about what he has done. This is the way that Jesus taught his disciples – he wanted them to appreciate his dignity before they moved on to consider his death. We must always remember who died for us. As Paul later wrote, it was the Son of God who loved him and gave himself for him.

Third, we should remember that Jesus is in charge of the growth of the church. Whatever role Peter had, whatever roles his fellow apostles had, and whatever roles we have in spreading the faith, it is always Jesus who furthers his kingdom.

Fourth, we should be thankful that Jesus arranged for his apostles to provide guidelines regarding how his church should be administered. Their guidelines and other instructions are found in the New Testament, which is why we insist that all we require must be taken from the Bible.

Preached on 7/8/2016