Monday, 13 November 2017

Kingdom Growth (Matthew 13:31-33)

We have already looked at two of the parables of the visible kingdom that Jesus taught. In the parable of the sower, he taught that there would be genuine disciples and temporary disciples. In the parable of the weeds, he taught that evil would exist alongside the kingdom of God and would penetrate it. We know that both of those features are obvious. Now we move on to consider another two of the seven parables in this chapter.

John Laidlaw, who was a Free Church professor in the nineteenth century, observed that in this two stories we have a parable, a prophecy and a promise all in one. He compares them with the previous two parables – those of the soils and the weeds which have disturbing elements – and observes that this next two parables ‘give encouragement in the strongest form’. He points out the beginnings were small, the process of growth is secret, and the result is success.

The disciples of Jesus would have noticed changes in the responses of the public to the teaching of their Master. As we have noticed before, timewise they have entered the year of unpopularity and increasing hostility in the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, features that were to reach a climax in the way he was put to death. The previous year had been very different, with great crowds following Jesus and acclaiming him as important, if not the Messiah himself. Would the disciples know such success again? What would they have thought as they listened to these two parables?

One of the problems that Christians face is that they always seem to be in the minority, and often a very small minority. Sometimes they may be the only Christian in their workplace or classroom. Even in situations where there may be a reasonable number of Christians, such as in a university Christian fellowship, they will be very small in comparison to the number of students. After all, a Christian fellowship of 50 or 100 looks small in a university with several thousand students. What do such people think as they listen to Jesus’ two parables?

A common concern that churches have is the ineffectiveness of evangelism. They try lots of initiatives and often there is little, if any, positive responses. People they contact don’t show much interest in the gospel. It is rare to find churches that grow through having times when lots of people are converted. What do such churches think when they read these two parables?

Those who claim to know inform us that there are more Christians in the world today than there has been in previous times. Yet we are also told that there have been more martyrs in the last century than there were in previous centuries combined. So, growth and opposition are taking place alongside one another. What do we think this pair of parables have to say about this global situation?

What is Jesus’ message?
In this set of parables (the grain of mustard seed and the leaven), Jesus teaches that there will be an incredible growth of the kingdom. Some interpreters regard these parables as indicating there would be illegitimate growth, but that is not how they seem to me. Instead, the kingdom of Jesus will grow and grow, and do so from small beginnings.

Of course, this is not the only occasion when Jesus had indicated that he anticipated large numbers of converts. On a previous occasion, he had healed a centurion’s servant and commented on the centurion’s insightful faith. Then he stated that many would come from the east and from the west (Gentiles) and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in heaven. Later, he was to say that if he was lifted up from the earth, which could be a reference to his crucifixion or his ascension or to both, he would draw all kinds of people to himself, which at the least indicates global response to what had happened to him.

The two parables present two sides of the growth of the kingdom. Although the mustard seed is small, it becomes a tree and people could see the progress. In contrast, the yeast’s activity in the cake cannot be observed by an onlooker because the effect is not visible. So, Jesus was teaching his disciples to remember both sides of the growth of the kingdom.

How should we respond?
First, we need to bear in mind that most of the growth of the church is hidden from the eyes of humans. This is the case whether we are speaking about the conversion of an individual or the conversion of a large number. After all, we cannot predict who the next convert is going to be, nor can we even tell when someone has been converted. We will be able to see spiritual fruit at a later stage, but we don’t know when the process began. Sometimes the individual concerned may not know either. So, there is an element of hiddenness regarding the growth of the church.

Second, our membership of the kingdom should be a reason for humility. We are not in it because we somehow are sharper intellectually than others. The only reason why we are in the kingdom is because God explained the gospel to us. He may have done so through a book or through a sermon or through a conversation. But there is no guarantee that another person will be so influenced. Say, you were converted under a sermon on John 3:16. Sitting beside you was a friend who had come to the service with you. Your heart was opened, like Lydia’s. The heart of your friend remained unmoved at that time. Our response is not to speculate about God’s dealings with other people, but to respond humbly with gratitude to the One who is building his church.

Third, the growth of the church is true historically. There are many examples of this. One is what took place with the disciples at the time of the resurrection. They were a small number, but soon they increased dramatically. Another example is what occurred at the Reformation, the onset of which is being remembered this year. It too had small beginnings and grew into a great movement. Often, we see this happening in revivals, as stage church grows. And there have been several places where there has been a lot of increase in the twentieth century (China, South America).

Fourth, the real growth is true from a heavenly perspective. By this I mean that the number of the heavenly citizens increases continually. We might say that things are worse here today than they were a century ago. If the two occasions in contrast were frozen, then that might be the case. Our perspective should be how many believers have been added to the church in Inverness in the last century. When we think that way, we will realise that the church is much bigger than it was.

Fifth, the ongoing growth of the church is the evidence that the Father is honouring his Son. Jesus said on one occasion that the will of the Father was for all men to honour the Son. The Father invited Jesus to sit at his right hand until enemies become his footstool. One way of that happening is by conversions when they confess that Jesus is Lord.

Sixth, we are involved in a great harvest of souls. There is not really a harvest in Scotland or a harvest in England or in other places, although sometimes we speak like that in order to communicate what we mean. Instead, there is a world harvest and we contribute to it by our witness, evangelising, praying and financial support. It would be fair to say that the more we do in sowing, the greater our contribution to the harvest.

Seventh, the parables of the growth of the kingdom should make us very hopeful about the future of the church. There are two kinds of analysts going around today, and both are usually pessimistic. Politicians assess the future and readers of the times assess the future. The problem with both types is that neither of them know the future. But here Jesus tells us the future of his kingdom – it will grow. So, while we have to be realistic, we must be optimistic.

Eighth, we should hunger for God to fulfil his promises. Jesus said that his people would hunger and thirst after righteousness and included in righteousness is the possession of saving grace by as many as possible. Paul indicates in Romans 11 that the greatest ingathering of sinners into the kingdom is connected to the conversion of the Jews as a race. That has not happened yet, and we should pray for it to happen.

Ninth, the reality of promised growth should make us patient. Jesus has said that this will happen, but he has not said it will happen in 2017. He is in charge of the timing because all things are under his control. There are great days ahead for the church, far greater than we can imagine. Our forefathers could not imagine the size of the current worldwide church, and if they could have they would have rejoiced.

Tenth, this pair of parables should cause us to give homage to Jesus. Here he is on the road of rejection, the path to the cross, and he speaks of a complete victory for his kingdom. Jesus did not merely wish that this would happen. Instead, he announced that it would take place. So, as we see the problems connected to the first two parables of the kingdom, with their mixture of positive and negative aspects, we should worship him for the sense of comfort and certainty that he gives through the third and fourth parables about his kingdom.

Called to Serve (John 12:26)

'If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.  If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.’

In this verse, we have guidance for all who will serve Jesus. Basically, we see that a servant is a follower of Jesus. It also tells us where his servants can be found – ‘where I am, there will my servant be also.’ And Jesus also mentions what the future of that servant will be: ‘If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.’ While this verse refers to all Christians, we can also apply it to elders. An elder is a follower, he should be found in certain places, and he should bear in mind what will he will be involved in in the future.

It is important to note the dignity of the title that Jesus gives to his people here. Each of them is called ‘my servant’. What gives dignity to a servant is the importance of his master. If a person is a servant in a palace, he has greater dignity that someone who is a servant in a shop. The work may be the same. What makes it important is who the work is been done for. The least servant in the kingdom of Jesus has a higher rank than the greatest servant anywhere else.

There have been servants of God whom he has recognised as his servants in particular ways. Prophets and priests were his servants in the religious activities of Israel and they were often his spokesmen. In the New Testament period, elders, along with deacons, were recognised as having special places of service in the church.

In our tradition, we have distinguished between teaching and ruling elders. This does not mean that teaching elders don’t rule or that ruling elders don’t teach. The combination of teaching and ruling means that they govern according to God’s Word and their authority should be recognised in the congregation where God has placed them.

Our induction today is the fourth stage in the process. Working back the way, there was the choice of the congregation. Before that, there was the providential preparation of the new elders by God. And before that, in eternity passed, this was planned by God. So here we are participating in something that has been on God’s heart and mind from eternity.

We know that there are passages in 1 Timothy and Titus which list the qualifications of elders. The striking feature of those descriptions is that they list features which would be expected of all Christians. Therefore, we are justified in deducing that a qualification for elders is consistency of life. Moreover, we know that they should be able to teach, which means that they have a comprehension of doctrine and ability to communicate the teachings of the Bible (although not all will be as competent as others). So it is helpful for elders to bear in mind those three Cs – consistency, comprehension and communication.

The elder as a follower
As we think of this imagery, we realise that every Christian is behind Jesus, following him. That is what a disciple is. In Israel, it was literally the case. But they are not all following in the same place. Elders follow Jesus as the leaders of his people in a local congregation. They cannot follow him in any other way. Everything they do in the congregation they do as its elders.

The first point that this imagery suggests is that Jesus is in charge of the elder. Others may try to be in charge of him, but if he puts them before what Jesus says he is not following Jesus. Since Jesus is in charge, we have to ask where he has revealed his instructions and the answer to that question is that he has revealed his instructions in the Bible. The Bible alone is the rule book of the elder.

A second detail that arises from this imagery is that the elder must be close to Jesus. This is a reference to his personal walk with the Lord. He is to be an example in devotion. It is easy to see if someone is having a healthy devotional walk with the Lord – that person will be like Jesus. The devotional walk includes prayer for himself and for those he is responsible for. It includes adoration of the Lord and contemplation of his ways. It is through following closely with Jesus that the elder will have something helpful to say to others.

There is a third detail that comes from this imagery and that is that the elder is found in certain company. Obviously, he is part of a congregation. Yet there is a sense in which he is separate from the congregation because he rules over it in company with others. He has to be loyal to the other elders who rule with him, even if he happens to disagree with a decision that they make. Moreover, their rule is one of a community of love, in which they pray for one another. It is appropriate for elders to meet often, and I suspect that when they get to the Judgement seat elders of all congregations will all find out that they should have met much more often than they did. In company of one another, they follow the Lord.

Where an elder should be found
According to what Jesus says here, the elder will be found where Jesus is. So in order to answer this question, we must ask where Jesus is likely to be. One place in which he will be found is in the gatherings of his people. Even if there are only two or three of them present, Jesus will be there. We can say that an elder will attend all the regular meetings of the congregation. Obviously, common sense should be shown because there may be legitimate reasons for him not being able to attend. In the main, however, after due consideration, an elder always asks, ‘Where is Jesus at this moment and where does he want me to be?’

Jesus is also with his people who are in need of spiritual counsel. They may need this counsel for a variety of reasons. Some may lack assurance, others may be facing temptation, others may be becoming worldly. Of course, elders are not omniscient and it is the responsibility of those who want their help to ask for it. Nevertheless, while elders are not omniscient, neither are they blind. They are chosen by congregations to use their eyes and their ears and their tongues for the benefit of the congregation. Sometimes, an elder will see a tear in someone’s eye that no one else has seen. God has enabled him to see it as part of the Shepherd’s direction of the care of his people. And the elder should find a way of helping that person.

Jesus will also be found searching for the lost. He could do it by himself, but he has chosen not to do so in the main. Instead, he expects his people to do it. When we search for the lost, the searching is not because they are hide too find. The idea of searching is connected to persistence. Elders are to take the lead in this activity.

Jesus will also be found in places where his people are having fellowship with one another. He delights to be with those who gather to think about him and his plans. In fact, he is so pleased with such activities that he takes note of them and resolves to bless them, as described in Malachi 3:16. Elders are to take the lead in ensuring such occasions occur.

While those tasks may seem daunting, they are to looked at from the point of view of the promised presence of Jesus. He will be there with his power, his wisdom, his directing and his love. He will there to enable his servants to fulfil the tasks that he in his providence has opened up for them.

The elder in the future
Jesus says that those who serve him well will be rewarded by the Father. This is true of all believers. Yet some types of believers are highlighted for special rewards in the New Testament and one group that is highlighted in this manner is elders. Peter mentions this in 1 Peter 5:1-4: ‘So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.’ Peter mentions this as an incentive. It will be wonderful to hear Jesus say, ‘Well done!’

Peter points out the reward will be personal – each elder will get it from Jesus for what he did for Jesus in the lives of his people, and for how he did it. He also points out that his reward will be permanent (unfailing). In this life, some servants get a reward for outstanding activity, but after a while they get forgotten, and their reward diminishes.

Going back to what Jesus said in verse 26, we should note that it is a prophecy. He is describing what will happen. The Saviour says that the Father will honour those who served his Son in the roles given to them. Imagine what that will be like. Picture yourself at the Judgement Seat. You hear this description: ‘This was a man who stood up for my Son in difficult situations. He served my Son in a wicked place in a spiritually-dead time. He was weak in himself, but he used the strength that was given to him, and served my Son. Today, in the presence of this vast gathering, I am going to honour him.’ You listen closely for the person’s name and discover that it is you.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Jesus explains two of the seven parables that he tells on this occasion about the kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God. We may wonder why Jesus calls it the kingdom of heaven or why Matthew translated the words of Jesus in this way into Greek. The best answer, I think, is that he was conscious that he was writing initially for Jews and they would know that the phrase kingdom of heaven meant the same thing as the kingdom of God. Another possible reason is that he wanted to stress the different nature of the kingdom of God, that although it was being built on earth it was very different from all other earthly kingdoms, and was in fact a heavenly kingdom.

We might be surprised at some of the details in the parable that have no relevance for the explanation. One of them is the statement that the weeds were sown when the workers were sleeping. We can imagine a preacher making a great deal of that detail. But Jesus doesn’t. Nor does he make any application concerning the conversation between the servants and the farmer. Again, we can imagine someone suggesting that this represents prayer, but Jesus doesn’t.

Who is sowing in the field?

The first detail to observe in this parable is the location where the sowing takes place. In the parable, it is said to be the owner’s field, and in the explanation of Jesus the field is said to be the world. Some commentators ignore this plain statement and say that the field is the church and then proceed to talk about church discipline, and in doing so misunderstand the parable. The field, says Jesus, is the world.

Obviously, Jesus is predicting that when the time of sowing commences the world will be his in a special way. We may assume from this that he merely means that the world is his because he created it. Yet a closer look at the parable’s explanation suggests otherwise.

In the explanation, Jesus says that he is the one who sows the seed. Yet he describes himself in a special way as the Son of Man. This title, as we know, comes from the Book of Daniel where the prophet was given a vision of one like a Son of Man coming to God and receiving from him a kingdom that includes the whole world, viewed both from a geographical perspective and from a time perspective. The vision was describing the ascension of Jesus from earth to the throne of God.

What the vision does not include is where the Son of Man came from. We know, however, where he had been. He had been to the cross where he paid the penalty for sin, he had been in the tomb for three days, and he had risen from the dead. So we can deduce that those unusual experiences had to occur before Jesus could sow the seed. We need to remember that the One who spreads the gospel is the One who died for sinners, who identified with them, who was raised for them, and who ascended to heaven to bring about his kingdom.

What is he sowing in the field? We may find the answer surprising, but he is sowing people. The good seed are the sons of the kingdom. King Jesus is setting up his kingdom in this world and he does so by bringing sinners into his kingdom. Of course, he uses the gospel to bring this about, but in this parable the good seed are saved sinners. They are planted by Jesus and expected to grow in a spiritual sense.

The parable indicates that Jesus plants his people strategically. After all, where did he find them? They did not come from another planet, instead they came from this world. Nor does Jesus plant them in another planet, instead he sets them up as an alternative kingdom in this world. He has a plan for them, which is to serve him as King.

The parable also indicates that Jesus plants his people in a hostile environment, even although the world belongs to him. Somebody else is active in the field (the world) and he is the devil. He too has a strategy, which is to plant weeds among the wheat. His plan here is not to plant them away from where the wheat is, but instead to plant them right where the wheat is. Jesus is saying that there will be false disciples among his professing people. I wonder what Judas thought when he heard that comment.

The servants in the parable ask the owner of the field if they should dig up the weeds and throw them out of the field. They had been sleeping when the enemy sowed the seed. I don’t think the point is that they should have been awake and somehow stopped the weeds from being sown. Rather, the point is that there are actions going on that they cannot see until the persons reveal that they are false disciples.

Surprisingly, the Owner of the field says to his servants that they should not throw out the weeds. The reason he gives is that the servants may indivertibly damage some of the true disciples. What does this point say to us? It could mean that some of the wheat looked like the weeds, or vice versa, and it would be hard to tell the difference. Or it could mean that some of the weeds may yet become wheat, so that is why they were left. After all, where do any of the wheat come from apart from being weeds at one time?

What we can see from the response of the Owner is that he is very patient, and that his patience will last until the Day of Judgement. It is good for us that the Lord is patient. He is more patient than his servants because they wanted to throw the weeds out right away. And he has a grasp of the big picture that they don’t have. It is not possible for them to know everything that is happening in the field. So they are called to trust in the patience of the Owner and to realise that he will take care of his people that he has planted.

Who will be the Judge?

The Sower of the good seed will be the Judge. At the end of the age, Jesus will have a harvest. What does he say will take place? There are four details that we should observe. First, there will be a demonstration of power. This demonstration of power will be seen in the authority of Jesus to command the angels to engage in the task of reaping. To put this into perspective, how many angels do we imagine the apostles could command to do anything? The answer is none. How many angels can Jesus command to do an action? All of them. Up in heaven, the angels are busy obeying Jesus but they are all waiting for this command to start reaping. And one day they will hear it.

Second, there will be a process of separation which will also be a process of purification. Jesus says that on that day Jesus will send his angels to get rid of all expressions of sin, including those who engage in breaking his law. Often Jesus speaks about the separation that will occur at the Day of Judgement. He speaks about sheep and goats, he speaks about two sleeping in a bed or two working together and suddenly they are separated permanently. Temporary separations in this life are unpleasant and sad, but what are they in comparison to eternal separation. Incredibly, there will be no trace of sin left in the kingdom of Jesus.

Third, what will happen to the ones who served the devil, whether they realised they were doing so or not. Jesus uses an awful picture to describe their fate – they are thrown into a fiery furnace. I suppose we could think of the fiery furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar through the three faithful servants of God, as recorded in the Book of Daniel. There was a rescuer for them who prevented the flames from harming them, and he looked like the Son of Man, said Nebuchadnezzar. But what will happen on the Day when there is no rescuer?

In the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, the three men and the Son of Man had interaction with one another and although the place was strange the contact was sweet. But in the fiery furnace of the Final Day, there will be nothing sweet. There will be verbal noises, but we are told that it will be endless weeping and gnashing of teeth. We are to remember who is giving this description. It is the One who never lies, who never exaggerates a situation. What a terrible place a lost eternity is! Despair, endless despair, says Jesus.

Fourth, what will happen to the good seed, the ones that Jesus planted in his kingdom? Jesus says that in contrast to the place where the lost will be, the place where his people will be is wonderful. Of course, he does not speak about the place where his people will be, instead he describes them. They will be righteous and they will shine like the sun. What does he mean? They will be actually righteous, totally holy in heart, with no sin. It is hard to imagine existing without sin, but then we knew some who were once were sinners but who now have no sin. I think that shining like the sun is a picture of glorification. The Saviour uses the brightest creaturely light to illustrate the common experience of God’s people in eternity.

The Father’s kingdom

Is there a difference between the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom over which the Son of Man rules? It looks from the parable that the kingdom of the Son of Man is in existence today, a kingdom described elsewhere as him ruling in the midst of his enemies, whereas the kingdom of the Father is a description of the eternal state in which no enemies are present. Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer told us to pray for the coming of the Father’s kingdom, which will occur when his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. So, they could be describing different stages in the kingdom of God.

Some applications

Here are four brief applications of this parable. First, take the long view. In other words, we are to be patient. Jesus tells us not to focus on the evil of the present but to focus on what will happen on the Day of Judgement. What will happen on that future day should govern what we do in the present.

Second, we should accept that evil will be present throughout human history. There is not going to be a period before the Day of Judgement when evil will disappear. The reason why evil will show itself is because the devil will be in the planting business. Sometimes, his plants will be religious; at other times, his plants will be something else. But they will be there.

Third, we should recognise that God’s kingdom will not be beaten. The weeds cannot take the wheat out of the kingdom of Jesus, no matter what happens or whatever is tried. This should give us great hope for the church today and tomorrow. What is the world all about? Two types of plants – those planted by Jesus and those planted by the devil. Or moving away from the imagery of planting, what we have in the world at any given moment is Christians and non-Christians. There is not a third category. Stark, but true.

Fourth, we should rejoice that Jesus owns the world. It is his, every inch of it. None of the plants of the devil own any of it, whatever they may imagine they have. Each of them will give an account to Jesus – he will judge what people did in his domain. The church seems weak today where we are and we should ask the Saviour to plant more of his people. Because he is King, he can do so.

Are We Greater Than Them? (Gal 3:25–4:6)

In the previous sermon in the series we looked at the question, ‘Was Adam a son of God?’ and concluded that he had been created with this privileged status. We also concluded that salvation includes a recovery of sonship, although that new status will be different from what Adam had been given. Another question that arises often is whether there is a difference between the privileges and experiences of believers before the first coming of Jesus and believers after he ascended to heaven.

What did a devout believer from Old Testament times look like? When we read the Book of Psalms, for example, we recognise that the poets who contributed to that collection were marked by profound spiritual insight and deep spiritual experience. We sit at their feet, as it were, and learn from them how to walk with God and how to respond to circumstances that divine providence brings our way in life. And in Psalm 103 the author describes God’s relationship with his people as being one of family connections.

Moreover, does the Old Testament speak of the relationship as one of Father and children? There are a few references to the fatherhood of God in the Old Testament. Isaiah mentions that God is the Father of Israel and links that fatherhood to the Exodus from Egypt: ‘For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name’ (Isa. 63:16). He also mentions that God is their Father because he is the Creator (Isa. 64:8); in that connection, he confesses that they had not prayed to him, which points to their realisation that in some way they prayed as children to a Father.

Malachi also refers to God as Father: ‘Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10). The context of that verse is the sin of idolatry, of turning away from God as a Father to foreign gods. In addition, several people are called by names that point to the fatherhood of God.

Nevertheless, although there was a sense in which God’s people in Israel recognised that they had a family connection to God, it is very unlikely that they were aware of a relationship of sonship with the first person of the Trinity or of a shared heirship with the second person of the Trinity. So we can say that they needed further information about what is included in the New Testament’s explanation of adoption.

Paul deals with this situation in Galatians 3:26–4:6, and we can see from that passage that the difference between Old and New Testament believers is connected by Paul to the doctrine of adoption. There is something about the new covenant experience that is much better than what was known by the psalmists and prophets and wise men and all believers who lived before the coming of Jesus. So what does Paul say in that passage?

The remedy for wrong thinking
The problem in Galatia had to do with some people insisting that new believers should adopt the ceremonial law. Paul had to show them that this was wrong. So he informed them that the Old Testament ceremonial law was like a guardian of young children who protected them from danger and admonished them when they wandered astray. Yet once children grow up, they no longer need that kind of guardian.

Paul is not describing an individual’s experience of the law when it convicts someone of sin. Instead he is describing different stages in the kingdom of God. In Israel, God’s people were like young children. Now the particular stage has moved on. Paul refers to the new stage in Galatians 3:17 when he refers to the coming of ‘faith’, by which he has in mind the gospel era. Instead of being the equivalent of a young child (requiring a pedagogue for protection and for implementation of rules), which marked Israel under the law, those in the family of God all have full family status. Paul does not deny that God’s people in the old covenant era were in the family of God, but he does say that believers since the coming of Christ have a better grasp of what family membership signifies. They have this grasp because time has moved on and there have been important developments in the kingdom of God.

Paul uses the practice of adoption to illustrate the change. Adoption in those days usually involved a slave becoming a son and heir of a prominent person. Today, we tend to think about adoption in the sense of an orphan or an abandoned child becoming a member of a family. In ancient times, adoption usually happened when an important person did not have a suitable heir. The heirless individual would choose a suitable person for the role, one who would have several suitable qualifications and be regarded as ideal for the great privilege he had been given. He would have moved from being a slave with little or no privileges to becoming a son in the important family into which he had been adopted.

As we think about how the ancient practice of adoption illustrates God’s gracious plan of salvation we should see immediately that the ones he chose to become his heirs were slaves of sin with nothing whatsoever to commend them to his grace. Each of them deserved to be punished by him rather than being so blessed by him. Moreover, and what should be very humbling for us to realise, is the fact that God already had an heir, his own Son Jesus Christ, who was totally worthy of such a position. He was not a son by adoption, but he was the heir of all things as the writer of Hebrews describes him. In the amazing plan of God, this wonderful Heir was to have co-heirs. His co-heirs would be those that he redeemed by his death on the cross and who would be brought into the family of God.

The change of status
What are the benefits of the change of status? What privileges do the children of God now have? Paul could have mentioned several, but he focussed on two important privileges that highlight the significance of family membership.

The first is union with Jesus, which in itself is a huge subject and which can be approached from different situations. We can speak of eternal union, representative union and practical union. So it is connected to different doctrines such as election, redemption, justification and sanctification.

Adoption is also an expression of union with Jesus. What benefits come our way because we are in the family of God? Paul mentions several distinctions have passed away with the coming of the new stage in the development of God’s kingdom. The apostle points out three distinctions that no longer apply: racial, status in society, or gender. We should recall that there were separations in Israel if you were a Gentile, a woman and a slave. Perhaps that is why Paul mentions those three areas here. Even in the temple in Jerusalem, there was a court for Gentiles and a court for women. Separation marked much of what went on. Such separation has no place in the family of God now. Often these verses are used to express Christian unity, and no doubt they do. Yet we should observe that Paul uses them to explain the development of the family of God. Going back to circumcision was going back to infant days in the church.

The second privilege was connected to the death of Jesus because he came to deal with the barrier of our sins. He came to redeem us from the bondage of sin, and we know that it was slaves who were redeemed. As mentioned earlier, we were not likely candidates for adoption into God’s family. Yet God sent Jesus to the slave market of Calvary in order to purchase his people, set them free from bondage (not only to sin, but also to the ceremonial law) and bring them into his family.

Whenever each of them believes in Jesus, God the Father sends the Spirit into their hearts to give to them a strong sense of adoption, of family membership. Obviously, the Holy Spirit has different roles to engage in as far as each believer is concerned. He convicts a sinner of his sin, then he regenerates the spiritually-dead sinner and he believes in Jesus. At that moment, the Father justifies the sinner and adopts him into his family. Following on immediately from the act of adoption the Father sends the Spirit to indwell the sinner. Paul’s description suggests that this gracious work of the Spirit was not so common in the time of the Old Testament, which may explain why there are only a few references to God as Father in the Old Testament.

There are many consequences that occur because of the great change that the status of adoption brings into the experience of God’s people. They include how they regard one another, how they engage in prayer, how they respond to sinful actions, and how they anticipate the future when Jesus returns. We will consider aspects of those consequences in future studies. At the moment we should pause and consider who we are if we are the sons of God.

So believers today have greater privileges that Old Testament believers. This does not mean that we look down on them. Instead we are to express gratitude to God for the incredible way he has revealed his mercy to us. When we read Hebrews 11 and its description of the exploits of faith performed by the persons mentioned, we admire their loyalty to the Lord. Yet we should notice the last verse of the chapter, which indicates that we have received something which they did not. No doubt, that is connected to the fulfilment of the promise that occurred when Jesus appeared in this world and gave greater information to his people and provided greater experiences for them. And among them is greater understanding and larger appropriations of what it means to be in the family of God.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1-30)

Jesus gave to his listeners an exposition of his kingdom, which we might assume was a way of making it easier for them to understand what he was teaching. Yet we can see from verse 12 that his disciples were puzzled by this method because it must have been a different one from what Jesus had used previously. They asked Jesus why he was using this method and his reply might have surprised them and it should surprise us because we often think that parables are a way of making something easier to understand. No doubt, that is true of some of the stories that Jesus taught, but it is not the explanation for the parables in this chapter.

Instead, in speaking in parables, Jesus was acting in judgement on those who had refused to accept to his message or accept the witness of his miracles. He had spoken about his coming kingdom and his miracles had shown that he was the promised Messiah. But since he was being rejected by the people he started to teach in a manner that hid truth from them rather than making it straightforward. Indeed, he says that what was predicted of Isaiah’s ministry when he was called to serve as a prophet (Isa 6) was also fulfilled again, but in a more serious way, when the descendants of Isaiah’s rejecters now rejected the divine prophet himself.

In contrast, he says that the disciples are blessed because they have divine understanding – they have been divinely enlightened. Moreover, they have been privileged beyond the Old Testament prophets and other believers because they did not live in the days of the Messiah. They may have predicted his coming and looked forward to his coming, but they did not see it. We can list the famous names of the Old Testament and say about each of them, ‘He or she did not see the days of Jesus on earth.’ Of course, someone might say that all believers since the ascension of Jesus have not seen such times either. Yet we can say in response to such an assessment that we live in the days when the Holy Spirit has been poured forth and when the kingdom of Jesus is expanding.

Since that is the case, one question that should come to mind concerns what the kingdom of Jesus looks like. I suspect that is the issue that Jesus deals with in this set of seven parables as he provides several pictures of life in his kingdom. The pictures apply to every period of his kingdom and to every location. What he describes here will be seen repeatedly while his kingdom on earth lasts. This will be the case even although his kingdom will be growing.

Jesus explains for his disciples the meaning of this parable. One surprising omission from his explanation is that he does not say who the sower is. This could have been because it is obvious, or it could be that there is more than one sower. What are the options? One is that the sower is Jesus, and that would certainly have been the case in a literal sense at that time. Another is that every person who scatters seed is a sower, which could refer to preaching and evangelising. Personally, I suspect the answer to the identity of the sower is to combine the two suggestions. Jesus functions as the sower but he uses his servants to scatter the seed. Paul reminded the Ephesians that Jesus had come and preached peace to them. Yet Jesus had not travelled physically to Ephesus. Instead he had gone there through his servants and declared the gospel to sinners in Ephesus.

There is something very solemn and sad about this. People literally heard the good news of the kingdom from the lips of Jesus and refused his gracious invitations. Today, people hear the good news of the kingdom from the servants of Jesus and refuse his invitations. Such a refusal is serious because those who do so are not merely rejecting the offer of a mere man – instead, they are rejecting an offer that comes straight from the King himself.

Before we look at the parable in more detail, we should observe its structure. There are three bad responses and there are three good responses. This is a reminder that there is variety in the life and experience of the kingdom. The three bad responses involve rejection of the message and the three good responses involve different degrees of fruit-bearing. We can think about the two types of response.

The bad responses
As we can see, one of the bad responses to the message of Jesus is immediate and the other two occur later. Jesus points out two factors as to why there is a rejection of his message in such a manner. First, the individual does not think about it – does not understand it. It is impossible to understand a matter if we don’t think about it. There may be lots of reasons as to why no thought is given. Nevertheless, we see that the message of the kingdom is directed to our minds. Second, a failure to think about the message allows the devil an opportunity of removing it from our minds. It is not difficult for him to do this if we don’t think about the message. The picture of snatching suggests the speed with which this can be done as well as indicating that the individual does not realise that it has happened. Why would he since he is not thinking about it? This is a reminder that the devil looks at people hearing the message with the aim of removing it from their minds, usually by suggesting something else to think about.

The second wrong response is revealed sometime later. Again, this response is made by someone who has not thought about the message. Instead, his response was only an emotional one – he was full of joy, but joy by itself is no proof of conversion. In addition, there has to be what Jesus calls ‘root in himself,’ a picture that the message has taken firm hold within him. This wrong response, says Jesus, shows itself when trouble comes along that is connected to the message of the kingdom. It is striking that Jesus uses the word ‘immediately’ twice to describe this response. There is an immediate response when he hears the message and there is an immediate rejection when trouble comes. We can say of this person that he has not counted the cost. Part of the message of Jesus is that those who follow him will face opposition for their faith and true disciples will take that into account. Sadly, many a person has given up the faith because someone laughed at them.

The third wrong response is revealed when a person’s priorities are tested. Things go wrong in life. Everyone knows that. The Saviour says that if people live for the wrong things those things will choke the word, which is a very graphic illustration. They prevent spiritual life developing and they don’t grow spiritually. I suppose in the illustration thorns prevented the seed from getting sunlight and moisture, and the things of this world, if they dominate our thinking, will do the same in a spiritual sense. This individual has not been enlightened regarding what he should live for and eventually it becomes clear that he is not living for the kingdom.

What should be our response to this stark statement from Jesus? First, we have to say that it is accurate because there are many who have done this. Second, if we are listening to the gospel, but have not professed, we should pay attention because the devil is waiting to snatch away the message from our minds. Third, if we find the symptoms of the second and third wrong responses in our hearts, we should be afraid and come to our spiritual senses. This warning is given by Jesus because he knew that this is what would happen in connection to his kingdom.

The good responses
As we look at the description of a good response to the message of the kingdom we see in verse 23 that this individual understands it. This is what made the difference. Therefore we should ask what is meant by understanding it. The answer is that we have to recognise two sides to such understanding. On one side is the enlightenment that the Holy Spirit gives to a spiritually blind person. This occurs in the experience of every person who becomes a true believer. From seeing nothing they move to seeing who Jesus is. On the other side is the searching that the individual makes, and the length and intensity of this search will vary between those who become genuine Christians. Some search for a while whereas others seem to find the answer quickly. Also, some make deeper discoveries about themselves (conviction of sin) than others do. And some have deeper and stronger sense of assurance at the time of conversion.

The other area that Jesus mentions is the subsequent development in the spiritual lives of believers. At one level, it is not the amount of fruit but the genuineness of it that is highlighted here. They all bear fruit, but they don’t all bear the same amount. Yet we should observe that Jesus describes the harvest as good, whatever the size. It seems that in Palestine at that time a harvest of tenfold was regarded as successful. So when the disciples heard this illustration they would realise that all true believers bear a lot of fruit. Perhaps our minds go to the words of Jesus in John 15 where, when speaking about himself as the vine and his disciples as branches, he said that those who abide in him will bear much fruit.

What is the fruit that Jesus has in mind here? One suggested answer is that it refers to converts, yet that is unlikely because very few believers have been great soul winners. So it is much more likely that Jesus is referring to Christian character, the type of life he described in his Sermon on the Mount or the fruit of the Spirit as detailed by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5. 

Why is there such a difference between the amount of fruit that is produced? I would suggest that the answer to this question is twofold. One aspect is connected to God’s sovereign bestowal of spiritual gifts. He gives certain gifts to some people that he does not give to others, so it is inevitable that in those areas of spiritual living some will have more fruit than others. The other aspect is connected to the use believers make of their spiritual resources, or means of grace. Unlike the first aspect, which we cannot adjust, the second aspect from a human point of view highlights the importance of dedication and delight in utilising those means of grace. 

We can summarise our study by four words and they are differences, dangers, dependence and determination. With regard to differences, we have seen that there is a clear difference between true disciples and false disciples, even if it takes a while for false disciples to reveal their colours. We have also seen that there is a difference between Christians regarding fruit bearing.

Next, we have seen the dangers connected to a shallow and unthoughtful response to the message of the gospel. The danger is connected to self-deception, because at one stage in their lives those in categories two and three of the bad responses would have stated that they were genuine believers.

The final lesson is to realise that a true believer is marked by a combination of dependence on Jesus and determination to continue serving the Lord whatever comes along in life. Such have understood the message of the kingdom that the heavenly Sower declares through his servants.