Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Two Demoniacs (Matt. 8:28-34)

We know that this incident is also told in other Gospels and as is the case with such parallel accounts there are one or two differences between them. It would be possible to combine the accounts and have a larger grasp of what took place here. Yet doing so might hide from us why Matthew described the account in his way.

The two obvious differences are (1) Matthew mentions two persons and (2) he does not mention that one of them was told by Jesus to go home and tell his friends what Jesus had done for him. Maybe the other person did not have a home to go to. But I would like us to try and note the points that Matthew wants his readers to take on board.

Before we look at some points in Matthew’s account, I would mention that the combined effect of the different accounts is to highlight the bigness of Jesus. Imagine someone who had only read Mark’s and Luke’s accounts and then came across what Matthew said. He would discover that Jesus helped two persons rather than only one. And the reader would observe that Jesus did all this is a very short time.

Why does Matthew mention two individuals whereas Mark and Luke focus only on one? An answer that was given by Augustine was that one man was much worse than the other and Mark and Luke chose to refer to him. Connected to that would be the possibility that only one of them came from the area and had family to go back to and tell what had happened. Another suggestion is that only one of them became a believer and witnessed to his faith, and that is why Mark and Luke focus on him. There is a suggestion that they were a husband and wife, but the man was highlighted. But these suggestions are only guesses because we do not know why Mark and Luke only mention one of them.

Dealing with fear
The disciples had been frightened of the storm as they crossed the sea and helpless during it to do anything about their situation. So far in his list of encounters, Jesus has brought his disciples into a variety of experiences, but in each of them fear and helplessness was prominent. They would have been frightened of dealing with a leper because of concerns of contracting the disease, of dealing with a Gentile centurion because the Roman authorities could use power against them, and of being in a fierce storm. Maybe they were afraid of what would happen to Peter’s mother-in-law if no one could help her. In all these situations, they would have also felt helpless.

Probably the meeting with the demoniacs would have been the most frightening of all for the disciples. Matthew Henry, in discussing the various fears, mentions that as far as the disciples were concerned the diseases were inevitable, the storm was uncontrollable, and the demons the most formidable.  Facing one would be enough for most people, never mind facing a lot of them at the same time. Each of those categories would make us afraid. I think we can deduce from this incident that Jesus wanted them to deal with their fears by letting him deal with their fears by his gracious power, and by extension he can do the same for us.

Grasping the competency of Jesus
The various encounters highlight the competence of Jesus. If we had a notebook and were among his followers we would tick off one by one the various situations that did not prevent his power being displayed. He could heal diseases, whether longstanding like the leper or recent like Peter’s mother-in-law; he could heal from a distance or heal a crowd on his doorstep; he could control the elements with a word and cause his disciples to be full of wonder; he could help the prominent and the outcast without a word. Now he was about to deal with individuals whom everyone else would regard as very dangerous and would not wish to be near on any occasion.

The deduction that can be made is that Jesus can handle all kinds of situations, that there is no set of events that would show any incompetency in his ability to deal with whatever kind of challenge came his way, or in the path of the disciples when they were engaged in following his commandments.

Learning the priorities of Jesus
What are the priorities of Jesus that comes across in this set of incidents? Is it to know people of influence, such as the centurion whose servant was healed or the would-be disciple (the scribe) who indicated that he wanted to follow Jesus wherever he would go? Or is it popularity that would come from curing a large crowd of suffering people? I would say that it is obvious from the passage that a priority of Jesus was to help needy people.

In this incident, Jesus was prepared to take his disciples through a storm in order that he would come to a place where two very needy individuals needed his help. Is it not the case that we find ourselves being used by Jesus after we have come through a storm? It is possible that the spot where they landed was not a place that the disciples would have liked because it was Gentile territory, out of their comfort zones. In the storms that come our way we may find ourselves somewhere we do not like, where we may be tested in unexpected ways, but I suspect when that happens Jesus has taken us to a place where we can see his amazing grace in action bringing mercy to those in need of it.

It is interesting Jesus did not stay there any longer than he had to. He wanted to get back across the lake and be in Capernaum when the next incident, described in chapter 9, took place. I think this tells us not to waste time. Jesus could have allowed his disciples to have some rest – after all they had just spent the night trying to cross the sea. Now he tells them to make the return journey, without them getting much rest. Jesus was not being cruel, but he was reminding his disciples that sometimes there will be spiritual priorities that take precedence over our own comfort.

Jesus is interested in Gentiles
The place where the boat landed was Gentile country. We can see that is the case because there was a herd of many pigs there. Indeed, it may have been very close to an encampment of Roman soldiers because it has been suggested that the pigs were a source of food for them. As far as Gentiles were concerned, we should recall how Matthew began his Gospel – he referred to Jesus as the son of Abraham. He was the descendant of Abraham in the sense that he would fulfil the divine promise to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. So here is Jesus about to bring blessing to members of another nation, to individuals who were not Jews.

We should observe who it was from this Gentile community that Jesus wanted to meet. Whatever else we make of the choice, the contact points to the compassion of Jesus. He obviously cared deeply about those demoniacs. And as we look at them coming out of the tombs we are to remind ourselves that these two individuals had been part of the discussion and plans between the members of the Trinity before the universe was made. Jesus would have observed their approach towards him in a very different manner than his disciples probably did. They would have seen a threat, but Jesus saw triumphs of grace. Truly, the Lord’s ways are not our ways.

I suppose we are to view these two men as extreme sinners – violent, demon-possessed and living in isolation. Yet we must remember that while they were born sinful they were not born in the state they now found themselves. They had become like this because they had lived sinful lives. Slowly over the years they descended into sin and this is where they are now. Who can say where starting a sinful practice will take us? Who can say where a life of sin will take us? But wherever it has taken us, Jesus can find us.

Powers of darkness flee from Jesus
There are three types of flight in this story. The first concerns those who ran away when they met the two demoniacs – no one could keep going towards them, but instead would flee from their presence. The second flight concerns the demons who tormented the two men. They fled from the presence of Jesus. And the third flight is seen in the response of the pigs to the presence of the demons.

We can see from the story that the powers of darkness recognised four things at least about the Saviour. First, it is obvious that they recognised who Jesus was because they called him by the title, the Son of God. Some have commented that here, from a surprising source, was the answer to the question asked by the disciples in verse 27 about the identity of Jesus after he calmed the storm. Second, the demons also recognised that there was a day coming when they would be tormented, which is a reference to what will happen to them in a lost eternity. Third, they recognised that Jesus would be the One who would inflict punishment on them, that he would be the final Judge of evil angels as well as of humans. Fourthly, the demons were aware of why Jesus had come to that location – he had come to set the two individuals free from the grip of the evil powers.

It looks that maybe the demons wanted to stay in that area, which would have been one reason for them wanting to enter the pigs. Perhaps the area was connected to evil practices. Nevertheless, they confessed a fifth aspect of their recognition of Jesus, which was that they could not go anywhere without his permission. The outcome was that the entire herd was lost, which may indicate that it was connected to inappropriate practices.

Why did Jesus allow the herd to be destroyed? I suspect it was to give an insight to the local people of the destruction and havoc the powers of darkness can cause. This story describes two extreme examples – the two demoniacs and the pigs, but the demons affecting them could easily destroy a herd of swine. Another reason would be to show that he had freed the two men from that awful bondage. And a third reason could be that he was punishing the owners for their sins, and Calvin comments that ‘While the reason of it is not known by us with certainty, it is proper for us to behold with reverence and to adore with devout humility, the hidden judgment of God.’ A fourth reason could have been to show to people what their real priorities were, and they revealed what they were when they came to see him and asked him to leave.

Confessing the power, but not the grace
It is surprising that neither the herdsmen or the inhabitants of the city were pleased about what had happened to the two men. Their spiritual deliverance meant nothing to them. They did realise that Jesus possessed real power, but they wanted nothing to do with him. Instead they preferred that he left. They did not see any personal need of his power in their lives.

Why did Jesus wait to hear this request? Perhaps he wanted his disciples to realise that winning souls in a community would not lead to the approval of the community. Or maybe he wanted them to note that displays of power in themselves would not bring people to faith.

Why did Matthew leave off his account at this point in the incident? I would suggest that he wants the readers to ask themselves what they want to experience from Jesus. Basically, the readers must side with the citizens or the disciples. And that is where we are as we come to the close of our time together. Will we ask Jesus to use his power to bring spiritual blessings into our lives or will we say to him to go away and not get involved in our lives? Each of us must answer that question just now.

The Servant and the Spirit (Isa. 42:1-4)

Today is Pentecost Sunday in the church calendar, which is held fifty days after Easter. The Holy Spirit came on the church on the Day of Pentecost, which occurred fifty days after the death of Jesus. It obviously was a very important day in the overall experience of the church and a very full account of what happened is given in Acts 2. Its importance is also seen in the number of Old Testament prophecies that focus on this event. The best known one may be the prediction of the prophet Joel which Peter quoted in his sermon given on the Day of Pentecost. But there are other prophecies about the event and Isaiah refers to it in his prophecy in Isaiah 42:1-4.

We can see from the description given by Isaiah that here we have an Old Testament reference to the Trinity. God speaks about his Servant and his Spirit, which shows that here we have the perspective of the Father. So, we have an insight into the prominence that this event has – it is a Trinitarian one.

As we listen in to the Father’s description of the partnership, we hear him speaking about his power and his pleasure. Both are connected to the Servant and the Spirit. The power and the pleasure here occur after the Father has given the Spirit to the Servant. Since he was given the Spirit after he ascended, the power and the pleasure must have some connection to what takes place since then.

We need to remind ourselves about what it means for Jesus to be the Servant. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Jesus became obedient to the Father when he became a man and entered human life. So, his servanthood is connected to him being both God and man. As the Father’s Servant, he was given tasks to perform that would bring blessings to sinners and glory to God.

We can divide those tasks into three areas. First, there was the requirement that he live a life of obedience, which would be imputed to sinners who would trust in him (they did not have such a life by nature). Second, there was the requirement that he pay the penalty for their sins which he did when he suffered divine wrath on the cross against their sins. Third, there was the requirements that he now fulfils having risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Although exalted, he still functions as the Father’s Servant, bring to pass what the Father desires.

What kind of power does Jesus now have that fits into being upheld by the Father? No doubt there are different ways of approaching this subject. Here are a couple of markers that should help us have insight into the type of power that Jesus, the Father’s servant, has, and which are connected to him having the Spirit given to him in a special way.

The writer to the Hebrews mentions that the Saviour possesses an indestructible life (7:16). There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say that this is a reference to his deity because as God he is Life; the other is to say that this also describes his humanity. The proof that he is indestructible is that he conquered death by his death and is now alive in the power of resurrection life. It was the Father who raised him from the dead and the life he now has does not include things like tiredness and weakness. Jesus is indestructible because of the Father’s upholding. So, he will live forever.

One of the best-known verses in the Bible is the Great Commission given at the end of Matthew. In that announcement, Jesus says that all power or authority has been given unto him in heaven and on earth. In other words, he rules everywhere and the only position that allows for that would be for him to sit on the throne of God. Language about a throne is metaphorical indicating that he is King. Jesus is called the King of kings and Lord of lords. So, he will rule forever in one way or another, and he administers his activities through the work of the Spirit, whether in what we call common grace and saving grace.

This leads us to consider what kind of rule he will have. The prophet points to it when he refers three times to Jesus bringing forth justice. We might think initially that what is in view here is a judge handing out sentences on criminals and we know from the Bible that there will yet be a Day of Judgement when Jesus will pass sentence on everyone. But that is not what the prophet has in mind here. Rather, by justice he focuses on a system of government. In a sense, the word justice describes a government’s overall policy. So here the prophet predicts that Jesus will set up a kingdom marked fairness, security and prosperity.

In addition to providing the power for his Servant to rule, the Father also expresses his pleasure as he describes the activities in which his Servant will engage. We are told that Jesus gave great pleasure to the Father during the so-called thirty silent years of his life. The Father’s verdict on them was announced dramatically when Jesus was baptised and the Father’s voice came from heaven indicating that he was well-pleased with his Son. Indeed, it looks as if there is a link between Isaiah 42:1 and the divine utterance when Jesus was baptised.

Moreover, the Father was very pleased with everything Jesus did during his three years of public ministry. There was constant fellowship between them wherever he was. We can try and imagine the delight that the Father experienced as he watched his Servant interacting with all kinds of people in a wide variety of situations. And while the cross was not enjoyable for the Father, he was pleased with the response of his Son while he was suffering there and offered a perfect sacrifice. The proof that he was pleased with the work of Jesus on the cross is seen in the fact that he raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to the highest place. The invitation given by the Father for Jesus to sit and his right hand was given with great delight.

Today the Father is pleased with how the Son of his love is managing the affairs of his kingdom, and in this prophecy he tells us why. Three reasons are given for this pleasure.

First, there is the method that the Servant employs as he interacts with sinners through his Spirit (v. 2). The prophet says that he will act quietly, secretly and personally. This is in stark contrast to the ways adopted by earthly rulers who like to tell everyone what they are doing, although usually everyone knows that they are not doing half the things they say. The Saviour gave examples of his style when he was here on earth. Think of how he dealt with the woman of Samaria. He spoke to her about her sin, but did so after the disciples had gone away into the village for food. Nor did he tell them when they returned what her sins were. If Jesus the King is dealing with someone in the next street, where and when is he going to announce that it is taking place? He won’t. Instead he will deal with that person quietly, secretly and personally. This gives great pleasure to the Father.

Second, there is the manner in which the Servant deals with sinners and the main characteristic mentioned is his gentleness (v. 3). Two illustrations are used, that of a broken reed and faint candle. A bruised reed is fragile and pointless. Who can heal a bruised reed and who would bother? It is beyond either the time or talent of humans to do so. How does someone become like a bruised reed in a spiritual sense in which he or she feels fragile and pointless and with none able to help? It is by the work of the Spirit that Jesus does this. It is important to observe that Jesus will not break the bruised reed. Instead, he will work in his government to bring that person to spiritual wholeness. To the person convicted of their sins by the Spirit, Jesus applies his promises of grace by the same Spirit. And this action gives great pleasure to the Father.

Something similar is illustrated in the wick that is about to go out. In daily life, a person would be tempted to throw such a wick away and replace it. Jesus by the Spirit brings us to the place where we feel we are finished. Our resources have gone. Yet through his gentle care, we start to burn with new life and soon we become lights for others. Jesus works faithfully by his Spirit to bring this revival of light and warmth in our souls. And in doing so, he gives great pleasure to the Father.

No doubt, we are meant to imagine the number of people who have been blessed in this manner by Jesus. he has treated all his people with gentleness. Indeed, as we know, he mentions his gentleness as one of the reasons why we should draw near to him. Maybe he had this set of verses in mind when he said that he was gentle and lowly because that combination is seen here in the lowly one who works quietly and the gentle one who works kindly.

Third, there is the mission in which the Servant is engaged as he oversees the development of his kingdom. The prophecy mentions the persistence that the Servant shows as he works for the growth of his kingdom. Through all the ups and downs of the last two thousand years he has been at work resolutely. We should observe that he does not run out of power (grow faint), nor does he start thinking that things are not going well (discouraged). Instead he knows where he is going. His aim is to have a worldwide kingdom in which former bruised reeds and smoking flaxes will have their place and experience the benefits of his grace. And we know that he is doing it.

As we close, here are three applications. First, we should follow the instruction of the Father when he commands us to behold his Servant. Normally, we behold someone or something that is striking and important. Only Jesus fulfils that description ultimately. Second, we should thank the Father for the nature of the kingdom his Servant and his Spirit are engaged in developing. We have an election this week, but the aims of earthly kingdoms are small in comparison to the eternal kingdom. Third, on the first Pentecost Sunday, three thousand were converted when the Servant sent the Spirit. I wonder how many will be converted on this Pentecost Sunday as the Servant by the Spirit works across the world.   

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Seventh Trumpet Will Sound (Rev. 11)

One could say that this chapter contains one of the most difficult passages to interpret (measuring the temple and the two witnesses) and one of the most straightforward to understand (the day of judgement). Having said that about ourselves and our grasp of things does not have to mean that it was hard for the original readers to grasp what the two witnesses and the measuring of the temple signified.

In the section about the witnesses, John refers to two cities. One is called the holy city, but this is not a reference to the earthly Jerusalem. Instead, Jerusalem along with Sodom and Egypt belongs to the unholy city. Frequently in Revelation, the contrast between God’s people and others is illustrated through the idea of two opposing cities. There is God’s city and there is the enemy city. Of course, what makes a place a city is its inhabitants. Without inhabitants, a city does not exist.

It may be worth noting that in this chapter we have the final reference to the cross of Jesus in the Bible (v. 8). We can see from the description that this is how the city of Jerusalem is finally remembered. What could have been her greatest blessing is her most sinful action. She could have been described as the place where the Spirit came in power to bless the message of the cross, but in the main she rejected the message. She forced the followers of the cross to leave, an action which brought blessing elsewhere in the world, but how sad it was for her! We should not be surprised that Jesus wept over her.

Witnessing to the truth before the Judgement (11:1-10)
First, we note that the two witnesses function in the period between when the temple of God was measured and the Day of Judgement. In Ezekiel 40–44, the temple was measured and in Zechariah 2 the city of Jerusalem was also measured and the purpose of those measurements was to show God’s care and protection of Israel and the future prosperity of the city of Jerusalem. So, the instruction to measure the temple here is an indication that God intends to protect his people and prosper them whatever their current circumstances.

What does John mean here by the temple of God? It is unlikely that he means the temple in Jerusalem because most commentators think this book was written twenty years after the city was destroyed in 70 AD. Having said that, John could have seen that temple in a vision and be saying that the temporary temple in Jerusalem was a picture in some ways of another temple, the church.

Connected to the temple that John sees are two courts. The one that he is to measure is the inner court whereas the other one, which he is not allowed to measure, is the outer. (There had been an outer court in the temple at Jerusalem where Gentiles could gather, but they were not allowed into the inner court.) Those in the inner court in John’s vision are beyond the reach of the Gentiles whereas those in the outer are under attack from the Gentiles, indeed under strong attack. It is not difficult to see here a picture of the church triumphant and the church militant.

John draws attention to an altar in the inner court. If he is using the Jerusalem temple as a model, then the altar found in the inner court, or Holy of holies, was the altar of incense (rather than the altar on which sacrifices were offered, which was in the outer courtyard). Incense typified prayer, and it is likely that by this reference to the altar he is stressing the reality that prayer is accepted by God and is connected to his actions. This altar in God’s presence is a pointer to the reality that the prayers of the saints are made perfect in his sight by the intercession of Jesus.

John also says that the period in which this opposition will last is three and a half years (42 months), and this is the same length of time as to when the two witnesses will function (1,260 days is 42 months multiplied by 30 days). This reminds us that God is in control of time, and the period here refers to that between the two comings of Jesus. God allows the opponents to trample his people, which is often hard to understand, but it is also good to know that God remains in charge.

What about the two witnesses?
They speak as prophets and dress like prophets. Often a prophet preached about repentance, and this was the message and garb of the two witnesses. We can say that they called people to repentance while themselves living a life of repentance.

Who are they? John answers this question by linking together a range of Old Testament prophets. He refers to Zerubbabel and Joshua (olive trees in Zechariah 4), to Elijah (who prayed for rain to cease for three and a half years), and to Moses (who brought plagues on Egypt). I would suggest that the two witnesses describe in picture form all who declare the message of coming judgement, although mainly it could describe those who do so in an official way.

John points out that they will be opposed by the devil (the one from the bottomless pit) and he will cause the witnesses to be killed. This opposition will happen everywhere, even in Jerusalem which is here linked to pagan nations. When the witnesses are martyred, people will rejoice and despise even the memory of them. Their message was offensive to most people and they will celebrate when Christ’s witnesses die. This kind of celebration was common in the early church and many Christians gave their lives as part of the entertainment offered to the large crowds that gathered for their local games.

Yet the witnesses possess something incredible, which is the resurrection life of the Saviour. After a period, they are raised from the dead, and their resurrection is followed by their promotion to glory. Their experience is similar as to what happened to Jesus when he rose from the dead. Is John here describing part of what Paul details in 1 Thessalonians 4 when he says that after God’s people have been raised from the dead they, as well as those believers living at the time, will ascend to meet the Lord in the air?

John says that the effect of the raising of the witnesses is further judgement (earthquake) and a belated recognition that the message of the witnesses was true (the onlookers are terrified, and affirmed that judgement was coming, but it was too late for repentance). We can see from this response something of the concern that will mark people when they realise that the Judgement Day has arrived.

The Seventh Trumpet – the Day of Judgement
There are several ways by which we can approach the Day of Judgement. We can consider it from what people will be doing when it happens. Jesus tells us that it will be like what happened on the day when the Flood predicted by Noah came. Or we can look at from how the inhabitants of heaven will react when the day arrives. This second viewpoint is what John now details in describing the blowing of the seventh trumpet.

First, we are told that that the kingdom belongs to God the Father and to Jesus – Jesus is described as the Father’s Christ or anointed one. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that, after he has overpowered all his enemies and delivered the kingdom to the Father, Jesus will continue to function as the Mediator for ever.

Second, we are told the contents of the trumpet blast, which is that the Father through Jesus will have captured or conquered the world and his eternal reign is about to commence. This is a reminder that the activity of Jesus as the Christ, which began at his ascension, has two phases. One is between his ascension and his return and the other is from the return into the unending future.

Third, the divine person who is praised here by the heavenly authorities (the twenty-four elders – angels with places of significance on thrones) is the Father, although they do not address him as such, perhaps because they do not have the same level of relationship with him that believers have. Or maybe they use the divine names that stress his authority over those who have rebelled against him. He is the sovereign, almighty, eternal God.

Fourth, the attitude of the heavenly authorities towards this moment in the divine plan is stated. They are grateful that the time for the judgement has arrived. Two reasons are given for their response. One is that those who destroyed the earth by their sinful practices will be judged and the other is that God’s people (prophets, saints and those who fear his name) will be rewarded for their service.

The God of the covenant
The next stage in the vision is for John to see into heaven. One item was revealed to him – the ark of God’s covenant. The original ark of the covenant disappeared when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple of Solomon. It had been replaced by another one when the temple was rebuilt, but that ark also disappeared when the Romans destroyed the second temple.

The ark of the covenant depicted God’s royal presence with his people. Wherever it was located would indicate those he regarded as his own. In a real sense, it was his throne – the holy of holies was his sacred chamber into which the high priest entered annually on the Day of Atonement. For his people, it was a throne of mercy where he would forgive their sins because atonement had been made.

John here sees that the ark is in heaven, the place where departed believers have gone. God dwells with them and they with him. Of course, there is not a literal ark in heaven. There is no need of a symbol when the reality is there. He rules over them as the merciful Sovereign because of the atonement that was made by Jesus.

The name of the ark points to the covenant God made with his people. In the Bible, there are temporary covenants and there is an eternal covenant. Temporary covenants were made with Noah and Moses, for example, and relate to aspects of life in this world, whether for man in general or for God’s people exclusively. The new covenant, confirmed by the death of Jesus, is an eternal covenant in its effects and its contents reveal that those within it will have true knowledge of God and will be his servants forever.

Why is there a reference to the ark in connection to the second coming of Jesus and the Day of Judgement? One answer could be that it pictures the presence of God with his people as they are about to enter their God-given inheritance. When Israel entered Canaan, they were led by the ark (crossing the Jordan under the command of Joshua) and its position symbolised the commencement of a process of judgement on God’s enemies. Here God is about to judge his enemies before leading his people into their eternal inheritance, which helps us appreciate why the phenomena accompanying the appearance of the ark contains elements that would cause a sense of fear and panic. After all, the presence of the ark was a sign of comfort for God’s people and a sign of condemnation for those who were not.

So, the seven trumpets have been blown? God has preserved his church throughout the varied experiences of judgment that came on the earth and its inhabitants. The inhabitants in heaven celebrate his triumph. Where are we in this chapter? We are not yet at the stage of the seventh trumpet, but we are given a foretaste of what will happen when it is blown. John tells us to remember that despite strong opposition in this world the inhabitants of the city of God are safe and will prosper eternally.