Sunday, 19 March 2017

When to Judge, or how Not to Judge (Matthew 7:1-6)

One of the outlooks of contemporary life is that everyone should be free to do what they want. A consequence has been that most people are aware of verse 1, whether or not they know that it comes from the Bible. It has become very difficult to say that certain activities are wrong, especially if they are not harming anyone else. We should not be judgemental, we are told. Does Jesus support such an attitude in his teaching here about judging?

What happened this past week according to the newspapers? Plenty to criticise, apparently. Politicians were criticised strongly. So too were footballers, although it all depended on whose side the supporters were. Were the criticisms valid? Does Jesus teach his disciples here that they should not have an opinion on political suggestions or sporting failures?

In the religious world too, unusual things took place. At a Christian gathering in America, a prayer was offered to Allah. People criticised the gathering. Should they have done so? I hope we know how to answer that question. Inevitably, someone will say that should not judge.

The teaching of Jesus in chapter 6 was mainly about how his followers should relate to God as Father. He spoke about how they should engage in spiritual practices in the presence of the Father and how they should trust the Father to provide what they need in life. Now Jesus moves to explaining what it means for God to be a judge. Often people don’t like the concept of God as the judge. Yet it should help us to consider that the judge is the Father.

This particular instruction has been taken out of its context and used in a manner that forbids any critique of what others say and do. It is obvious from other biblical passages that the disciples of Jesus must assess what they hear and see, which means that they have to judge. If there is a biblical statement that forbids a particular practice, then the biblical statement must be obeyed, and it is appropriate for others to judge those who disobey it. The alternative is to allow everything and to accept that nothing is wrong.

In what kind of situations must we judge? Here are a few examples that the Bible mentions:

  • All believers are to assess the contents of the teachings they hear by the Bible. They are not to assume that what they hear is the truth (1 John 4:1).
  • A congregation must decide who among them have the qualifications for being elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3).
  • The elders of a church, on behalf of the church, are to judge if a member should be disciplined and to what extent he or she should be disciplined (Matt. 18:17). An example of this occurred in Corinth (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
  • Church members should assess when other believers are causing problems and should respond to them in a biblical way (1 Thess. 5:14).
  • An individual Christian, when he sees a brother do something that is wrong, should make every effort to restore him (Matt. 18:15). But he cannot do this unless he has judged the activity to be wrong.

On the other hand, there are some situations in which we should not judge another believer. Here are some of them:

  • We should respect the consciences of individual Christians regarding issues that in themselves are neither right or wrong. Paul describes how they should be treated when he discusses weak and strong believers in Romans and 1 Corinthians.
  • We should not judge people by appearances. James warns his readers not to assume that rich, well-dressed people who attended the Christian gatherings would help, and he also warned them not to despise the poor.
  • We should not judge the service that another Christian gives to the Lord as long as that believer is following biblical guidelines (1 Cor. 4:1-5).
  • We should not attempt to judge another person’s motives. After all, only God knows the heart.

Who is Jesus rebuking?

It is obvious that Jesus is describing a possible problem in the lives of his disciples. We can see this from his use of the term ‘brother’. Yet he is also probably describing a wrong way of dealing with people that was common at that time. He is still speaking about the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees that his disciples are to exceed.

The righteousness of the Pharisees was connected to all the additional rules that they added to God’s requirements. There were several hundred such additions to God’s law. Those additions were not required by God, but the Pharisees made them as important as God’s commandments, and they judged anyone who failed to meet their extra rules.

Jesus likens those extra requirements to a big log that is in the Pharisee’s eye. What does this illustration tell us about their extra rules? First, it means that they had no vision. In Psalm 19, David tells us what the effects of God’s commandments are – they give light, enabling a believer to make progress in the life of faith. In contrast, the rules that the Pharisees added were of no help at all in discovering the revealed will of God. Remember that Jesus later called them blind Pharisees.

Second, the rules they produced prevented close contact with other people. Whenever a person met a Pharisee, he would be hit by the log in the Pharisee’s eye. Jesus is saying that the requirements of the Pharisees damaged other people severely. They would not get a little tap from the log – after all, it was not a splinter that was sticking out of the Pharisee’s eye.  

Third, the Pharisees found fault with trivial things. Jesus likens the matters they criticised to specks. Of course, the specks were not good, but they were not dangerous. Yet the self-righteous Pharisees majored on the minors. Of course, in order to find a speck, one has to engage in focussed scrutiny. Most people would not notice specks, but Pharisees do.

Fourth, the requirement for a person dealing with the faults of others is to get rid of his own faults first. How was the individual in the illustration going to get rid of the plank in his eye? It would be impossible for him to pull it out because it was beyond his reach. So he would need to get help from someone else. He could ask a friend to help him, but would his friends have the skills to deal with it? They would not. Instead, the only person who could remove the plank safely is God. It looks as if Jesus was saying that such sins can only be removed by the special treatment of the heavenly Physician.

It is interesting to observe biblical accounts where people with planks in their eyes were judgemental quickly of others. An example often referred to is David. When Nathan the prophet came to rebuke David over his sins of adultery and murder, he told the king a story about a rich man who used a poor man’s lamb to feed a guest. David was outraged and wanted to put that man to death. Although the man’s actions were cruel they did not deserve the death penalty in Israel whereas the two sins of which David was guilty – adultery and murder – were. The plank in David’s eye blinded himself to the seriousness of his plank. But when Nathan identified the problem, David did not turn to Nathan for help. Instead he turned to the only one who could help him – the Lord, and we read about that contact in Psalm 51.

An encouraging aspect in David’s experience is that once the plank was removed he was able to teach others about God and his grace. Many of the psalms were written by him after his recovery and each of them still helps believers today. Contrary to all expectations, he would even be used by God to bring sinners to know him. When the plank was removed, he could deal with specks.

Danger of false judging

The obvious danger is that censoriousness has its comeback on the individual who engages in it. Jesus points out that the same treatment will be given to the one who so judges. This probably does not mean the decisions on the Day of Judgement that God will make because he will not judge according to our standards. Rather we have here a reference to what he allows in providence, perhaps even arranges. After all, we are familiar with the phrase, ‘time will tell.’ That is only another way of saying that God will reveal the truth in his providence.

Perhaps a biblical example of this is Diotrophes who is mentioned in 3 John. He was engaged in assessing who should be allowed into his church and had refused admittance to some travelling Christians who had a connection to John. What was going to happen to him? The one he opposed, John, would yet deal with him when in God’s providence they met.

A definite biblical example of this is Peter. He made an assessment about the spiritual devotion of himself to Jesus in contrast with that of his fellow-disciples. Having looked at himself and at them, he acknowledged that they might deny Jesus, but he affirmed that he would remain loyal. We know the outcome in providence. Peter sadly fell because he made a wrong judgement.

An example of judging

The Saviour instructs his disciples not to give what is holy to dogs or their pearls to swine. Obviously, a dog would not understand what to do with something that is dedicated to God and nor would a pig know what to do with pearls. At one level, this is common sense. Jesus is teaching his disciples that they have some things that others will not appreciate.

Jesus also teaches that it is not wise to try and give what is holy and what is valuable to people who are going to be enraged by it. This means that his disciples must work out if a situation is appropriate for them to mention what is holy or talk about their pearls. Although his people will be opposed at times, they have to judge when to speak.

We need to work out what is meant by holy and pearls and who are meant by dogs and pigs. Things that are holy belong to God and things that are pearls are valuable and attractive. It is not hard to see here a reference to the gospel and its benefits. Dogs and pigs describe animals that move aggressively in packs and herds. All they are interested in is their next meal. Did Jesus have the Pharisees and Sadducees in mind by those animal pictures? They would be the initial opponents of the disciples.

The disciples of Jesus will discover that many people will hate and despise and oppose the gospel, and sometimes do so violently, as is happening in many places today. Therefore, they need to be wise when they share their spiritual treasures with hostile unbelievers. In the Book of Acts, the apostles stopped preaching in the synagogues whenever the listeners became abusive and threatening. Spiritual treasures include the gospel, the teachings of the Bible, and the personal experiences of Christians.


The first comment is that we must always take a biblical statement in its context. Otherwise, we will say Jesus taught something that he did not. This set of verses about judging is frequently taken out of context. The second application is that Jesus here is speaking about personal relationships and how we interact with one another. So he is warning his disciples about relationship problems. The third is that we should ask God to remove the sinful planks that distort our judgement before we cause damage to others. And the fourth is that we have to judge when we should speak about biblical matters and when we should not.

Are Your Jesus-centred? (Gal. 3:20)

Paul and Barnabas had taken the gospel to the region of Galatia during what we call Paul’s First Missionary Journey. They had planted churches in different places and had seen God do amazing things as they preached about Jesus. There had been opposition in some places, nevertheless conversions had taken place. So when they returned to Antioch they had wonderful things to describe to the church there that had sent them on the mission journey.

Yet things in Galatia had not remained healthy in a spiritual way. Other teachers came to Galatia from Jerusalem and affected those new churches. The message they brought seemed innocuous because they liked to refer to Old Testament passages where God had given details about how his people should live. So they said to the new Christians, ‘God wants you to keep these laws. In fact, you cannot be right with God unless you do.’ Many of the new Christians were influenced by what these teachers said and moved away from what Paul had taught them.

As we think about this alternative message, what ideas come to mind? One must be that this message turned Christianity into a performance religion rather than a religion of grace. A second is that it turned Christianity into a religion that was concerned about peer pressure rather than about what God had said. And a third was that inevitably it led to pride in how the individual was doing in keeping the law.

The basic problem with the alternative message was that it was a Jesus plus something message. It was not sufficient to have Jesus alone as the centre of the Christian life. We should realise that such an idea is not limited to the false teachers who disturbed the churches in Galatia. The problem with Jesus plus messages is that inevitably they remove Jesus from the centre and the plus, whatever it is, becomes the centre, the test of authenticity.

What does it mean to be Jesus-centred?

The question that we should then ask is, ‘What does it mean to be Jesus-centred?’ To say that we believe in Jesus alone does not mean that we ignore other persons of the Trinity. There is no salvation possible, for example, without the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating sinners and giving new life to them. Nor can one be a Christian without being adopted into his family by the heavenly Father. A Jesus-centred person will delight in the activities of the Father and the Spirit as well as in the particular activities of Jesus.

Moreover, if we are Christians we will follow the teachings of the Bible. Jesus himself made that clear when he instructed the apostles to teach disciples what he had said. He had also told some disciples to take his yoke on them and learn from him. The problem with the false teachers in Galatia was that they did not understand what the Old Testament and the apostles said about Jesus. But if we are Jesus-centred, we will obey his commandments.

I suppose the matter of concern is basically how we live the Christian life. Paul mentions in this passage how we start this new life when he refers to being justified by God without obedience to the works of the law. We know this was a central concern of the Reformation, of how a sinner becomes right with God. The church by that time had lost almost all sight of the gospel and had as many rules connected to their practices as the false teachers in Galatia had done.

The gospel tells us that we don’t have to do anything in order to be forgiven. We discover that Jesus has suffered in the place of sinners when he paid the demands of God’s justice on the cross. Of course, we respond to the gospel with repentance, with sorrow for our sins, but we are not forgiven because of the degree of our sorrow. We also respond to the gospel with faith in Jesus, but we are not forgiven because of the strength of our faith. Instead we are forgiven for the sake of Christ.

At the same time as we are forgiven by the Father, we are also given the standing of justification in his presence. In justification, we are given the righteousness of Jesus as our righteousness. The righteousness of Jesus is his obedience to the law. Each of us is required to obey the law, and none of us can. But each of us can have the righteousness of Jesus as our righteousness. It is a present from God of the best performance and given to those who each have failed performances.

The Galatians imagined that they had found something better. It is not surprising that Paul calls them foolish Galatians. They thought that somehow they could help God in the development of their Christian lives when they adopted those new insights. In reality, they were departing from him instead of remaining close to him. And we can see how serious Paul regarded this when he called down a curse from God on those who were promoting the new insight.

How do we live as Jesus-centred people?

No doubt, we could answer this question in different ways. But we can think about what Paul says in this verse. The first detail he mentions is that we have to recognise that the person we were before conversion is dead in a spiritual way. This is what Paul means when he says that he has been crucified with Jesus.

Paul was a very accomplished person before he met Jesus. He was also a very religious person before that encounter took place. If we had met Saul of Tarsus before his conversion, he could have answered most of our religious questions. We could even have asked him about what the Old Testament said about the Messiah and he could have given some answers. The obvious problem was that he did not think Jesus was the Messiah.

Yet, as he wrote this letter to the Galatians, he says that he was crucified with the Messiah, which is a reference to Jesus. But we know that Paul was not crucified literally with Jesus. So what does he mean? He means that he was regarded by God as being united to Jesus when he died. The death that Jesus died when he was crucified did something for Paul (and to all others who trust in the Saviour). He became a new kind of person because of the cross.

A Jesus-centred person defines himself by the cross. Yet we know that to speak of crucifixion was to refer to something that was shameful. But it is obvious that Paul was not ashamed of the cross. If we could move Paul literally to Calvary and ask him where we should put him, he would want to be placed with Jesus because there Jesus was providing the basis for Paul to become a new creature. At Calvary, the old Saul of Tarsus died.

Paul then goes on to say that he is now alive, but not in the sense that he was before he met Jesus. Now he is alive because Jesus, the source of life, lives in him. He is not referring to Jesus literally living inside him. Instead he is describing the amazing fact that Jesus lives inside him by the Holy Spirit. Jesus had promised this about the Holy Spirit when he said in the Upper Room that he would send another Comforter, another here meaning ‘of the same kind’. The Holy Spirit would be the same in Paul’s inner life just as if Jesus was there. Why does a Jesus-centred person not need all those extra rules that the false teachers were requiring? In addition to defining himself by the cross, such a person experiences in his inner life the incredible power of the risen Christ changing him by the ongoing work of the indwelling Spirit.

A third detail that Paul then mentions for a Jesus-centred person is a living faith in the living Saviour. Paul did not promote a passive involvement in this wonderful relationship he now had with Jesus. Instead, it was active constantly – we can see this detail in the little word ‘now’. Paul is describing is new life and what marks it every day of the week is that he lives by faith in the one he recognises as fully divine – the Son of God. What does the Holy Spirit, who lives in believers, produce in them? He produces ongoing faith. That is why Christians are termed believers.

What kind of faith does the Holy Spirit produce? Obviously it is a relationship. I can have faith in a politician to do certain things, but that faith cannot be described as a relationship. It is only a response that may be disappointed or may be pleased with the politician. But it does not bring me close to him. In contrast, the Holy Spirit brings living contact between the Christian and Jesus. Sometimes, the believer may think that he is clinging by a thread, yet he should remember that the one who created the thread and maintains it is the Holy Spirit. At times, the contact may be confession of sin, at other times there may be other aspects of communion as the believer interacts by faith with Jesus.

In addition to producing ongoing contact between a Christian and Jesus, the Spirit also gives from Jesus to the Christian. That is how the faith continues. Jesus had informed his disciples in the Upper Room that one activity of the Comforter would be to take of the things of Christ and reveal them to the disciples. In this life, and maybe also in the next, the work of the Spirit is to show to believers the riches contained in the promises of God. All these promises belong to each believer because he or she is in Christ.

How does this work out day by day? A believer is drawn by the Spirit to muse on one or more of the promises. And as he does so, his faith is enlarged, his faith is stimulated, and his faith is excited by what there is in Christ. His faith, by the enablement of the Spirit, moves from one promise to the other. And this process enables the believer to sense the nearness of Jesus, even although he is in heaven.

The last detail of a Christ-centred person that Paul mentions here is that such an individual is marked by gratitude to Jesus. We see Paul’s gratitude in his description of Jesus as the one ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ Surely we can see in Paul’s description both an expression of wonder and an expression of gratitude. Both, of course, are very personal. They reveal why Paul did not adopt the false ideas of the teachers of error who had disturbed the churches. The love of Jesus for Paul was eternal and the giving of Jesus for Paul was entire. Because that was true, Paul was a Jesus-centred Christian.

What now?

As we close, we can make some brief observations. Firstly, a Jesus-centred believer receives assurance because he is not grieving the Spirit who is working in his heart to teach him about Jesus and make him like Jesus. Such a believer knows that he has passed from death to life.

Secondly, a Jesus-centred believer is marked by adoration of God, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, for the incredible plan of salvation that is in existence, and which is being worked out in the lives of sinners as they become increasingly focussed on Jesus.

Thirdly, a Jesus-centred believer has one great aim, which was expressed by Paul in Philippians 3:10 as knowing Jesus more and more. This does not negate other aims, but it does govern them. The priority in his life is this incredible relationship with his Saviour, one that has begun in this life and which will continue in the next world.

Fourthly, connected to this assurance, adoration and aim is the desire to affirm to others that Jesus is precious. This is the case with regard to fellow-believers and with those who are not yet believers. Such affirming is part of who they are and is done in a gracious way. But Jesus-centred people will speak about him to others.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22)

Laodicea was located six miles from the city of Hierapolis, ten miles from the small town of Colosse, and about one hundred miles east of Ephesus. Christian churches existed in Hierapolis, Colosse and Laodicea by the date of Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome (Col. 4:13). He mentions in Colossians 4:15-16 that he had written a letter to the Laodicean church. 

Laodicea was noted for its activities, three  of which Jesus alludes to in his letter to the church. The three were a thriving wool industry, a famous school of medicine particularly for eye problems, and a financial system. The city was so wealthy that when it suffered great damage because of an earthquake in AD 60, it did not need outside help from the Empire for rebuilding. It was self-sufficient, which was a good thing for the city, but it illustrates the problem with the church – it was also self-sufficient.

Jesus describes himself
Jesus introduces himself as the ‘Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God’ (v. 14). We are used to saying amen in church services, mainly at the close of a prayer. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that one reason why believers should use amen is because of God’s promises centred in Jesus. The word is connected to truth and was used of God in the Old Testament (in Isaiah 65:16, where it is translated as God of truth). So Jesus reminds the church that he will speak the true words of God because he is God.

Jesus repeats this when he says that he is the faithful and true witness. A witness is someone who reports what he has seen. Because he is faithful and true, it  means that what Jesus will say about them will be accurate. There will be nothing in his criticism of their church life that will be untrue. At the same time, he will tell them what they have to do in order to receive his approval.

Perhaps some might have responded to his criticisms by saying that they were powerless to change. If that did happen, they could be reminded that Jesus possesses divine power, and they could see that power in the creation that he brought into existence.

Depending on one’s personal state, this description would have been either a threat or a comfort. It was a threat because it indicated that Jesus could remove their lampstand and they would cease to be a church. Yet it was a comfort to know that he had the power to resolve the situation, should they repent. The same options always apply.

The criticism by Jesus (vv. 15-17)
Jesus’ assessment of the church is that it is neither cold nor hot. In order to appreciate this point we need to know that a major lack in the city of Laodicea was a suitable water supply for is inhabitants. Nearby Hierapolis had hot springs famous for healing qualities and Colosse was known for its cool drinking water, but Laodicea did not have either. Instead water was carried from another location, via a six-mile long aqueduct that could not keep the water either hot or cold. This is the allusion in Christ’s statement that he would have them either cold or hot. 

These words do not refer to one’s spiritual temperature, in the sense of ‘hot’ being an ardent spiritual state and ‘cold’ indicating a backsliding state. Instead they describe the inability of the church to provide spiritual healing or spiritual refreshment for the city. Their contribution to the city was equivalent to the tepid water that flowed along the aqueduct. They should have been conveying the gospel of Christ to their community, but because of their lukewarm spiritual state they were incapable of being used by Christ and faced the real possibility of losing their candlestick, graphically illustrated in the Saviour’s threat to spew them out of his mouth. 

A second criticism that Jesus makes is that the church seems to have read their providences as a sign of God’s blessing rather than symptoms of  spiritual problems. They were doing very well in material things. Of course, possessions in themselves are neutral; the possession of them can be a sign of blessing or they can be a means of backsliding. But it is easy to assume that getting on well is a sign of God’s approval. 

There is no hint in the church in Laodicea of the problems encountered by the other six churches, such as persecution or false teaching. Rather the church was marked by self-sufficiency and complacency. So those to whom Christ was speaking were in a sad and potentially dangerous state – their spiritual ignorance had resulted in spiritual wretchedness, poverty, blindness and nakedness, with the looming prospect of their cessation as a church. But in his mercy the Lord Jesus draws near to the church.

The counsel of Christ (Rev. 3:17-20)
The Saviour uses various aspects of the city’s activities to illustrate the sad state of the church. First, Jesus alludes to the banking system when he urges the church members to buy gold from him in order to be truly rich. This is in contrast to the opinion of the Laodiceans of themselves, for they thought they were rich already. We are not told what Jesus’ promised wealth involved; perhaps it is a reference to spiritual blessings in general. Of course, when Jesus urges them to ‘buy gold’ from him, he is not suggesting that his blessings can be purchased by money; rather he is using the picture of trade that was common in the city.

Second, the wool industry is alluded to in Christ’s advice that they should buy from him fine raiment with which to clothe themselves. While this could be a reference to nakedness that requires the robe of righteousness given in justification, with the accompanying assumption that they needed to be converted, it more likely means righteousness in the sense of holiness of life. 

Third, the medical school is alluded to when Jesus tells them to buy from him eye salve in order for them to see clearly. They were spiritually blind to their poverty of Christian experience. In a sense, they were like the believers described in 2 Peter 1:9, who because of a lack of spiritual growth had become short-sighted, unable to see into the future. What the Saviour is promising to them is true spiritual vision, vision to see how to serve him and vision to look beyond the visible to heaven.

What about the posture of Jesus knocking at the door? Often this image of the Saviour knocking at the door is depicted as the Lord Jesus knocking in a gospel sense on the heart of a sinner. I do not think that fits with the context. Rather what we have here is the Master coming to deal with a church whose behaviour had brought it to the place where it was about to lose its place as a lampstand. 

The knocking indicates that Jesus is outside and not involved in the activities of the church. He has come demanding access to what they are doing. His demand is strong because he desires fellowship with his people. He was in no doubt that chastisement was needed, and therefore he calls on them to repent, a demand that Jesus also made of the churches in Ephesus (2:5), Pergumum (2:16), Thyatira (2:21-23), and Sardis (3:3).

Jesus takes the initiative in arranging their spiritual recovery. The reality is that unless God took the initiative and drew us back to himself we would not return. How thankful the penitent Laodiceans would have been later for the grace of the sovereign Saviour, for the restoring ministry of the Holy Spirit, and for the tender mercy of the Father.

The comfort of Jesus (Rev. 3:21)
In his promises to the overcomer in Laodicea, Jesus refers to both present and future blessings. To penitent believers who would welcome him into their midst Jesus gives a wonderful promise. Their spiritual restoration means that once again he is the provider of their spiritual food. Jesus uses the imagery of a meal to illustrate the spiritual warmth and intimacy that exists between him and his restored disciples. What ideas come to mind through this imagery of a shared meal?

It is possible that he is referring to the shared congregational meal (love feast) of which the Lord’s Supper was part. In those days, most Christian gatherings on the Lord’s Day would have included the Lord’s Supper, and that spiritual meal was designed as enabling communion between Jesus and his people in a special way. It was a visible reminder that he had given his life for them in order that they would have spiritual life.

Even if Jesus was not referring to the love feast, it is not difficult to work out what is depicted by the imagery of a meal. Usually, a host would invite his friends out of love, and his love would ensure he would provide the best for them. That is what Jesus does – he shares with his people what his activity on the cross has procured for them. He has numerous spiritual blessings to give.

This means that it was possible for those rebuked members to be restored to a life of spiritual fruitfulness. The outcome would be dedication to Jesus and ongoing growth in grace. Instead of being unreliable and worldly, they would become faithful. They could still live the kind of spiritual life that would get an eternal reward from Jesus. Truly amazing grace! Those who had been indifferent to his claims, but who repented of their sins, would share the throne of Jesus when the new world comes. 

Although the letter was sent to a specific church, it was also sent to other congregations. So it is legitimate to use this passage of scripture to assess our individual spiritual state and the condition of our local congregation.

First, there is reality of the Saviour’s searching of the churches. This means that he searches every congregation. We should join with the Psalmist and ask the Lord to search us to see if there are wicked ways in us (Psalm 139:23-24). Our prayer should be for spiritual reality.

Second, the letter to Laodicea reminds us of the danger of a congregation being blinded spiritually by materialism. These things can take first place in believers’ lives, and when that happens it will be evidenced by their lukewarmness in devotion to Jesus.

Third, the letter to Laodicea tells us that comprehensive restoration is given to believers when they repent of their sins. Forgiveness from God is a precious reality that opens the way to rich experiences of divine grace.

Fourth, Jesus assures the overcomers that they will be kings in the next world. This is an incredible future to look ahead to.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Should we worry that we’re worried? (Matthew 6:25-34)

Sometimes, we speak about steep learning curves, by which we mean that we discover there is more to a situation than we imagined beforehand. The disciples of Jesus were on such a curve as they gathered around Jesus. They had entered into the kingdom of God and were discovering that it was very different from what they had imagined. Perhaps the matter that surprised them most was Jesus’ emphasis on the inner life rather than on outward effects. We can see his focus on the inner life on each area he has mentioned so far in the Sermon on the Mount, and he continues that focus as he teaches about the matter of worry.

What is Jesus not speaking about?

Jesus here is not speaking about legitimate concerns that parents may have or employers may have or governments may have. It is important for people to worry about the demise of Christianity, about the future of our families, about finding areas of work, about the concerns of the government. A person who does not worry about such things is an escapist. Nor is Jesus speaking about individuals who may be praying about an issue in which there is potential danger. And he is not describing those who may worry from time to time about their assurance of salvation. Rather Jesus is warning about excessive worry that causes people to take certain steps in life. He does not seem to be describing someone who sits at home worrying about things, but doing nothing about it. Rather he is referring to those who worry about something and then take excessive steps to provide security for themselves.

What is most important?

Jesus asks his disciples to think about what is most important in life. Is life primarily about food and clothes? We can see that the disciples are being asked to prioritise between the physical and the spiritual. They might respond by saying they needed food to eat and clothes to wear, and could not be careless about them. If they said that, we would conclude that they had not listened to what Jesus had taught them in the Lord’s Prayer about mentioning their daily needs to God. It was the case that the Saviour had instructed his disciples to pray about such matters, yet it was only one of the petitions that he mentioned. Even the ratio in the Lord’s Prayer should have told them what was more important – the spiritual rather than the physical.

What does God do?

We cannot say if Jesus had the story of Job in mind when he referred here to two divine activities in the created order. Yet we know that God took puzzled Job on a tour of creation in order to deal with the issues that he had. If the passage about creation was not in the Book of Job, we probably would have regarded the suggestion of such a tour as rather trite, given the terrible experiences that Job had gone through. But that is what God did back then, and it is what Jesus does also when teaching his disciples about how not to worry excessively.

As we can see, Jesus refers to birds who are fed by God. It is important that Jesus is not suggesting inactivity because birds have to search for food every day, and sometimes it seems scarce. Yet the birds don’t begin the day worrying about their food – they expect to find it. They don’t know it, but the responsibility belongs to someone else, to God. Last Monday, we were driving out the road to Nairn. We passed a field in which a farmer was sowing. Behind his plough were hundreds of seagulls getting a meal. I don’t know what the farmer thought of that, but God in his providence gave some food to his feathered creatures. Oddly enough, we were on our way to a restaurant at the time, but it was a day later before I realised that God had provided food for three humans and about one hundred birds as well as countless other humans and lower creatures.

Can we learn lessons from animals? Jesus tells his disciples here to consider closely the birds, which indicates thoughtful attention. The Book of Proverbs tells us to learn from coneys and ants. Animals such as sheep are used to depict believers and lions and snakes are used to illustrate the actions of the devil. We are meant to learn from them because, in a sense, they are part of God’s school for his people.

I was watching a nature programme in which a buffalo had been grabbed at the rear by a lioness. Both the buffalo and the lioness were exerting a lot of energy, the buffalo trying to toss the lioness away and the lioness holding on until the buffalo became weak. Eventually the buffalo stopped trying to throw away the lioness, but the lioness held on. It looked all over, except the buffalo had stood still to recover some strength. A couple of minutes later it tossed the lioness away. Are there lessons from that incident? I imagined that here was a picture of a believer being attacked by the devil. Despite all the believer’s attempts nothing seems to happen. But then he takes stops and goes to God for more strength, and Peter tells us that if we resist the roaring lion he will flee away (as the lioness did).

Jesus points out that people often worry about things they cannot change. He mentions trying to add years to our lives. Who knows how long a person will live? God does, and the psalmist reminds us in Psalm 139 that all our days have been planned by God. The Father will provide, says Jesus, for the needs of his people every day. Why does he do so? Because his people mean something to him that the birds do not – after all, his people are his children.

It looks as if clothing was a big concern at that time. Unlike us, who tend to throw clothes away, good clothing then was a means of wealth and sometimes such clothing was handed on as family heirlooms. The problem in their attitude seems to have been worrying about what clothes they would have in a few years’ time. Does God care about clothes in this sense? Jesus refers to what God does with the lilies. It is possible that Jesus referred to the features of lilies such as their colour (white) and shape (bowed head) to remind disciples of what should be seen in them. The colour white points to righteousness and the bowed head to humility.

The point is that God spends a lot of care on something whose existence is short-lived. Probably, the disciples should have deduced that God would show greater care for them every day. It is inconceivable that he would express greater concern for short-lived flowers. Worry reveals what we think God’s priorities are not – it is an expression of distrust towards his commitment to meet the needs of his people.

Jesus highlights the root of the problem when he describes his disciples as ‘little faith’. It is important to realise that this name expresses his love and not his anger. After all, it was true faith that they had showed when they became disciples. But no-one has great faith when they are first converted. Inevitably they all have a lot to learn, and the most important focus in their learning should be on God and his promises.

Who normally worries about such things?

Jesus then pointed out that usually it was pagans who lived in such a way. What marked the Gentiles at that time was their ignorance of God. Unlike Jews, who had a knowledge of God through his Word and their history, the Gentiles knew nothing about him. So it is not surprising that they reacted with worry. After all, the world is full of dangers.

In contrast, the disciples of Jesus had ample reasons for thinking differently. As Jews, they would have known what God had done for Israel as detailed in the Old Testament. Jesus, however, wants them to think about life through the relationship that they have with God – he is not only the Creator, he is not only the powerful liberator of a nation, but he is their heavenly Father who knows what his people need and who knows how to provide them.

What is the conclusion?

Worry becomes a problem when it prevents us from engaging in what should be our priority. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God must have priority. He does not say that those he has in mind should seek for the kingdom of God, which is how one would describe a person who was not a disciple. So he reminds his disciples that this should be their priority.

Why does he use the imagery of seeking? In answering this question, we can ask how a subject of monarch would seek what his ruler desired. The answer is that the subject should obey the rules of the kingdom out of love for the king. He will recognise that those rules have been devised for the benefit of the kingdom. We can easily see how that would apply to subjects of King Jesus. So here are four requirements that our King spells out for his followers.

The first requirement is that his disciples should speak to him and to his Father. Jesus has already mentioned the importance of prayer in what we call the Lord’s Prayer and he will mention other details about prayer in the next chapter. As we can see from what he taught, speaking to him should be simple and spiritual.

A second way of seeking first the kingdom is that his disciples show love for and to the other members of his kingdom. After all, the kingdom that he came to set up is one that is marked by love. This mutual love will be displayed in numerous ways, but each expression is a sign that those involved are seeking first the kingdom of God.

A third way of doing this is that the followers of Jesus should oppose those who resist the advance of the kingdom of Jesus. Behind those who try this are the powers of darkness. The disciples of Jesus are conscious that they are involved in a spiritual battle that requires them to be alert always to the possibility of spiritual attack. And when it happens, usually through false teaching, they will refuse to accept what is being said.

And a fourth way of seeking first the kingdom of God is by working to extend its influence. They know that this takes place through the spread of the gospel. In a sense, spreading the gospel can be summarised as speaking about the King of the kingdom. No doubt, many people from Britain like to speak about the queen when they are describing life in Britain. Some may not, but they cannot be described as those who are furthering her interests. In the kingdom of Jesus, all his subjects delight to speak about him in ways suitable to the circumstance they find themselves in.

Jesus provides special assurance here when he promises his disciples that living for the kingdom does mean that they will find themselves without future needs being met. He assures them that their food and clothing – depicting whatever they need for life in this world – will be provided for them. This promise liberates them to serve Jesus wherever they are without worrying about the future.
Preached on 5/3/2017

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Things That Matter (Matthew 6:19-24)

If we were to conduct a poll on what are the biggest hindrances to authentic Christianity in our society, I wonder what people would say. Perhaps they would mention love of pleasure. Of course, all pleasure is not wrong unless it is one’s goal in life. Many people live for the weekend because that is the time when they imagine they will become happy, and they look forward to escaping from the drudgery of life, as they see it. And there are what Peter calls the pleasures of sin, which no Christian should get involved in.

What else would be regarded as hindrances? Some might say that changes in our society caused by people of other faiths coming to live in our country is dangerous because they can influence people and turn them away from Christianity. Of course, such a response forgets that true Christians will not become followers of religions that don’t exalt Jesus. In fact, the arrival of such people is really an opportunity for evangelism, so we cannot say that their presence is dangerous at the moment.

Another potential hindrance is the dramatic growth in secularism, which is influencing all kinds of changes in our society. Within the last few years, Christianity has almost disappeared from public life and it is generally assumed that a sane person would never believe in the Bible. Of course, real Christianity lost its influence decades ago. Now evangelical Christians and churches are on the fringe, excluded from expressing their faith, except to one another. No doubt, the rise of secularism makes it harder to be a Christian. Still, it is the response of Christians that will indicate whether or not secularism is a hindrance. If it succeeds in getting us to be silent, then it is a hindrance.

What did Jesus say in this sermon would be a hindrance to authentic discipleship? In the verses we are going to consider, he mentions a focus on accumulating possessions as being a hindrance. Our version mentions money as the problem, but since people in the first century did not live with much money, the word means more than cash. Rather, Jesus refer to things. At first glance, we may wonder why he decided to speak about this issue at that time. I suppose the answer is obvious. We live in a world where it is impossible to escape from things. It looks as if materialism in a first century form was regarded by him as dangerous for his disciples, and no doubt its twenty-first century form is also dangerous.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus deals with many issues connected to discipleship. We have noticed the characteristics of true disciples (the Beatitudes), the effects they have in the world (salt and light), the focus on heart change within them, and the method of practising spiritual disciplines (secretly in the presence of God). We would not be too surprised at Jesus mentioning them. The next two topics – things and worry – might surprise us. Yet they have something in common and that is that people like to hold on to both.

Biblical examples

It is important to observe that Jesus does not say that it is wrong to have possessions, but he does say that it is possible to have wrong ideas about them. After all, there are many rich believers in the Bible whose lives are commended. Abraham, Job, Joseph of Arimathea and Philemon are such examples. So it is not the actual possession of things that are the problem.

To illustrate this, we can think of two rich people that Jesus met. One was the rich young ruler, a man with some desires to follow Jesus. Yet when he heard that Jesus demanded authority over the rich man’s possessions and what he should do with them, the rich man preferred to keep his wealth for himself. The other individual was Zacchaeus, a man who certainly loved money before his conversion. But he met Jesus and became a disciple, and the first thing he did was to start giving money to the poor and repaying what he stolen. Jesus was delighted and called him a son of Abraham, the rich man.

Or we can think of other contrasting examples, this time in the Book of Acts. One is Barnabas, a rich man from Cyprus, who sold a field in order to help those in need. It is not surprising that other Christians called him the son of consolation because he helped many. In contrast to him, there was Ananias and Sapphira, who pretended to give money to the Lord’s cause, but who actually kept it, and were judged severely for doing so.

The point I am making is obvious. Some used their possessions wisely and became a blessing to people they helped. Some kept it for themselves and lost out. And that is what Jesus says here when he says that his disciples should not lay up treasures for themselves on earth.

Obviously, for some people, the accumulation of possessions becomes the priority of their lives. Sadly, they are never satisfied with what they have. Even more sad is the fact that they are going to lose them all. We know that is the case. How much does Carnegie have now? Moreover, even when they have earthly riches, they worry about what is going to happen to them and to their possessions. Having a lot does not always mean having a lot of comfort or a lot of pleasure. It can mean a lot of stress.

Jesus does not want his disciples to have no spiritual treasure when they die. Yet they will only have such treasure if they engage in certain activities throughout their lives. He takes the example of people who strive for earthly riches and says to his disciples that they should show as much interest in accumulating heavenly treasure.

Storing heavenly riches

How do they do so? A simple but correct answer would be to say that they engage in the various features that Jesus has already mentioned in this sermon. By doing them, his disciples will store up treasures in heaven. So we can think about that briefly.

The first example is almsgiving. Who were the people helping when they gave alms? Usually it was their fellow Jews. They were helping those that they knew were depending on God to meet their needs. I think Jesus expects his people who have assets to help those of his people who do not have any. This is the thrust of his parable about the sheep and the goats. In that parable, Jesus speaks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so on. He even says that when they did so, they were doing it to him, a reminder of the union that believers have with Jesus.

This does not mean that they should not give to other needy people. Jesus on one occasion told a parable about inviting guests to a feast. He said not to invite those who can invite you back but to invite those who cannot. Then he said that if his disciples did this they would be recompensed at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:12-14).

The second example was prayer. We saw last time that one feature of the Lord’s Prayer is to pray about the progress of God’s kingdom. As far as praying about people is concerned, there are two options. We can pray for those we know and we can pray for those we don’t know. Imagine standing there at the Day of Judgement and discovering that your prayers brought about the conversions of people in other parts of the world. Perhaps on a certain day, you found yourselves wanting to pray for people in a certain place, and then you forgot about it. But on the great day you discover that on that previous day many people were converted, and that Jesus brought them to conversion through a preacher or whatever method, and that he did not do so until he had led you and others to pray about it. I suspect that Jesus does not lead us to do such a specific thing unless we are in the habit of praying earnestly for the progress of his kingdom everywhere. Such types of prayer are an incredible way of storing up heavenly treasure.

Of course, they are not only types of prayer connected to progress in the kingdom. Another way of growth is personal spiritual development. We pray about such matters in ourselves, but we also pray about things that we see in other people. I would suggest that is one reason why God reveals such details to you. Have you ever wondered why other people don’t see an issue in someone that is obvious to you? God is giving you an opportunity to store up heavenly riches by praying for that individual and his or her defect. Of course, you should not mention it to them by saying something like, ‘I am praying about your bad temper.’ Such a way of speaking is probably a statement of pride. But just take the matter to the heavenly banker and wait to see how much treasure has been laid up.

If we stay with the items mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, we will see that one of them concerned the willingness of Christ’s disciples to forgive one another. Forgiving in this way is an expression of brotherly love and it is the case that deeds of brotherly love will be rewarded. Jesus said that if a disciple gives a cup of cold water to another disciple he will be rewarded (Mark 9:41). There are many other ways of showing brotherly love, and they will all produce treasure in heaven.

The third discipline that Jesus mentioned was setting aside time from legitimate things (fasting) in order to enjoy the presence of God. When someone does that properly, Jesus told him or her not to hide the joy. Imagine the effect that a happy man has on his contacts. Many of them are looking for happiness in earthly treasures, and he is showing them that greater joy is found in knowing God. And the more he does that, the more treasures he has in heaven.

Love of possessions indicates selfishness

The opposite of storing heavenly treasures is not so much the amassing of earthly treasures but the collecting of earthly treasure by someone for himself. In other words, he is selfish and his self-centredness expresses itself in ongoing covetousness. Such a person only lives for himself. In doing so, he has made himself a slave – of money. Because he already has a master, he cannot serve God.

Love of possessions indicates spiritual darkness

Jesus uses an illustration to highlight the problem. He says that the eye is the lamp of the body by which he means that what we look out affects our body. If our eye looks at evil things (earthly treasures), it will make us spiritually dark. But if our eye looks at good things (heavenly treasures), it will give us spiritual light. I suppose he is indicating that those with the wrong attitude lose spiritual vision.

Love of possessions is un-Christlike

After all, when it comes down to it, who had, or has, the most possessions? The answer to that person is Jesus because he is the heir of all things. He can look at everything each of us has and say about them, ‘They actually belong to me.’ But what does he do with all that he has? He uses it for the benefit of others. That is what is meant by grace.

Love of possessions means we are not stewards

A basic question that each believer has and each of us has is, ‘Why do I have what I have?’ That question is not confined to possessions, of course. The answer is that Jesus has made us stewards of what we have and we have to use it for his glory.

The Benefits of the Presence of God (Psalm 73:28-36)

It is obvious from the preceding verses in the psalm that the author had gone through a period of great difficulty in which he had been disappointed and perplexed about what had taken place. Verse 17 indicates that relief only came when he spent time at the temple. He went there to get his perspective on life changed. This is a reminder that it is possible to assess life from inadequate viewpoints. In times of trouble, we need to select the best viewpoint, and that is to see where God is and what he is doing. The psalmist did this eventually and in the verses we will consider we read about what he saw.

This psalm is a reminder that the Bible does not conceal the wrong ideas and suspicions that believers can have at times. Asaph was not an ordinary believer (if there is such a person), but a prominent one, with important public roles in the worship of God as a priest and psalmist.

The psalm is an example of how to wrestle through situations that cause us to doubt the providence of God and his care over his people. Denying the existence of God was not an issue for Asaph. But he had problems with what he saw taking place around him. ‘What was God doing?’ was the question. No doubt, that is a problem still for people, and if we find ourselves there we can use this psalm as a means of grace to express our thoughts and to find help.

Several commentaries mention that Charles Wesley, on his deathbed, was thinking about the closing verses of the psalm, especially the verse that describes the psalmist’s fainting and frailty. Wesley even at that stage could write poetry and composed this verse:

In age and feebleness extreme,
Who shall a helpless worm redeem?
Jesus, my only hope thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart;
O, could I catch one smile from thee,
And drop into eternity.

His biography says he became unconscious shortly after dictating the verse.

I want to focus on the closing verses of the psalm and point to some of the thoughts that Asaph had.

The faithfulness of God

The first detail that the psalmist mentions is the faithfulness of God. Asaph realises that the Lord is with him wherever he goes, and is with him throughout each moment. The Lord’s presence did not depend on the strength of the psalmist’s faith because previous verses show that at time he was wavering. We make a mistake about this often, imagining that the Lord only supports us when our faith is strong. Instead we need to remind ourselves that he remains faithful even to someone whose faith for a time is shaky and weak.

In what way did the psalmist realise that the Lord was with him? He mentions that the Lord was his personal guide. The nearness of the relationship us expressed in the image of the Lord holding the psalmist’s hand. At the same time, the picture indicates that the Lord was speaking to his servant, probably by reminding him of instructions found in the Old Testament books that were available. The holding and the guiding would last all the way through life until the psalmist reached heaven. And when he reached there, he knew that he would be welcomed into glory.

That was an incredible perspective for this previously-troubled man to experience. The question that comes to us is not only if we can have it, but if we can have a better one. Right away, our answer should be yes, that we can have a clearer perspective, and the reason that we can is because of Jesus. He promised his disciples that he would be with them in a special way by the Holy Spirit, he informed them that nothing could remove them from the grip that he and the Father had on them, he assured them that the Holy Spirit would reveal to them the information required for living for God in this world, and he promised them that he himself would welcome them into his Father’s house, the place of glory. This is the perspective that we can have, that we should have, as we gather together in the presence of God and look at where we are in life.

The preciousness of God

The psalmist then says to God that he is his highest possession. He considers the inhabitants of heaven – there are the angels and the souls of God’s people – and says that God means more to him than they do. No doubt, he was aware of the fact that God sends angels to help his people in scores of ways, and maybe he could deduce occasions when that must have happened with him. Still, the Lord meant more to him than all the angels.

Asaph would also be aware of some of the believers who had gone to heaven: the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Moses and Aaron; Joshua and the various judges whom God had used; David his fellow psalmist; and many others, including close friends and family members. He had a strong love for them, but he loved the Lord more.

Then the psalmist considered the situation on earth. He was gathered with others in the sanctuary of God, but he loved God more than them. His description extends to more than to people. He includes all the beautiful and precious things of earth and says that his desire for God is stronger than his desire for anything else.

Why does he feel this way? We can mention two reasons. One is connected to the fact that he was God’s creature and that he had been made to know God as his highest delight. The other reason is linked to him being an Israelite, which meant that he regarded himself as one who belonged to the redeemed community, rescued by God from slavery in Egypt.

We can see why we should be able to say that we desire Jesus more than anyone or anything else. It is true that we should do so because we are his creatures and we were made to know him. And it is also the case that we should find him very desirable because he is the Redeemer who liberated us from our sins by his death on the cross. It is inconceivable that a Christian would prefer anything in heaven and in earth higher than the Saviour.

The power of God

The psalmist had gone through a very difficult experience that had affected him physically and emotionally. Various kinds of fears had been endured. He admits that he had not been able to endure the strain; he had realised that he was not a spiritual superman, untouched by the pressures of life. Yet he had discovered that someone did not change in all the changing circumstances of life and that was God. Asaph realised that God was with him in the present and would be so forever.

The apostle Paul reveals that he had fears within. There were moments when he too felt the weakness of his body and of his heart. Yet he knew what the real situation was when he also said that he could do all things through the one who strengthened him, his Saviour and Lord (Phil. 4:13). He exhorted the Ephesians to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.

Moreover, Asaph discovered that a difficult present experience did not mean an uncertain future. There could be many things that he would lose if the wicked became powerful. Yet he had God as his portion for ever. We could say that the Lord was his chosen and his certain portion. Similarly, believers today can have the same outlook as Asaph had, with regard to Jesus. He is their chosen and certain portion whatever happens in the meantime.

The judgement of God

His time in the sanctuary had convinced Asaph that the period of prominence for the wicked will not last long. Eventually, God would deal with them in judgement. They live far away from God, but not so far that his punishments will not reach them eventually. Even in this life, they will discover that God will deal with them. Perhaps Asaph had seen such things in Israel.

We too have to remember that Jesus is the ultimate Judge. One day he will be revealed as such when everyone will stand before him at the Great White Throne. That will be an awful occasion for those who will receive condemnation from him, condemnation that will last for ever.

The conclusion of Asaph

Asaph has been on a roller-coaster experience in which his faith has been tested. Yet although it was such a difficult time, he realised that it had actually helped him because he had discovered that faith in God will become stronger through such experiences. He had discovered that it was good for him to draw near to God. We have already mentioned some of the things that he had discovered.

The conclusion we can summarise in two words – trust and tell about. Asaph expresses his trust in the words ‘my refuge’. He had discovered where he should go if he had another period of crisis about his faith in God. Moreover, he now had something to tell to other people, which was that the Lord would help them in times of distress. And he knew too that temporary prosperity and satisfaction could not meet the needs of the human heart.