Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Path Ahead (Philippians 1:19-26)

Philippians has been called the ‘Epistle of Joy’ because of the number of times Paul refers to the topic of rejoicing. Although he was in a difficult and uncertain situation due to his imprisonment in Rome, he wanted to inform his friends that he was still a happy man. Moreover, he wanted them to know the reasons why he was a happy man and in this set of verses from his letter he mentions some of them. We might be surprised at what Paul mentions, but if we are, we need to ask some questions about ourselves. The reasons why Paul was a happy man are connected to Jesus. It was in Christ that the apostle found his joy.

In order to understand Paul’s particular reasons, we should remind ourselves that he was due to face a trial in the imperial court that would decide whether or not he lived or died. He refers to this set of outcomes when he mentions that his appearance there might result in a death sentence being pronounced against him. Although that negative verdict was possible, and a few years later he did receive such a verdict (as he describes in his final letter, 2 Timothy), at the time of writing he was optimistic for a release and he tells his friends why that will be the case. And as he describes his circumstances, we can sense his joy.

The power of prayer
One thing that stands out in the outlook of Paul is his confidence in prayer. Prayer to God by the apostle was a constant activity and he had earlier mentioned his prayers for the Philippians. Now, however, he wants to focus on the prayers of the Philippians for his deliverance. Here he shows that he believes prayer can affect the decisions of the highest people in society.  
From one point of view, to engage in prayer for someone is to have a fellow-feeling with that individual regarding whatever situation that person is in. We normally pray because we feel that the issue is important. But if that was all that prayer could do, it would not have much effect – it would only be an expression of sympathy. Much more is needed, and Paul states what it is when he adds to the reality of prayer its outcome, which is that spiritual help is received from heaven. What comes from heaven to Paul is ‘the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ’. We will think it a moment of what that help could have included, but one aspect of the help that we can see is that the Spirit was helping Paul to write an infallible letter that would encourage the people of God throughout the future.
‘The help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ’ is a wonderful summary of what happens when real prayer is made. What does this help include? Jesus is the ruler of all things and he decides what happens with regard to those who trust in him, with the instrument that he uses being the Holy Spirit. Why was Paul in prison? Several answers can be given. Jesus wanted Paul to be a witness and he would need the Spirit for that task. Jesus had wanted to use Paul there to convey spiritual blessings to unlikely recipients and the apostle had been able to do so because he had been helped by the Spirit. 
Yet we should observe that Paul links the presence of the Spirit with him to the prayers of the Philippians. This is a reminder of a very basic Christian reality, one to which many promises are connected. We can pray to God to give the Spirit in a special way to those who need him in a particular situation. Paul needed the help of the Spirit not just to bring the gospel to those he met through his imprisonment, but also to enable him to remain true to the gospel when he appeared in court because of his commitment to the gospel. We can see that his burden was that he would not be ashamed of the gospel when his trial commenced, and he knew that he could not depend on his abilities and strength of character. He required divine help in all that happened to him and through him.
The lesson for us is that when we pray for one another we should ask God to send the Spirit to help in our situations. Some situations are obvious, and they can involve what we call saving grace and common grace. Paul needed saving and sanctifying grace to witness for Jesus and those judging him needed common grace when assessing the situation. 
Bringing the matter back to ourselves, for what areas in life should we be asking for the help of the Spirit. Here are some examples. We can pray that parents would have the Spirit as they work to bring up their children and that the children would be given the Spirit. Or we can pray that the Spirit would be given to those who teach God’s Word. But we can pray that the Spirit would be given as we engage in personal devotions. And we can pray that the Spirit would be given to help individuals in times of stress, when decisions have to be made. We can easily see that there are many situations in which our prayers for the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ are the main activity in which we can express brotherly love.

The prospect of heaven
Paul knew that the roads ahead of him out of the Roman prison had only two worthwhile destinations. One road, which would be decided by the judge, was that Paul should die. Paul looked down that road and said that it would for him be something much better. He does not mean only that heaven is better than a prison, he also means that heaven is better than everything that earth can provide. In Paul’s case, heaven was better than his life as a preacher of the gospel.
This leads us to ask why Paul thought heaven would be better? His answer is a very simple one – it would be better because he would be with Christ. Nothing on earth could compare with that. So we can think briefly as to why being with Christ in heaven would be better for Paul. Of course, Paul is not suggesting that this outlook is only for him. Rather he is saying that this should be the normal Christian outlook. 
Indeed, we know that Jesus prayed for this when he requested in the prayer recorded in John 17 that his people should be with him, and we also know that this experience is what he promised to the penitent thief when saying that he would be with him in Paradise. And it is a very challenging question for us to ask ourselves: ‘What do we make of this reason?’
There are what we can describe as secondary reasons for believers wanting to go to heaven. They would include the prospect of reunion with family members and friends, or the prospect of being sinless personally, or the pleasure of finding ourselves in a sin-free environment without the possibility of it being destroyed again. We can want to go to heaven in order to get away from the temptations of the devil or from the harassments of people opposed to the kingdom of God. There is nothing wrong with such reasons, but they are not mentioned here by Paul when he says that heaven is very much better.
Instead, the primary reason given by the apostle is that he will be with Jesus. So let us try and see if we can see why Paul would say this? Obviously, in heaven he would be with Jesus as far as proximity is concerned. The Bible does not indicate how close believers will be to one another in heaven, but it does say that all of them will be close to Jesus. It is not a mere physical nearness that Paul is anticipating here such as what he will enjoy after the resurrection. Rather, there is special contact with Christ in the heavenly state that exceeds anything he could have known on earth.
We can also deduce that Paul would be with Jesus as far as his personality is concerned. What can be said about Paul as a person? Normally we consider personhood as including rationality, emotions and choices. Obviously, we can be enthusiastic in each of these areas. They reveal who we are in a real way. It is obvious that Paul had a very big mind, yet he also knew that as far as knowing Jesus was concerned he knew very little of the greatest person in existence. Moreover, Paul was a very expressive person emotionally – he speaks a lot about love, about joy, about peace, and he had known them all in some measure. Also, Paul had been faced with many choices and they had led him into situations where he discovered aspects of divine grace. Yet he knew that as a person he had not fully appreciated what it was for him to have been made in the image of God and to use his mind, his emotions and his will to the fullest manner. And he knew that he would never do so until he was in the presence of Jesus.
Why did Paul want to be with Jesus? One reason would be that the greatness of Jesus and another reason would be the personal benefits that Paul would know, benefits that he had begun to taste while here on earth, but the fullness of which awaited him when he would be with Christ and enjoy his blessings.

The priority of providence
Yet as we have seen, there was another possible road for Paul to travel down, a road that would not be easy. It would still be beneficial for him because he points out that it would be ‘fruitful labour’ in the service of Christ. What does he mean by ‘fruitful’? I suppose he could have in mind the effects of his activities in the lives of other people as he had known in the lives of those in Rome whom he had influenced. Or he could have in mind the reward that he would get in heaven when he would eventually get there.
So despite his own personal preference of going to heaven, it was this second road that he was convinced would happen and which he should choose. This second road would involve Paul being released from prison and resuming his travels in preaching the gospel. At some stage on these travels he would once again find himself in Philippi with the beloved church there. 
How did Paul come to this conclusion? He still knew that it may not happen, so he did not possess infallible knowledge. He would have prayed about the matter and thought deeply about it according to biblical principles. Sometimes, we forget that this is the usual way in which the Lord guides his people.
No doubt, that would have been a wonderful time when Paul and the Philippians did meet, and together they would engage in praising God as they thought about the different ways his grace had been revealed in their lives.

Here are three brief responses for us to think about. First, we can note the simplicity and spirituality of prayer. While it is good to be specific in prayer, we recognise that there will be situations when that is not possible. But it is always appropriate to ask that people would receive the Holy Spirit.
Second, what is the value that we place on Jesus and being with him? It is easy to see why Paul wanted to be with Jesus and the position the Saviour had in the apostle’s affections. Yet, it is a challenging question for us to think about honestly.
Third, what place do other Christians have in our thinking when we make decisions about our futures? Paul was prepared to stay out of heaven and be of help to them, if that was the Lord’s will. 

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Two Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 21:33–22:14)

Jesus continues to confront the chief priests and Pharisees about their opposition to his kingdom. In the parable of the tenants, he speaks about how they responded to him and the in the parable of the wedding feast he describes how people will respond to the message of the kingdom delivered by his servants.

The Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-45)
In this parable, Jesus speaks about a vineyard, its tenants, a series of servants sent by the owner of the vineyard, and the son of the vineyard owner. It is not difficult for us to work out who is being depicted here. The owner is God the Father, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the Israelites, the servants are the prophets, and the Son is Jesus. What is said about them?

Regarding God the Father, he created a vineyard with all that was necessary for it to be a fruitful place. He did not relinquish ownership of the vineyard, which is a reminder that it never belonged to the tenants, the Israelites. The vineyard was always his property, which means that he could do what he wished with it.

The tenants failed to provide fruit for the owner. This was the consistent contribution of the Israelites down the centuries towards the Lord. Although God had been very good to them in letting them live in the Promised Land, they usually forgot that it came from him through his grace.

The owner in the parable continued to send messengers to the tenants about their responsibilities. Prophets were usually in the public eye during periods of great backsliding in Israel and they delivered a message of warning as well as an invitation to repent and turn back to God. The response of the Israelites was to reject the messages of the true prophets that God sent to them. Moreover, they often responded violently towards those prophets.

Eventually, the owner sent his son, and the implication in the parable is that he is the only son, which is a reminder of the dignity of Jesus. The tenants knew who he was and killed him, imagining that if they did so they would receive the inheritance. The obvious consequence would be that the tenants would be punished by the owner. 

With this consequence the Pharisees and chief priests agreed, even saying that the tenants would be replaced by others. They did not realise that they were saying that the Israelites would lose the kingdom and that it would be given to other peoples who would treat God’s vineyard differently.

Jesus the cornerstone (Matthew 21:33-45)
Jesus took the Pharisees and others to a verse in Psalm 118. This psalm probably was being discussed by the people because it was sung at Passover time and because it had been referred to by the crowd when they happily followed Jesus into the city on Palm Sunday, a short time previously.

When the temple was being built, a stone which had previously been rejected turned out to be suitable as the cornerstone that held the foundation together. The people at the time regarded this as a wonderful evidence of the Lord’s provision for his people because obviously the cornerstone was very important. Jesus takes that incident and says he is the fulfilment of the rejected stone.

In his application, he says that God will take the kingdom away from the Israelites and give it to those who will bring forth fruit for God. This is what happened. Since Calvary, and it was only a few days away, and the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the kingdom of God has taken on a new appearance. Now it is found everywhere on earth and in it Jews and Gentiles are equal membership. They are the stones held together by the cornerstone and they produce the fruit that the God desires.

Moreover, those who reject Jesus will be damaged – such are likened to those who fall on a stone and suffer injury, and who will also be punished by him (Isa. 8:14-15) – he will fall on them in a manner like to what occurs when a large stone crushes a person. The Pharisees recognised that he was speaking about them, but that did not mean they recognised he was God’s Son. Instead they wanted to get rid of him, but they were wary of the people because they regarded Jesus as a prophet. They could not get rid of him easily as long as the people had this attitude. 

Obviously, the primary focus of this parable is Israel and its religious leaders at the time of Jesus. Yet there are some applications that can be extended to other times and places. 

First, there is only one vineyard. At that time, it was Israel, but now it has extended beyond that place and people. Second, the workers are only tenants and if they don’t do what the Owner wants, he can replace them, which has happened in numerous places down the centuries. Third, the patience of God is revealed in the number of servants he sends to where his kingdom is found and it is common for them to be mistreated. Fourth, what always matters is the response to Jesus and his message. 

The parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-10)
In this story, Jesus refers to a king, his son, a wedding feast, servants of the king, several invitations, and an inappropriately dressed person who experiences severe punishment. Matthew say that Jesus spoke in parables, so maybe we are meant to see two parables here, one about the wedding feast and one about the clothing to wear at the feast.

The kingdom of heaven is compared to invitations to a royal wedding. The date of the wedding has been fixed, but the participants at the feast are uncertain. This uncertainty is part of the parable and does not mean that God does not know who will be in heaven. Instead, the occasion is being viewed from the perspective of those invited.

The method of invitation is for the king to send his servants to invite people to the wedding. Obviously, a royal invitation carries a great deal of authority. Nevertheless, those invited refuse to attend. Those initially invited are asked twice, but they put their own interests ahead of the king’s invitation and killed his servants. Those initially invited are the people of Israel.

Between those set of invitations and the later set, Jesus says that the king will punish those who first refused their invitations by punishing their city. While this detail may not have been noticed by the original listeners as being of any significance in the story, it is hard for us not to think of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and note that Jesus was giving a prophecy here inside the parable. 

Then the king sent the invitation to the wedding to everyone that his servants could find. Clearly, the invitation is the gospel and in the gospel there is an invitation to come and experience the love of the Saviour. We should note that the invitation is given to both the good and the bad. In other words, all could be given the invitation. Unlike the response of the Israelites, the response of the Gentiles will ensure that the wedding reception will be full of guests.

In many ways, the meaning of this parable is obvious. But we can observe a few details. First, all the refusals will not prevent the wedding reception being full. Second, the invitation is given genuinely. The Son will be delighted by all who accept his Father’s invitation, which can be summarised in John 3:16. Third, it is the duty of those with the invitation to go to where the people are. We can and should invite people that we know and don’t know. Many are Christians today because people who did not know them spoke to them about Jesus.

The foolish guest (Matthew 22:11-14)
Jesus speaks about a man who was inappropriately dressed at the wedding feast. The point of the special garment is that clothes at a wedding were provided by the host. When they were provided by a king we can be sure that such clothes would be the best to wear. For someone to choose their own clothes instead of the host’s provision is a statement of defiance and an indication of no love for the king or his son. We can imagine someone coming who thought his or her attire was just as good as what they thought the king would provide. 

It was obviously a serious offence that the man had committed, which we can see was the case from the punishment meted out to him. The point is that the man was dressed for the wrong place but he found himself sent to the location for which he was dressed.

The questions that arise from this section of the parable are (1) ‘What did Jesus mean by a wedding garment?’, (2) ‘What alternative garment could we choose?’ and (3) ‘What did Jesus mean when he was speaking about the punishment that the king would give?’ 

The punishment is what the Bible often refers to as the destiny of the wicked. From the parable, we can see that it is a deprivation of liberty (tied hand and foot), it is loneliness (cannot see someone else in a place of complete darkness), it is distant (outer darkness), and it is sorrowful where the only sounds are expressions of remorse and despair (weeping and gnashing of teeth). We must remind ourselves that it is Jesus who says that this is their destiny.

What garment is a person liable to think good enough for wearing at the Son’s wedding? Something he spent a long time putting together himself such as a life of good works, and this a garment that many people imagine will be suitable for being allowed into heaven. But it will not.

The garment that the man should have been wearing is the righteousness of Christ. Often salvation in the Bible is depicted in the form of new clothing. This garment of righteousness is personal (given to us), perfect and permanent. At an earthly wedding, no-one expects the guests to wear for the rest of their lives the clothes they wear to the wedding. At the heavenly wedding, the garments given are designed to be worn for ever.

The explanation of Jesus (Matthew 22:14)
Jesus, in this verse, mentions that ‘few’ are chosen. He probably is not referring to the final number of the saved because they will be a number that no-one can count (Rev. 7:9). So it looks as if he is referring to the number of people who accepted the gospel around the time of his ministry on earth. 

Whether that is the case or not, we can see that Jesus was prepared to speak about the doctrine of election and not hide it from the consideration of his listeners. At other times, he mentioned election when he was giving an invitation to trust in him, such as in John 6:37.

Why do so many people refuse the gospel? In the parable, all kinds of people were invited to the wedding and they illustrate those who are called through the gospel message. Many answers could be given to the question as to why they refuse, but a better question is, ‘Why do some accept the gospel?’ Jesus tells us that those whom God has chosen beforehand will believe the gospel.

What does this mean for us? It does not mean that we should assume we or others are not chosen, because that is information that is impossible for us to know. Nor does it mean that we should become fatalistic about the possibility of salvation. Instead, it is another reminder from the Bible that we are responsible to make our calling and election sure, as Peter reminded his readers in 2 Peter 1:10.