Sunday, 21 May 2017

Discovering Again Who Jesus Is (Matt. 8:23-27)

Life with Jesus must have been full of surprises for his followers. I suspect the disciples were anticipating a surprising experience on this occasion, although the one they went through was probably not the one they had anticipated. What would have been the surprise they imagined? They knew they were going over the lake to Gentile areas, as we can see from verse 28. Perhaps they imagined Jesus doing incredible works there and bringing in lots of new followers to the Jewish faith. Jesus had something else in mind for them.

At a more mundane level, they might have expected a smooth sail. After all, it was very calm when they set out. The description of the storm indicates that it was not expected. So in God’s providence the disciples did not get what they would have expected and did get what was unexpected. And I suspect Matthew is saying, ‘Welcome to the unexpected life of discipleship that the followers of Jesus have!’

Yet we must observe that Jesus did not abandon them when the going became tough. He remained with them throughout the period of trouble. Each of the disciples could observe that Jesus was with them. He was not present in a kind of hidden way that would require a great deal of searching before they could find him. Granted his method of being present may not have pleased them – he was asleep – but still he was there. Better to have a Jesus who is asleep than not to have him, is what Matthew is saying.

Jesus was leaving the crowd behind. He had taught many people and he had helped many people in Capernaum. I suppose the question could have been asked as to whether Jesus did anything with only his disciples present. Did they need to have special moments with him? Obviously, Jesus wanted that to happen, and was about to happen when they were out on the boat. Matthew is about to show his readers that disciples need space to see the abilities of Jesus.

There is another obvious lesson from what happened in the boat and that is that Jesus did not do what the disciples were expected to do. He did not take a turn in rowing the boat even although things were hard for them. Sometimes we can give the impression that Jesus should do everything instead of us doing what we should do. We may ask Jesus to bless the gospel in our community, but he may expect us to tell people about it and then he will bless it.

The sweet rest
Matthew tells us that Jesus was asleep in the boat. Why? An obvious answer to that question is the possibility that he was tired from all the exertions that he had engaged in recently. Matthew did highlight the emotional cost in Jesus’ ministry when he said that the Saviour took our illnesses and bore our diseases, with the sad aspects of that pain being to the fore in that quotation. We cannot estimate accurately what seeing the effects of sin in people had on the Saviour, but we know that it would have been very powerful and distressing.

Another obvious answer to the question of how could he sleep in such a situation is that he had perfect trust in his Father. Jesus was constantly aware of the care of God throughout his life. We have no way of knowing whether he had ever been in a storm at sea before – the Gospels tell us that he would experience later another storm on the Sea of Galilee. But this may have been the first one. Whether it was or not, we can see that he trusted in God and was conscious of his care.

Maybe there is a third feature to his sleeping and that could be connected to his contentment with his true disciples. Prior to setting sail, Jesus had to correct two wrong disciples for their assumptions about discipleship. Those individuals were not true disciples. But now he was with the twelve probably, and while one of them was false the others were truly his. Surely, there would have been gladness in his heart at being with them. We could say that Jesus preferred to be with them in the storm than in the calm without them.

The simple prayer
In the storm, the disciples reveal that they had discovered what to do in a crisis, which was to ask Jesus for help. How did they expect Jesus to save them? They probably could not have answered such a point apart from saying that they knew that he could, even if they did not fully know how. Sometimes we want to know what the solution is before the solution is applied whereas at times it might be better to trust the solver.

We do this in life in different ways. When we sense that something is wrong with us physically we will go to the doctor, not because we know the remedy, but because we assume that he will know what to do. We elect politicians because we assume that they, and not us, know what to do. Of course, such gifted people will face matters in which they do not know the answers. But with Jesus he never finds himself in that location of failure. Disciples know that he will always have the answer although they usually will not.

Connected to this is the content of prayer. We can see from their petition that it was short, reverent, united and precise. The shortness is seen in the number of words, the reverence is seen in that they address him as Lord, the unity is seen in that they all approach him, and the precision is seen in the petition they make.

The call to pray raises the question as to whether we ever pray in non-urgent circumstances. Do disciples ever find themselves in a situation in which prayer is not made in a crisis? Which day last month did our prayers for the cause of Christ in our country not occur in a situation of crisis? We know that such a day did not happen. Which day last month did the devil or our own sinfulness not tempt us to say, think or do something wrong? It is possible for us not to regard it as a crisis, and the strength of our prayers will reveal what we think.

Moreover, we can see in this petition its suitability in a wide variety of situations. We have mentioned several of them already, but surely we can see that it is a suitable prayer for someone who wants to become a Christian. Why would anyone want to become a Christian? I sometimes hear people speculating why that would happen. At conversion, there is only one reason why genuine persons would want to become Christians and that is because otherwise they will perish. Why would anyone who did not believe they were perishing want to become a believer?

There are other situations in which this prayer is very suitable. They arise in the lives of disciples every day and therefore it is one we should use all the time. And it may be that using this petition will lead to a conversation, or at least to the awareness of a searching question.

The searching question
We may find it surprising that the first response of Jesus was to get the disciples to think about their spiritual state rather than deal immediately with their request for rescue. Of course, he did not take long to deal with the problem, but we do get a hint here of the priorities of Jesus.

It is important to realise that Jesus asked the question lovingly rather than in an accusing manner. We could say that he is speaking as a pastor rather than as a prosecutor. Or even as a doctor rather than a policeman. The Saviour mentions the cause of their problem. The problem was that they did not have a big enough faith in Jesus and this lack of grasping who he is led to fear.

Yet they had just expressed faith in Jesus when they brought their concerns to him. He wanted them to think about why they had the concerns in the first place. One reason was that they had not paid sufficient attention to his instruction in verse 18, which was that they would get to the other side. They had allowed the crisis of the moment to blur the certainty of his Word. We do that often, daily, hourly! In our troubles, we forget his promises and instead of expressing confidence in our faith we express panic. It is still faith, but it is little faith.

Do you think this statement is true: ‘A believer has no doubt that Jesus can bring into existence the new heavens and new earth, but he often has doubts that Jesus can bring him to dwell there?’ Why is that the case? The believer will mention his sins and his failures usually. Yet often he mentions them through his own assessment rather than by what the Bible says about them. The Bible tells us that we will be sinners until our last breath, that we will need to be forgiven, that we will be forgiven, and that one day those who trust in Jesus will be sinless. We either base our faith on our own assessment or on what the Bible says. And the base will determine whether we have confidence in Jesus or whether we will be like the disciples and panic.

This is not to suggest that we take our sin lightly. Obviously, we must treat it seriously. But what does it mean to treat it seriously? We take it seriously when we consider the greatness of the Saviour as well as the gravity of our sin

The staggering action
We can read the words of an eyewitness in the description in verse 26. Although it did not take long, the description is almost in slow motion. Jesus spoke to the disciples, then arose, and then rebuked the wind and the sea. The description invites to join in and watch the spectacle.

There is the process and there is the outcome and both reveal that Jesus is God. Here is the controller of creation, although here the creation is depicted as a possible enemy (he rebuked the winds and sea). Yet it obeys his command immediately. Here we have a visible reminder that there is nothing in the whole creation that can separate us from the love of God.

Matthew mentions that it was a great calm. I wonder what he meant by that. A great calm indicates more than the cessation of the winds and the pacifying of the sea. Maybe thinking of peace helps us. Peace is more than the absence of war and includes the sensation that all is well. No doubt, there would have been the contrast with the storm and the rapidity of the change. There would have been the external sight of a calm environment and the inner experience of amazement and delight.

Surely, Matthew is saying that here was the Prince of peace towering over the problems that prevent peace. Jesus gave to his disciples a window into the world to come, and through his servant Matthew he has given us the window as well. We should look through it often.

The striking question
Of course, the point of including the question is not for us to wonder about what they thought but about what we think. In a sense, we are better able to answer the question than they were, even although they were actually there. We know what kind of a man Jesus is. We know that he has all power in heaven and on earth. Does our knowledge lead us to be full of wonder at the glory and the grace of the Saviour? Because that is what a true disciple does.

Looking to the Lord (Psalm 34:5)

It is the case in the Bible that whenever God’s people found themselves in a situation of difficulty the answer was usually connected to Jesus. This is true in both the Old and New Testaments. Obviously in the Old Testament he appeared in ways that were different from how he appeared when he became a man and lived on earth. But that should not be too surprising for us because we know, as Christians, that Jesus looks different today than he did when he was on earth because today he is glorified.

For individuals
I will mentions first two occasions in the Old Testament when a sight of the Son of God brought real help to people. The first is the well-known incident recorded in Isaiah 6. Isaiah was probably disturbed that the king had died. What he needed was a vision of a greater King and he tells us in that chapter that he saw the Lord of hosts. When we turn to John 12:41 we discover that the divine person Isaiah saw was Jesus before he became a man. Because Isaiah had this encounter with the Son of God, he was able to continue in his difficult situation.

The second occasion was very different from that of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prince and he had his encounter in the magnificent temple erected by Solomon. Hagar was a runaway slave and she met her Comforter in the desert. The story is told in Genesis. She had run away from the camp of Abraham because she was being cruelly treated. There the angel of the Lord found her by a well and spoke kindly to her. When we put together all the mentions of this angel we find that his name is actually a reference to a divine person, the second person of the Trinity. Hagar realised that he was divine because she called him the God who sees her. Because she had this encounter with the Son of God, she was able to continue in her difficult situation.

When we turn to the New Testament it is the same story. Here are a couple of examples. The apostle Paul had what he calls a thorn in the flesh. We don’t really know what the thorn was – some say it was a physical illness, others say that it was a difficult, hostile person. Whatever it was, he took the thorn to Jesus and asked him to remove it. The reply he received from Jesus was that the thorn would remain, but that he would be given grace to cope with it. Jesus said to him, ‘My grace is made complete in your weakness.’ Because of his encounter with the Son of God, Paul was able to continue in his difficult situation.

We can go to the last book of the Bible and its human author. John was the last of the apostles and an old man, probably in his nineties. After years of serving Jesus, he found himself affected by a fierce outbreak of persecution that led to him being exiled to the island of Patmos. There Jesus came and revealed his glory to his servant. We have a description of Jesus in Revelation 1 and it portrays one who is marked by glory and power. When John sees him, he crumples. The response of Jesus reveals that his glory is gentle glory because he bends down and touches his friend and says to him, ‘Fear not.’ Jesus had a role for John even though he was exiled and that was to provide the Book of Revelation for his people. Because of this encounter with the Son of God, John was able to continue in his difficult situation. 

For the world
We all know that Jesus is the answer for the world today. Yet we have to remember that he has always been the answer. If we go back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve had sinned, things looked very bleak. Had God’s plan for having a family composed of his creatures failed? Although that seemed to be the case, God appeared there with an amazing announcement that one would yet come and destroy the havoc caused by the devil when he led Adam and Eve into sin. When that One would come, he would win an incredible victory on behalf of the human race. The victory would involve him being scarred, but yet he would triumph, which is a prediction of what took place on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was the answer for the world even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.

We move on in the biblical account and we come to a man in a pagan city called Ur. Suddenly, God appears to him and tells him to move to an unknown country. He is an old man, nevertheless the divine visit was so powerful that he obeyed and went. Later on, Abraham had repeated visits from God as described in the Book of Genesis. In one of those visits, God informed Abraham that he would have a son and from that family line One would be born that would be a blessing to all the nations. The promised person was Jesus. Jesus tells us that Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Jesus because it would be a day of worldwide blessing. Yet when he was given the promise, there was not much evidence, if any, that this would happen. Jesus was the answer for the world in Abraham’s time even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.

We can move on to the time of the prophet Isaiah, whom we have already mentioned because of his personal encounter with God. Isaiah lived before the captivity in Babylon. As we can imagine, that captivity was a time of national crisis because it looked as if God had so punished his people that they had no future. Yet Isaiah was given by God wonderful messages about Jesus being the answer for the situation regarding Israel and regarding the whole world. We are familiar with the incredible descriptions of the suffering of Jesus in Isaiah 53. Often, we turn to that chapter when we have the Lord’s Supper. Yet the chapter is not only about the sufferings of Jesus. It is also a prophecy of worldwide blessing. Indeed, that is the focus with which the prophetic message at the close of Isaiah 52 begins. Isaiah lived in a difficult time, yet he was told that Jesus was the answer for the world even although things looked difficult, if not impossible.

For the church
Jesus is the Answer we know, most of the New Testament letters were written to churches facing difficulties. Some of the problems were the consequences of persecution, as we can see in 1 Peter. Others were affected by wrong teachings about Jesus, as we can see in Paul’s short letter to the Colossians. And others, such as in 1 Corinthians, were written to churches facing lots of internal problems. What was the answer that was given by the biblical writers? The answer was to focus on Jesus.

We can consider what Paul said to the church in Corinth. We know that it had a range of problems. Yet we find him saying at the end of chapter 15 these words: ‘Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.’ He tells them that they are a family of beloved brothers, a reminder that they belong to one another. He tells them that they should work hard for the Lord, and that they can do so even although they had had faced difficulties. And he tells them that what they do for Jesus is not done in vain. In their difficult situation, serving Jesus together was the answer.

In contrast to the urban city-church in Corinth, Colosse was a village church. What was Paul’s advice to the church in Colosse? Read Colossians 3:1: ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’ Paul encourages the Colossians to go to Jesus and obtain spiritual blessings from him. Even although things had not been what they should have been in Colosse, Jesus was still the gracious Saviour who would provide for their spiritual needs. This was a tremendous encouragement to the believers there. Jesus would forgive them and continue to help them. In their difficult situation, serving Jesus together was the answer.

The last church we can consider is one whose location we do not know, although we know what race they were. An unknown author wrote a letter to Christian Jews who were struggling in their faith. They were facing strong opposition from the civil authorities and also from their own countrymen for abandoning the Jewish faith. What encouragement did the author have for his readers? He mentions a variety of features that belonged to the religious practices of the Jews and point out that with regard to each of them Jesus is far better. Jesus has given to his people a better sacrifice, a better homeland, a better hope. He reminds them that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. In their difficult situation of persecution and bewilderment at times, serving Jesus together was the answer.

Ourselves today
Here we are today living in our circumstances. We have seen in our meditation that Jesus is the answer to individuals and their problems, to the world and its spiritual problems, and to churches with its problems. Jesus is the answer to every Christian congregation today, although they all face different circumstances. As we close, I would mention briefly three unchangeable realities.

First, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus. Listen to Paul’s words at the end of Romans 8: ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Second, the promises of God remain sure. Listen to what Paul said to the church in Corinth: ‘For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]’ (1 Cor. 1:8). Whatever else that means, it means that we can ask God to keep his great and precious promises, promises that Peter says have been given to us (1 Pet. 1:12).

Third, while the past and present are important, we are to look ahead to the day of glory. The end day is the important day and we are to live for that day. We are even to anticipate what Peter says about it, which is that grace will be given to us on that day (1 Pet. 1:13). We look ahead to it and see all of God’s people glorified and perfect. That is what is going to happen to them together. Whenever we interact with them now, we do so with the knowledge that one day they and us will all be like Jesus. On that day, we will discover in a wonderful way that Jesus is the answer.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Jesus in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14-22)

We might be prone to assume that Matthew is being a bit sporadic here as he details three individuals whom Jesus helped as well as a large number of cases of whom no details are given. But he is not being sporadic. Instead he wants his readers to realise that Jesus is the promised Messiah and then come to a decision about Jesus for themselves, and in order to bring this about he refers to two individuals whom Jesus did not help. So there is a contrast here between people as well as a challenge to us about what we think of Jesus.

So far in this section of his Gospel, Matthew has mentioned a leper and a Gentile proselyte. Now he mentions a woman who is suffering from an illness. While such descriptions may not make us sit up and wonder, they would have been like bombshells to many of his first readers. He shows that Jesus is willing to help the outcasts and those on the outside in one way or another. Being a woman was bad enough, but to be a sick woman was worse!

Jesus and Peter’s mother-in-law
I assume this verse causes some problems for Roman Catholic writers since they don’t think popes should be married and they imagine that Peter was the first Pope. But since Peter was never a pope, the problem is one based on adding requirements to the Bible that the Bible does not require. Peter would have been appalled if someone had told him that such claims would later be made about him. Other references tell us that his wife travelled with him wherever he went to spread the gospel of Jesus.

As we know, the four Gospel writers, when they are describing the same event, sometimes mention details not found in the other accounts. Mark tells us that those in the house told Jesus about the mother-in-law’s fever. Luke says that Jesus healed her by rebuking the fever. Matthew, under the leading of the Spirit, stresses the eyes and the touch of Jesus.

Referring to the eyes draw attention to the mind of a person, to what he is thinking when he sees something. I wonder what Jesus thought as he saw his friend’s mother lying ill. He would be sad, he would see the effects of sin (all diseases exist because of our original sin), and he would see one of his people whom he eternally loved. Then he touched her, which informs us of his willingness to identify with needy people, as well as helping her sense his sympathy as well as his power.

Matthew mentions the response of the woman, which was that she began to serve Jesus. I assume she did some work in the home that day. Matthew highlights that she served Jesus whereas other accounts say that she served Jesus and his disciples. Why did Matthew write in such a way? Probably the answer is that the unnamed mother-in-law did what everyone whom Jesus helps should do. So she becomes a model disciple and we should thank God that there are countless such disciples scattered around the world who serve Jesus out of gratitude. And she is a contrast to the two would-be disciples mentioned later.

Jesus and the crowd
In the incident with Peter’s mother-in-law, we see the compassion and competency of Jesus. But Matthew does not want to leave the story there, wonderful though it is. So he mentions in roughly the same amount of words that Jesus showed the same compassion and competency for a large number of people. It is obvious from Matthew’s description that no trouble was too difficult for Jesus to deal with.

We should observe the location of this large display of grace. It happened outside Peter’s house, or even inside it. I suppose we see in this reality a couple of lessons. One is that when Jesus rescues us from a trouble he expects us to make our assets available for his service. The other is that we have no idea what Jesus can do with our assets.

One detail mentioned by Luke but which is not so clear in Matthew’s account is that Jesus dealt with each of the crowd individually – he laid hands on each. We know that Jesus could have healed all of them simultaneously, but he chose to help each of them individually.

Matthew’s description of the work of Jesus is twofold. He says that Jesus dealt with two different problems. One was demon oppression and the other was physical illness. What is demon oppression? It must refer to attacks by the devil’s kingdom on people and I suppose this could show itself in a variety of ways. In whatever ways it showed itself here, Jesus was able to deal with it and reveal that he was more powerful than the devil. The other problem was physical illness and Jesus was able to cure all the sufferers, which is a reminder that he is the re-creator of people.

Matthew mentions that this activity of Jesus was a fulfilment of prophecy. The text is from Isaiah 53:4, which says that the Servant has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Matthew has translated the Hebrew and therefore we can see what the verse means. The griefs and the sorrows arise from devilish influences, illnesses and diseases. It is not difficult for us to see how such sufferings would be very sorrowful for those afflicted by them.

What does Matthew mean by this? Does he only mean that some people would be cured by Jesus at one time in their lives? There is no suggestion that those healed by him would never be ill again. Therefore, I would say that we should regard those healings as signs pointing to what Jesus would ultimately do. He came to destroy the works of the devil, which he did at the cross and will yet do when all of the devil’s influences will be removed from the earth.

The intention of Jesus was not only to remove the consequences of sin, but also to deal with the cause of sufferings, which ultimately is sin. So we could regard his miracles as signs pointing to what will happen to people after Jesus pays the penalty for their sin. At some stage, those who trust in him will be restored physically and spiritually and be delivered from the grip of the devil. Ultimately this will happen at the future resurrection and renewal of all things.

The priority of following Jesus
Jesus decides that he and his disciples should go over to the other side of the sea of Galilee. This simple activity tested the people to see whether they would continue to follow Jesus. Matthew records the responses of two individuals at that time.

The scribe – too eager
The first comes from a scribe who stated that he would follow Jesus everywhere. No doubt, some of the disciples would have been impressed by the possibility of a distinguished persons like a scribe joint their number. What did Jesus have to say to him?

Jesus mentioned two details in his response. One of the details concerned his name and the other his present possessions. The use of the name ‘Son of man’ may be in response to the name that the scribe gave to him, which was only ‘Teacher.’ Could it be that the scribe had too low an opinion of Jesus? Maybe all he was saying was that Jesus was the best teacher he had heard. After all, the title ‘Son of man’ is a reference to the prophecy in Daniel about God’s chosen Ruler who would have universal power. It is true that a real disciple must have a true understanding of who Jesus is.

The Saviour wants us to appreciate who he truly is. As the Son of man, he is the King of kings, the one who received glory from God because of his amazing work on the cross. He has now been highly exalted and given the name of Lord. Our Master is much more than a teacher, although he is the best Teacher.

The scribe also seemed to have a wrong perception of the benefits of religion. As a scribe, he would have known that the position of religious teacher was a lucrative one, with many social and financial benefits. He may have imagined that Jesus would make a successful career from his abilities and that there would be other benefits for those who followed him. He must have been very surprised to hear Jesus say that following him would not bring riches in this life.

We are not to imagine that Jesus did not have places to stay at times. When he went to Jerusalem, he often stayed with his friends in Bethany. Yet it seems that he also would spend nights in the Garden of Gethsemane – after all, that is how Judas knew where to find Jesus when he was betrayed. The family home was in Capernaum, and probably Jesus could stay there. What we should see Jesus telling this man is that following him was not always a path to worldly promotion and prosperity. A disciple of Jesus should not expect too much from this world and be prepared to wait until the next for the rewards of serving Jesus.

The scribe probably imagined that he was adding to the prestige of Jesus by offering to follow him. This would not be too surprising since he had no conception of the greatness of Jesus. The scribe had no real conception that Jesus came to deliver from sin and to enable people to live a life of holiness. We have no idea whether or not this scribe ever became a real disciple of Jesus.

The son – not eager enough
The second would-be disciple had to learn about priorities. There are various suggestions as to what he meant. It is unlikely that his father had just died, because if he had, his son would be with the family mourning the loss of his father and therefore not with Jesus. When a person died in that part of the world, they were usually buried quickly, on the day itself or the next.

There are two options as to what he meant. One option is that the father was still alive, but aged and drawing near the end of life, with likelihood that his end was near. The other option concerns the custom that a son would transfer the bones of his dead father to an ossuary a year after his death. In this option, the father may have died a few weeks or months previously and the son was asking to wait a few more months to carry out this task. It looks as if the man wanted to fulfil family responsibilities and then he would follow Jesus. He was putting cultural expectations, the assumptions that others would expect him to make, above the requirements of Jesus.

The reply of Jesus dealt with this reluctance of the disciple to put Jesus first. His words could suggest that while the spiritually dead can wait around in order to bury the physical dead, his disciples have to serve the kingdom of God immediately. A real disciple will not use long-term family responsibilities as a reason for not serving Jesus. The list of options in this kind of outlook is endless. We can say to Jesus that we will do something after such an event or development happens. His reply and challenge is to get involved in the work of the kingdom now.

We cannot deduce from this statement that Jesus wants his disciples to ignore family responsibilities. After all, he had just healed Peter’s mother-in-law. The difference was that Peter and his family were putting Jesus first whereas this man had a different attitude.

This would-be disciple had to learn that he could not lay out the terms of true discipleship. Only Jesus has the authority to do so. This disciple was actually using legitimate concerns as a reason not to become a wholehearted follower of Jesus. But Jesus has the authority to claim first place over every area of life.

So as we come to the close of the ministry of Jesus in Capernaum at that time, we need to ask what kind of disciple are we. Are we like the healed leper, doing our own will rather than what Jesus said? Are we like the centurion who recognised the greatness of Jesus and honoured him? Are we like Peter’s mother-in-law who quietly served Jesus out of gratitude? Are we like the scribe with good words that meant little? Are we like the son who was not prepared to put Jesus first? Each of us knows the answer to that question.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Faith of a Centurion (Matthew 8:7-14)

The original readers of Matthew lived under the control of the Roman Empire. They also knew that Jesus was demanding from his followers a higher commitment to him than they could show to the authority of Rome. No doubt they would have anticipated a collision eventually between the representatives of Rome and Jesus or with one or more of his disciples. Matthew here describes once such encounter.

The approach of the centurion

It is important to note that the centurion had already believed in Jesus. His approach to Jesus is that of a person of faith rather than one seeking for faith. We are not told how he came to be a believer in Jesus. Perhaps he had identified himself with the Jewish faith and had been looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. Whatever the process of his conversion, he did trust in Jesus as the Saviour.

How was his faith revealed? First, we can see from the account that he was a man of compassion. This is revealed in his desire for his servant to be helped. I suppose we can see his sense of compassion in his use of the word ‘terribly’. It indicates that the centurion was marked by sympathy. In this he was like every other true believer. It is impossible to be a true disciple and not be marked by compassion, by love for others, and that love will cause the person to do something to bring help to the needy person.

Second, we can see from the account that the centurion had great confidence in the ability of Jesus. The servant’s illness was very serious because he was paralysed. Normally, that is a situation beyond the hope of recovery. Yet the centurion believed that Jesus could do the impossible. He believed in the divine power of Jesus and expressed this aspect of faith when he said that Jesus did not need to come to the centurion’s home in order to heal the servant.

We should notice in this regard that Jesus tested the centurion’s faith. The test was in the response that he would go to the house and heal the servant. This kind of test is difficult to engage in because initially it seems to go against the desire of Jesus. Perhaps we would have expected the man to respond submissively and accept that Jesus could come to the house. But such a response was not an expression of faith. If the centurion had gone along that road, he would be hiding the fact that he believed Jesus could heal the servant with a word.

Sometimes we can use divine instructions to hide the fact that we have faith in Jesus. We are told to pray, to read the Bible, to keep the Lord’s Day, and we obey those requirements. But say we do them and don’t go to the Lord’s Table, even although we are believers. In that scenario, we are using divine instructions to hide the fact that we have faith in Jesus. And when we behave in such a manner we fail the test.

Connected to the matter of authority, it is obvious that the centurion believed that Jesus had authority in areas that he or his masters did not. He and they could order people about in an external manner, but none of them had the power to dismiss a disease. But he believed that Jesus had authority in those supernatural areas of life. His confidence in the authority of Jesus should cause us to ask in which areas of life we acknowledge he has undisputed authority.

Third, we can see from the account that the centurion confessed his unworthiness. It is important to observe that he did not link a sense of his unworthiness with a low expectation of what Jesus could do. Instead he had great confidence in the power of the Saviour. True confession of unworthiness does not lead a person to say that Jesus cannot help him. Paul confessed that he was a sinner, but that did not lead him to say Jesus could not enable him to be an apostle. David, in Psalm 51, details the awfulness of his sin, but he does not conclude that the God of mercy would never use him again to speak to others about God.

We have no way of knowing if this man had ever been a flagrant sinner. Although a Gentile, he could have been a moral person. The point I am making is that a person’s sense of unworthiness is not connected to the visibility of his sins. If that was the case, then the unworthiness is based on what he thinks other people think of him. Had the centurion based his personal estimation on the opinion of others, he would have concluded that he was worthy. Instead, true sense of unworthiness comes when we see our inner lives and the weaknesses and sinful attitudes we have in contrast to what we should be, even as Christians.

What is the point that the man makes when he refers to soldiers obeying his instructions? I think he is saying that his authority was seen in the actions of others. If Jesus had gone to the centurion’s home, the public impression would have been that the centurion was in charge of the movements of Jesus and had ordered him to go to the house. The centurion did not want that impression to happen. Instead, he wanted Jesus to be seen as the One with authority. In other words, he wanted Jesus alone to have the glory.

The astonishment of Jesus

The first comment that we can make about this is that the response of Jesus reveals the reality of his humanity. We find it difficult to know who to think of Jesus at times because he is both God and man. The best way to consider his humanity is to remind ourselves that he will always do what is appropriate in each situation. We see this on numerous occasions in the gospels. In those situations, Jesus always did what love to one’s neighbour required.

A second detail to observe is how Jesus wanted to encourage the centurion and commend his faith. As mentioned earlier, some Jews may have wondered if a Gentile could have real faith. We know from other Gospel accounts that this man was highly regarded by the Jewish leaders because he had financed the erection of a synagogue. Whether other Jews did or not wonder about the faith of a Gentile, Jesus defended the man because he honoured Jesus by the way he asked his request. The Saviour will defend those who serve him in a humble way.

Then there is the fact that astonishment is a valid Christian response. After all, if Jesus showed astonishment, then we should do so as well if we are to be regarded as Christlike. Astonishment should be a regular Christian experience because salvation is full of wonders. It is a wonder that dead sinners become spiritually alive, it is a wonder that weak saints overcome their spiritual enemies, and it is a wonder that imperfect saints become the perfect inhabitants of heaven.

Of course, the amazing detail here is that a Gentile was making incredible progress in his faith. We can see at least two details in his spiritual outlook. First, he had previously realised that the Jews had the truth in contrast to the Gentiles. Such a realisation was common at that time. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction. Second, the man was prepared to take further steps beyond that the vast majority of Jews. He realised that the promised Messiah had come. Becoming a proselyte took him in touch with the truth. Yet he needed more than that. He also had to come in contact with the Messiah.

The anticipation of Jesus

The confession of the centurion led Jesus to make a prophetic announcement concerning the final day. There are several details here that we should note for our encouragement. First, there is the confidence of Jesus in the success of the gospel. This one Gentile centurion was a sample of the many Gentiles who would believe in him from the east and the west.

Second, there is the reference that the Saviour makes to the covenant promises that had been made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The place where we find those promises is the Bible. God’s covenant promises are connected to certainties. It looks as if Jesus made connections between his current situation and relevant passages in the Bible, and he wants his disciples to do the same.

Third, there is the comfort of heaven. We see the concept of comfort in the reference to reclining. The experience of heaven is not like a military parade ground where everyone is on edge in case their nose gets itchy. Heaven, while obviously reverent, is a very relaxed experience for those who will be there.

The illustration of a table points to three features of heaven: host, company (guests) and provision. Although he does not mention it here, we know who the host is – Jesus himself. Surely we can sense his anticipation of this experience. The company are believers, those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation. Sometimes we go to events and enjoy listening to the life stories of those present. How much more will we enjoy listening to those who met the Saviour through his grace. The provision comes from Jesus and is described elsewhere as eternal life, its quality as well as its quantity. Jesus anticipates providing the fullness of life to his people.

Fourth, Jesus also mentions an awful contrast – the contrast between heaven and hell. He mentions the sights and the sounds. As far as the sights are concerned, it is outer darkness. Outer darkness is the opposite of God because he is light. To be in darkness is to be lost because the person cannot see the path to walk on. A lost eternity is a terrible prospect. No escape from the judgement of God. Darkness is loneliness – we have all found ourselves in situations that were so dark that we could not see a person standing beside us. An eternity of isolation and dread, with no one to help them even for a moment.

Then there are the sounds. There will be weeping because of the despair, and there will be gnashing of teeth. This is an awful picture of the despair connected to being lost forever. Of course, Jesus is making a prediction here and he knows the future exactly. This is going to be the experience of the lost. One wonders what each person in the crowd made of his words. Hopefully, each of them responded correctly. Imagine what you would have done had you heard this detailed description of the endless experience of the lost. You do not need to imagine it because in reading the account you already became part of the crowd listening to Jesus.

The answer of Jesus
We can see what the Saviour did – he answered the centurion’s request and healed his servant. While the matter here concerned the physical healing of an individual, we can see from the words of Jesus that he also responds to faith in him. That is the point that should concern us. The issue is not whether we know correct details about Jesus, but whether or not we have faith in him and what he can do for us. The centurion believed that Jesus could provide a temporal cure. We are required to believe that he can provide an eternal cure to our spiritual disease of sin. If we do, we will experience his saving grace.

Crying to God (Psalm 130)

Psalm 130 is regarded as one of seven penitential psalms (they are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). This does not mean that other psalms do not have expressions of repentance. However, many psalms have a particular focus and these ones are concerned with penitence.

As with many other psalms (such as Psalm 23), this psalm has had a profound influence in the lives of prominent Christians and we can read about how they used it. The Church Father Augustine, when he was dying, had the penitential psalms written on the walls of his room so that he could read them as he prepared to leave this world.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the commencement of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed his 95 statements to the church door in Wittenberg. We could ask many questions to such a giant of a man, but for the moment we could ask, ‘Tell us some of your favourite passages of the Bible?’ One of them was the penitential psalms – he called Pauline psalms. And he wrote a hymn based on Psalm 130.

Probably most of us have read Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. We may be aware of the unusual experiences he went through when God convicted him of his sins. He did not know it at the time, but as with all who become physicians of the soul he had to discover his own need of spiritual healing in a deep way. During the long months of searching that he was led through by the Heavenly Doctor, one of the biblical passages that helped Bunyan was Psalm 130, especially verses 3 and 4.

Sometimes we like to know the verses of the Bible that were used in the conversions of other people. In John Wesley’s case, we may have heard how his heart was strangely warmed as he listened to a man reading from Luther’s commentary on Romans on the evening of May 24th, 1738. Wesley, although a religious enthusiast at the time, was searching for peace with God. Earlier on that day of his conversion, he had attended church where the reading for the day was Psalm 130, and listening to the psalm gave Wesley hope of salvation.

We do not know who the author of Psalm 130 was or when it was written. Obviously, the author was going through a time of inner distress because of his sins. While we do not know the author or the personal circumstances, we do know that the psalm was selected as one of the psalms of ascent that were used by Israelites when they participated in the annual feasts that were held in Jerusalem three times a year. This means that the psalm was regarded as suitable for those who saw themselves as pilgrims who lived away from the city of God and as worshippers who gathered to meet with God.

Matthew Henry points out that the psalm does not mention any external circumstances, whether personal or public. Instead its focus is on what the author found within himself. For some reason, he was in the depths. This is a very graphic picture, the spiritual equivalent of the situation that Jonah found himself in when he was thrown overboard. Maybe we find ourselves in such a situation of inner disturbance that we cannot connect to anything specific. Yet the distress could be a sign that God is speaking to our souls.

Cry (vv.1-2)

The first feature of the psalm is that it contains a cry for mercy. There is no suggestion that the individual has committed a public sin or an isolated action that requires a special focus. Instead, he is in a state of inner turmoil because he knows that he is a sinner.

To know one is a sinner is a privilege. Some may think that is a strange statement initially. Yet it is a privilege because it is an indication that God has instructed the individual about himself. God can teach an individual in a variety of ways, but usually he uses two methods. One is that he gets the person to think about the ten commandments and the other is that he gets the person to think about Jesus. In those ways of teaching, God reveals to the sinner that he is very imperfect. The sinner has made this great discovery because God has taken the time to teach him.

The cry also reminds us that the individual who has received the great privilege of divine instruction speaks back to the Teacher. We call this verbal response prayer. The prayer is earnest, personal and specific. We can see that it is earnest in that it is a cry. A cry is not the same as a chat. It is also a plea, and pleas are connected to strong emotions.

Moreover, there is a very personal element in this type of prayer. Sometimes we can pray together about issues and at other times we pray about things that we cannot share with others. Praying about personal sin is a very private activity between a soul and God.

Further, the sinner has been taught by God to ask him for mercy. We can deduce that mercy indicates a recognition that God is a sovereign who has the authority to respond in more than one way to wrong actions. He can either judge the sinner or he can show mercy to the sinner.

Consolation (vv. 3-4)

The psalmist asks us to imagine God taking note of our sins in the sense of writing them down. Imagine him having a sheet with your name on it, and on which is written the ten commandments. How many marks would he would put against the first commandment? Then think about marks against all the commandments. We know that it would have to be a very large sheet of paper to contain all the marks.

How many people would pass the test and have no marks against their name? The answer to that question is, ‘No one apart from Jesus.’ He was the only person who kept God’s law perfectly from the heart. In his case, the marks beside the commandments would be for how many times he had kept them. Again, there would be a very large sheet, full of evidence of perfection.

The good thing that the sinner knows is that the Lord would rather do something else than only have a record of the person’s sins. The preferred activity is that he would rather forgive the sinner. How did the author of the psalm know that God preferred to forgive sinners? Because he had provided an elaborate arrangement of sacrifices for dealing with their sins and had provided written explanations of what those sacrifices could achieve. In a far higher way, he has done the same for us in that he has provided his Son as the perfect sacrifice for sin and has given us the Bible which contains explanations of the benefits of his sacrifice.

The outcome of forgiveness is that the pardoned sinner reverences God. Probably, at one time, when he first discovered that he was a sinner, he became frightened of God. He was terrified by the thought of appearing before such a God, who knew all the sins the individual had committed. Having discovered that the Lord is also a God of mercy, the individual has another perspective about the Lord. His respect for the Lord is now an expression of love for the God of sovereign grace who had condescended to pardon him.

Of course, this recognition has its solemn side. To continue to rebel against the God of mercy is worse than rebelling against him before we discovered that he was merciful. Having an education in this sense is a very serious thing. Our knowledge should affect our behaviour. Knowing God can punish sin may lead to certain external responses. Knowing God has a way of pardoning sinners and embracing it results in the sinner resolving to serve the Lord with gladness. He now sees something incredibly attractive in God. He knows why the psalmist says about God that his tender mercy is above all his other works.

Communion (vv. 5-6)

When the psalmist says that he is waiting, he is expressing expectancy. His sense of anticipation is strengthened by his illustration of the watchmen on a city wall looking for the first signs of dawn. Of course, it would be possible for someone to have a strong hope without any basis. This is not the way that the psalmist’s soul is. Instead his outlook is based on something very certain, which is the word of God.

When we consider the time of the psalmist’s life, we realise that what he had of the Word of God was a lot less than we have. Still, what he had gave him strong hope and we see here the sufficiency of the Bible for spiritual sustenance. All he would have had would be the five books of Moses and maybe the books of Joshua and Judges and Ruth. Where would he have found help for his need for forgiveness?

Perhaps he thought of the experiences of Jacob when he met with God and was forgiven his sins. Or maybe his mind went to the way that Moses was given insight into the character of the God of mercy (Exod. 33). Although those incidents had taken place long before he wrote his psalm, he discovered that looking at such accounts, whether he looked at them or at others, that the Bible is a living book.

And now his own experience functions as the Word of God for us. Who can tell how many people have been blessed by reading about and singing of this man’s experience? His story is for us part of the expanded sufficiency of the living Book. The fact is we have many examples and many promises in the Bible to encourage us to expect mercy from the God who sent his Son as the Saviour of sinners.

We should note that the psalmist moves on from the consideration of what the Bible says to real contact with the pardoning God. Would God have denied to the psalmist the mercy that he longed for? Of course not. How long does it take for grace to come from heaven to the heart of a penitent sinner? Quicker than the blink of an eye! Living faith in the living God of the living Word receives freely from the heavenly storehouse. Jesus loves to have contact with those who desire his coming.

Community (vv. 7-8)

The outcome is that the psalmist speaks with confidence to others of the people of God. His experience is the same as theirs because they all belong to the redeemed people of God. He reminds his friends, and others, that the Lord can be relied upon. What marks the Lord, says the psalmist, is his covenant commitments, his determination to rescue the people that he loves.

There is a surprising statement in verse 8. We would imagine that an Israelite, when speaking of divine redemption, would look back to what his nation had experienced at the Exodus. But the Exodus had not delivered anyone from their sins. Something greater was needed, and the psalmist predicted that it would happen eventually. We know what he predicted, which was the coming of Jesus to the cross of Calvary. There, plenteous redemption was provided for sinners like the psalmist, and for us.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Blowing of the Trumpets (Rev. 8-9)

We see from verse 1 that the seventh seal was a period of silence of half an hour in heaven. I would suggest the silence points to two responses. First, it is designed to make us ponder the awfulness of the situations that have been described in the six seals and to prepare ourselves for what is coming next. I think that is what John would have done. Second, there may be an allusion to the practice in the Jerusalem temple of praying silently before God, and there is an obvious connection in the passage with prayer. In the Old Testament, silence was an expression of both repentance and reverence, and was therefore a form of response to God.

The seventh seal is concerned with seven trumpets that seven angels have been appointed to blow. Blowing of trumpets was often a call to battle in the ancient world, and we can see from the details of what was signified by the trumpets that a battle, or series of battles, is about to take place. Before that commences, a description is given of an incident in heaven.

Before the trumpets sound (Rev. 8:1-5)

It looks as if we are invited to consider an august moment in heaven. The most elevated angels are involved because we are told that the seven trumpeters are seven angels who usually stand in the presence of God. We can regard them as the administrators of his will, and when we read later about the contents of the trumpets we will see that their actions are solemn.

Before they blow their trumpets, another angel appears. He also must be very important because the trumpets cannot be blown until he engages in what looks like a priestly activity. Who is this angel? His task is twofold. First, he is to make the prayers of the saints acceptable to God, and second, he is to pour out judgement on the earth. Given those activities, it looks as if this angel is speaking on behalf of the Son of God because he is the One who performs those actions. He alone makes the prayers of his people acceptable and he alone can send judgement on the earth.

We should observe what God’s people are called here, saints. One of the consequences of the influence of the Bible in a culture is that its words can become commonplace and used without a biblical meaning. A sample of this is the word saint and words connected to it such as saintly. If someone does a good deed, he is called a saint. The problem with that is we can lose the meaning of what a saint is. A saint is a word that describes every Christian. It signifies that they belong to God, they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and they have received special privileges from God. One of the privileges is prayer, which is speaking to God about specific matters.

This vision is a reminder that the prayers of saints are made acceptable in heaven. There is not a reason in them why God should listen to them unless he has chosen to do so. We are also told that the prayers need much incense, which is a reminder that their prayers are polluted, and also a reminder that Jesus has a lot of grace to give. Moreover, we are told that it is the prayers of all saints that are made acceptable, which means that the Saviour is able to combine them and to answer them all.

The vision is also a reminder that the authority in heaven functions in a manner that connects divine activities to the prayers of believers. This does not mean that the believers ask Jesus to send the judgements, but it does mean that God regarded judgements as the right way to answer their prayers.

This aspect also reminds us that answering prayer is one of the major ways by which God fulfils his eternal purpose. The prayers are connected to the opening of the book with the seven seals that was given to the Saviour when he ascended to the throne of God. His task is to open this scroll and reveal its contents. Earlier, in chapter 6, we were told that the inhabitants of heaven ask God about the judgements, but their interest is not prayer in the way that we understand prayer. The inclusion of answers to our prayers does point to the dignity we have in access to the presence of God.

When we consider the various pictures that are made in the events caused by the trumpets, we see that they are major events. Such events were not confined to the first century. We are being told here that powerless saints have power because God works always for the benefit of his kingdom.

One author likens prayer to the invisible highway between heaven and earth. Our requests are carried up the highway to God and then he sends down his answers, which may be big or small. The answer may not be what was anticipated by the petitioners, but it is the best answer to their requests.
The seven trumpets (Rev. 8:6–9:20)
The seven trumpets divide into two sections. Trumpets one to four are described in 8:6-12. Then 8:13 contains an introduction to the remaining trumpet, and a lot more happens when they are blown than took place under trumpets one to four. Trumpets five, six and seven are each said to bring woe, and since trumpet seven is concerned with the Day of Judgement (11:15) we should not be surprised that it is connected to a woe.

The first four trumpets describe the outpouring of various divine judgements on the earth, sea, creatures and cosmic bodies, with each of the judgements affecting one third. Although these judgements are serious and affect a lot of people, as well as other daily circumstances, they are not yet the full judgement that will occur when the seventh trumpet is blown. So the trumpets are reminders that greater judgement is coming.

There seems to be a similarity here with the plagues that God sent on Egypt, and since they were the indicators that redemption for Israel was near, so John is being told that signs of divine judgement on the earth are indicators that eternal redemption is about to happen.

The fifth trumpet, one of the woes on humanity, is likened to a war between locusts and humans (9:1-12). The locusts describe demons, the followers of the devil; here he is called by names that mean destroyer. His army is described as travelling rapidly around the earth, inflicting damage everywhere. An unusual perspective is given here in that the targets of the demonic powers are not believers, but everyone else (9:4). So while they are opposing the church, somehow they are being destroyed because they cannot escape from the demonic onslaught.

What is the teaching behind the fifth trumpet? One is that the powers of darkness are under the control of God. He decides when they can be unleashed. A second lesson is that there are times when God lets this happen for the detriment of humanity. It is possible that we are living in such a time because we can see much taking place that indicates evil influences in the world. This was the case when the Book of Revelation was written. The church of Jesus was undergoing opposition and God sent his judgements on the world by not hindering the powers that hate the world.

The sixth trumpet (9:13-19) contains details similar to the fifth in that an army follows four angels who are released for a specific time in order to kill one third of mankind by various plagues. It may be that John is using one of the fears that dominated Roman thinking, which was that the Parthians from the other side of the Euphrates would invade the Empire and destroy it. Their soldiers were regarded as fierce and were a suitable illustration of an army that is far worse.

The soldiers of this army ride on horses that have the power to poison their victims (like scorpions). This looks like another description of the demonic army. Since they are not allowed to commence their activities until God allows, we have here another reminder that he is in control of all creatures, and can use those who oppose him in the outworking of his plans. But it is also a reminder that there is a spiritual conflict taking place. God is working to save his people; the powers of darkness are working to destroy sinners eternally.

What was the response of people to the judgements indicated by the six trumpets? John tells us that they refused to repent of their sinful actions and attitudes towards God or towards one another. Living under circumstances of divine judgement does not change the hearts of sinners. They remain opposed to God and his kingdom.

One would expect the seventh trumpet to sound next. Yet it will not come until Revelation 11:15, when it will announce the Day of Judgement. Before then, John is given more details for his readers to consider, and they are detailed in chapter 10.
The first application is concerned with the matter of prayer. It is obvious from this set of two chapters that a crucial element in the outworking of God’s purpose is the prayers of his people. I think we need to ask ourselves if our prayers are occupied with ourselves or with others. We need to pray for ourselves, yet part of the background to this heavenly vision is the persecution of the church. Believers prayed about that, and God answered those prayers in a global manner. Another background detail is the book in the hands of the King, which I have suggested is the book of life. Our prayers should be for the further opening of the scroll, for more people to come into the kingdom.

Second, in this set of pictures, we are being told what perspective to have on people who live on the earth. John’s readers are informed that in the world there are basically two groups of people. There are those who are saved and there are those who are not. As far as the enemy powers of the bottomless pit are concerned, they plan to kill Christians and end their lives here and they work to destroy eternally everyone else. At the same time, the perspective includes an awareness of divine judgement taking place.

Third, we are told that divine judgements in themselves will not lead to repentance by those who survive them. It is possible for us to consider places where there have been terrible wars and ask how many were converted. We can observe places where there have been earthquakes and famines and ask how many were converted. The fact is, judgements occur every day and very few are affected in a spiritual way. This is a reminder that the gospel must also be declared.
Preached on 3/5/2017