Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Spirit and Access (Ephesians 2:18)

We are familiar with the search for peace during a conflict. There are conferences taking place today trying to solve conflicts between various factions within countries as well as those between countries. Often when we read about such dialogues we have a great deal of scepticism about the outcome and we suspect that the aftermath will not involve a real change of circumstances for those affected by it. Paul and the Ephesians lived in an empire which claimed to have brought worldwide peace. The Roman empire was proud of its pax romana which had been forced on to all the subjects of the empire. Yet it was resented because it was a deprivation of liberty and many attempts were made to escape from the grip of the empire.
Biblical peace
No doubt Paul was very thankful that he could speak about the provision of real peace which had been brought about by Jesus, the accomplisher and the announcer of peace. In this section of his letter, Paul deals with the two conflicts that had affected his readers previously. One of the conflicts existed between God and his creatures, which began in Eden after Adam fell, and the other conflict was the ongoing divide between Jews and Gentiles.
Jesus came to reconcile those affected by both conflicts, which he did by his work on the cross. When he paid the penalty for sin, he provided the basis for sinners coming into a relationship of peace with God. The barrier to peace was our sins and God as Judge demanded that the penalty against such expressions of rebellion should be paid and determined that they would be paid. In amazing grace, he arranged for his own Son to pay the penalty and meet the demand of his justice. Calvary was the location of the greatest peace transaction that ever occurred and ever will occur, and we can go there and experience peace with God.
Yet sinners did not receive the benefit automatically. Instead they had to be told about it and they had to respond to the message in a particular way. Who told the Ephesians about the possibility of peace? Paul says in this passage that Jesus did so, although what Paul means is that Jesus was speaking through his servants when they passed on the gospel. Yet the fact that Jesus is described as declaring peace tells us about the eagerness of Jesus to do so. We can imagine an important diplomat sending his staff to discuss peace and wishing that he himself was there to help them with all the potential issues that might arise. In contrast, when Jesus sends his agents he comes with them in the person of the Holy Spirit.
One outcome of the state of peace with God was that all the Jews and all the Gentiles who had believed in Jesus now found themselves at peace with one another. This state of peace was expressed in two ways. First, God created a new community or a new man. It would be a real solution to all the conflicts between people if those trying to sort out the problem simply created a new country or a new people, which would mean that the old hostilities were no longer relevant. That is what God has done in the church – the church, believe it or not, is God’s answer to the conflicts of humanity. By the church we do not mean denominations – they usually create more conflicts. Instead the church of Christ is what is often called the invisible church, those who have trusted in Jesus and received pardon from God.
Second, God gave the Holy Spirit to each member of the new community. We noticed last week when thinking about Paul’s prayer in Ephesians one that the Holy Spirit can enable believers to grasp the incredible hope that they share, to enjoy the heavenly inheritance even now that they share, and the power that is available to all of them. It is impossible for the Holy Spirit to lead any of his people to act contrary to those petitions, to suggest that one or more of them should pray otherwise. Instead their petitions should display the harmony that marks the new community.
The Spirit and the new community
But what is life like in the community of peace? Many answers could be given to this question, and one is given by Paul in verse 18: ‘For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.’ This probably connected to the words that Paul uses in verse 13: ‘now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.’ But verse 18 brings another perspective on the situation and in it Paul reminds his readers of the importance of having a Trinitarian perspective. It is likely that his readers would have grasped the inference – the persons of the Trinity work in harmony, therefore those they have saved should also work together in harmony.
Probably our response to this verse is to say that Paul is describing the experience of prayer. There is a well-known story of Robert Bruce, a leading Scottish minister during the reign of James VI. A fellow minister John Livingstone with a friend called one day to see Bruce. Livingstone recorded of this visit: ‘When we called on him at eight o’clock in the morning, he told us he was not for any company; and when we urged him to tell us the cause, he answered, that when he went to bed he had a good measure of the Lord’s presence, and that he had wrestled with Him about an hour or two before we came in, and had not yet got access; and so we left him.’ I have no idea whether or not Bruce was alluding to this verse. Yet we can easily see that he is describing an aspect of prayer, such as that described by Jesus when he told his disciples to keep on knocking, and if they did so the door would be opened to them.
Is this statement in Ephesians 2:18 describing prayer or special times of communion? It all depends on what the access refers to. Paul’s description indicates that this is a common privilege of all believers and his words also seem to say that it is a constant privilege of all believers because it is the opposite of the state of war and conflict that existed before. In the previous way of life, they were barred from the Father because there was enmity between them. Now the state of war is over and the peace treaty has taken place. It looks to me as if Paul in this verse is describing the result of the peace treaty, which is that all believers experience the ongoing work of the Trinity. No doubt, prayer is an aspect of this new relationship, but there is more to it than prayer.
We should observe that Paul teaches here that they have access as a community. In his situation, the aspect he stresses is that Jewish and Gentile believers have access together into his presence. In later verses, he mentions that they are a new temple. In the old temple in Jerusalem, Jews and Gentiles were kept separate and could not go to God together. But now, if they believed in Jesus, they were together. Of course, it was Jesus who had brought them together. And we should remember how large this gathering is, and that it is increasing whenever there are converts throughout the world.
The Spirit’s role is to enable believers to live in the presence of the Father. And the Spirit will do this in connection with various aspects of the work of Jesus, because it is ‘through him in one Spirit we have access to the Father’. So we can say initially that Spirit will give awareness to every believer about what Jesus has done in order to bring his people to the Father. The Spirit’s work includes taking of the things of Christ and revealing them to us.
Seven aspects of access
The word that I have used to explain the first aspect is that the Spirit makes believers alive. Before the Spirit worked in their hearts they were spiritually dead, without any desire to know the Father, which was clear evidence that they did possess spiritual life. And it is the case that those who are spiritually dead cannot be in the presence of the Father. The evidence that we are spiritually alive is that we believe in Jesus. On one occasion Jesus said that he was the way, the truth and the life, and went on to say that no one came to the Father but by him. The Holy Spirit showed to sinners the beauty and suitability of Jesus as the sinbearer and they were led to Jesus and enabled by the Spirit to trust in Jesus. At that initial moment of faith, they were brought through Jesus in one Spirit to the Father and were joined to all the others who were experiencing that spiritual blessing.
The second word that explains this involvement of the Spirit is accepted. Another place where the idea of access is used by Paul is Romans 5:3 where he says that through Jesus, ‘we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.’
Apparently, one practice linked to the word ‘access’ occurred when an insignificant person wearing inappropriate clothing came to court for a meeting with the king. The insignificant person could not in his own right enter the king’s presence. Instead he needed to be introduced by one who had the king’s authority. Paul takes that practice and uses it to explain the doctrine of justification. Here we are as insignificant sinners wanting to speak to God or draw near to him. We cannot do so in our own right because we have no rights. Instead we need someone to introduce us who has God’s authority to do so. The one with such authority is God’s Son and the introduction he gives to sinners involves them having the spiritual attire of justification that he provided for them to wear in the Father’s presence.
On having received the introduction into the Father’s presence, there is no expectation that we should leave it again. This is where we will be as long as we are wearing the robe of justification. The work that Jesus performed in his life and death gives us access to the presence of the Father and the Spirit continually reminds his people of this wonderful reality.
So we have seen that through Jesus we have been made alive by the Spirit and received from Jesus the attire by which we are accepted into the Father’s presence. But more than those blessings is involved in this move into this place of blessing. When we were justified, we also were adopted by the Father, which means that living, justified sinners are immediately adopted by him and given the position of sons in his presence. This is an amazing exchange for those who once were slaves of sin. But having become at peace with God they also become members of his family.
Those three blessings – alive, accepted and adopted are common to all the people of God and they cannot be taken away from them. As far as those blessings are concerned, believers ‘through Christ in Spirit have access unto the Father.’ That is where they are for ever.
Yet there is more to say about this access and we can use another word to describe a fourth feature, which is awestruck. We could have used the word ‘astonished’ to describe this aspect as well. The feature I am thinking about here is linked to worship of the Father. In John 4, Jesus spoke to the woman of Samaria about the Spirit (living water), but he connected such an experience to worship of the Father. What do we mean by worship? It is not like seeing a sunset because in the worship of the Father we don’t see anything since he is invisible. Instead we grasp intellectually and affectionately the riches of his grace. And as we discover his eternal love and as we focus on his eternal plans and as we sense his wisdom and power to bring them about, we worship him. But we do so as we have access ‘through Christ in one Spirit to the Father.’
A fifth aspect of life in the presence of the Father is described by Jesus in the Sermon in the Mount when he refers to the practices of piety – almsgiving, prayer and fasting – that were common among the Jews and which he wanted his disciples to engage in regularly. His disciples were instructed by Jesus that the place where they should perform those acts of piety was in the secret place, the unseen location of the Father’s presence. As was very obvious at the time when he spoke, and as it is still obvious today, it is possible sadly to do those acts in the presence of men. Both audiences give their approval, but the only approval that matters is that of the heavenly Father, who will give an open reward to those who serve in this manner. Through Jesus, we in the Spirit engage in our acts of discipleship in the Father’s presence. He will reward those whose behaviour he approves.
There is a sixth consequence that happens to believers through Jesus in the Spirit in the presence of the Father. They experience alteration, or in more theological language they are sanctified. This process will involve chastisement, but whatever the chastisement is, it occurs in the presence of the Father because he chastises us. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Lord is likened to a metalworker who burns away the dross that mars his people. Whatever the burning involves, it takes place in the presence of the Father because the metalworker never takes his eye of the one he is changing.

A final aspect that we can think about as we experience this access is that it is a place of anticipation. Here we get insights into what is coming in the Father’s presence. After all, that is the eternal destination of the people of God. In his presence, through Jesus and in one Spirit, we focus on the kingdom that will yet be here. Surely, our response to this aspect, as well as with the other six, and with others that we have not mentioned, is to be thankful that we have access through Jesus and in one Spirit to the Father.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

He makes me lie down in green pastures (Psalm 23:2)

There are two comments that we can make about this verse as an introduction. First, this kind of situation would have been quite unusual in Judea where David grew up. Most of the countryside there is desert and for most of the year there is not much water to be found. No doubt, David was aware of more lush areas throughout his kingdom where there would supplies of water for most of the year, if not all of it as there would be beside the Sea of Galilee. So it looks as if David is saying that this experience of lying down in green pastures is quite rare, is from another world, one that is not like the natural world. Instead it is a supernatural world that he has in view.
Second, the verse does not say that the shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures after a trying day in the desert away from them. Instead he says that what the shepherd does is make the sheep lie down in green pastures all the time, and in the rest of verses 2 and 3 he uses the same form of structure when he says that the shepherd leads his sheep beside still waters and when he restores the soul of the sheep and when he leads the sheep in the paths of righteousness. These things are not sequential in the spiritual life. Instead they are concurrent. So it looks as if the psalmist is describing something that should be constant in the life of a believer.
This is not to suggest that a believer will not have hard experiences. They will come inevitably. Yet the psalmist is indicating that it is possible for those who are in the Shepherd’s flock to be provided with the spiritual equivalent of green pastures even when other circumstances are unpleasant or difficult. And many Christians have testified to the fact that they received great spiritual blessings and were conscious of the divine presence in dark moments. As Isaiah predicted would be the literal experience of Cyrus, so his words describe the spiritual provision of God for believers: ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name’ (Isa. 43:3).
The experience that is described in this sentence of the psalm is rest. When we think about the concept of rest, we realise that it is a prominent Bible theme. The Sabbath is a reminder that the Lord delights in rest, and not because he was tired after his creating activities; the promised land was the place of rest for the children of Israel, but it was not to be the place of inactivity; heaven is depicted as the rest for God’s people, but there they will be engaged in all sorts of actions; and the Book of Hebrews tells us that we should labour to enter into God’s rest now.
It is also the case that the experience of rest is something that people are looking for because the one thing that they sense is missing in their lives is rest. Instead of knowing rest, they are restless, not content with what they have or where they are. Life for such is a chase after something that remains elusive, something that they can never catch and enjoy, the wonderful reality of rest. And here David testifies in his song of praise that he experiences it.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, spoke about rest in Matthew 11:28-30: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ In that verse, he mentions the commencement of rest and the continuation of rest, and we can use that verse to help us understand what David meant in his psalm because, like the psalmist, Jesus indicates that the rest should be constant.
The commencement of rest
In the context, Jesus is addressing with compassion those who had been given heavy burdens by the Pharisees regarding how they could please God. The Pharisees were religious perfectionists, eager to find some form of spiritual pleasure, and they imagined that the way they would get there was by compiling a list of various activities that they and their followers should engage in. Instead of providing rest for their followers, they provided the opposite. Each of these additional commandments was only making those who attempted to obey them into sad and miserable people carrying ever-increasing burdens.
It is obvious that Jesus did not approve of such religious requirements. He saw nothing attractive in their commitment to such rules. Instead he wanted to deliver people from engaging in them. The fact is, a religion of man-made rules does not bring about spiritual rest. It can be composed of a list devised by Pharisees or by any group of well-intentioned people.
Why would people adopt such a way of life? The usual reason is that they are engaged in a search for God. Perhaps they are aware that he has provided the Ten Commandments and they assume that he has done so in order for those rules to be used as a ladder to climb to God. If they only keep one, then they will not find him because they are ignoring the other nine. But what happens if they try and keep the entire ten? Sadly, they are not any closer to God because that road of self-achievement does not lead to God.
Instead, Jesus says that the way to find rest is to go to him directly, and he assures us that if we do we will experience immediate rest. What does that form of rest include? It is twofold. First, when we go to Jesus and confess our sins and ask for mercy we are pardoned. Such an experience is a great enjoyment of rest. We don’t have to do anything to obtain pardon from God. Instead we can be forgiven because Jesus paid the penalty for our sins. Second, when we believe in Jesus we enter into a permanent state of peace with God. This state is an unchangeable one, and therefore it provides all who believe with a remarkable reason for enjoying rest. Although I am a sinner who needs pardon I can know the blessing of permanent reconciliation with the God whom I have sinned against.
One cannot be a sheep of the good Shepherd without having those blessings of pardon from God and of peace with God. Or we could say that they have forgiveness from God and faith in Jesus. It is important to note that this is what happens when a sheep enters the flock. They choose Jesus as their Shepherd because he has provided the path of pardon from his Father and the path of peace with his Father.
The continuation of rest
David in the psalm says that the shepherd makes the sheep lie down. We might imagine that he has to use a lot of force to persuade a reluctant sheep to take a rest. Yet often force does not have to be muscular to be effective. Jesus, when explaining the way of continuing in rest, informs the seeker of rest that he is gentle and humble as he provides it. So he does not crush his followers by his great strength. Instead he uses his power gently.
What does Jesus put on his people gently? The answer is his yoke. A yoke was an item that helped someone control animals and get them to move in certain directions and engage in specific activities. In the context, Jesus has a set of instructions which he says are not difficult to carry. In fact, he says that they are easy and light.
Jesus makes one great distinction between himself and the Pharisees when he says that his followers should learn from him. The followers of the Pharisees could never say that about their mentors because it was impossible for their rules to be obeyed. Instead, a Pharisee had always to say that he could never do the commandments he expected others to obey.
Here is an example to help us understand the difference. Jesus expected his people to pray and we know that his disciples were impressed by how he prayed because they asked him to teach them to pray. In response, he gave to them what we call the Lord’s Prayer.
The one thing that can be said about the Lord’s Prayer is that it is not difficult to say. I have heard some people say that they find it hard to pray. If they are true disciples of Jesus, they should say to themselves, ‘Jesus said it would be easy to obey his commandments, so has he provided a way for me to find prayer easier?’ The answer is that he has, and if we use the Lord’s Prayer as a form of prayer or as a guide to prayer, we will find ourselves praying.
The point that Jesus makes is that the way to find ongoing rest is to obey his commands. He gently compels his disciples to obey his instructions and shows them how to do it. The Shepherd shows the sheep how to behave and to find the place of rest.
The comfort of rest
Then we need to ask what is meant by green pastures in this verse of Psalm 23. First of all, we should note that it is a plural term, which points to an abundance of supply. Connected to that aspect is the fact that the plural also indicates variety. So we can ask ourselves, does the Bible indicate what green pastures are provided for the obedient believer? Here are three pastures in which we should be found.
In Isaiah 48:18, the prophet when speaking for God gives a remarkable description of the wonderful blessing of divine peace: ‘Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea.’ When peace is likened to a river, it is said to be increasing in amount. When a river rises, it is small, but eventually it expands to such a breadth that it is often very wide when it enters the sea. What does a life of obedience to the gentle rule of Jesus look like? There is an increasing serenity and contentment in the heart as the believer realises he is getting nearer and nearer to his heavenly destination.
In John 14:23, believers are informed of the amazing prospect of the company of the Father and the Son if they are obedient disciples: ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’ In verse 21, Jesus also says: ‘Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’ Whatever else that can be said about those verses, it is obvious that ongoing obedience leads to continued, wonderful company with the Father and the Son in which they will at home with their people. In other words, the sheep get to know the Shepherd better.
What do people talk about when they are at home together? Little things and big things. In the Christian life, prayer is intimacy with the Lord, and it should be made in a place where we are at home with the Lord, enjoying being with him and talking to him. There, in this place of spiritual privacy, in the secret place of the Most High, there is loving interaction, and the sheep experience words of assurance from their Shepherd. The Christian life has hidden springs that strangers don’t understand.
There is a third blessing that comes from obedience and which enables the sheep of Christ to have spiritual rest. Jesus said in John 7:17: ‘If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.’ Jesus there indicates that spiritual understanding of his teaching accompanies obedience to God’s instructions. His teaching is now found in the Bible, and of course it contains a great deal of information that a sheep can use. The imagery of sheep resting is that they are chewing on the grass that they have absorbed. What their practice depicts is the activity of meditation. When they engage in it, they discover that God’s words are sweet to their taste. And they discover that the pastures of the Bible are always green, providing spiritual sustenance that is super-abundant. And in this particular field, they find that the food provided by the Shepherd is himself. He is the Bread of life, he is the Water of life, he is the loyal Friend, he is the good Physician, he is the heavenly Bridegroom, he is the gentle Teacher. And we find him so in his green pastures.
Sometimes we see agitated sheep. They may be agitated because of the weather or maybe because they see a stranger walking his dog near them. In everyday life, such scenarios cannot be avoided. One factor in their agitation might be that it is impossible for their shepherd to be with them all the time. In the spiritual life, the heavenly Shepherd is always near, ensuring that his flock is healthy and resting in the green pastures. Yet sometimes his sheep are not found in the green pastures that he provides, and when that happens we don’t have contented sheep, even if they try and give the impression that they are.
Sadly, it is possible for the sheep of Christ’s flock not to know the comfort that comes from his provision of green pastures. Instead they are restless. If you are restless, you cannot be in the company of the Rest-giver. Maybe you are listening to the restless world with its meaningless promises, maybe you are hearing the voice of the restless devil who wanders about like a roaring lion, maybe you have dislikes for other sheep. Whatever the reason, you are restless rather than contented in the green pastures.

Having said that is possible, it is also good to know that the restless can find rest when they turn to the green pastures of the Shepherd. Obedience to the Shepherd’s rules brings about the experience of blessing, not because we merit them, but because obedience is the evidence that we are following him closely.