Sunday, 21 August 2016
Sometimes we may think a person is great and then discover that he is far greater than we could have imagined. I suppose someone has lived beside an athlete and realised that he was better than most. But then he saw the athlete at the Olympics and discovered that he was the best in the world by a long way. But the neighbour had to see the athlete in a superior situation to appreciate his greatness. Or we might think that a military officer seems competent, but then in a war we see his real greatness. Of course, such places also reveal whether or not a person is truly great.
Peter had seen Jesus do great miracles and had concluded that he was the promised Messiah and the Son of the living God. So he knew that Jesus was great. Yet he still thought there were places where it would not be possible for Jesus to show his greatness, and one of them was Jerusalem because Jesus had indicated that he would be put to death there.
In verse 26, Jesus speaks about the possibility of being ashamed of him and his words. Obviously, Peter was ashamed of what Jesus had been saying about the cross. We know that Jesus did not want Peter and the other apostles to be ashamed of what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Therefore, they had to be shown how it would not be a disgrace when it happened. So Jesus would arrange for them to be taught in a variety of ways. We know from later chapters in the Gospels that the apostles found it impossible to understand the cross of Jesus until he had risen from the dead. Yet they were still told about it and one reason was that they would yet be the main messengers of the cross.
Instruction of the apostles was not the only reason for the Transfiguration. Another reason would be the provision of comfort and fellowship for Jesus himself as he made his way to the cross. A third reason could be to show how close heaven is to earth. After all, how long did it take Moses and Elijah to travel to the mountain?
This incident had a great influence on Peter because he refers to it in one of his letters, probably written nearly thirty years later, shortly before he was going to die. ‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain’ (2 Pet. 1:16-18).
Peter was privileged
In verse 27, Jesus had revealed that some of the disciples would see the kingdom of God in a special way. Maybe he revealed this to them so that they would make enquiries as to what he meant. Perhaps he mentioned it to remind them that they needed to know a lot more about what the kingdom involves. After all, the nine apostles who did not ascend the mountain were unable to help the individuals who asked for it (vv. 37ff.).
Peter was one of the three selected by Jesus to discover more about the kingdom of God. It is useless to speculate why Peter was chosen. As his reference in 2 Peter reveals, he was very grateful for the privilege. He certainly was not given the privilege because he was the most advanced of the apostles. None of them could be described as such. All we can say is that on this occasion he was given this privilege, as he was also when he witnessed Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead and when he witnessed Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter was shown great grace here especially after what he had said earlier about him not wanting Jesus to go to the cross.
Power of prayer
No doubt, Peter learned amazing truths about Jesus at this time. Yet one of them must have been the emphasis that Jesus placed on prayer. Jesus knew that this experience was coming, yet he still prayed about it. It is not possible to say what he was praying about. Maybe he was praying for the three disciples, that they would understand what they would see and hear. Perhaps he was engaged in his regular time of prayer. Surely the example of Jesus on this occasion is to tell us that we should do everything in a prayerful spirit. And when we do so, who knows what we will see.
The glory of Jesus
There are two ways in which glory could be experienced. One is exemplified in Moses when he went into the presence of God and as a consequence his face shone brightly for a period of time. In Moses’ case, the source of the glory was external to him. Peter would have been aware of the account of what had happened to Moses, and surely he would have thought about it when he saw Moses here.
The experience that Jesus had was not like that of Moses because, with Jesus, the source of the glory was from within him. Here was proof that he was divine. As David McIntyre put it, ‘the indwelling Deity was irradiating the garment of flesh, which till now had veiled its splendour. It was the first open manifestation of the Christ as he truly is and eternally shall be.’
Another Gospel writer says that on this occasion the face of Jesus shone like the sun. That gospel writer had not seen the change, so he must have been told about it by one of the three. The transfiguring of Jesus probably took place in the evening because the disciples had gone to sleep. Yet in the time associated with darkness Jesus made that space on the mountain shine like as if it was day. I suppose we could ask, ‘Peter, what do you think of the greatness of Jesus now?’
The heavenly visitors
The kingdom of God clearly includes the residents of heaven. Two of them came from there to speak with Jesus. One of them, Elijah, had gone there without dying, whereas the other, Moses, had died, which means that he had been resurrected later at some stage. They did not come to meet Jesus and give him news from heaven, as it were. Instead they came to speak about what heaven was speaking about, which was the approaching death of Jesus.
Peter discovered that heaven was fully occupied with the death of Jesus, the death that Peter did not want. But he also heard that heaven did not view the death as a tragedy. Instead they regarded it as an activity, something that Jesus was going to do. For everyone else, death happens for them. None of them control it. In contrast, Jesus was in charge and he was going to use death as a means of triumph. We know that his death was an atonement for sin, we know that it was when he defeated the powers of darkness, and we know that his death became the basis for sinners getting to heaven.
The response of Peter
It is obvious that Peter had been enthralled about what he saw, although it is not obvious that he had appreciated what he had heard. He wanted the experience to continue. When we think about what he said, we see that his comments were not appropriate. He wanted Jesus to stay on the mountain and not continue on his journey to Jerusalem. He wanted Moses and Elijah to stay on the mountain and not return to heaven. And he wanted the three apostles to stay on the mountain and not return back to their work.
Moreover, he seems to have regarded Jesus as on the same pedestal as Moses and Elijah. After all, he had never seen Jesus glorified before, and now he observes three glorified persons. But sometimes, seeing can be deceiving. Peter looked at a scene of glory and misunderstood it. He may have grasped that Jesus was great, but he had still to appreciate that Jesus was unique, and that not even the most prominent characters from the history of Israel could compare with him.
So we can see from what Peter said how easy it is for us to miss the point while we are enjoying the presence of God. This experience should have been an encouragement to Peter regarding what Jesus had been teaching about his death. Heavenly visitors had spoken with Jesus about his future, and Peter does not seem to have appreciated the focus on the death of Jesus as he should have done. He is a reminder here that we can be selective in how we respond to biblical information.
The rebuke from heaven
Luke tells us that a cloud enveloped them. The cloud was a sign of the presence of God. It is often referred to as the Shekinah, and no doubt it was a very solemn moment for the disciples when they found themselves in it. What was God going to say to them? The voice of God stressed the uniqueness of Jesus and does so in at least three ways. First, there is his eternal relationship with the Father (my Son); second, there is the role that he was selected to do when he was called by the Father to engage in the work of salvation; third, there was the responsibility of Peter and the apostles to listen to Jesus, and we can deduce from the context that they were to listen to what he had to say about his death.
So Peter, among others and for other reasons too, received special insight into the person and work of Jesus. In this experience, he was discovering again how big Jesus is. He also discovered how wrong it is to express disagreement with the purpose of Jesus to go to the cross. It does not look as if at that time Peter or his two friends really understood what had happened and what they had heard. This may have been why Jesus instructed them to tell no one about it. Yet they did afterwards when the Holy Spirit came and took the things of Christ into remembrance.
Preached on 21st August, 2016
We are familiar with great gatherings in which a leader addresses a large audience. Often those who have been chosen by him to help him in his mission will be placed near him in prominent positions. The audience will then hear an address from the leader and as they listen to him they will also observe his chosen helpers standing or sitting near to him. Something similar, but in reality far more important in its significance, took place on the occasion when Jesus selected his apostles. He was there as the Leader, the apostles were there as his agents, and the crowd were there listening to Jesus as he outlined various features of his kingdom.
Luke informs us that Jesus spent the night in prayer before he publicly identified those who would be apostles. In his Gospel, Luke mentions that Jesus was praying at his baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration. Other Gospels mention other occasions when Jesus prayed. Perhaps we are surprised to see references to prayer in the life of Jesus. After all, he is divine, so why does he need to pray?
One answer to that question is that he is also a human. He became one at his incarnation when he was conceived in the womb of Mary. When he was a child he would have been taught to pray, perhaps by his mother. As he grew older, he would have learned to pray in a different way. Yet we can say several things about his praying.
First, he was always delighted to pray. With him, praying to God was never a chore. Second, he would have been diligent in his praying. It would have been a daily practice for him, to set aside time for prayer, and he always found time to pray. Third, his prayers would have been pure in that there would be no defects in them. He never included a wrong expression in his prayers and he never had to include confession of sin in his prayers. Fourth, his prayers were full of feeling – he would have put his whole heart into them. Often in his recorded prayers, he uses an adjective in front of the word ‘Father’, or he uses the little word ‘O’ as in ‘O Father’. Fifth, his prayers would have been expressions of love to God and man since those prayers were part of his obedience to God’s law expressed in the Ten Commandments. Sixth, he was always heard when he prayed, which was what he said when he prayed at the tomb of Lazarus. Seventh, he prayed for his disciples, and for some of them personally, as he did for Peter on the night he denied the Saviour. Eighth, he loved to pray in solitude (Luke 5:16). Ninth, it looks as if he prayed audibly, because on one occasion, after he had prayed, his disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Tenth, he used verses from the Psalms in some of his recorded prayers on the cross.
So Jesus prayed because he was a man, and it is a feature of holiness to pray. Jesus was perfectly holy, so therefore he was a man of prayer. Yet we also have to remember that sometimes he prayed in an official capacity as the Mediator. His role as Mediator when he was here on earth included him making preparations for the kingdom that he would set up after his death, resurrection and ascension. And it is obvious that the occasion described here was connected to that kingdom, because the apostles would have a large role to fulfil within it.
We can see something of the importance with which Jesus regarded this occasion by the fact that he preceded it with a night of prayer. It is likely that he spent many nights in prayer, but this is the only occasion in the Gospels where we are told that he spent an entire night in prayer. We can assume that his prayers were connected to the time he would spend with them before he died and also how they would serve him in the years after he had returned to heaven. But they would know that he had prayed for them before he selected them.
An obvious detail mentioned by Luke is that Jesus chose them in the presence of witnesses. Perhaps he did this to ensure that no one afterwards could say about them that Jesus had not chosen them. If that was the case, then we can see the care that Jesus took in ensuring that they would be known as his special servants.
It may be the case that Luke mentions the order in which they were chosen on this occasion. Or maybe he is mentioning them in the order with which they had come to follow him. We are not told how the last five came to be his followers, but we are told elsewhere about how the first seven came to follow him as their Master.
He gave to them a special name, that of apostles. We are so used to that title that we may not give much thought to what it signified. The word literally means messenger, which implies a sender and a recipient. An apostle is someone who delivers another’s message to those the sender wanted to hear it. This means that an apostle did not make up his own message, but had to be faithful to the One who sent him.
Who were to be the recipients of the message of Jesus? We can answer this question by saying that basically there would be two groups of recipients. One we call the unconverted and the other we can call the converted. So the apostles would always have both types of listener in mind as they went delivering the message of Jesus.
The messages of the apostles
What was the messages that they would bring to those two groups? As far as the unconverted were concerned, the message to be brought to them was the gospel. The word ‘gospel’ means good news, so if the message conveyed to people does not contain good news it is not the message that Jesus wanted his apostles to convey. So we, who are the successors of the apostles, need to find out what it means to pass on the message of the gospel.
We don’t pass on the gospel if all we do is point out the sins of people to them. Nor do we spread the gospel if all we tell them is that they are going to hell. And we are not speaking about the gospel if only describe the blessings of heaven. The gospel is the message that tells sinners how they can be saved from going to a lost eternity. Of course, we need to tell people that they are sinners, because otherwise why would they need a Saviour? The gospel means telling people that they will be forgiven by God if they repent of their sins and trust in Jesus. We can see from the Book of Acts that the apostles did this. They told the gospel simply, personally and wooingly.
Then there were the messages that they were to instruct the converted about once they had responded to the gospel. We find what they had to say in this regard when we read the various writings of the New Testament. Of course, there are many ways of outlining or summarising the message that the apostles and their colleagues communicated to the converted. For the present, I want to point out five aspects of their message that was there when they were alive and is still required from all those who come into the church of Jesus.
First, they have to hold tight to the doctrines that the apostles taught. We hold on to things that are precious to us. Second, they said that the religion of the converted involves the heart, that it is a religion of love. Third, they informed the converted that God hears and answers prayer. Fourth, they stressed to the converted the necessity of a holy life, which basically means becoming like Jesus. Fifth, they comforted the converted by pointing out to them the certain hope they had about the future because of Jesus and the incredible activities he would engage in when he returned.
What comes into our minds as we read the list of names mentioned by Luke? One of them became the traitor, and he is a sad person to observe. But what about the others? What can we say about them? Here are some suggestions. They were ordinary men – some were fishermen, one was a taxman, one was a former Zealot, and we don’t know about the others. They were imperfect men – Peter was impetuous, James and John were a bit wild (Jesus did call them the sons of thunder), Thomas could see everything in a negative way, and no doubt the others had their failings. They were ignorant men before Jesus began to teach them and they were slow learners after he engaged in teaching them. Did he not have to say to Philip, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?’ (John 14:9).
Yet what did they become? After all, they are described in Ephesians as the foundation of the church. They became faithful men – all but John would die a martyr’s death. They became the friends of Jesus, as he said to them in John 15:15: ‘No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.’ They became honoured men – millions of people down the centuries and throughout the world today love and respect them for what they did. And it all flowed and flows from the amazing night of prayer that Jesus offered on their behalf before he selected them to be his apostles.
Preached on 21st August 2016
Sunday, 14 August 2016
Was the calling of Levi (or Matthew) a significant moment? It was obviously significant because Levi was called by Jesus to be an apostle. He was also going to write a Gospel. Yet we are told about his experience and not about the call of some of the other apostles. I would suggest that we are told about his conversion because he was from a different background from most of the apostles. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Nathaniel (Bartholemew) were devout Israelites, individuals who would have been respected in their local communities for their dedication to the Jewish faith. With Levi, we move to a different kind of person.
It is possible to speculate about why he had the name Levi. Parents usually chose names for reasons. Perhaps, in this case, they wanted their son to serve God in a special way. After all, in Jewish history, Levi was the tribe chosen to serve God as priests and Levites. If that was the parents’ wish, then eventually their prayers were answered far above what they would have asked or imagined.
The one thing that is clear is that Levi was not living up to his name. Instead of serving God he was serving the Roman Empire as a tax official. We don’t regard the office of a taxman as sinful, but in those days the tax officials were notorious for their corruption. Levi would have to raise enough to satisfy the demands of his superiors, and on top of that amount he would have to raise enough to satisfy himself. Those demands would have made Levi very unpopular in the community.
So we can see that Jesus chose as one of his apostles a man who was a disappointment to his family, a collaborator with the foreign powers who ruled the country, an individual who lined his pockets at the expense of others, and a person who was deeply unpopular. In fact, we could say that he was everything a presbytery committee would not want! Yet Jesus wanted him, and called him to this role.
Moreover, Jesus called him in public, when he was sitting at his desk, probably with a line of people waiting to pay tax. There is no hint that Jesus had a private meeting with him beforehand in order to discuss things. Of course, Jesus did not have a need for such a meeting, but we could imagine Levi needing one. After all, Jesus did give a private meeting to Andrew before he became a public disciple. The obvious lesson is that we should not be surprised at those Jesus calls into his service.
Prerequisites for discipleship
There are two prerequisites for anyone who becomes a disciple of Jesus. They receive a call from Jesus and respond to the call from Jesus. We cannot do the second without the first, although many may hear the first without doing the second.
We have already observed how the call of Levi was surprising, given his background. No doubt it was very surprising also for Levi himself. Such a possibility would not have entered his mind as he had his breakfast that morning. No doubt, when he commenced work for the day, he assumed it would be a usual day. So the call of Jesus to him would have been very surprising.
A second detail is that the invitation he received from Jesus was very short. All Levi heard was a very brief statement, ‘Follow me!’ There is no indication that Levi had ever heard Jesus before, although he would have heard about Jesus because of his popularity. Levi’s experience is a reminder that a person does not have to hear a great amount before commencing life as a disciple.
A third aspect of the call is that it was very specific. Although it was only two words, they were very demanding. Levi recognised that they were the words of a sovereign, and much more authoritative than the demands he would have received from his political masters. He recognised that he had reached a moment of decision in his life, where his response to the call would decide his entire future. Would he be Levi the tax collector working for the Romans or would he be Levi the apostle working for Jesus?
We can see in the words of Jesus a sense of sureness as well. Where was Levi going in life? What did his chosen path have to offer him? Where did his daily actions take him on his journey of life? Did he have a sure destination? As he looked at Jesus, it seems that Levi realised that the path to fulfilment lay in following Jesus.
The response of Levi was immediate. He did not wait long before taking Jesus at his word. His response was also indicative, because it was as public as the invitation he had received. He made it very clear that he wanted to follow Jesus. And his response was also inclusive, because he omitted nothing when he decided to leave all and follow Jesus.
Practice of discipleship
Mark then describes what Levi did as a disciple. He opened his home for Jesus to use and he invited his colleagues and others to meet with Jesus. What can we say about his home? First, it was a home in Capernaum, the town to which Jesus had moved to after leaving Nazareth. Jesus already had a home there, and he also had access to other homes such as the home of Simon Peter. But it looks as if part of the strategy of Jesus was to use homes of willing people.
Second, it was a suitable home in Capernaum because it was capable of hosting large numbers of people. Perhaps Levi lived in an upmarket part of town in contrast with where Peter and even Jesus lived. What is clear is that the house was capable of hosting a lot of people – many of Levi’s friends were there and many of Jesus’ disciples were there.
Third, it was now a sanctified home because he made it available for Jesus to use in furthering his influence. The obvious aspect of the gathering was that Jesus was not ashamed to go there. It is evident from the response of the scribes and Pharisees that they regarded with disapproval his willingness to be there. Of course, they had never given anything to Jesus for him to use.
Fourth, his home now reflected the simplicity of discipleship, which was to have fellowship with Jesus and to introduce others to him. We talk a lot about how to win people to Jesus. This passage gives a straightforward strategy, which is use your home and invite people you know to discover something about Jesus.
Whenever someone does something for Jesus, that person will not have too long to wait before the critics will come along. It is interesting that the critics did not focus on Levi, but on Jesus. Perhaps they were not too sure about how long Levi would be a disciple, and maybe they did not want to criticise someone who worked for the government. But they were prepared to have a go at the existing disciples about what their Master was doing.
The disciples must have told Jesus what the critics were saying. In their example, we have the best response to criticism. Maybe they could not give a coherent answer to what the Pharisees were questioning them about. Yet they had learned to bring issues to Jesus. Of course, they could do so physically and watch what he did in response. We have to do so in prayer and then wait for him to work.
The critics did not understand Jesus at all. If they really wanted an answer to their question, then they should have asked Jesus personally. Nevertheless, he gave them the answer, and we should be very thankful that he did because his words reveal to us who we are, who he is, and what he was doing.
Jesus uses an obvious daily experience to illustrate spiritual realities. We can easily see the connections: those who are well are the righteous, those who are sick are sinners, and the physician is Jesus. In this sense, there is no one who is righteous among sinners.
But we have to ask what kind of illness do sinners have in a spiritual sense? The answer is that they have a widespread illness, a spreading illness and a lethal illness. It is widespread in that it affects every part of them, it is spreading in that it increases in its influence, and it is lethal in that it will lead to what the Bible describes as eternal death.
What kind of doctor is Jesus? How easy is it to have a meeting with Jesus? One of the obvious details with a doctor is that usually he can only deal with one person at a time. In contrast, Jesus can deal with all of his patients at any time. Moreover, he comes on repeated visits and does not wait until we make an appointment. Levi had not asked Jesus to come to his desk that morning, and his friends had not asked Jesus to come to Levi’s house to see them. The fact is that Jesus delights to bring his ability to heal right to those who are ill.
Where did Jesus find his cure? We are aware that some doctors and others have spent many years trying to find a cure for certain health problems. He provided it himself when he died on the cross to pay the penalty of our sins. The provision of this cure required that he spend his lifetime obeying God and then offering himself as a perfect sacrifice instead of those who were ill.
How does Jesus implement his cure? Sometimes when we go to a doctor he has to send us to a specialist because the problem requires that process and the patient needs the best treatment available. Jesus is the Specialist when it comes to dealing with the problem of sin and its consequences, so he does not send us to anyone else. He is the Specialist because he is both God and man.
What kind of cure does Jesus provide? Often, the cures that we receive come in stages and may take a while to appear. The cure that Jesus provides also comes in stages and here are four of them. First, when we repent of our sins we are forgiven and receive his righteousness as ours because we have responded in faith. Second, we are given the Holy Spirit to indwell us and he begins to change us and make us holy, and he will do this throughout the rest of our lives. Third, when our life comes to an end, our souls will go to heaven to be with Jesus, and we at the moment of death will become perfect in holiness. Fourth, our bodies will be resurrected and we will be glorified when Jesus returns.
How much does Jesus charge for his services? The answer to this question is that every stage in the healing process is provided free. The biblical term for this is grace, and Jesus is full of grace. In any case, none of us could purchase the remedy because all our assets are worthless. What is required of us is that we respond to the invitation of the gospel and commit ourselves into the care of Jesus. When we do that, we will discover that he is the good Physician for everyone, which was the message that he gave when he called Levi to be an apostle.
Preached on 14/7/2016