Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1-30)

Jesus gave to his listeners an exposition of his kingdom, which we might assume was a way of making it easier for them to understand what he was teaching. Yet we can see from verse 12 that his disciples were puzzled by this method because it must have been a different one from what Jesus had used previously. They asked Jesus why he was using this method and his reply might have surprised them and it should surprise us because we often think that parables are a way of making something easier to understand. No doubt, that is true of some of the stories that Jesus taught, but it is not the explanation for the parables in this chapter.

Instead, in speaking in parables, Jesus was acting in judgement on those who had refused to accept to his message or accept the witness of his miracles. He had spoken about his coming kingdom and his miracles had shown that he was the promised Messiah. But since he was being rejected by the people he started to teach in a manner that hid truth from them rather than making it straightforward. Indeed, he says that what was predicted of Isaiah’s ministry when he was called to serve as a prophet (Isa 6) was also fulfilled again, but in a more serious way, when the descendants of Isaiah’s rejecters now rejected the divine prophet himself.

In contrast, he says that the disciples are blessed because they have divine understanding – they have been divinely enlightened. Moreover, they have been privileged beyond the Old Testament prophets and other believers because they did not live in the days of the Messiah. They may have predicted his coming and looked forward to his coming, but they did not see it. We can list the famous names of the Old Testament and say about each of them, ‘He or she did not see the days of Jesus on earth.’ Of course, someone might say that all believers since the ascension of Jesus have not seen such times either. Yet we can say in response to such an assessment that we live in the days when the Holy Spirit has been poured forth and when the kingdom of Jesus is expanding.

Since that is the case, one question that should come to mind concerns what the kingdom of Jesus looks like. I suspect that is the issue that Jesus deals with in this set of seven parables as he provides several pictures of life in his kingdom. The pictures apply to every period of his kingdom and to every location. What he describes here will be seen repeatedly while his kingdom on earth lasts. This will be the case even although his kingdom will be growing.

Jesus explains for his disciples the meaning of this parable. One surprising omission from his explanation is that he does not say who the sower is. This could have been because it is obvious, or it could be that there is more than one sower. What are the options? One is that the sower is Jesus, and that would certainly have been the case in a literal sense at that time. Another is that every person who scatters seed is a sower, which could refer to preaching and evangelising. Personally, I suspect the answer to the identity of the sower is to combine the two suggestions. Jesus functions as the sower but he uses his servants to scatter the seed. Paul reminded the Ephesians that Jesus had come and preached peace to them. Yet Jesus had not travelled physically to Ephesus. Instead he had gone there through his servants and declared the gospel to sinners in Ephesus.

There is something very solemn and sad about this. People literally heard the good news of the kingdom from the lips of Jesus and refused his gracious invitations. Today, people hear the good news of the kingdom from the servants of Jesus and refuse his invitations. Such a refusal is serious because those who do so are not merely rejecting the offer of a mere man – instead, they are rejecting an offer that comes straight from the King himself.

Before we look at the parable in more detail, we should observe its structure. There are three bad responses and there are three good responses. This is a reminder that there is variety in the life and experience of the kingdom. The three bad responses involve rejection of the message and the three good responses involve different degrees of fruit-bearing. We can think about the two types of response.

The bad responses
As we can see, one of the bad responses to the message of Jesus is immediate and the other two occur later. Jesus points out two factors as to why there is a rejection of his message in such a manner. First, the individual does not think about it – does not understand it. It is impossible to understand a matter if we don’t think about it. There may be lots of reasons as to why no thought is given. Nevertheless, we see that the message of the kingdom is directed to our minds. Second, a failure to think about the message allows the devil an opportunity of removing it from our minds. It is not difficult for him to do this if we don’t think about the message. The picture of snatching suggests the speed with which this can be done as well as indicating that the individual does not realise that it has happened. Why would he since he is not thinking about it? This is a reminder that the devil looks at people hearing the message with the aim of removing it from their minds, usually by suggesting something else to think about.

The second wrong response is revealed sometime later. Again, this response is made by someone who has not thought about the message. Instead, his response was only an emotional one – he was full of joy, but joy by itself is no proof of conversion. In addition, there has to be what Jesus calls ‘root in himself,’ a picture that the message has taken firm hold within him. This wrong response, says Jesus, shows itself when trouble comes along that is connected to the message of the kingdom. It is striking that Jesus uses the word ‘immediately’ twice to describe this response. There is an immediate response when he hears the message and there is an immediate rejection when trouble comes. We can say of this person that he has not counted the cost. Part of the message of Jesus is that those who follow him will face opposition for their faith and true disciples will take that into account. Sadly, many a person has given up the faith because someone laughed at them.

The third wrong response is revealed when a person’s priorities are tested. Things go wrong in life. Everyone knows that. The Saviour says that if people live for the wrong things those things will choke the word, which is a very graphic illustration. They prevent spiritual life developing and they don’t grow spiritually. I suppose in the illustration thorns prevented the seed from getting sunlight and moisture, and the things of this world, if they dominate our thinking, will do the same in a spiritual sense. This individual has not been enlightened regarding what he should live for and eventually it becomes clear that he is not living for the kingdom.

What should be our response to this stark statement from Jesus? First, we have to say that it is accurate because there are many who have done this. Second, if we are listening to the gospel, but have not professed, we should pay attention because the devil is waiting to snatch away the message from our minds. Third, if we find the symptoms of the second and third wrong responses in our hearts, we should be afraid and come to our spiritual senses. This warning is given by Jesus because he knew that this is what would happen in connection to his kingdom.

The good responses
As we look at the description of a good response to the message of the kingdom we see in verse 23 that this individual understands it. This is what made the difference. Therefore we should ask what is meant by understanding it. The answer is that we have to recognise two sides to such understanding. On one side is the enlightenment that the Holy Spirit gives to a spiritually blind person. This occurs in the experience of every person who becomes a true believer. From seeing nothing they move to seeing who Jesus is. On the other side is the searching that the individual makes, and the length and intensity of this search will vary between those who become genuine Christians. Some search for a while whereas others seem to find the answer quickly. Also, some make deeper discoveries about themselves (conviction of sin) than others do. And some have deeper and stronger sense of assurance at the time of conversion.

The other area that Jesus mentions is the subsequent development in the spiritual lives of believers. At one level, it is not the amount of fruit but the genuineness of it that is highlighted here. They all bear fruit, but they don’t all bear the same amount. Yet we should observe that Jesus describes the harvest as good, whatever the size. It seems that in Palestine at that time a harvest of tenfold was regarded as successful. So when the disciples heard this illustration they would realise that all true believers bear a lot of fruit. Perhaps our minds go to the words of Jesus in John 15 where, when speaking about himself as the vine and his disciples as branches, he said that those who abide in him will bear much fruit.

What is the fruit that Jesus has in mind here? One suggested answer is that it refers to converts, yet that is unlikely because very few believers have been great soul winners. So it is much more likely that Jesus is referring to Christian character, the type of life he described in his Sermon on the Mount or the fruit of the Spirit as detailed by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5. 

Why is there such a difference between the amount of fruit that is produced? I would suggest that the answer to this question is twofold. One aspect is connected to God’s sovereign bestowal of spiritual gifts. He gives certain gifts to some people that he does not give to others, so it is inevitable that in those areas of spiritual living some will have more fruit than others. The other aspect is connected to the use believers make of their spiritual resources, or means of grace. Unlike the first aspect, which we cannot adjust, the second aspect from a human point of view highlights the importance of dedication and delight in utilising those means of grace. 

We can summarise our study by four words and they are differences, dangers, dependence and determination. With regard to differences, we have seen that there is a clear difference between true disciples and false disciples, even if it takes a while for false disciples to reveal their colours. We have also seen that there is a difference between Christians regarding fruit bearing.

Next, we have seen the dangers connected to a shallow and unthoughtful response to the message of the gospel. The danger is connected to self-deception, because at one stage in their lives those in categories two and three of the bad responses would have stated that they were genuine believers.

The final lesson is to realise that a true believer is marked by a combination of dependence on Jesus and determination to continue serving the Lord whatever comes along in life. Such have understood the message of the kingdom that the heavenly Sower declares through his servants.

Was Adam a son of God? (Gen. 1)

The question, ‘Was Adam a son of God?’, usually is not asking whether Adam became a believer in God through his grace after falling into a state of sin. Instead, the question usually concerns the status of Adam before he fell into sin when he was tempted by the devil to disobey God’s revealed will concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam after his fall could have become a member of God’s family through faith, although one cannot be certain about that because the Bible does not say one way or the other.

The matter of whether Adam was a son of God by nature arises from several biblical verses that use terminology connected to such a relationship. Luke, the author of one of the Gospels, says in his genealogy of Jesus that Adam was the son of God (Luke 3:38). The apostle Paul, when explaining his message to the council in Athens (Acts 17:28-29), cited statements from pagan sources when stating that humans were the offspring of God (Paul was not saying that the sources had a full biblical understanding of anthropology, but he was acknowledging that their opinion at that point was correct). Those verses from Luke in his Gospel and in the Acts indicate that in some way Adam, before he fell into a state of sin, and humans in general have a relationship with God that is one of children to a father.

This does not mean that the status enjoyed by Adam before he fell was the same as the sonship that is given to those who believe in Jesus. Nevertheless, it must be the case that the relationship he enjoyed was part of the dignity that he was given and which we need to understand in order to appreciate the significance of humans as creatures of God. After all, the relationship with God would have been different if there had not been a paternal aspect to it.

The privileges that Adam enjoyed

The accounts of Adam’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2 do not describe him by the specific words ‘son of God’. Yet since Luke says that Adam was a son of God, there must be signs of that status in what is said about Adam. There are three pointers to this status that indicate he was a son of God.

The first pointer comes from asking if other creatures are described as sons of God. There are, and they are the angels who are so described in the Book of Job. They appear before God at a gathering in which reports are given (Job 1:6; 2:1). So we can deduce that part of the dignity of their sonship is that they served God in specified roles.

Moreover, angels are later described in the same book as involved in divine praise that is marked by understanding, wonder and joy: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’ (Job 33:4-7). The angels understood to some extent what God was doing, his capabilities filled them with wonder, and the response was marked by exceeding joy. While that response happened at the time of the creation of the universe, we can note that the same features appeared in the angels who were sent to inform the shepherds about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Luke 2:13-14).

So far we have seen that angelic sonship involved intelligent service of God and intelligent, joyful praise of God. Both the service and the praise given by the angels was corporate. It would not be difficult to deduce that the community of angelic servants, as creatures of God with the status of sons, should be regarded as a family. And it would not be difficult to deduce that Adam was also a son because the same features of service and worship marked his relationship with God.

The obvious difference between Adam and angels was that Adam initially was not part of a community, but since it was intended by God that Adam and Eve and their descendants should produce children it meant that it would not be long before Adam was part of a community, that of the human race. This method of producing a community also points to another distinction between humans and angels. Adam was regarded by God as the head of the human race and its representative in the sense that whatever he did in the role assigned him by God would affect his descendants. This role is explained by Paul in his exposition in Romans 5:12-21 when he explains why Adam’s sin affected every one of the human race as well as himself. There was not a similar relationship with the angels. Instead, when some of them participated in the rebellion of Satan, the entire angelic community did not fall.

Another pointer to Adam’s status comes from another group who are called sons of God in the Old Testament and they are rulers or kings. It is possible that it is rulers who are described in Genesis 6:2-4 as abusing their power in forms of sexual oppression, although that interpretation is disputed, with some arguing that sons of God there refer to the descendants of Seth, and others that they describe fallen angels. Whatever the interpretation of that verse, there are other biblical passages such as Psalm 82 that describe human rulers as sons of God. It should not surprise us to see dominion and sonship linked together because that is what Adam received at his creation. In Genesis 1, he is given authority over all the lower creatures as God’s chosen ruler. This authority was later shown in the way Adam decided names for other creatures (Gen. 2). Adam, if he had remained unfallen, would have been king of the world under the authority of God.

One other feature of the various statements made about Adam and Eve by God at their creation that we can consider is the significance of them being made in the image of God.  Whatever the image includes, it points to humans being like the God who created them. While the aspect of infinity would not have been given to a creature, man was like God in that he could communicate, in that he could love God’s requirements, in that he could express holy affections, in that he could make wise decisions, and in that that he could assess situations.

The concept of likeness is usually regarded as part of the meaning of sonship. Paul reminds us that the notion of fatherhood that exists everywhere comes from God. In everyday life, a father or a parent gives an inheritance to his children. There in Genesis 1, at the beginning of history, God gave an inheritance to his human creatures, made in his image, which would have been theirs for as long as they remained in a right relationship with him as their Father.

What happens after the fall?

Sadly, the relationship that existed between humans and God was affected when Adam and Eve sinned. Instead of living in an environment of blessing, a divine curse was placed over the activities of man. Death, pain, disappointment and other problems would mark life everywhere. Yet some traces of the pre-existing situation remain after the fall and here are some of them.

First, everyone receives their existence from God. Each person is a divine creation. It is true that each is connected in various ways to their parents, yet each person is also an individual formed by the hand and care of God, as the psalmist mentions in Psalm 139 when he considers the significance of having come into existence because of God’s plan.

Second, everyone retains aspects of the image of God. This reality is mentioned in the Bible as reasons for not engaging in sin, whether it be the serious sin of murder or lesser sins such as those mentioned by James in his letter. It is because humans retain those aspects that we know the difference between right and wrong (conscience), that we show kindness to others and express sympathy for others, and we can learn and use that knowledge for the betterment of life (as the descendants of Cain did in Genesis 4).

Third, everyone enjoys the bountiful provision of God. How much care does God expend on the world each day? Who looks after the crops as they grow? Who sends the rain and caused the sun to shine? Of course, the world is not now what it could have been, but this shortfall is not the fault of God. In his common grace he provides abundantly for his rebellious creatures who have estranged themselves from him.

Fourth, everyone is outside the immediate family of God. This is the devastating consequence of the sin of Adam. With one bite he moved from the family of God and became detached from it. No longer did he love God as the Father, no longer did he trust in divine protection but immediately became afraid of divine power, no longer did he want to communicate with God. A sign could be placed inside Eden beside where Adam fell which read ‘Unimaginable Disaster.’

What does the gospel offer?

Many different blessings are offered in the gospel and here are some of them. We can think of forgiveness of all our sins, the reception of a new heart that now loves God, the promise of interaction with God through prayer as we bring our concerns to him, the reality of belonging to a community with shared interests under God’s guidance, the promise of going to heaven when we die, and the prospect of being with God forever in the world of glory. What holds all those features together? It is membership of God’s family. Those who are forgiven join the family of God, all who are in the family of God have new hearts, prayer to the heavenly Father is engaged in by all his family members, the invisible church is composed of those who belong to the family of God, and the new heavens and new earth is the eternal inheritance of the family members.

One of the parables of Jesus that is well-known is called the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is possible that this parable is miscalled because there were two rebellious sons in the parable and they depict self-righteous people (the elder brother) and unrighteous people (the runaway brother). A stronger reason for having another name for the parable is connected to the fact that the message of the parable is actually about the father who depicts God. What does Jesus say about the father that reminds us of the heavenly Father?

Here are five thoughts to observe. First, God allows people to choose the path of their rebellion, as indicated in the choices of the two sons. Second, God looks for the return of those who wander far away from him. Third, God rushes to embrace those who do return to him. Fourth, God provides freely to those who do return. Fifth, God and those who are penitent are happy for ever. What an amazing insight into the heart of the heavenly Father! I wonder who he is rushing to embrace just now. He will be doing so all over the world today. Have we known his glad embrace, or are we like the returning prodigal so focussed on our defects that we don’t fully listen to what the Father says when he restores the wayward son to family privileges and status?

How do sinners estranged from God become his children? There is a divine side to the process and there is a human side as well. From the divine side, sinners need to be made alive by the power of the Holy Spirit – this is termed regeneration and must occur before a spiritually-dead sinner will respond positively to the gospel. This activity of the Spirit involves enlightenment regarding themselves as sinners and of Jesus as the Saviour. How do we know that we have been enlightened in a manner that is connected to being regenerated by the Holy Spirit? The answer to that question is given by John in his Gospel when he says that those who know the answer are those who have received Jesus by faith (John 1:12). To receive something means to take what is offered by someone. Jesus in his grace offers himself to sinners and once they have received him they discover that they are also full members of the family of God by a new birth (they have the right to be so-called, says John).

Responding to the gospel brings us back into the family of God. We don’t come back into a relationship that is the same as Adam had. The one that Adam had was for sinless people, the one that we have is for changed sinners. The one that Adam had could be lost, the one that changed sinners have can never be lost. The one that Adam had did not involve the presence of the Elder Brother (Jesus) with his people whereas all those in the new family connection are united to Jesus is a personal and powerful way by the Holy Spirit.

It is good to be restored to the family. Earlier, we mentioned that for Adam, he could serve and praise God like the angels did, that he could rule on behalf of God, and that he was like God. Those who come into the family through divine grace also serve and praise God, they reign with Jesus forever, and they are renewed in the image of the One who created them.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Responding to God’s Servant (Matthew 12:15-50)

In this passage of his Gospel, Matthew describes several responses to Jesus as he preaches about his kingdom. We need to remember that this period in the ministry of Jesus occurred before the cross and he had to instruct people about their expectations regarding his mission. There was the danger that they would attempt to bring in the kingdom of God in a wrong way and this explains the instruction of Jesus to those he healed that they should not make him known. His kingdom could not appear until after he had died and risen again. He had to deal with the punishment of sin and provide the basis of forgiveness before sending out his disciples to the world to declare the gospel and describe entrance into the kingdom.

Matthew inserts a passage from the prophecy of Isaiah 42:1-4 that describes the nature of the kingdom of Jesus. In verse 18, we have the words that God the Father announced at the baptism of Jesus when he received the Holy Spirit. The Father on that occasion declared that he was well-pleased with his Son. The following verses in the prophecy go on to say that the Messiah will focus on the needy among the Gentiles and will instruct them in a gentle manner.

We can observe the way Isaiah describes the Gentiles whom Jesus will help – they are like bruised reeds. A bruised reed is a reed that has been stood on by a person or an animal and since it is unable to recover it is regarded as worthless. It is a very appropriate image for describing those who have been damaged by their sins. Such cannot recover themselves and often they may regard themselves as of little value. Others may think the same of them. Yet the prophet predicted that Jesus would show compassion on such people and heal them from the effects of their sins. In his earthly ministry he had occasionally helped Gentiles, but soon the time would come when Gentiles would come into the kingdom in vast numbers. As Jesus said on one occasion, many will come from the east and the west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom.

This outcome was not what the Jews in Israel at the time of Jesus expected to happen. Yet they should have done so because that was what their prophets had said would take place. We could say that at this stage in the ministry of Jesus described by Isaiah most of the prediction after verse 18 had not yet happened, and would not occur until after his resurrection. Nevertheless, people could respond to what Jesus was saying and doing, and Matthew mentions several wrong responses.

The unforgiveable sin
Jesus had healed a blind and deaf man who had been demon-possessed. It is not surprising that the people, when they saw such an amazing miracle, wondered if Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Pharisees had a very different opinion about him from that of the crowd, which was that Jesus had performed this miracle with the help of the devil. They stated that Jesus was an agent of the devil rather than being the agent of God.

Jesus responded to this suggestion by saying that it was both silly and serious. What made it silly was the idea that the devil would fight against himself, which is what they had suggested when they said that Jesus was using the devil’s power to cast out demons. The Saviour also mentioned that he was not the only person casting out demons; in fact, some of their followers were doing so and he asked if all such were using the power of the devil as they did so.

What made their allegation serious was their failure to see that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of the Spirit. The Pharisees were spiritually blind and this made them unable to tell the truth about what Jesus was doing. They did not realise that he had come to defeat the devil (the strong man) and free people from his grip. This would happen after he had defeated the devil on the cross and then the Gentiles living in spiritual darkness would be set free from their chains by Jesus.

The Pharisees had a choice to make, which was to follow Jesus or to oppose him. At that moment they were opposing him and in danger of sinful misinterpretation of his mission. The danger was connected to what Jesus called the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which he said was unforgiveable, whereas all other sins, including sins against him, could be pardoned.

This verse has caused distress to many people who had no need to be distressed by it. How do we know that is the case? Because a person who has committed this sin hates Jesus and despises his kingdom. No one who loves Jesus and wants his kingdom to prosper has committed this sin.

Nevertheless, there is a warning that there are some sins that take the sinner beyond the possibility of forgiveness. One such sin is the refusal to repent before God for our sins. If we die in that state, we will not be forgiven. A decision to give up following Jesus can lead to the sin of apostacy, although we can never judge if someone has committed it. The best response is to avoid such awful consequences by going to God through Jesus and asking him to forgive us. If we continue engaging in this response, we are safe from divine judgement.

The Saviour reminds the Pharisees that their words reveal what is in their hearts. They spoke about Jesus in this wrong way because their hearts were evil. Our words usually reveal what we think about and what we love. If we love Jesus and his kingdom, we will think about it and speak about it. If we don’t love Jesus, we will think about something else and speak about it. Yet we are reminded that our words may come back to haunt us on the Day of Judgement. It is a solemn thought that everyone will give an account for every careless word they uttered, and that our words now already indicate what the verdict will be then. If we are for Jesus now, our words will reveal it very clearly.

The Sign of Jonah
The next incident that Matthew mentions occurred when some scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign to prove that he was the Messiah. Of course, this request was a statement of unbelief because Jesus had already given numerous signs that revealed that he was the promised Deliverer. We only need to think of the response Jesus gave to John the Baptist when he sent messengers to ask if Jesus was the promised Messiah. In his reply, Jesus mentioned several signs that showed he was the Messiah, signs such healing people of their diseases.

The Saviour chose to inform the scribes and Pharisees that they would yet see a great sign. It is possible that they may not have grasped at that time what Jesus meant, yet they would hear about it in a short while and then they could repent of their sins. The future sign was his death and resurrection which he likened to the experience of Jonah when he was swallowed by a great fish. We know that after Jonah was delivered from the fish he took a message of grace to the Gentiles in Nineveh and although it was very unlikely beforehand the inhabitants of the city repented and the threatened judgement was averted. In a far greater manner than Jonah, Jesus after he would rise from the dead would take the message of grace to the Gentiles, as predicted by Isaiah, and would do so gladly, unlike Jonah who was annoyed that the inhabitants repented of their sins against God.

Would those people follow the example of the inhabitants of Nineveh? Jesus reveals that they would not because he says that they yet will be condemned on the Day of Judgement by the people of Nineveh for not listening to him. He also reveals that the Queen of Sheba will also condemn them for not listening to Jesus who was physically beside them. In contrast, she had travelled many miles to listen to the truth as spoken by Solomon.

Jesus here speaks as a prophet as he describes what will take place on the Day of Judgement to the people, including those scribes and Pharisees, who were in danger of rejecting him and his mission of grace. They might have imagined that grace was not for Gentiles, but even the Old Testament revealed that it was. The question that applies to us is will the inhabitants of Nineveh and the queen of Sheba stand up and condemn us for not listening to the Saviour who was sent to deliver Gentiles from the penalty of their sins.

The danger of half-heartedness
Jesus then told a story to illustrate what was happening to those who were listening to him. In the story, he refers to a person who has been delivered from an evil spirit, but who then allows that spirit, along with seven worse spirits, to retake control of his life. What does he mean?

For a while, Jesus had been popular with people and they had responded to his message and given up certain practices. In doing so they had been delivered to an extent from the influence of the devil and his agents. Those agents are still looking to destroy them and now discover that those persons are not truly following Jesus. The powers of darkness retake control easily and those who once looked to be potential disciples of Jesus now are his opponents.

What was wrong with those people? Their connection to Jesus had been lukewarm and their hearts had not been involved. They had conformed to some extent externally but had failed to give their affections to Jesus and to repent of their sins against God. They had not taken his message seriously, and it is not surprising that the powers of darkness could retake their old location. The only one who could help those people was Jesus and he was the person they did not ask for help.

In other passages in the Gospel we are told about people who gave up following Jesus because he did not fit in with their expectations. One such example was those who wanted to make him King after he had fed thousands in a miraculous way. Yet when he refused to become a king in an earthly political sense they stopped following him. It takes more than participating in a miracle to get a changed heart.

The family of Jesus
Around that time, the mother and brothers of Jesus come to his house and ask to see him. Probably there was a crowd of people preventing them from getting in. The request gives to Jesus the opportunity of describing who belongs to his family. It is not those who have a physical connection with him, like his mother and brothers. So if it is not them, who can they be?

Of course, we should not imagine that at that moment his mother Mary was unconverted. She had been a devout believer since she was young as we can see from passages that describe the birth of Jesus. Nor are we to imagine that his brothers would not yet be converted – they were after his resurrection and we find them gathering with the disciples waiting for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:14). So Jesus was not indicating here that they did not belong to his kingdom.

The point of this incident is that it is easy to work out who belongs to the family of God. Those who do belong to the family obey what God the Father commands them to do, not because they are working their way to heaven, but because they show their gratitude for his mercy by doing what pleases him.

Here were several responses to Jesus. The malicious Pharisees, the seekers after signs, the careless listeners, and the connection by family ties. Each of them fell short. Instead, we should trust in Jesus and follow him.

Preaching to Pagans (Acts 17:16-33)

Luke, in this chapter, continues his reports of what took place in different places when Paul and his colleagues took the gospel of Jesus to them. We can see that there was a variety of responses ranging from hostility (Thessalonica) to eager interest (Berea) to curiosity and scepticism (Athens). Yet whatever the response of those who rejected the message it is striking to note that there were always some who accepted it. This was the case whether they were Jews or Gentiles, whether they were average or intellectual in ability. So while we can say that the devil was at work trying to hinder the progress of the gospel, it was also the case that God was at work gathering in his people and extending his kingdom.

As we focus on Paul’s address in Athens, we can observe some things about his strategy. As he did elsewhere, he took his message to the synagogue because he knew that they would listen to an exposition connected to the Old Testament and the promised Messiah. Paul also mingled with people in the marketplace, where they gathered daily, and spoke about the gospel to whoever would listen to him. In both contexts, he reasoned with those he was interacting with, explaining the good news in a logical manner, making it possible for them to respond to him. Sometimes they did not understand what he was saying, as was the case in Athens because some thought he was speaking about two different deities, one called Jesus and the other called the resurrection. But at least they responded initially by saying that they wanted to know more about what he was saying.

Two other details come out in Paul’s approach. One concerns his feelings and we see a reference to them in his response to the number of idols in the city. He was disturbed by what he saw, and no doubt a number of reasons caused this response. The denial of glory to God and the blinding of the people by such superstitions would have been two factors in his response. The other detail is his desire to find a bridge that he could use to cross into their world and explain the gospel to them, and he located the bridge in the form of an unusual idol dedicated to what the Athenians called ‘the unknown god’. They did not have the true God in mind when they erected the idol, but Paul realised he could use it to draw their attention to the true God.

Two groups of people are mentioned by Luke – the Epicureans and the Stoics. Who were they? Epicureans did not believe in divine intervention and instead focused on attaining a life of pleasure, albeit within the confines of what could be experienced at that time. Moreover, they did not believe that humans were made by a divine being or that they are accountable to him after this life is over. Stoics were different in that they argued that humans should be self-controlled and not governed by their passions and thus would be able to exist in all kinds of situations without being disturbed or excited. The problem with both sets of ideas is that they were trying to make sense of life without involving the requirements of the true God, and they could not involve him because they did not know about him.

Paul’s task was to introduce them to the true God, who he was, and what he has done. We face something similar in our times. It is common for us to say that people don’t accept the existence of God as if that was a new insurmountable barrier whereas it is the situation that Paul faced. What did he do? He told them the truth. So let’s observe what he said.

Who is God?
The first detail that he mentions about God is that he is the Creator of everything, which means that he is the source of everything, including our existence. If Paul had been asked how God did this, he would have referred to what is said about the activity of God in Genesis 1, of how he spoke the universe into existence, and of the orderly process he followed.

Then Paul pointed out that God is sovereign over everything. Paul mentions that God is the Lord of heaven and earth. Whatever powers exist anywhere are under the authority of God. We know that he governs over human authorities, and if Paul had been asked on this occasion he would have said that God ruled over all angelic governments, including those who were opposed to him. This is a reminder that God is interested in what is taking place in our lives.

Third, Paul pointed out that God is simultaneously everywhere. We are not to imagine that somehow he is confined to a temple or religious place, or even to a location such as a country. Rather the true God is everywhere at the same time. He does not fill space in the way that we do, with part of us here and part there. All of God is everywhere. This means that he is very different from us.

Fourth, Paul stated that God is independent in the sense that he does not need us to serve him. An employer needs his employees, a master needs his servants to do things for him, and a ruler needs subjects to obey him. While God wants servants, he does not what them because they can provide something that he lacks. He is self-sufficient always.

The obvious deduction to make from this description is that God is very big, very powerful, totally competent, and transcendent. He is unique and to have a street full of competitors, as they did in Athens, was to say the opposite. Their unknown God would be a bit different from the others they imagined, but he would not be like the real God whom Paul wanted to speak about to them.

Who are we?
Paul also dealt with another important question, which is ‘What is man?’ He had mentioned God had created humans, but was that all that he had done.

The first detail that Paul mentions in this regard is that we all come from one man. All the nations of the world have a common origin. Why are they divided into different countries and peoples? Paul’s answer is that God arranged this so that they would seek and find him. We know that the vast majority of people did not do this, yet we also know that there are references in the Old Testament to people from different countries who had come to know God. There are Job and his friends, there is Jethro, and there is Melchizedek. Of course, they came to know God through his grace and mercy, but their awareness of God reminds us that people from different places did seek for him and find him.

Then Paul tells his listeners that God is close to each of them, that he is the one who keeps each of them alive. Every breath that they took was evidence of God’s kindness and nearness to them as individuals. In one sense, he is saying that God is inescapable, but in another he is saying that God is good to those who were not thinking about him or worshipping him.

Paul took a statement from a philosopher to help his argument. The philosopher had deduced that humans can be regarded as the children of God. When Paul used this statement about humans being God’s offspring he was not saying that they are God’s children in the sense that all believers are. Yet he was saying that there are ways in which children are like their parents. So since we are made by God it means we are like him, so why should we deduce that he is like an image we create, which is obviously inferior to us? In saying this, Paul showed the stupidity of making an idol. We are meant to worship the God who is seeking us.

Where are we going?
The third question that Paul deals with concerns our future. He states that there will yet a day in which he will judge everyone. The date is already fixed in the divine diary and none will fail to keep the appointment. How do we know that this is true? The answer to that question is the resurrection of Jesus.

This leads us to think briefly of the resurrection of Jesus. Obviously for Christians it is a very comforting doctrine because it assures us of our immortality and that eventually we will have glorified bodies like Jesus has. Yet his resurrection does not only affect his people. One way to think about this is to recognise what it means for Jesus to be exalted. There are four stages in his exaltation, and two of them have occurred, the third is happening, and we are waiting for the fourth. The two that have taken place are his resurrection and ascension, the one that is happening is his rule from the throne of God, and the one that is yet to occur will be his role as Judge on the great day.

Imagine it was tomorrow. After all, there will yet come a day which will be the one before the Day of Judgement. What would you do if somehow you discovered that today was that day? I suspect that you would engage in trying to find out how you should prepare for meeting with the Judge. You would not wish to focus on any other set of activities. The salvation of your being would become your only priority. Of course, the question then becomes why wait and fail to become right with God. After all, there is more than one way of ensuring that we appear unready at the judgement seat, but there is only one way of being ready.

The requirement that falls on us to do before the day of judgement comes is to think about it. God says to us, ‘Do you think that there is ample evidence that Jesus rose from the dead?’ The answer to that question is yes. He then says to us, ‘If you take the resurrection of Jesus seriously, you will repent of your sins and ask for mercy.’ Repentance is a realisation that we have sinned, is accompanied by sorrow for those sins, and is marked by a leaving of those sins. We go to the One against whom we have sinned, the true God, and ask him for mercy.

The response
There were three responses to the message of Paul and those three responses usually occur. The first was derision, the second was delay, and the third was decision. As we think about it, maybe we can change our responses to delay, decision and delight. Those who are delighted are the ones who already have believed the gospel and while it is still an awesome thought to think about appearing at the judgement seat there is still gratitude and joy connected to having experience mercy. The rest of us will be categorised by delay or decision.

Perhaps such can be helped by thinking about the persons Luke mentions at the close of the account – ‘Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.’ Almost two thousand years have passed since they made their decision to believe in Jesus. Where are they now? Their souls are with Jesus and their bodies are awaiting the resurrection and the Day of Judgement when they will be acquitted by the Judge. Do you think that they regret the decision they made that day on the Areopagus when they listened to a stranger tell them about who the true God is and what he has done for sinners?