Sunday, 31 December 2017

Fatherly Promotion (Psalm 110:1)

Psalm 110 is cited several times in the New Testament. Jesus mentioned it on different occasions and some scholars argue that the letter to the Hebrews is a sermon or exhortation based on the psalm. Peter referred to it in his address to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. We cannot tell how much David grasped about the words he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write, although he would have realised that he was describing a divine Person who would have a throne, an army and a battle culminating in complete victory over his enemies. Christians, because they live in the period after the crucifixion of Jesus and because they have the New Testament as well as the Old Testament and because they have been given the Spirit in greater measure than believers did in Old Testament times, can locate where the details of this psalm fit into the order of events that involved Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament.

David begins his psalm by describing heavenly interaction between two persons called Lord. One of them is said to be Yahweh and the other is said to be Adonai. Both names are used of God in the Old Testament numerous times. Yahweh stresses his uniqueness, his self-existence and his faithfulness to his covenant promises and Adonai points to his supreme sovereignty over all things. Jesus informs us that he is the one addresses as Adonai in this psalm, which means that the one called Yahweh here is God the Father.

David says that the one he calls Adonai is his personal Lord. We might have expected him to say that Yahweh was his Lord and in other passages he does say that is the case. But here he is focussing on the One who is going to receive special honour from the Father and who is going to engage in specific tasks after receiving the place of honour. And the first detail that he mentions about this incredible divine Person is that he is David’s Master.

We can deduce from this statement by David that Old Testament believers had a living faith in a coming Deliverer. They looked forward to his coming because of the many spiritual benefits that he would bring. The statement also indicates that David knew that this future Deliverer already existed and that he already was the One whom David served. David was the ruler of Israel, but he knew that in the kingdom of God he was only a servant of the One who would yet be highly exalted and given the name that is above every name.

Does it matter that we can distinguish between the persons of the Trinity? On an earthly level, does it matter that the members of a family are distinguished from one another? We know that it does with regard to a human family, and it certainly does with regard to the Trinity. The reality is that much spiritual understanding of God’s grace in action is connected to knowing what roles are performed by the persons of the Trinity.

David wrote this psalm in order for it to be sung by God’s people individually and corporately. He was given words by the Holy Spirit that informed them of the great dignity of the coming Ruler. No doubt, he anticipated that they would sing his song with great joy as they celebrated together the amazing Persons who were involved in providing their deliverance from sin. I wonder how many believers down the centuries have sung this psalm with spiritual relish as they considered the spiritual blessings they had received from heaven.

We can see in the invitation that David’s Lord is called to sit beside God the Father. This must mean that in some sense he was not sitting there when he received the invitation. How do we deal with this idea that a divine Person was not on the divine throne because it seems initially to be odd that he should not be there? This is an important question because it raises the issue of what the Son of God did when he became a human at his incarnation.

One answer given to this question is that the Son vacated the Father’s throne. A well-known hymn says this:

He left his Father's throne above
so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.

Are these sentiments true? Did Jesus leave his Father’s throne and did he empty himself of all but love? The answer is that he did not empty himself of anything, nor did he cease to be King. The best way to think about what is happening is to remember that the Bible is detailing matters connected to God’s plan of salvation, and among them is the role of Jesus as the Mediator. When he became a man he was required to do something both as God and as God’s representative and as man and man’s representative. Jesus did not cease to be fully God when he became a man, and as the One who became God and man he was involved in a task connected to which were certain promises. The task was to provide salvation and the promises included subsequent glory for him as the One who is both God and man.

Here the Father is fulfilling those promises when he gives this invitation to his Son. Clearly the Son has achieved what was asked of him when he became a man. He has provided salvation for sinners, which he did by his life and death and resurrection. Our minds can go over each of those aspects of his work and see great significance in them. We can say that this divine Person, who is also a man, has gone through incredible changes. They can be summarised in this way as we think of his humanity from five different viewpoints.

Earlier, we mentioned how Jesus was a representative of both the Godhead and of his people. This role required that he become a real man, which commenced when he was conceived in the womb of Mary. He had the various features that mark a human, such as a mind, a heart and a will, and he went through the various stages of growth that humans experience.

Moreover, the role required that he be a righteous man in the sense that he would not sin in any way on any occasion. This had to be the case if he was going to provide a life of righteousness for those who would trust in him.

In addition, he would become a redeeming man who would pay the price for sinners to be taken from the slavery of sin and set free from its power. This he did on the cross when he bore the wrath of his Father – the One speaking to him here in the psalm – and paid the penalty his people were required to pay for their sins.

The fourth detail that was required of him was that he would become a risen man, triumphant over the power of death, which he accomplished on the third day after his death when he emerged in power from the place of death without having seen any physical corruption. On that wonderful morning, he stood beside a tomb, but did so full of resurrection life.

The fifth detail is that he would become a reigning man. The comparison is with Adam who once had ruled under God over the domain given to him by God. Jesus when he ascended became sovereign over the domain given to him by God, which is the universe of time and space. He rules the centuries and the continents, even although both are full of enemies.

In order to have a good impression of this invitation we can go to Luke 24 and read about the disciples watching Jesus ascend and enter into heaven. Then we should move to Revelation 5 and read about him moving from the entrance towards the throne. The consequence on earth was happy disciples and the consequence in heaven is happy angels and happy saints. Earth and heaven combine to rejoice in the incredible reality that Jesus from Bethlehem is now on the throne of God.

Often we ask a person to sit down if we sense that he is tired and needs a rest. This was not why Jesus was asked to sit by the Father. Instead, he sits as a king. This is a coronation occasion, indeed it is the coronation occasion. There have been many extravagant coronations for earthly rulers, but they all together pale into insignificance in comparison to the coronation of Jesus. We know from Revelation 5 about the dignity of the audience – cherubim, hosts of angels, innumerable number of the saints (or as they are called elsewhere the kings of the earth).

We may imagine that the invitation suggests that Jesus is invited to sit on a throne that is beside the Father’s throne. There are not two thrones in heaven, only one. Jesus is there in fulfilment of the promise made to him that he would be exalted if he provided salvation. That we might call stage one. Having been exalted, he is now engaged in stage two of the plan of God for him, which is that he would gather in his people from all over the world.

This verse indicates that the Father and the Son will work together after Jesus is exalted. This co-operation occurs in lots of ways. They co-operate in sending the Holy Spirit to the church and to the world; they co-operate in sending spiritual blessings to believers as Paul indicates in the greetings in his letters when he mentions that grace and peace come from the Father and the Son. And there are other ways as well.

It was usual for someone sitting on a throne to have a footstool on which he could put his feet and before which subjects would bow. Some bowed with love in their hearts for their ruler; others bowed because they had been taken prisoner by him, and their attitude was one of sullen recognition before a greater person. Here the Father states his intention to bring everyone before Jesus and bow down to him on the great Day of Judgement.

How will the God the Father bring this about? He will use his providence to ensure that this goal will be achieved. His providence is his constant control of everything that happens. There are many consequences connected to each detail in his providence, but they are all subservient to this divine intention for Jesus to be honoured by his enemies. The day will come when every creature will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. None will manage to be outside this providential destiny. We can already say that it is in their diaries, written with indelible ink by the Father’s hand.

Who are his enemies? We know of only two categories – fallen angels and sinful humans. Fallen angels fight against the authority of Jesus in whatever way they can, but despite their actions they are heading towards this day when they will bow down before Jesus and confess that he is Lord. Sinful humans are those who live sinful lives, and all who do so are the enemies of Jesus because they are opposed to his kingdom, whether or not they are aware of its existence.

Yet among the vast number of sinful humans there is a large group who have refused to accept the offers that Jesus made to them in the gospel about forgiveness and a place in his kingdom. Some of them rejected the offer numerous times. It is serious enough to be an enemy of Jesus without having this additional reason for condemnation by him. What will rejecters of the gospel think when they find themselves at the footstool of Jesus?

A Sinful Woman Forgiven (Luke 9:36-50)

It has often been observed how much instruction Jesus gave at mealtimes or at feasts. We can think of the meal that Matthew laid on for Jesus or the Passover meal that the disciples arranged for Jesus in the Upper Room.

The request
There are many reasons for asking a person for a meal. In New Testament times it was a sign of friendship and fellowship. Is that why the Pharisee asked Jesus to his home for a meal? Probably not, given the details that are mentioned subsequently. So why would the Pharisee have asked him? One reason could have been a desire to have a well-known person in his house because it would look good to others. A second reason could have been a desire to trap Jesus and get him to do or say something wrong. And a third reason could have been a wish to demean Jesus because the Pharisee did not offer to Jesus common courtesies connected to the comfort of a guest. Maybe he invited Jesus only out of curiosity, to find out more about him. Yet Jesus went to the man’s house because he wanted the man to understand grace.

The anointing
Suddenly an unexpected interruption took place when a woman began to anoint the feet of Jesus. There are several details that we can note about the description. First, Luke does not tell us her name. Probably he did not know what her name was, despite the fact that he, as he indicates at the start of the gospel, had made a lot of effort to verify the events that he recorded. The fact that her name is not recorded is a reminder that nobodies are welcome into the presence of Jesus.

Second, Luke describes her as a sinner. He does not mean that she was a sinner in the sense that everyone is a sinner. Instead he means that she was a great sinner, probably an immoral one. Moreover, she was a public sinner, one who would have been recognised as such by everyone in the community.

Third, Luke mentions why she came. She had heard that the Pharisee had invited Jesus for a meal, and as we suggested earlier public awareness of the invitation would have been one of the goals of the Pharisee in doing so. In a sense he had achieved his goal and his invitation was being spoken about even in the lower places of society. Nevertheless, Simon would not have expected her to come into his religious house. So the fact that she did so indicates her determination to ignore expectations.

Fourth, Luke goes into great detail about how she anointed Jesus. Luke mentions her tears, her wiping them away with her hair, her kissing of the feet of Jesus, and her anointing of his feet. Clearly it was a very emotional activity for her. Her tears were flowing. It is not clear if she had to bend down to reach the feet of Jesus because it is possible that Jesus was reclining on a raised area of the house which resulted in his feet being level with her hands.

She wanted to give something to Jesus and what she chose was an alabaster flask of ointment. Probably, the flask and its contents were kept for a special occasion because the way to get the contents was to break the flask. Her willingness to do this shows the depth of her feeling. In her eagerness to express her gratitude she forgot the outlook of society about a woman letting her hair hang down. But it is easy, and good, to ignore such limitations if they are barriers to doing something for Jesus.

The rebuke
Simon’s response was to assume that Jesus’ willingness to allow the woman to express her affection indicated that he had no idea what kind of person she was. He imagined that a true prophet of God would have nothing to do with such a woman. But he was about to discover that Jesus was indeed a prophet who knew what was taking place in Simon’s mind.

Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus can answer unspoken questions. The answer came in the form of a story about two debtors whose debt was cancelled because they were unable to pay what they owed. In responding to Jesus’ question he agreed that the one who owed most would love the moneylender most.

Who did Jesus have in mind by the one who had less sins? Probably, Simon. This is a reminder that not everyone has the same amount or kinds of sin. As far as the ten commandments are concerned, Simon may not have broken the ones that the woman had. Even if that was the case, he had committed sins here because he had done very little for Jesus. He had invited the Saviour for a meal, but he had not gone beyond the smallest requirements. Probably Simon had gone to the temple and often asked God to forgive his sins. Maybe he had even listed them, or the ones he could recognise. Perhaps he had returned from there thinking about forgiveness. But he had not connected forgiveness with Jesus and was rebuked by him.

The commendation
Jesus points out that the difference between Simon and the woman is love for Jesus. Somehow the woman had recognised that Jesus was the Saviour she needed. Although living in the shadows, she had discovered the way of grace. She had taken Jesus at his word and discovered that he could forgive her sins. There was no need for her to go to the temple, and she probably would not have been allowed in if she had tried. But she had discovered the way for all her many sins to be forgiven.

There is insight here in how Christians can learn to love the Lord and it is by thinking about their sins. Imagine taking some paper and writing your sins on it, column after column. Then beside each sin write that the Lord has forgiven you. Would it be possible to go very far in the list before your heart would burst with love for the one who made forgiveness possible?

Did this woman know how Jesus would make it possible for her to be forgiven? She recognised that it had something to do with Jesus’ coming into the world, but she did not have the details that we have. We can write beside each sin on our list that Jesus took it to Calvary and there paid the penalty for them. Like the psalmist, we can ask pardon for the sins of our youth, the sins of our hearts, the sins of our lips, the sins of forgetfulness. It takes time to get our hearts into the state of overflowing love for the Saviour.

It is clear that Jesus wanted the woman to have assurance of pardon, so he said to her that her sins were forgiven. Yet she already knew that they were forgiven because that was why she had anointed him. Surely, the words of Jesus point to the necessity of stronger assurance and fresh assurance. Sometimes we so focus on the past that we forget the value of the present. We can look back and recall occasions when we tasted the sweetness of forgiveness. The memory is always pleasant, but we should also want a fresh touch from the Lord. We get that from his Word as we meditate on it and seek his application of it to our souls.

It is also likely that Jesus wanted the woman to have public confirmation that she was forgiven. After all, many people in the area knew what kind of woman she was, but if they recognised the authority of Jesus they would rejoice in what he had just said about her. No doubt, she had sinned with many of them. But Jesus wants people to know that he pardons great sinners.

The future
Right away, onlookers began their mutterings. Their question reveals that they did not know who Jesus was, but since they did not speak to him about it we can assume that they had no real desire to find out who he was or if he could forgive them. Here they were, in the presence of the pardoning God, unable to see or understand what he was doing.

Jesus, however, continued to speak to her. The question of the onlookers questioned the ability of Jesus, and he reminded the woman of what he could provide for her. Because she had trusted in him, she had been saved from the penalty of her sins. He knew that he was yet to pay the penalty for her sins, but he also knew that he would not fail in doing so. This meant that she was eternally secure.

The Saviour informs her that she can leave the courtyard in peace. I suppose we can say that she had the peace of justification because she had become right with God in regard to her standing in his presence. And she also had the peace of assurance, that inner, overflowing sense of acceptance with God that would keep her heart and mind through whatever would come her way. We hear no more about her, but one day we will hear more from her because the habit she began when she anointed her Saviour she has done innumerable times since and is currently engaged in today, although now in a far better place than a Pharisee’s courtyard. Hopefully, Simon learned the lesson and is also engaged in that activity. And it will be a pleasure to meet in heaven one who brought pleasure to Jesus when he was here on earth.

As we close, there are three questions that we can apply to ourselves from this story. The first is, what estimate do we have of our sins? Often we compare ourselves with others and we may find others to be worse than us. Yet all that is happening is that a bankrupt person contrasts himself with another bankrupt person, when what is needed is for the debt of each person to be paid. If the bigger sinner goes to Jesus for mercy, he is wise, and if the lesser sinner goes to Jesus for mercy, he is wise.

The second question is this, ‘How do we show our love for Jesus?’ It is obvious from the account of the incident that the woman had reached the wonderful place where she did not care what people thought about her expressions of devotion to Jesus. One of the biggest hindrances for spiritual growth and the enjoyment of spiritual experiences is binding ourselves to the opinions of others. What matters is the opinion of Jesus. We cannot show love for Jesus in a miserly way. She gave him something that was of value, and so does anyone that expresses love for Christ.

The third question is, ‘Are we enjoying the peace of God?’ A sense of peace can be lost, but it is not usually lost to a person who shows love. Jesus delights to give his peace to those who honour him. That is what this woman found, and so have countless millions who have followed her example. God gives great peace to those who show great love to his Son.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Saul’s Preparation

Luke in Acts 9:19-30 gives a brief summary of what happened to Paul after his conversion. The details he mentions here are not the only ones found in the New Testament about this period. In Galatians 1:15-24, Paul mentions some other details, including the length of time between his conversion and his return to Jerusalem, which was three years.

Paul was aware of his calling as an apostle of the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15), although he does not mention any contact with them during those three years, unless it was when he went to Arabia. Yet since he knew what he was going to be, it is appropriate to regard them as years of preparation. We can consider the progress by looking at geographical locations that he mentions.

In Arabia
Paul mentions in the passage from Galatians that the first thing he did after his conversion was not to consult with anyone, not even with the apostles in Jerusalem. Instead he went into Arabia (Gal. 1:17), which is a term that describes the area around Damascus called Nabatea. Paul does not say how long he was there, but it would only have been for a few weeks probably. Neither does he say why he went there, but it is reasonable to assume that he found a place of solitude where he would spend time with God, think about what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, and get things sorted out in his mind. Of course, he may also have preached or spoken to the Gentiles in Nabatea. He did this before he started preaching in Damascus.

In Damascus
Returning to Damascus (Gal. 1:17), he commenced preaching about Jesus in the synagogue and Luke tells us what the theme of Paul’s messages were – he preached that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20) and the Messiah (Acts 9:22). What can we deduce about his messages from those details? There are three features, at least.

First, Paul now knew that God is a Trinity. Before then, as an orthodox Jew, he would have been appalled at the suggestion and would have regarded it as blasphemy. He now knew that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Second, Paul now knew that Jesus was God and man. Before then, he knew that Jesus was human and would have regarded Jesus as a false prophet, but he now realised that Jesus was much more than a true prophet. Probably, his experience of Jesus on the Damascus Road had convinced him that Jesus is divine, and would have led him also to consider how there could be more than one divine person. 

Third, Paul now knew that what was meant by the Messiah was very different from what he had previously believed. In the past, he had assumed that the Messiah would live in Jerusalem and reign over the world from there. He now realised that the throne of the Messiah was in heaven and that he controlled all things from there.

Luke says that Paul was very effective in his preaching and that the Jews in Damascus were unable to show he was wrong. Eventually they resorted to a plan to kill him. Paul on discovering the plot was compelled to flee and the disciples made use of an innovative means for this to happen when they lowered him down over the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). This bout of opposition also involved Aretus, the King of the Nabateans, trying to arrest Paul, and his involvement also suggests that Paul’s time in Arabia had led to events in Nabatea that the king did not like (2 Cor. 11:32-33).

What can we say about Paul’s preaching as he prepared to become the apostle to the Gentiles? First, it was daring because he took it to those who disapproved of his message about Jesus. Second, it was devout because he was conscious of who Jesus is. Third, it was deep, which is inevitable if we are trying to explain who Jesus is – there is no such thing as a simple message whenever we are explaining who Jesus is. Fourth, it was dangerous because it resulted in people trying to kill him.

In Jerusalem
It was a very different Paul who returned to Jerusalem after three years in Damascus. But he discovered on arriving that the church in Jerusalem were unaware of his conversion and did not believe that he was a Christian (Acts 9:26). This is a reminder to us that news did not always travel fast in the ancient world, even such an important event as Paul’s opening years of ministry for the Lord in Damascus.

In God’s providence, Barnabas was aware of what had happened to Paul and of what he had been doing in Damascus. Luke says that Barnabas took him to the apostles (Acts 9:27), but Paul clarifies this by saying that he only saw two apostles – Peter and James, the brother of the Lord (Gal. 1:2). Paul also says that he stayed with Peter for fifteen days. Likely, he explained to Peter and James what had happened to him and learned from them details about the life of and death of Jesus.

Thereafter, Paul began to preach in the synagogues of Jerusalem, in particular in the synagogues made up of Jews from the Gentile world (the Hellenists). From another point of view, they were the synagogues with which Paul himself had been connected when he lived in Jerusalem. Probably, he went to stay with his relatives, although that cannot be proved. We do not know how long this preaching lasted for, but as in Damascus opposition from the Jews became so strong that the disciples decided to send Paul to his home city of Tarsus, which was in Cilicia.

In Acts 22:17-21, Paul mentions how God told him to leave the city during a time of prayer he was having at the temple. In the divine message, Paul was told to leave the city quickly because those listening to him among the unconverted Jews would not believe his message. Initially Paul seems to have wanted to stay on because of his own evil behaviour in the past and witness to them, but instead God said that he would send his servant far away. So Paul would not have been surprised when the leaders in Jerusalem then decided to send him to Tarsus.

Paul mentions in Galatians that he did not visit other churches in Judea, which could indicate that he was not in Jerusalem for long. But they heard about the incredible change that had taken place in his life and they praised God for what he had done in and through Paul.

What can we learn, or what can we say that Paul as a leader learned from this time in Jerusalem? First, the involvement of Barnabas introduced him to one who would later become a close friend and colleague. Second, his two weeks with Peter would have shown him the value of fellowship with other leaders. Third, the opposition in Jerusalem, following on from that in Damascus, would have confirmed to him the fulfilment of Jesus’ warning, given through Ananias, that he would suffer for the sake of Jesus.

In Tarsus
Paul returned to Tarsus and it seems to have been his base as he travelled in the regions of Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21). The regions of Syria and Cilicia is a broad description. How long was he there for? It is assumed that he was there for about nine or ten years, a number based on what he says in Galatians about visits to Jerusalem. What happened to Paul during that time?

First, God arranged for Paul to be known in his home city of Tarsus as a Christian. It does not look as if he had any particular plans to go there. Yet Paul could not email his family and say that he had become a Christian. God required Paul to work amongst those who had known him in the past. It was likely that during this time he suffered the loss of all things, as he describes it in Philippians 3:9.  His family were not pleased that he had become a Christian and disinherited him.

Second, Paul called to be an apostle by God had to serve away from the limelight for almost a decade, preaching to groups throughout the region. Maybe he had to travel around because he had no personal support in Tarsus and went to places to find work. We are not told about any evangelistic success he had, although he did go to places in that area later on to strengthen churches (Acts 15:31). So maybe he returned to some places he had visited before. But he does not mention what success, if any, he had during that decade. Paul the future apostle was being tested by providence concerning what God had said to him about his apostolic career. He had to learn patience until God opened doors.

Third, it was during this time in Tarsus that Paul received the thorn in the flesh that he describes in 2 Corinthians 12:2-9. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians about AD 55 and this experience had taken place fourteen years earlier, which places it during the time he was in Tarsus. It had been preceded by an unusual spiritual experience when he had been caught up to the third heaven. Whatever the thorn in the flesh was, and since we are not told it is pointless to speculate, it gave Paul a real experience of spiritual warfare since he says it was a messenger of Satan that assaulted him and which Jesus refused to take away.

Of course, Jesus also gave to Paul the amazing promise that his grace was sufficient for him, and that his physical weakness was not a hindrance to serving the Lord. Maybe it was shortly afterwards that he heard a knock at the door and there stood Barnabas with an invitation to join him in the amazing work God was doing in Antioch.

What can we say about Paul’s years in Tarsus? They were not wasted, although they may have been weary. He left Tarsus different from how he had entered it when he returned there from Jerusalem. Maybe he expected a welcome and instead was rejected in his home. Maybe he anticipated going somewhere significant for God and instead had to roam around in an obscure area. Maybe he wondered what he could do now that he was physically weaker and harassed by a thorn in the flesh. All maybes, but he did know that the grace of Jesus was with him and therefore he was ready for acts of great service when Barnabas came looking for him to take him to work in the church in Antioch.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Rejected Again in Nazareth (Matthew 13:53-58)

This particular visit by Jesus to his home synagogue is also told by Mark (6:1-6). Another visit, which occurred earlier after his period of temptation in the desert, is recorded by Luke (4:16-30). On that previous occasion, the people of Nazareth were so incensed by Jesus’ address that they tried to throw him over the cliff near the edge of the town. This caused Jesus to move his home to Capernaum. So here we have him returning to Nazareth for a brief visit.

Why did Jesus return to Nazareth on this occasion? Perhaps he wanted to visit his family who still lived there and who had tried to get him to move back there. Or he would have wanted to give spiritual blessings to those he had lived alongside for years in that town. Given that Jesus did everything out of love we can be assured that this was a major reason why he went back. Despite its previous rejection of him, Nazareth had a place in the affections of Jesus.

The earthly family of Jesus

This paragraph is of interest for many reasons. One obvious detail is that here we are told about the members of the earthly family of Jesus. The question that the hearers make about Joseph could indicate that he was still alive. It is often assumed that he had died before Jesus commenced his public ministry because he is not mentioned as present with his wife when her involvement in various places is described. Yet Joseph could still have been alive but had become too frail to move around.

Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. His brothers did not believe he was the Messiah before his resurrection, after which he appeared in a special way to James who then believed. James was to become a martyr after serving for many years as a leader in the church in Jerusalem. He wrote the letter called James, which many regard as the first book of the New Testament to have been written.

Judas also wrote one of the New Testament letters, the short letter called Jude. Given that he is mentioned last in the list it is likely that he was the youngest of the brothers, even as the placing of James as first indicates that he was the oldest of the four. Two grandchildren of Jude are mentioned by Eusebius in his church history and that they were leaders in the church who suffered martyrdom in the second century. Some years before then, they had been brought to court and asked about what they thought of Jesus. They replied that the kingdom of Jesus was heavenly and that he would return at the end of time to judge the world. There is also the possibility that a great-grandson of Jude was a leader in the church in Jerusalem.

The obvious comment that can be made about the brothers of Jesus is that a good example by itself does not convert sinners. These brothers had seen the flawless example of Jesus in the family home. For years, they had seen what he did and heard what he had said, yet they did not think that he was the Saviour. The example of Jesus does not seem to have impressed them.

Of course, it is very important to be a good example. Peter reminds his readers that they are to follow in the steps of Jesus. Paul tells the Philippians to imitate the example of humility that Jesus showed. Yet more is needed in order to bring a sinner to seek mercy. It is true that the Lord can use a good example as part of the process of how a person comes to faith. Yet we know that thousands of people witness good examples every day and don’t become Christians.

In addition to being a good example, we need to engage in other duties in order for conversions to happen. Prayer is necessary. I wonder how often Jesus prayed for his earthly family. The human mind of Jesus had to pray about relationships and daily activities. He would have prayed lovingly for them, yet he had to wait for many years before they showed a spiritual interest in him.

If God had decreed that the human prayers of Jesus would bring about the instant salvation of his brothers, then that would have happened. Instead, the plan of God is for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of sinners and reveal to them who Jesus is. This was as necessary in the home of Jesus as anywhere else.

Nevertheless, there is something of great comfort here for Christians who have prayed for loved ones for a long time, and the comfort is that Jesus knows what such a situation is like. Although he is now highly exalted, he remembers what life was like for him down here. He is able to sympathise intelligently and experiencially. And that is very good to know.

This does not mean that the brothers were not responsible to respond correctly to the good example of Jesus. They should have followed his example. Of course, there were differences between him and any other godly person they knew. They lived with a brother who never sinned throughout all the years he had been in the family home. We live with family members who are sinful and we see their faults.  Yet inasmuch as they do what is right we should follow their example. That is our responsibility.

The church life of Jesus

Matthew tells us that on this occasion Jesus taught those who attended the synagogue. Synagogues are like churches in the sense that people gathered there to worship God in their community. They would pray, someone would read from the Old Testament and someone would explain a passage. On a previous visit to the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read the passage for that Sabbath and then told the people that it was fulfilled in his ministry.

In that previous passage, we are told that it was the custom of Jesus to do that, which means that he was a regular teacher/preacher in the weekly gatherings. We do not know how often he had been engaged in this role but perhaps he had been doing so for about a decade. How many sermons would he have preached there during that time? Yet we can see that the audience had not received any spiritual benefit from listening to the greatest preacher who ever declared God’s message. The sermons were perfect, yet more was needed. The power of the Spirit is required in order for a sermon to be blessed.

The obvious lesson is that a great preacher cannot get success merely by his preaching. Sometimes churches think that if they could only get such a person as their preacher their church will grow. He may attract Christians, but what about those who are spiritually dead? They need to hear the message, but hearing the message is not enough. 

Imagine being in a synagogue of which Jesus was a member, or even attending on a visit. I wonder what changes in behaviour others present would have put on in case he said something about them. Did they pretend to be devout because he was there? Or did his manner and method of worship annoy them? Whatever the answers to those questions, it is the case that the mere act of watching him in worship did not lead people to trust in him. This was the case even although none ever worshipped like he would have done.

The response of the congregation

Matthew mentions three features of the response – astonished, offended and unbelief. They were astonished at his ability, but were offended by his message, and the root cause was unbelief. In one sense, those responses are not unique because we could imagine listeners being impressed by a politician’s speaking ability but opposed to his message because they did not believe in what he was advocating. Of course, there is a huge distance between Jesus and his message and a politician with his message.

Many a person has been impressed by oratory without having grace. Benjamin Franklin loved to hear George Whitefield preach, but he did not love the gospel that Whitefield preached. It obviously was not difficult for people to be impressed by the voice of the Saviour. On one occasion, those sent to arrest Jesus by the authorities returned confessing ‘that never man spoke like this man’. But they were not converted by what they heard.

The factor that made the response of his hearers serious was that they ignored the evidence of his miracles that pointed to him being the Messiah. During his message on the previous occasion he had told them that the Holy Spirit was upon him in order to do the work of the Messiah and Jesus had been engaged in that ministry for over a year. They refused to believe in him despite the evidence that was causing others to believe in him.

Most people who refuse to believe in Jesus do so despite the evidence that has been shown to them. They ignore the evidence of those who say that Jesus has changed them through his grace. They ignore the evidence of fulfilled prophecy, both with regard to what happened at his first coming and what has taken place in the worldwide growth of his kingdom. They ignore the evidence that comes from recognising the superiority of the teaching of Jesus over any other form of teaching. 

Jesus may have cited a proverb to explain the situation: ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and in his own household.’ Perhaps the townspeople took their lead from what his household – his brothers and sisters – were doing at that time. Why should the villagers believe in Jesus if his own family refused to do so? Jesus has used a shorter form of this possible proverb against them during his previous visit (Luke 4:24) and at least the repetition would remind them of their ongoing hostility.

The people of Nazareth could not accept that Jesus was sent by God. They did not know that this was the last time Jesus would visit them (it is also the last time he is said to be in a synagogue). Their blindness was caused by their prejudices, and prejudices are a frequent cause of spiritual blindness. They had made up their minds beforehand as to what kind of Saviour God would send, so when the real Saviour was with them they could not see who he truly was.


The act of judgement

Matthew says that Jesus ‘did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.’ Sometimes that statement is regarded as implying that somehow human faith enables Jesus to do something, which is a wrong deduction. Jesus does not need any help in performing a mighty work. Whose ‘faith’ helped him when he raised Lazarus from the dead? Rather he refused to do any further mighty works in Nazareth because the previous ones had not caused the people to accept he was the Messiah. In an act of judgement, he removed from them the evidences that indicated who he was. He never went back to Nazareth before he died. The day of their opportunity had passed and they had not profited from it.

Some lessons

The way to discover suitable lessons is to ask what the first disciples would have learned from this incident. The first one is that we should not be surprised if our witness is rejected because the best witness ever borne was rejected by those who heard and saw Jesus. Rejection is a common feature of the Christian life.

A second lesson is that we need more than our contribution in order to be effective in the lives of sinners. If the Holy Spirit does not come in power, nothing lasting will happen. This means that in addition to activity there must be earnest prayer for his presence and action.

A third lesson is to recall the sympathy of Jesus. Are you in a family in which some or all of its members dismiss Jesus and his mercy? Jesus understands your situation from experience. Have you been to a church service in which the intentions of the gospel have been ignored and instead people argue about the merits of the preacher? Jesus understands.

The Word Became Flesh (John 1:14)

John here writes a statement that is one of the profoundest ever written because it summarises the incredible experience of the Son of God. The apostle says that the Son became something that he was not before without ceasing to be what he always had been. We can consider some points he makes about what happened.

The title of Jesus
John here calls Jesus the Word and we can see that he has been using it since the beginning of the chapter. Why does he use this word to describe Jesus? So we can look back to how he uses it previously. In verse 1, we can see that John uses the title when describing the contact that Jesus had with God before verse 14 occurred. It was contact because John says that Jesus was with God – ‘with’ means contact.

What does John say about this contact? First, he says that it was eternal because it took place before what he calls ‘the beginning’. By ‘the beginning’, he probably refers to the original creating of all things. This contact had been going on eternally, without beginning. Second, John says that the contact was endearing – we can see this in the preposition ‘with’ that John uses when he says that the Word was with God. ‘With’ here means face-to-face, a way of saying that there was constant delight and satisfaction between the Father and the Son. This is not surprising because they are equal in power and glory.

Then in verse 3, John says that the Word was the creator of all things. When we read the account of creation in Genesis 1, we note the constant refrain, ‘and God said.’ The phrase points to ‘power’, to be able to do what he wanted. It also points to wisdom, because he knew what to make. And we can see that it points to love because he chose to make it for the benefit of others, for humans.

In the next verse, John says that the Word was the communicator in the sense that he revealed things to people before he came. I suspect John is saying that the Word gave spiritual light to individuals before he was born. Some of those people are mentioned in the Old Testament. Who told Job and his friends about God? The Word did. Who told Jethro about God? The Word did. Who told Abel about God? The Word did? Everyone who knew anything about God did so because the Word arranged it.

John may be saying more than the Word was the source of spiritual light. In addition, he was the source of natural light, of the ability to help sinners bring about environments in which pleasant things could take place. Take Genesis 4:20, for example. Who enabled Jabal to become a herdsman, or who enabled Jubal to make music, and who enabled Tubal-cain to work with metals? The Word did. He made it possible, through common grace, for society to function. And he did so although the darkness was trying to overcome it.

The taking – by the Word
John says that the Word ‘became’ flesh. When we think of individuals, we know that there are some things they can become and some things they cannot become. For example, an engineer can become a teacher. Yet if he is a white engineer, he cannot become a black engineer. He may wish to do so, but he cannot do so. So there is a limit to what we can become.

What could God become? And if he could become something, what options would he have? The only thing that God could become was a creature. After all, he is the divine Creator. There cannot be another divine being, there is only one God, and there can only be one God, the eternal One with no beginning and no end. So if he was going to become something, he would have to make it. This is an obvious fact.

One would assume that God would become something similar in some ways to himself. So maybe he would become a good angel, a creature who had never suffered the consequences of the fall as Adam had done when he sinned at the beginning.  Yet John says that the Word did not become an angel, but instead he became flesh, he became human, and a lowly one at that. John does not say that Word became regal, but flesh; not king-like, but lowly. The apostle has in mind human nature in its insignificance, weakness, and fragility. Yet we must recall that the Word did not become a sinner.

An amazing thing is that the Word became this without ceasing to be God. He retained the abilities of deity while adding to his divine person a human nature. This means that when he was laid in the manger he was still the eternal Word with his unique contact with the Father and the Holy Spirit, with his creatorial abilities, and with his communication skills. We bow before this amazing sight in Bethlehem, God and man in two distinct natures, but one person forever. The taking of a human nature was permanent as far as the Son of God is concerned. He became what he was not without ceasing to be what he was.

The travelling
John says that the Word dwelt among us. So John is referring to something that happened to those he calls ‘us’, which is a reference to the disciples. He uses a word that can be translated as ‘tabernacled’. Some say he means that the Word looked like a fragile tent. Yet I suspect that he is alluding to the tabernacle in the Old Testament in which God met with his people. Obviously, when Jesus came, God was meeting with his people.

Perhaps John is suggesting that, as with the tabernacle before it was replaced by the temple, Jesus was to live in this lowly condition for a short time before ascending to heaven where his humanity would be glorified. The Saviour was in a state of humiliation then, but he is not in such a state now because he has been highly exalted in heaven. His lowly condition was temporary and John could be indicating this when he uses this description.

Maybe John is saying even more when he connects Jesus with the tabernacle. Until David captured Jerusalem, there was not a settled place for the tabernacle to be placed. Before then, when the children of Israel were in the desert, the tabernacle was moving around the area. Is John alluding to the fact that Jesus, when he was his disciples, was constantly on the move? I would suggest John is saying that because he goes on to say what he saw.

The testimony
John mentions that the disciples saw the divine glory of Jesus and mentions two details concerning it. First, he says the glory was unique – it was one that could only be connected to the eternal Son of the eternal Father. I suppose John is saying that everything Jesus did he did in connection with the Father and for the glory of the Father. After all, Jesus did say that the Father was always with him and that he always did what pleased the Father. It is similar to what he had been experiencing in John 1:1, except that now he was doing so in a very different place, on the earth that was marred by sin.

Second, John says that the glory he saw in Jesus was ‘full of grace and truth’. In a sense, that is what John’s gospel is all about. He mentions several situations, each of which are very different from one another, and yet in each of them Jesus revealed that he was full of grace and truth. We could note the way he spoke to Nicodemus the Jewish religious leader and to the woman of Samaria. From one point of view, there is an obvious contrast between those two individuals. Nevertheless, with regard to each Jesus instructed them about God and how they could relate to him. Nicodemus was told that he needed to be reborn and the woman of Samaria was informed that she had to drink of the water of life. John was aware of both those incidents.

We can also remind ourselves that the sufferings of Jesus were connected to grace and truth. From his account of the cross we discover that John and some female followers of Jesus stood near the cross as Jesus died. They saw what happened at Calvary and while John does not mention all that occurred there he would have known about them. How did Jesus reveal when was on the cross that he was full of grace and truth? Think of how he prayed for the soldiers, of how he spoke to the penitent criminal, and how he arranged for the care of his mother.

And we can think of how Jesus on the day of his resurrection revealed that he was full of grace and truth. In the closing chapters of his account John brings in various people who describe what they experienced. He begins with Mary Magdalene and tells how Jesus spoke kindly to her, but also informed her that the old earthly relationships were over and that he would soon ascend to heaven. John also mentions how Jesus appeared to his disciples later that day and expressed his desire to donate peace to them from him.

John reminds his readers that Jesus was balanced perfectly at all times. We have known Christians who did not always retain such a balance and therefore responded wrongly in a situation. This could never be said about Jesus. We are not surprised because we know that he was sinless. Yet we should admire his balance. After all, it is this balance that makes him beautiful in the eyes of his people who confess that they need both his grace and his truth. And this beauty connected to the balance is permanent.

Why did John write this verse? For the same reason why he wrote each verse in his gospel, which is that his readers might believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:20). This verse is John’s version of what we call the Christmas story and he describes the greatness and the grace of the Saviour.

What did John and the other witnesses do when they were in the presence of Jesus? They gazed with wonder. They found him so attractive that they could not turn their eyes away. If anyone met them after such an occasion and asked them who they saw or met, I suspect that their reply would have been, ‘I looked at Jesus.’ The more they looked, the more they saw. And the more they saw, the more they loved because they saw that he was the Saviour sent from God to speak to them about the way of salvation and to go to the cross to deliver them from their sins.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-52)

The seventh parable in this seven-fold description of his kingdom by Jesus is different from the other six in that it focusses on what will happen at the close of this age when he returns. The previous six had described different aspects of the kingdom between his first and his second comings. Parable one about the sower and his seed illustrates different responses to the message of the kingdom. In parable two, about the weeds in a field, Jesus tells his disciples that expressions of evil will exist in his kingdom until the second coming – they were put there by the devil. Parables three and four tell us that despite the attempts of the devil to damage the kingdom it will continue to grow until it is very large. In parables five and six, Jesus mentions that his followers will not be converted in the same way, but they all will prize above all else the salvation found in him.

Jesus informs his disciples about the meaning of his seventh parable, which he had not done with regard to parables 3, 4, 5 and 6. The action of throwing the net illustrates the activity of the angels in gathering in people to attend the Day of Judgement. The Saviour compresses into a short description the events that will take place on that Day. So what does he say?

A full net
The first item to observe is that Jesus says that this net will be full. In order to see the significance of this aspect we need to ask how big the net is. The answer is that it is big enough to hold every one that ever lived. Moreover, we should observe that the net is full, which is another way of saying that no one will escape being gathered into it. So here we have a description of an experience that each of us will yet be involved in. Nobody can avoid taking part in this incredible meeting.

Two kinds of fish
The second detail to observe in the illustration is that basically there are two kinds of fish in the net. Jesus does say that the net gathers fish of every kind, which means that gathered by the angels will be the people from the different races, classes, religions, periods, and activities that marked human life. Yet Jesus defines the catch as ultimately made up of two kinds of fish – good and bad.

The third detail that we can observe is that Jesus explains what it is that marks each of the two kinds of fish. One kind, he says, are righteous and the other kind, he says, are evil. Since both these words are used in different ways we need to ask what Jesus means by them. The good people are those who are righteous. How did they become so? Did they bring this about through what they did when they lived on earth?

The righteous
The gospel tells us how we can become righteous. First, we need to realise that by nature we are unrighteous. What makes us unrighteous is our estrangement from God because of our sins. In the gospel we discover the wonderful truth that Jesus lived and died for unrighteous sinners in order for them to become righteous. God requires two things of his sinful creatures: one is that they live a righteous life and the other is that they pay the penalty for their sins. They could not do either, but Jesus did both for them when he lived a perfect life and when he suffered the penalty on the cross demanded because of their sins.

Does it mean we have to do nothing since Jesus did all that for sinners? We have to do something in order to obtain those benefits and that is we must believe in Jesus. This is more than believing about Jesus – a person can believe what the Bible says about Jesus and yet remain a bad fish according to this parable. So we need to ask what faith in Jesus is? Here are some details.

First, we can say that faith in Jesus is a conscious act. By this I mean that the person understands what he is doing. This understanding may be small to begin with, but eventually the person realises what he or she believes. They realise who Jesus is and what he has done for sinners. They are conscious that he is the Son of God who came into the world to save sinners. They also know that now he is the resurrected, ascended, enthroned Lord. This knowledge marks them as conscious believers. They don’t have a meaningless faith.

Second, faith in Jesus is a contrite faith. By this I mean that each believer understands why he has faith in Jesus, and one aspect of this understanding is that each believer is aware that he or she is a sinner. In addition, when they believe in Jesus they are sorrowful sinners. They grieve that they have sinned against God and regret all the sins that they have committed. The faith that lays hold of Jesus comes from a heart broken for its sins. Of course, this mourning for sin will become more intelligent as the believer develops in his faith. But in this life no one draws near to God without recalling that he or she is a sinner, and therefore they are contrite.

Third, faith in Jesus is a confident faith. Such believers are convinced that Jesus will keep all his promises. They don’t have any confidence in themselves, but they do have strong confidence in the Saviour. In a spiritual sense, they lean upon him, knowing that he is faithful and true.

Fourth, faith in Jesus is consecrated faith in the sense that they give themselves to Jesus. In the gospel he invites them to come to him, and since he is the divine Saviour it means that when sinners respond by giving themselves to him it is inevitably an attitude of consecration. It is not perfect consecration, but it is true consecration.

A sinner who exercises such faith in Jesus is regarded as righteous by God. That is the divine response to the first act of faith in Jesus by a sinner. God the Father reckons to the account of such a sinner the righteousness of Jesus and that sinner can be described as righteous. It is true that such a sinner will become experientially righteous as time goes on, but his sanctification occurs because he already has been declared righteous by God. His sanctification is the evidence that he has real faith in Jesus, but it is not the basis of his faith. The basis of his faith is the gospel.

The evil
Jesus says that the bad fish represent those who are evil. Today we use the word ‘evil’ to describe people who perform terrible actions. In the Bible, evil is the opposite of good. It can be used absolutely or it can be used comparatively. Sometimes it refers to our thoughts, at other times to our actions. In comparison to God, all of us are evil because we are sinners. As far as this parable is concerned, the evil are those who are estranged from God.

What is going to happen to them on this awesome day? Jesus in his illustration says that they will be thrown away into a fiery furnace. Perhaps the basic idea here is that of being useless – throwing away is what people do with items that have no usefulness anymore. The sad thing is that they could have been useful if they had listened to the gospel. In addition, we have to note that they are not merely being discarded because in addition they are also punished by the Judge because of their sins. The punishment they will face will be distressing beyond words and full of despair.

Future of the righteous
Jesus does not say a great deal about this aspect in this parable. Yet we can see a reference to their future when he says that the good fish were put in containers. They were put there in order to be taken somewhere where they would prove useful as food. And when we think of the future of the righteous we can say that each of them will be found useful by God throughout eternity. Jesus teaches this in his parable and other messages about the world of glory. Heaven is a place of sanctified service from perfected saints. In this world, they often wished they could be more useful, but they will be useful in the eternal world.

Freshness required
Having come to the end of giving these seven parables Jesus then asked the disciples if they understood what he had just taught them. They all said that they did, which is surprising, and probably amusing for most readers, but they may have assumed that they did, because often those being taught give a similar response. It surely was a shallow response suggesting that they did not fully appreciate the seriousness of what Jesus had taught. But who are we to throw stones at them?

Whatever their level of understanding of what he had just taught them, Jesus provided them with a way of knowing what they, as future teachers in his kingdom, would do. He did so by using the illustration of a householder who shows people what he has in his home. It is obviously a wealthy home, full of pleasant surprises. We can imagine surprises in different rooms in his house – from the kitchen would come meals the like of which they had never tasted before; in the sitting-room, there would be incredibly comfortable chairs; in the library, there would be works of beauty; and in his treasury there would be an endless amount of money to share with the needy who came to him for help.

The disciples were informed that in the house (God’s kingdom) they would have a treasure store (their knowledge of the kingdom) to share with others at suitable times. This knowledge that they would possess would be twofold – they would state what they knew already about the kingdom and they would also explain the new discoveries they would make about the kingdom, and of course they had just been told some new things about it by Jesus on this occasion. Perhaps we can say that for them the old was found in the Old Testament and the new would yet be recorded in the New Testament. Or we could say that the new could describe greater appreciations and understandings of what they thought the Old Testament had said about the kingdom of the Messiah.

Of course, there are lessons here for pastors and other teachers in that what they teach to their congregations should be both old and new. Studying the Bible usually, if not always, has that effect on those who prepare messages – they see aspects of truth in a passage that they did not see there before – what they may have thought was only old also becomes new. After all, no one knows everything about a Bible passage.

Yet I would also suggest that old and new should mark what every Christian should find in the Bible. Christian experience is about being fresh as well as being accurate. After all, we are teaching or sharing what a book says about Jesus and his kingdom, and because he is the focus of what it says we should expect to find what is old (be reminded) and what is new (discoveries of his grace and plans).