Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Members of the Kingdom – Their Characters and Consolations (Matt. 5:1-12)

John Stott points out that in the Sermon on the Mount we have depicted the life of repentance that Jesus had already called his listeners towards. Throughout the sermon Jesus will contrast his followers from those who adopt the outlook of the Pharisees and those who follow the ideas of pagan philosophers, both of which were common at that time. Similarly, his teachings in this sermon can be contrasted with all religious and psychological ideas for self-improvement that abound in our culture.
We are familiar with the Beatitudes, although sometimes familiarity can hide from us the radical nature of what Jesus says about his followers. Yet it is obvious from what he says that it should be easy to identify his followers because they will be very different from everyone else. Moreover we can see that they are also rich with regard to the future. It is also the case that Jesus, when he preached this sermon, merely listed the different details, which points to the fact that they can be understood easily.
There are two questions that arise from the Beatitudes. The first is, what character traits should we admire? The second is, what does it mean to be blessed? Regarding the first, we can ask ourselves what ingredients go into the mix of producing a balanced spiritual person? And regarding the second, we can ask where we will enjoy the blessings described by Jesus here?
There are different ways of summarising the Beatitudes. We could say that here we have the basics of a real believer, the balance of a real believer, and the blessings of a real believer. Or we could consider them as the contrast between members of the two kingdoms, the challenges of living in the kingdom, and the consummation of life in the kingdom.
What is a kingdom member like?
The Saviour is not making suggestions here when he outlines the character of his people. Nor is he describing only those who have made more progress than others. Rather he is listing the qualities that marks each of them. So what does he say about them?
What does he mean when he says that each of his followers is blessed? The word can be translated as ‘happy’, although that would be inappropriate here because Jesus is not speaking about their inner emotional attitude when he says that they are blessed. Of course, he does mention some inner attitudes and outlooks of his followers, but what makes them blessed is the divine response and blessings that he will give to them in the future.
The first feature that he mentions is poor in spirit. Such an attitude is similar to humility in outcome, and it probably is the root of which humility is the fruit.  Jesus does not mean a person who is self-demeaning, who pretends that he or she cannot do anything. Instead the poor in spirit have realised that they have no resources within themselves in order to serve God. Yet every person has a mind and certain talents. Why can they not serve God since they have such helps? The answer is that sin has affected all of them. The person who is poor in spirit realises that he is a sinner and that his sin makes him poor in numerous ways. Instead of being wise, he knows his sin can make him act foolishly. Instead of being humble, he knows his sin can lead him to self-promotion.  The poor in spirit realise that they are creatures dependent on God and are called to be his servants. But they realise that they have no resources in themselves.
The second feature is mourning. Mourning does not mean the absence of joy because later Jesus commands his followers to be joyful. Instead, mourning is a response to something that is wrong, and the wrong that saddens them is sin, whether in themselves or in others. Sin defiles and destroys, and is going to lead people to hell. A member of the kingdom takes seriously the presence of sin. I recall reading a biography of a man who was involved in city mission work in New York. All I remember from the book is one statement that the worker was overheard to say by a man who came across him weeping. The worker was speaking to God and his words were, ‘O Lord, the sin of this city is breaking my heart.’
The third feature is gentleness, but it is not a weak gentleness. Gentleness is usually revealed when a person responds to a difficult situation. It is connected to kindness, to appreciation of the other person, to restraint and to not acting selfishly.
Fourth, each member of the kingdom longs for righteousness. Given that they have already been justified, the righteousness here is not a desire to have the imputed righteousness of Jesus. Instead, the desire is based on that fact. They long for a world in which there will be nothing but righteousness, and the evidence that they have this desire is that they live righteously now. Jesus will describe features of this practical righteousness later in the sermon, but we can say that real righteousness flows from an inner desire to practice the commandments of God.
Fifth, the followers of the King are marked by mercy. We often link mercy with the divine response to our confession of sin when God shows mercy to those who do so in the sense of receiving pardon. Yet mercy is a bigger concept than that because it extends to showing compassion in all kinds of ways. Jesus is saying that his followers will show compassion to those in need, whether that need is spiritual or physical.
Sixth, the members of the kingdom are marked by purity of heart. Jesus cannot mean a sinless heart, because if he did there would not be any members in his kingdom on earth. Instead, he is describing a sanctified heart, one that is marked by the features that he has already mentioned. It has been pointed out by commentators that a good word that explains purity of heart is sincerity. There is no hypocrisy. Instead, the individual is consistently genuine. He is not deceitful.
Seventh, a true disciple of Jesus is a lover of peace, but not just in the sense of enjoying a peaceful environment. In addition, he goes into situations where peace does not exist, and does so with the aim of bringing the peace of God into those situations. He is active with his peace-making. I suppose this involves bringing the gospel of peace to those who are separated from God by their sins. And it includes sorting out situations of contention. The implication is that the followers themselves don’t cause the problem to happen.
Lastly, Jesus mentions that the subjects of the kingdom will be persecuted because of their priorities revealed in their lifestyles. There is no merit in being persecuted because we are obnoxious or proud or insistent on our own rights. But when we are opposed because of our commitment to the Bible’s requirements, we are on the road that brings many blessings into our experience.
As we think about those eight features of the character of each member of the kingdom, it should not be difficult to work out that they describe Christlikeness. It would be helpful if we went through each and observed how they were seen in the life of Jesus. He was humble, he was the man of sorrows, he was gentle, he loved righteousness, he was merciful, he was sincere, he delighted in making peace, and he was opposed and ultimately killed. The original disciples would become like this by spending time with Jesus and imitating him. The same goes for us.
The blessings of the kingdom
The poor in spirit are said to have the kingdom. Those who realise that they are nothing and have nothing are described as those who have a real status and innumerable resources. Jesus says that the kingdom belongs to them, a reminder that in his kingdom everyone is made a king. Whatever they need at any time can be supplied. Paul reminded the Philippians that God could meet all their needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
The mournful are assured of comfort. As we know, this was the name that Jesus used of the Holy Spirit in his work in the hearts of his people. He comforts them regarding their own sin by stressing the promises of forgiveness and he comforts them regarding the presence of sin by assuring them that one day in the future they will live eternally in a sinless location.
The gentle are promised that they will inherit everything (what more could someone have than the earth?). In this life, it is the graspers who often get something. They may get what they want, but they cannot keep it forever. In contrast, the gentle will be given the restored Paradise by God and they will have it as their inheritance forever. They will be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus of the eternal world.
Those who long for righteousness will be satisfied when they reach the world of glory, a world in which nothing unrighteous will ever be thought, said or done. It is almost impossible for us to imagine that kind of world. Yet Peter says that ‘according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells’ (2 Pet. 3:13).
The merciful are assured that they will receive mercy from God. We are not accustomed to thinking of believers as those who will receive mercy from God in the future. Onesiphorus showed practical aspects of mercy to Paul by looking for him diligently in Rome. Paul’s response was ‘May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me – may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day! – and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus’ (2 Tim. 2:16-18). Mercy is the unworthy receiving what they did not deserve. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the sheep showed mercy to various people in need, and the verdict on the Day of Judgement was linked to that mercy.
The pure in heart will be given insight into who God is. People are divided regarding what kind of sight is meant here because we are told elsewhere that God is invisible. Some suggest that what is meant is that we will see Jesus physically and in that way we will see God. Such an experience will occur for God’s people and it is certainly true that the Saviour will instruct the redeemed about God. In whatever way it will happen, we are reminded that the primary experience of glory is interacting with God. Maybe the important word is ‘see’, which implies the willingness to look. In the eternal world we will be taken up with God.
The peacemakers will be regarded as being like God. Obviously peace-making will not take place in the eternal world. Neither God nor believers will engage in it. But in the period before the end, both God and his people will do so. The Lord desires peace with sinners through the gospel and he desires peace within the church as well. Evangelism is peace-making, and believers engage in it whenever they speak about Jesus. Churches are intended to be places of peace.
There are three ways in which believers are said to belong to God’s family. One is regeneration which describes the new life they are given; a second is adoption which refers to the status they have been given; and the third is likeness or transformation. The third one is the evidence of the first one – new life brings desires for peace.
The persecuted are assured that they possess the resources of the kingdom. It is possible for people to be in trouble for various reasons which may not be connected to righteousness. For example, some Christians may decide to get involved in a political movement that may lead to problems for them. Their political opinions are their own choice and may be no more righteous than the alternatives. The blessing here is only for those who are persecuted for following the ways of God. Whatever they lose now because of their commitment to the kingdom, they cannot lose what is kept for them in heaven.
A member of the kingdom is a changed person on the inside. His behaviour flows from within. He has learned that he has no resources in himself, but that he has ample resources in God. In other kingdoms, the changes are external because no one has the power to change the hearts of the subjects. It is the opposite in the kingdom of God. The poor in spirit, that is those who have nothing in themselves, mourn over sin, are gentle, are hungry for righteousness, are merciful, are sincere in heart, love peace and remain this when they are persecuted. This is the consistent character that they have.
The members of the kingdom realise that there is a present and a future experience of it. Some details can only be done in the present (such as peace-making) whereas the fullness of the blessings can only be known in the future aspect of the kingdom. They use some of its resources now, receive some comfort now, experience mercy now, long for righteousness now. Yet it will be in the new heavens and new earth that fullness will be known, that comfort will be unsurpassable, that they will have their inheritance, that they will see God and experience his incredible mercy. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-13)

The city was located about thirty-five miles from Ephesus (today, it is known as Ismir). It was a famous city in ancient times, highly regarded by the Roman authorities for its devotion to the Emperor. In later times, it retained its prominence. The author of the comments on Revelation in the Matthew Henry commentary says that in his day it was well-known to merchants.

The origins of the church in Smyrna are unknown. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul says that when he was in Ephesus all of Asia heard the word of God (Acts 19:10), so it is likely that the gospel was taken from Ephesus to the surrounding locations. What we have here may be a letter to a daughter church, a church that unlike its mother receives no condemnation from Jesus.

The city of Smyrna had undergone a kind of resurrection. Old Smyrna had been destroyed in 580BC, but the city had been rebuilt in 290BC. The name of the city means myrrh and it is often pointed out that myrrh has to be crushed in order for its fragrance to be spread. It is not hard to see the relevance of those two features to the message that John is told to send to the church there. The letter mentions future resurrection and current crushing.

The church in Smyrna is famous for a persecution that took place about sixty years after this letter was sent. In AD155, the well-known Christian Polycarp was put to death in Smyrna. He was the leader of the church at that time. In words that he said at that time, he revealed that he had been a Christian for eighty-six years. That would take us back to around AD70, which suggests that he had already been a believer for twenty years when this letter arrived from Jesus. Polycarp survived the suffering at that time, but later as an old man he gained the martyr’s crown.

The description of Jesus

The Lord Jesus in this description states the wonder of his person, in that he is both God and man. We see his deity in the claim that he is the first and the last because it is a divine title used in the Old Testament of God (Isa. 44:6; 48:12). And we see his humanity in his claim that he died and came back to life.

As far as his deity is concerned, Jesus says that he is the originator of all things – the Creator, and he is the one who will wind up the current creation. So he is saying that he is the Controller of all things. In his human nature, he defeated death, the most powerful enemy of the human race. Even death cannot remove him from the place of supreme authority. Although he died, he reigns.

So the Smyrnians are reminded that Jesus is a great person who possesses two incredible abilities. He is the source of natural life and he is the source of resurrection life. The inhabitants of Smyrna were recognised for their devotion to the Roman emperor and he had given them rewards within his authority and power. In a far higher way, the Christians in Smyrna are urged to show their devotion to a far superior Ruler who could give them far greater rewards.

The commendation of Jesus

The Saviour is walking through or in the church in Smyrna and observed their situation. He mentions three aspects of their circumstances. First, they are experiencing persecution for their faith. Their experience is different from the church in Ephesus, even although it was close by. Second, he knows that persecution has been costly for them because it has made them poor (the word translated poverty was used of beggars). Probably they have lost their possessions. Third, the persecution seems to have been initiated by the Jews, who have slandered the Christians before the civil authorities. This was a common experience for the first-century church.

Yet things are not what they seem to be and Jesus points out two such details. First, the Christians in Smyrna, although they have lost everything, are not poor. Instead they are the richest people in Smyrna because their treasures are in heaven. The heavenly Banker assures them that he is protecting their investments, and these cannot be lost no matter what happens to them. In this regard, they were the opposite of the church of Laodicea.

Second, Jesus assures the Christians in Smyrna that they, and not the Jews, are the people of God. In contrast, the Jewish synagogue in Smyrna is actually the possession of Satan. This is very strong condemnation by the One who knows the hearts of men. Both the Christian community and the Jewish synagogue would have used the Old Testament: one of them had the light of God and saw Jesus in the scriptures, the other were blinded by the devil and opposed Jesus and his people. Jesus here says what Paul says elsewhere that a true Jew is one that is a Jew inwardly. The true circumcision are those who glory in Christ Jesus as they worship God (Phil. 3:3).

So Jesus assures his suffering people of their permanent identity and of their priceless investments.

The counsel of Jesus

Jesus then informs the believers in the church in Smyrna that further suffering is coming. Some of the members are going to be arrested and probably put to death – prison in those days was usually only a place where people were held before they were executed or used in the arena to fight wild animals. How were they to deal with this information?

First, there had to be a resolve, which was that they were not to be afraid of the sufferings. If this comment had only come from John, then the believers may imagined that this was a call to stoicism because he would not be able to help them. But since it came from Jesus, his instructions always carry with them the promise of strength to obey them. They would know that he would be with them in the trials.

Second, there had to be realisation of the purpose of trials. Jesus informs them that the trials are designed to test them. Of course, the devil arranges the arrests in order to destroy them, but behind the scenes Jesus uses the adversities to give them authenticity, and from that would flow assurance. The trials would bring good. Moreover they had to realise that the period of trial had been fixed by Jesus and in comparison with other possibilities the period of trouble would be short (ten days).

Sometimes, the will of Jesus for his suffering people is to allow further suffering. Such prolonged suffering does not mean that Jesus ceases to be sovereign. Instead, he is focussed on their sanctification, on their becoming increasingly like him. When the devil is raging and seems about to crush a church, remember that the crushing adds to the fragrance that is recognised in heaven. The beauty of becoming like Jesus reveals the hidden upholding of Jesus that sanctifies his followers.

The comfort for Smyrna

The Saviour confirms that those arrested will die for their faith. Since the promise is linked to what happened at the Games it is possible that he is indicating that their deaths will take place in the arena where races were held. Victors in races received a laurel crown which soon lost its lustre. In contrast, those who will pay the price of martyrdom are assured that they will have endless life.

The gift of life will be given to each of them personally by Jesus when he returns. So the suffering church in Smyrna was told to gather comfort from the certain blessings of the future. Thinking about the life to come would give each of them strength as they passed through a fiery ordeal. Identification with Jesus often means following the path that he walked, which was suffering unto death and raised to glory.

The conclusion for the churches

The other churches would hear what Jesus had predicted concerning the ongoing persecution in Smyrna. Inevitably, such information would cause brotherly concern and personal fear that the same persecution might come to them as well. What application should they take from what had been said about Smyrna? The application was to realise that true believers would not be hurt by the second death.

What is the second death? Revelation 21:8 says that it is a description of eternal punishment. The first death is physical, and for some it comes through martyrdom. Others will experience it through a variety of ways. Yet there is something common to all true believers and that is they shall never undergo the despair of a lost eternity. What is important ultimately is not how we succumb to the first death but whether or not we will experience the second death. Those who trust in Jesus and serve him with devotion will never be affected by the second death.

Jesus points out that the second death is painful. This is a reminder that a lost eternity is a conscious experience and we can say that it will be painful physically, intellectually and emotionally. Intellectually, those who suffer it will know that it will never end, so they will experience hopelessness. And who can estimate the effect of such despair on the feelings of those who endure it?

Why would Jesus remind the churches of this reality? One reason would be to remind the believers of the importance of personal gratitude to the God of salvation. Another reason would be to stress the urgency of evangelism, that those heading towards the second death would be warned about it. And a third would be to respond intelligently when they heard that the believers in Smyrna had suffered martyrdom, because although their deaths would bring sorrow they would not bring the despair linked to those who die the second death.


There is no rebuke made by Jesus about the church in Smyrna, yet she seems to have the church of the seven who suffered the most. Here we are reminded that we cannot judge spirituality by providence. Their losses were not evidence of divine judgement but of their determined devotion to Jesus. It was obvious that they put Jesus first.

How do we hold out against strong opposition? The church in Smyrna was under attack from the pagan government and from the religious Jews. They did not have ‘friends’ in the city. The way that they would hold out against their opponents was by having big views of Jesus and his work and by keeping in mind the great future that belongs to the people of God.

We do not need a lot of earthly resources to survive. The Christians in Smyrna had little of this world’s assets. Yet they had a future because Jesus informed them that only some of them would be arrested and killed. It is well-known that usually the churches that suffer for the Lord survive against all the odds. Smyrna had a future because at the time Jesus spoke there was a threat to its lampstand.

The devil hates the people of God. We need to remind ourselves that the devil is consistent in this regard. He hates God and his people. While he cannot touch God, he does aim to destroy the church and sometimes the method he favours is persecution. There are many churches today going through the experience that Smyrna endured towards the end of the first century.

We can bring pleasure to the Saviour as he walks around the church. As we have seen, the letters to the seven churches are the response by Jesus to what he discovered when he walked among the churches. We are told what he felt when he walked near the church in Laodicea. He would have had a very different reaction to the devoted saints in Smyrna. The day is coming when they will hear him say to them, ‘Well done!’

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Kingdom Advances (Matthew 4:12-20)

Each of the three years of Jesus’ public ministry has been given a name. Year 1 is called The Year of Obscurity; year 2 is called The Year of Popularity; and Year 3 is called The Year of Increasing Opposition. Matthew passes over The Year of Obscurity, the details of which are recorded by John in the first four chapters of his Gospel. Matthew begins here with The Year of Popularity (as we can see with his description of great crowds following Jesus).

What happened in The Year of Obscurity? We read those details in John. He mentions how he, Andrew and Peter had met Jesus for the first time in Judaea. He also describes their return to Galilee and the way Jesus found Philip and Nathaniel. At that time, the miracle of turning water into wine occurred, and we can see from that incident that at that time Jesus did not want publicity. John then mentions a trip back to Judaea for a Passover, where he cleared the temple, met with Nicodemus and then spoke to the woman from Sychar on the way back to Galilee, which is where Matthew is in his Gospel here. So a year has passed between the forty days of temptation and the events described in this passage.      

Prophecy fulfilled

What is Matthew doing in this passage? First, he is explaining how a specific prophecy concerning Galilee and the Messiah was fulfilled. Matthew points out that two factors in providence caused it: one was the arrest of John the Baptist in Judea and the other was the decision by Jesus to move from Nazareth to Capernaum.

Second, he mentions the spiritual state of the inhabitants in Galilee. We can see that some changes had occurred in the makeup of the population in that there were now many Gentiles living in the area. Gentiles were excluded from the people of God unless they became proselytes in the Jewish faith. Moreover, the area was marked by darkness and death – the prophecy is not referring to literal darkness or death, but to spiritual blindness and separation from God.

To such people Jesus revealed himself as the light. We might have imagined that he would have made the headquarters for his campaign to be in Jerusalem. Instead, he chose Capernaum to have this privilege, which is one reason why a particular woe is later pronounced by him on this favoured city. In his ministry in Galilee, Jesus would reveal that he had come to deal with spiritual problems in the lives of sinners estranged from God.

We might imagine initially that having headquarters in Galilee was surprising. Yet Galilee was a prosperous and densely populated area of the country. Apparently, within Galilee, there were 204 towns with a population of more that 15,000 each. That is about four times the number that Scotland had in 2012. So we should not be surprised that large crowds listening to Jesus were common.

There is another detail regarding those places that we may not appreciate as we read it and that concerns the historical behaviour of the people in the areas mentioned. Because of their location, they were the tribes that succumbed to the pagan influences of their neighbours. Moreover, they were also the first of the Israelites to experience divine judgement through invading armies. So here was a prophecy that announced that God would yet show mercy to those who were unfaithful and who had experienced divine judgement.

Message of the King

How would we summarise the message that Jesus preached? Obviously, since he had not yet died on the cross and risen again from the dead, there would be some differences between what was preached by him and then later by the apostles. We can summarise the difference by saying that Jesus preached the kingdom had not yet begun whereas the apostles declared that the kingdom had arrived because Jesus had ascended to the throne of God in heaven.

Why does Matthew call it the kingdom of heaven whereas other gospels use the phrase kingdom of God? One answer that is made, and I am not aware of any other suggestion, is that Matthew, since he wrote initially for Jews, followed the Jewish custom of substituting the word ‘heaven’ for ‘God’. So we have here an example of taking on board cultural sensitivities in order to make it easier for others to grasp the gospel.

What is the kingdom of heaven in this context? It is the kingdom that was predicted in the Old Testament which would be set up when the Messiah came. The details of the kingdom were that it would be universal, that it would be undefeatable, that it would be unending, and composed of sinners devoted to God. Those details were described by using illustrations taken from the time in which the prophets lived, but their fulfilment would be far greater. For example, the place where the Messiah would reign from was said to be Jerusalem whereas we know from the New Testament that the actual place of his throne is the heavenly Jerusalem. The New Testament expands the picture given in the Old Testament.

The way of entering the kingdom is said to be repentance.

Chosen Agents

Matthew then records the occasion when four of Jesus’s disciples were called by him to give up their everyday work and follow him more fully. He had a particular role for them to fulfil and the path of preparation involved accompanying him as he travelled round the country preaching about the kingdom.

Jesus does something very unusual here. At that time, rabbis did not command people to follow them. Instead, it was the custom for individuals to decide to identify themselves with a particular teacher. The fact that he called the four disciples here shows that Jesus was conscious that he possessed authority. Their response also reveals that they recognised that Jesus was more than a rabbi.

It is likely that the four men were waiting for Jesus to call them. As mentioned earlier, they had been with Jesus during the Year of Obscurity and had learned a great deal during those months. Maybe Jesus had given them time to reflect on what they had seen and heard. It would have been impossible for them not to have done so. And since they respond immediately to this particular call we can deduce that they were eager to go.

The calling here stresses two details about this call. First, allegiance to Jesus comes before family ties. We this especially in the case of James and John because they had to leave their father. Second, allegiance to Jesus comes before their particular role in life (in their case, they were fishermen). Giving Jesus priority in those areas does not indicate that they should be indifferent to family or even to their tasks (we know that Peter fished on a couple of occasions later on).

The role that Jesus planned for them was to catch men in the gospel net. They would be equipped for this role by imitating Jesus – this was why they were to follow him. We should observe that Jesus guarantees that they will be able to do so. And we have examples of Peter doing this in the Book of Acts.

The Saviour’s Purpose (1 Timothy 1:15)

This statement by Paul is one of five faithful sayings contained in the Pastoral epistles. These statements may have been sayings that the early Christians used to summarise what they believed about important doctrines. They cover a variety of important concerns of the Christian faith.

Paul here is giving his testimony to his friend Timothy. Timothy had been sent to Ephesus by Paul to deal with some issues in the church there. Part of the problem there was false teaching connected to wrong uses of the law. The law is designed to show that we are sinners, unable to keep it. But merely preaching the law in such a way is pointless unless it is also accompanied by the gospel.

The Law at Work
What kind of person is produced by preaching the law without the gospel? Paul would say that he, before his conversion, was such a person. His attempts to keep the law had turned him into a self-righteous Pharisee, and in his case had led him into opposing the kingdom of Jesus. Although he did not realise it at the time, his self-righteousness had turned him into a blasphemer, a persecutor of God’s people, and a violent man. Obviously, his experience of the law was not one that flowed from divine grace at work in his heart.

It is important to recognise that self-righteousness does not always produce those responses. Sometimes, it can develop into good activities and such people can have a wide range of good works. Yet there is one common feature that they share with the likes of Saul of Tarsus and that is they are convinced that they can do very well without grace. They imagine that they can obey God’s requirements, even if all the information they have is connected to what God has written on their hearts by nature.

The obvious problem with such people is that they have not used the law in a correct way. As long as they are detached from God, the purpose of the law is to highlight their inability to keep any of it adequately rather than to be a guide to keep some of it externally. While it is good for societies to have standards that are similar to what God requires, we should not forget that the main purpose of the law is to show that we are sinners in thought, word and deed.

We can easily see why this is the case. The law has to do this because we need to see what is wrong with us before we apply to Jesus for mercy. Yet we need to avoid stereotyping what a person under conviction of sin looks like. If the purpose of the law is to create the realisation that something is wrong with us, then the realisation may show itself in a variety of ways.

A person under conviction of sin may be brought there because he is frustrated that he is not consistent in attempting to live a good life. He or she may be brought under conviction of sin because they become conscious that they do not love their neighbour as they should. The point is that the law of God, whether in the Ten Commandments or in the law written in our hearts by nature, does its work and points out to us our need of salvation from sin in ourselves.

A convicted sinner
What does a convicted sinner look like? How do we know if we are such an individual? Paul tells us the answer when he describes himself as the chief of sinners, or the foremost sinner. Was that literally true of Paul? He was a cruel person before his conversion, but there have been plenty individuals in history who have done much worse than Paul.

So why did he conclude that he was the worst sinner? Maybe he thought about his privileges that he had abused. After all, he had been brought up in a family that served God. He had been sent by his family to study under one of the best religious teachers in Israel. As a devout Jew, he would have read about the descriptions of the Messiah, and he had refused to link them with Jesus.

Or perhaps he had observed the amazing responses of believers like Stephen, the martyr whose death Paul had supervised. Whatever else he would have seen in Stephen as he died, Paul would have observed Stephen’s incredible expression of neighbourly love when he asked God not to lay the sin of murdering him against those who were doing it. In all likelihood Paul had never prayed for an enemy in his life, yet he heard Stephen do so. Did it cross the mind of Paul that such a response was truly incredible?

Paul may have had those things, but something else was needed before he would confess that he was the chief of sinners. In addition to what he had done, Paul also realised what he could do. All the sins that he had committed against Jesus had not satisfied his intense desire to commit even more. That was his intention when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus met a man who had committed great sins and who intended to commit many more.

Is that not how each of us is before we meet Jesus? We have participated in sinful activities and intend to get involved in many more. It is not possible for us to commit every sin, but that does not mean that we do not want to commit as many as we can. That is what I was like when I met Jesus. I was a sinner wanting to engage in more sins, but he stepped in and changed my outlook.

Why did Paul say he was the chief of sinners? It was not because he was comparing himself with other people. Instead, he made the statement because the Holy Spirit had revealed to him what kind of person he really was. When the Spirit convinces an individual of his sin, he stops focussing on the sins of other people.

What does Jesus show towards those he will convict?
Paul discovered that all his actions had been committed against Jesus. The apostle discovered that was the case when Jesus spoke to him on the road to Damascus. Every action he had taken against the followers of Jesus – all the thoughts and words as well – had been against Jesus personally. Obviously, his sins were more directly against Jesus because they affected Christians to whom Jesus was united. Yet we can also say that our sins are against Jesus because we know the gospel and what it offers.

Paul points out that Jesus was very patient with him while he was engaging in his sinful activities. The apostle says that Jesus showed perfect patience. Perhaps here we see an instance of Paul’s understanding of his sinfulness even as a Christian. In many ways, Paul was an exceptionally patient man as he served the churches. Yet because he was not sinless, there would have been times when his patience would have been thin. But he knew One who had exhibited perfect patience and that was Jesus.

What feature is necessary for perfect patience? One answer might me strong resolve where we persist in an attitude or action despite wanting to give up. Yet we can see how that is not perfect patience – it is imperfect patience because it is not always the outflow of love. With regard to Jesus, there was strong love for Paul even when he was committing great sins.

The salvation he provided
Paul reminds Timothy that Jesus came from another place into our world. The other place was heaven, the place of perfection, the location of holiness, the abode of angels, the destiny of the redeemed when they die. So Jesus came to the opposite kind of world from where he had been. This world is tainted by sin everywhere. The fact that Jesus was willing to come to our world shows the incredible degree of love that he had for sinners like Saul of Tarsus.

Moreover, he came on a specific mission of salvation, which was to save sinners. He did not come to make them salvable, in the sense that none would benefit from what he did. Instead he came to secure salvation. The provision of salvation is connected to deliverance from sin and involved paying its penalty, overcoming its power and removing its presence for and in those who accept the offer of mercy in the gospel. The salvation Jesus accomplished is totally successful in all those who trust in him, and eventually will involve a number than no one can count.

Paul believed that this salvation was the answer to the spiritual needs of every person, which was why he wrote it was worthy of all acceptation. It is such a great salvation, able to deal with the problems caused by sin in every person. He had such incredible confidence in the Gospel that if every person believed it they would all receive great blessings. It did not matter who heard it, they would experience the rich grace of full forgiveness for their sins and the promise of life in glory in the world to come.

The meaning of salvation is said by Paul to be eternal life. Such life is endless, yet it is also very full of grace. Paul had begun to taste some of its features in this life, items such as peace and joy flowing into his soul from the heavenly fountain that is Jesus himself. But such were only foretastes of the incredible fullness that awaits those who trust in Jesus.

Paul makes the point that divine grace through the gospel came in copious amounts – he says that it overflowed. It expressed itself in faith and love. How would faith show itself copiously? I would say that it means that Paul’s faith trusted completely in Jesus, that he now regarded Jesus as the only possible Saviour. Obviously, his faith would become more informed as time went by. Yet from the start his hope and confidence were in Jesus.  

Similarly, the love Paul now had for Jesus was supreme in his heart. As a changed man, Paul would now love those whom he had never loved before, whoever they were. The man who was marked by hatred became a person marked by great love. As a person of love, his supreme affections were given to Jesus and the Saviour possessed the apostle’s heart.

The outcome of praise
Paul pens a doxology in verse 17. Obviously, it expresses his heartfelt adoration to the One who had provided salvation. His focus is on God the Father and he lists several details that are unique to him as divine. There are incredible truths about God listed here, which would be good for us to meditate on. But here they are the response of Paul to the One who sent his Son into the world to save sinners. Such an expression of grace deserves eternal praise from sinners, even from those who regard themselves as the worst.

Preached on 15/1/2015

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The King Goes to War (Matthew 4:1-17)

Matthew has described the anointing of the King with the Holy Spirit when he was baptised by John in the River Jordan. The anointing with the Spirit was required for the next stage in the earthly life of the Saviour, which was the three years of his public ministry when he would show by his word and actions that he was the promised Messiah. Before the anointing took place, Jesus had experienced the blessing of the Spirit in other ways as we can see from the way Luke, in his Gospel, describes how Jesus grew in favour with God and man.
The anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit, we can say, was predicted, personal, peaceful and powerful. It had been predicted in the Old Testament, in a passage such as Isaiah 11 that describes how the Spirit would function in the ministry of the Saviour; it was obviously a personal experience for Jesus, and that in many ways – assurance from the Father, equipping for the task, and other ways; the effect of the anointing would be peace, illustrated by the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, with this peace being procured by Jesus when on the cross and provided by him to those who would receive him as their Saviour; and it would mean displays of power, especially as revealed through miracles that he performed. It would also involve conflict with the enemies of our souls.
In this chapter, Matthew mentions four details that marked the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, his campaign. First, he engaged in a period of conflict with his most powerful opponent, the devil; second, he returned to Galilee and began preaching; third, he chose certain people to be his disciples; and, fourth, he took them with him on a preaching tour. We can see that he engaged in the first one by himself, and we will focus on it in this sermon.
Before the temptations
This period of temptation took place in the Judean desert, which was where John had baptised Jesus. What is surprising about it is that the temptations were not instigated by the devil as if he was engaged in trying to defeat the Saviour immediately and remove him as a threat. Instead, the devil is on the defensive, not the offensive. The situation is not that Jesus went into the desert for a time of communion with God and was interrupted by the devil. It is true that Jesus had communion with his Father during that time, but the reason he went to the desert was to engage in spiritual warfare.
Matthew points out that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into this experience (Mark uses a far stronger word to describe the way the Spirit led Jesus into the desert). It was part of the divine purpose for the Saviour. The calling that he had was one in which he would destroy the works of the devil, and we can see that he started to do so from the onset of his public ministry. Obviously, the conflict was intentional as far as Jesus was concerned. He was not led reluctantly into the battlefield of the desert.
How would Jesus have entered into this engagement with the devil? It was an expression of his dedication to do the will of God – after all, he was the servant of the Lord, and he fulfilled each stage of the journey with diligence. I suspect there was also an element of discovery because such direct contact with the devil would not have happened often, if at all, before this time. The Saviour found himself alongside the presence of evil and it would have appalled him.
Moreover, the experience was very intense for Jesus because he ensured that he was in a proper state for the battle. This is why he fasted for forty days. We know from elsewhere in the New Testament that Jesus was tempted by the devil throughout the whole period. Yet there was clearly a focus on the three temptations that took place towards the end of the period. It is not too difficult for us to work out that if Jesus had to be ready for such trials, and he was sinless, so how much more do we have to be ready as sinners!
How did fasting for forty days help? In itself, fasting is of no benefit in a spiritual sense. Instead, fasting creates time for preparation. We can easily imagine that a lot of time in the desert could be taken up looking for food. Jesus devoted all of the time to spending it with God. His prayers would have been very earnest throughout all that period. Probably he was meditating on the Old Testament, maybe in the Book of Deuteronomy, because he quotes from it three times when the three specific temptations come.
Clearly there is a contrast here between the circumstances in which the first Adam met the devil and his temptations and in which the last Adam met him. The first Adam was tempted in beautiful surroundings, in the Garden of Eden, in a place of great beauty. He was surrounded by fruit to eat. Jesus, the last Adam, was in the desert, in a place that depicted the effects of the curse made after Adam and Eve fell, with nothing to eat.
There may also be a contrast between Jesus and the children of Israel. The latter experienced God’s powerful intervention at the Exodus and then went into the desert and fell into temptations laid by the devil. In contrast, Jesus after his experience of blessing at his baptism went into the desert and resisted all temptations that came his way.
Enduring the temptations
As we look at what the devil did at this time, we see that he is audacious. He dares to tempt the Son of God and in the process dares to misquote the Word of God. In addition, the devil has alternative temptations if the first does not achieve his desires – for all we know, he may have had more than three ready to use, but if he did he was prevented from using them by the authoritative word of the Saviour. His aim was to bring down the Son of God by getting him to sin against his Father. And we must note that the devil was allowed to tempt the Son of God.
The devil devised three powerful temptations. Probably he used the forty days to come up with them. We can see his craftiness in each of them, and each of them was designed to lead Jesus into specific sins. This is a reminder that the battle being fought was not so much about physical things, but about the state of the Saviour’s heart and the priorities that marked his life. The devil was attempting to change the devotion of Jesus to his Father’s business.
The nature of the temptations may surprise us because each of the things with which Jesus was tempted can be classified as good to some extent. It is good to eat food, it is good to have angelic protection in times of danger, and it was right that Jesus should receive universal power. Of course, the devil twisted each of them for a wrong purpose. Yet we should notice that good things can be used by the devil in temptation. Jesus was tempted with regard to his appetite, to the promise of receiving the kingdom, and to anticipation of divine help.
It has been pointed out that the three temptations are linked to the sonship of Jesus which had been declared at the baptism when the Father spoke from heaven. The devil began by attempting to get Jesus to prove that he was the Son of God. Then the devil suggested to Jesus that he do something dramatic to show that he was the Son of God. Thirdly, he promised to give to Jesus the inheritance that belonged to him as the Son.
It is likely that the devil imagined the three temptations were his most effective arrows. In the first one, he tempted Jesus to use his position and abilities to meet his needs in a wrong manner. We could say that the temptation was to use his divine nature to help his human nature. The need was hunger, the suggested activity was an act of creation, but the aim was to do the desire of the devil rather than of the heavenly Father.
The second temptation laid bare the heart of the devil and the heart of Jesus and revealed the stark contrast between them. Inside the devil’s heart was grotesque sinful ambition that can only be described as blasphemy – he wanted a divine being to bow to him. It was an expression of pride. He did not have the authority to give anything of the world to Jesus – Jesus is the heir of all things appointed by the Father. In contrast, Jesus revealed his authority by dismissing the devil and also reminded him of his duty as a mere creature, which was to worship God alone. That is the devil’s responsibility, but there was and is nothing in his heart that would lead him to do so. Here he was experiencing a foretaste of the judgement he will yet receive from the Saviour on the Great Day.
In the third temptation, the devil tempted Jesus to perform a spectacular stunt at the temple through which all the people would see that the angels would help him. The devil misquoted a verse from a psalm, but it is interesting that he realised the psalm applied to Jesus. The temptation was to use the Word of God to justify a foolish act rather than an act of faith.
We can see from the answers of Jesus that they were straightforward, scriptural and suitable. The straightforwardness is seen in the simplicity of his answers, nothing complicated. His use of the scriptures is obvious, but it is also obvious that he knew the Bible. And his use of them is suitable in that he only used verses that were relevant to the situation.
Looking at the experience of these temptations, we can see three important truths. First, they show us the reality of his humanity. As God, he could not be tempted, but as the One who was also man he could. Second, they reveal that temptation can be resisted perfectly by Jesus without the slightest interest in considering what was offered, even if they were a path to promotion. Third, they point to the representative nature of what he was doing when he endured them – he was doing what we failed to do in Adam, and he was doing so on our behalf. The desert is a good place for us, because there we triumphed with Christ.
The sequel to the temptations
Jesus won a great victory. He revealed that he could overcome the enemy by obedience to the will of God. We have to remember that such a triumph had never been known before. Unlike us, Jesus could not be tempted from the inside and there was nothing in him that found the temptations attractive. Eden had become a terrible place because of Adam’s failure to resist temptation. It was the place of defeat, even although a promise was given that a Deliverer would come. Now he had and the desert became the field of victory.
Jesus experienced the comfort of heaven when angels came to minister to him. Heaven recognised the dignity of his person. Here was the banquet after the battle. There never had been such an event before. The disgust he felt at the presence of evil turned into delight at the presence of sinlessness expressed in the holy angels. A foretaste of restored paradise was given. The One had come who would reverse the curse and transform the universe. In the desert, holy songs were sung.
Some applications
First, the obvious one is that Jesus is stronger than the devil. Our Champion not only won this battle, he was never defeated in any battle by our enemy. It was success all the way, even although it was a severe conflict.
Second, it is not a sin to be tempted, but it can be the occasion when God tests our commitment. This was the case with Jesus. We must remember that we are not tested because God doubts progress, but because he delights in progress.
Third, Jesus understands the full power of temptation, so is able to sympathise with his people when they are tempted. The one who knows the power of temptation is not the one who gives in, even if it takes a while to do so. Instead, it is the person who resists temptation who knows how powerful it is. For us, it is good to know that Jesus understands, even more than fellow Christians who have been severely tested.

Fourth, there is the necessity of feeding our souls on the Word of God. This is what Jesus did, and he is our example.
Preached on 8/1/2017