Sunday, 23 April 2017

Jesus Heals a Leper (Matthew 8:1-6)

Matthew mentions that Jesus was followed by great crowds and no doubt each of them had a story to tell about what they thought of Jesus and perhaps some of them had received a great blessing from him. Nevertheless, Matthew chooses to describe isolated incidents in which Jesus helped unlikely people.

The Gospel of Matthew was constructed by him so that we could learn about Jesus. In this chapter he includes several occasions when Jesus performed a miracle. Matthew has already mentioned that Jesus performed miracles, but he did not say very much about them. Now he chooses several that reveal among other things the power of Jesus over disease, death and demonic destruction, things that were the consequence of sin. Each incident tells us other details about Jesus as well, but the overall design is to reveal the incredible power of Jesus over other kinds of power.

As far as the ritual religion of Israel was concerned, lepers were banned from the temple and could not participate in any of the services. This did not mean that a leper could not worship God in private. Yet the nature of his illness meant that he lived life in isolation because he was not allowed to mix with society. Lepers were outcasts both as far as religion and daily interaction was concerned.

Why did Matthew include this story? One obvious reason is that the performance of such miracles was evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. The Old Testament contains many predictions about the activities of the Messiah and one was that he would help people in great need. A second reason would be his desire to tell social outcasts, of which there were many at that time, that Jesus, although now exalted to heaven by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, welcomes such outcasts into his company. A third reason is that leprosy is a picture of sin and therefore when someone was cured of leprosy they illustrate what Jesus can do for sinners in the gospel.

How leprosy depicts sin
Most of us are familiar with the various ways in which leprosy did this. We have already mentioned how leprosy prevented someone from approaching the temple to worship God. This means that leprosy illustrated someone who was separated from God, and sin does this in a far more serious way that leprosy does. There will be lepers in heaven who were never healed of their leprosy, but there will be no sinners in heaven who were not healed of sin and its consequences. It is a solemn fact that sin creates a separation between us and God.

Another feature of leprosy is that it is not a static disease. The person who has it knows that his state will get worse. That is what sin does to people as well. We see young children and they seem so innocent, but who knows what they will do when they become adults. Many a teenager played with a sin and they are now under its grip and they are very different from what they once were. Everyone knows that bad habits have consequences. The real name for bad habits is sin. The fact is, if we don’t do something about our sins, our sins will do something to us and make us worse.

A third way in which leprosy depicts sin is that it brings sorrow in its path. Imagine the devastation that would come into a family if one of the members was affected by the disease. What sorrows and disappointments there would be! And sin leaves a trail of sorrow behind it. How much sorrow is in the world, no one can say. But we can say about the sorrows that in one way or another they are here because of sin.

There is a fourth way in which leprosy depicts sin and that is that it leads to death. We know that some illnesses are incurable sadly and will lead eventually to death. And that is where sin is taking every person living today, it is where it has taken every person who lived in the past, and it will take every person who will live in the future. Sin guarantees a definite result. Those who are sinners will die, not just physically but also eternally.

So we see four ways at least in which leprosy is a picture of us in our sins. It separates, it progresses, it saddens and it will bring about death. We can imagine how desolating the poor leper must have felt. The reality is that our sins should make us feel far more desolate because sin is a worse disease than leprosy. For most of his life, at least since he had become a leper, this man would have had no hope. But one day he heard about Jesus and determined to see if he could be helped by him.

The approach of the leper
We are not told how the leper knew he could come to Jesus nor why he should want to come to Jesus. The assumption is that he had heard of the miracles that Jesus had already performed (Matthew 4:23) and decided that since Jesus had helped others he could help him as well. Such a deduction is part of the logic of saving faith because it learns from the experience of others. He had heard that others had been helped by Jesus and therefore was optimistic that he would help him also.

The leper’s approach to Jesus shows to us how a sinner should come to Jesus for mercy. First, he acknowledged that Jesus was divine. It would be possible to suggest that the title ‘Lord’ was only one of respect, yet when combined with his action of kneeling we can see that the leper recognised that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Here we have an example of God’s amazing grace in which he enlightens an unexpected person to confess the superiority of Jesus.

At the same time, the leper expressed his submission to Jesus when he focussed on whether or not the Lord was willing to help him. Of course, the leper is not suggesting that Jesus would be reluctant to heal. Instead he is expressing his conviction that Jesus is sovereign even in how he chooses to help needy people. The leper recognised that he was not in a position to make demands of Jesus. And we must come to that realisation. Desperation is not a valid reason for disrespect.

The leper’s confession also highlights his spirituality. After all, he did not ask Jesus to heal him. Instead he asked Jesus to make him clean. His focus on cleansing informs us he wanted to worship God in the temple with his people. If all that he wanted was to be able to go in and out in the community, he only needed physical healing. But he also wanted to be right with God, which tells us that there was a spiritual desire in his request.

His grasp that he needed cleansing points to the reality that he recognised that he was a sinner. So we can deduce that in his request there was an expression of repentance. This recognition can also be seen in his awareness that Jesus was divine. Why else would he come to Jesus for help?

The response of Jesus
The first detail that Matthew highlights is the willingness of Jesus to identify with needy sinners. This is revealed in his response of touching the leper. In the eyes of the community, this action made Jesus unclean (Leviticus 5:3), whereas in reality the opposite was taking place. Jesus was cleansing the leper! His response on this occasion also shows the eagerness with which he comes to the aid of those in spiritual distress.

The second detail that Matthew underlines is the immediate nature of the cure that Jesus provided. He did in a moment what the best doctors of the time could not do in a lifetime of treatment. What he did physically here is also true spiritually as far as salvation from sin is concerned. Of course, we cannot push the picture too far. Although a sinner becomes spotless in God’s sight when he believes in Jesus (justified), he does not become sinless. He remains a sinner while on earth, although he is a forgiven sinner.

The third detail mentioned by Matthew is that Jesus gave instructions to the cured leper about acknowledging the commandments of God’s Word (Leviticus 14). The ceremonial law detailed a process to follow when a leper professed to having been healed. If the leper, after his healing, had ignored those requirements, he would have no credibility in the eyes of those who worshipped God. This is a powerful message for us as well. Obedience is necessary for showing we put Jesus first in our lives and also for showing to others that we are the disciples of Jesus.

Fourthly, Jesus tested the healed leper by this command to go to the priests. He told the man to go to the temple in Jerusalem, which was a long way from Galilee. If he failed to go, he would have failed the test of obedience. Moreover, Jesus was requiring that the man should put God first. One assumes that there were other people he might want to tell – perhaps, his wife and children, maybe his parents or brothers and sisters. Instead of going to tell them, he was to go and do what God required and after he had done that he could tell others.

Fifth, the priests in the temple would have learned two things about Jesus. One is that Jesus wished to honour the law of Moses and the other is that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament concerning his ability to perform incredible miracles. Imagine being the priest who had to deal with this man. It is unlikely that he would have dealt with many such cases. Surely he would inform his fellows about the astonishing situation he recently had to deal with.

The sad detail is that Mark tells us that the leper did not do what Jesus wanted him to do. Instead he went and told everyone what had taken place, and the outcome was that the mission of Jesus was disrupted. Here we are reminded that the people whom Jesus help do not become sinless. Sometimes they use their own wisdom instead of his and when they do they lose out spiritually.

It is also the case that the healing that Jesus provided restored a wide area of blessings to the leper. Previously he was isolated, now he could enter into society. Before he was debarred from going to the temple, now he could participate in the worship of God. In the years in which he was a leper, he had to live in communities composed of lepers, those without hope; now he could join the community of hope as he faced the future and shared in the blessings of the kingdom that Jesus had commenced. His restoration depicts the range of blessings that salvation brings. Salvation gives us fellowship in the family of God, gives us access to the presence of God, and provides us with hope eventually of the glory of God.

Loving as Jesus Does (Phil. 1:8)

There are numerous surprising statements in the Bible. Some of them are connected to what God has done for sinners as explained in the message of the gospel. Other surprising statements are found in the details connected to God’s amazing plans for the future blessing of his people. But there are also surprising ones connected to the Christian life. For example, the goal of sanctification is to become like Jesus. Or we can remind ourselves that Jesus said that his people would abide in him and he in them. Somehow, they would know Jesus in their inner lives.

It is obvious that Paul regarded this statement as very important. We can see that is the case from his insertion of an oath at the beginning of the sentence. Why did he feel obliged to write in this way? Why did the Holy Spirit lead him to write in his way? Maybe it was because the claim marked him out as unusual, as such an advanced Christian, that normally no one would believe that such an outlook was possible. If that was the case, we would need to respond by saying that Paul was a very good apostle, and all we could do was admire his devotion.
Alternatively, Paul may have used the oath because of the importance of what he was describing. After all, Paul told other Christians to imitate him as far as he imitated Jesus. And here he is clearly claiming to imitate the Saviour. He could have wanted to stress this imitation because some of the people in Philippi were not loving one another in this way.

The man who loved like this
Everyone knows who Saul of Tarsus was. He was a passionate Pharisee who hated with an intensity everyone whom he imagined was offending God. His passion for God did not bring him close to God. Instead he was on a trajectory that was taking him further and further from God. Saul was certainly marked by zeal, but it was zeal without love for Jesus or for his people. Yet we know that Jesus had his eye on Saul of Tarsus and was determined to bring him into the state of salvation.

Saul’s conversion was very sudden in the sense that he had not been seeking for Jesus. Moreover, it was very surprising from a human point of view because there was not the slightest hint from anywhere that it was about to happen. Of course, his conversion was strategic because he was marked out by Jesus as a future servant of his who would take the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
There are some important details that we can observe from Saul’s experience. The first is that one can become a Christian without having gone through a prolonged period of conviction of sin. It is important to observe that conviction of sin that does not lead to trusting in Jesus is not spiritual conviction of sin. When the Spirit convicts of sin, he shows that sinner the remedy for it, as happened on the Day of Pentecost.
A second feature that we should observe from Saul’s experience is that Christian conversion is a radical change of affections. Saul discovered that he loved Jesus and his people. This new outlook did not begin a few weeks after his conversion. Instead it commenced when he received spiritual life. He did not discover everything at once, but he did discover that he was prepared to listen to those he once despised. We can see that this was the case from the way he submitted to the instructions of Ananias when he was sent by Jesus to give guidance to Saul in Damascus.

The mystery of loving like this
In the Book of Acts, Luke records the experience of Saul meeting Jesus three times, with two of them presented in Paul’s own words of testimony. As far as the details of the meeting are concerned, the human source of them has to be Saul himself because he is the only one who knew what had taken place. Those with him had seen some external details, but none of them saw into the experience. What details did Saul choose to pass on?

Saul tells us that initially he recognised that it was a divine encounter because he realised that the Lord was speaking to him from heaven. Yet he also says that there was something mysterious about it because he had to ask the divine Interrupter who he was. In the reply that was given to him, he discovered who the Lord was, when in answer to his request he was told that Jesus was speaking to him. This information must have been a real shock to Saul of Tarsus.

Yet he also heard other details that must have influenced him strongly because he did not forget them. He heard Jesus claim that although he was in heaven he was united to his people. Saul heard Jesus say that he was being persecuted by Saul in his actions against Christians. Each time, Saul had laid his hands on a believer he had assaulted Jesus. Saul had discovered that there was a living union between Jesus and each of his people.

In subsequent days and years, Saul discovered that the union between Jesus and his people was an incredible one. Each time, the apostle uses the words ‘in Christ’ he is referring to this union and if we choose to look through his letters we will spot the wide range of ways in which that brief phrase is used.

How is this living union realised in the lives of converted people, whether or not they were ever like Saul of Tarsus before their conversions? The answer to this question is that this is the work of the Holy Spirit in the inner lives of those who believe in Jesus. Jesus himself had said that he would send the Holy Spirit to help his disciples live the Christian life. The Spirit would work in their lives to make them like Jesus.

The manner of loving like this
When Paul that he yearns for them all with the affection of Jesus Christ, he uses a striking term. The word translated as ‘affection’ was used of the inner parts such as the heart and the stomach. We can understand this by thinking of the parts of our body that is affected when something exciting is happening. Our hearts begin to palpitate, our stomachs begin to flutter, even our breathing can increase. Paul is describing a very strong expression of love.

Obviously, this kind of loving is spiritual, dependent on the working of the Spirit in our souls. We know therefore that the reason for the absence of this attitude at any time in the life of a believer must be connected to grieving the Holy Spirit. If he is not grieved, then the fruit of the Spirit will be evident.

It is important to note that he does not say that he is trying to imitate the affection of Jesus Christ. Obviously, all believers are to copy Jesus because he is their great example. But Paul says more than imitation here. He says that the affection that he has is actually the affection of Jesus Christ. The apostle has a love that is profound and supernatural. And he has this love because he is united to Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

We can also say that the presence of this type of love is special in that its presence is clear evidence of salvation. Paul now loved deeply those whom he once would have despised and hated. Many of the people to whom he sent this letter were Gentiles from Philippi, and before his conversion he would have had nothing to do with Gentiles. Now he loved them because Jesus had changed him.

The love that Paul describes here as the affection of Jesus was a very strong one. We can see that was the case from the verb he uses to describe it. He says that he yearned for them. The idea behind this word is of a person abroad who is longing for his homeland. Paul was separated from his friends in Philippi and he informs them that without them he felt as if he was away from home. Just as a traveller longs to see familiar sites, so Paul longed to see their familiar faces.

Moreover, Paul states that this love was not selective when he says that he yearned for all of them. No doubt, he would have loved some of them longer than others and he mentions some of them by name in this letter. Still, there was none of them outside the circle of his warm affections. After all, how could the affection of Jesus omit one of his people from his embrace?

We should not be surprised when Paul says that he has the affection of Christ. After all, he gives his peace and his joy to his people, so why should he also not give his love? What Paul is describing here is another way of saying that believers possess the life of Christ. In a way similar to how blood flows through our natural bodies and gives life, so the Spirit of Jesus flows through our spiritual bodies giving us life. Jesus, although in heaven, is the source of our life.

There are many things that could be said about the affection of Jesus. For example, he was tender and gentle, compassionate and gracious, in his words and in his actions. Sometimes he had to speak strongly, but he never spoke harshly or inappropriately. His words were marked by pardon and peace. His relationship to his disciples can be covered in three words: intimacy, instruction and intercession. As he was with them, he was patient with their failings, he rejoiced in their successes, and he protected them from the devil’s attacks.

How does this life reveal itself? Clearly we have to get rid of all that prevents this life manifesting itself. It is sinful attitudes or actions that stops this renewal being experienced in our hearts. This shows the importance of ongoing repentance for our sins as well as ongoing appropriation of what Jesus has for us. By prayer and Bible reading, by fellowship with and meditation on Jesus, we become increasingly like him, and others will take note that we are like Jesus.

Paul’s affections for them in his prayers is stressed in the immediate context. We can see from what he says that he had a very strong love for the believers in Philippi and his petitions reveal how focussed he was on them continuing to experience and practice divine love. His words in verse 9 indicate that if love is absent the other blessings cannot be known. So he therefore prayed that they would know divine love in their souls.

The knowledge that Paul loved them would make it easier for any of them to take criticisms from him or to do things that he asked. In chapter 4, he mentions two quarrelling women. How does love interact with them? He appeals to them to be of one mind in the Lord. The apostle knows that they need help and so asks another believer to help them.

This kind of love is obviously very high; indeed, it is hard to imagine what kind of love could be higher. Yet although it is so high, it is not described as being beyond the experience of any believer. This attitude was not reduced by Paul’s circumstances (he was under arrest) nor by the spiritual conflicts that were taking place (he mentions false teachers in the letter).

Paul’s description of himself indicates to us that he saw himself as a kind of spiritual channel through which the affection of Jesus could be poured out on other people. This type of self-perception is astonishing. Paul knew that he was a sinner, yet he also knew that he could be so changed that he became a living instrument of the Saviour. I suppose we could say that Paul’s words challenge us to be a channel.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Great Crowd (Rev. 7:9-17)

We are familiar with large gatherings at New Year time in many of the major cities of the world. Sometimes the crowd seems so large that there is not any space left for any others to participate. Yet an estimate can be made as to the size of the crowd, indeed to all the crowds and get an overall figure. But that kind of estimation cannot be made of this heavenly gathering.

The Bible often refers to the Book of Life, but never tells us how many names are in it. Even here, when the complete number gather together in the presence of God, we are not told how many will be there. But we are invited to look at them, and marvel.

Of course, God knows how many people will be there. One reason why we are given the size of the crowd from a man’s perspective is to create within us a sense of wonder at the greatness of the achievement that Jesus will have accomplished from the throne as he directed the effects of the five seals, mentioned in Revelation 6, before the Day of Judgement. Throughout the darkness and gloom of human history he rescued his people from all the ages and places. He was in charge historically and geographically.

The great crowd (vv. 9-12)

We see in this crowd the fulfilment of the promise that God gave to Abraham which declared that his spiritual seed would number as many as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore. No one can count the number of the stars or the grains of sand. Yet it is obvious that if we tried, we would run out of numbers. It will be the same with those who make up the people of God.

Jesus, in John 17:24, on the evening before his death, had prayed about the gathering together of this crowd. His request was, ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.’ Now it has been answered and his desire is taking place. We can imagine the gladness of Jesus as well as the gladness of his people as the gathering occurs.  

Moreover, we can see that there are converts from every people group. Ultimately, there will be one family of God and the members will come everywhere. Real disciples will have come from every nation. This vision of the size of the great crowd is a great encouragement for spreading the gospel.

John tells us that the crowd stands before the throne of God, and before the Lamb. Obviously this is a place of honour, highly exalted. Although they are in such an august presence, the crowd is marked by confidence because they all know that they are accepted in Christ, and will rejoice in that reality for ever.  As they stand there, they will express thankfulness to the Father for sending his Son to be their Saviour.

We also can read here about the response of the angelic host as they see those for whom their Master died gathered together with him. Often, many of those angels would have helped the heirs of salvation as they travelled to heaven. Now they and their protectors are together in the presence of God.

The attire and the song of the crowd (vv. 13-14)

John saw that the great crowd are all dressed in the same attire and all are holding the same emblems: they are clothed with white robes, and have palm branches in their hands. If it were only white robes that were mentioned, then the reference would be to holiness and purity. But the inclusion of palm branches tells us that a prominent emphasis in the vision is that of victory.

Standing with palm branches was a common way for crowds to celebrate an important triumph (they would also wear white robes on such occasions). To get the point, we must recall that throughout history these people have been on the receiving end, with many of them martyred for their faith. Often the church has seemed to be on the verge of extinction from the persecution of its enemies. But here is the church triumphant, sharing Christ’s victory.

The angel explains to John that each person in the great crowd has washed his or her robes in the blood of Christ. It is a common biblical image to use clothing to depict a person’s behaviour.  Also, it is clear that John is referring to Jesus’ death on the cross of Calvary when he took his perfect life and offered it up to God in the place of sinners. He was their substitute as there he paid the penalty of sin by enduring the wrath of God against it. But notice, each person in the crowd took their robes and washed them in the blood of Christ. Each one responded individually to the message of the cross. What needed to be washed was the sinful actions before and after conversion as well as the sanctified actions after conversion. How thankful they will be on that day for the atoning and cleansing blood of the Saviour!

John also describes the song of the crowd: they ‘cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.’ They sing with meaning, because they knew what it was to be unconverted. But Lord in his mercy saved them and brought them to heaven. And they sing with wonder, as they consider the place to where they have been brought. It is a song to God, about his wonderful grace.

Of course, there are two choirs here. One is made up of the redeemed, the other is composed of angels. The song of the redeemed is offered to the Father and to Jesus, whereas the song of the angels focuses on the Father. Further, there is a different theme to the two songs. The saints praise God for their experience of salvation and the angels praise God for his great wisdom and power in redeeming sinners. But the angels can only sing about redemption from observation and not from participation. Of course, they are very interested in the success of the gospel and delight in its progress; they rejoice each time a sinner repents of his sins. But no angel has ever tasted the joy of pardon. We have a song that holy angels cannot sing.1

So their song is a message to us. It is a reminder that the day is coming when the redeemed shall stand before the throne. It is being sung to us to cause us to prepare to join the song.

The crowd’s future (vv. 15-17)

John is informed that the great crowd will be worshipping God for ever in his temple. Where or what is that temple? It is the heavens and new earth in which righteousness will dwell. The redeemed will be priests in the worldwide temple, leading the praise of the restored universe. They will be the nearest to the throne, lifting their voices in the everlasting song that will reverberate throughout the new heavens and new earth for ever.

Moreover, the Lord, who sits on the throne, guarantees their permanent safety and satisfaction. In this life they had known times of deprivation; often life had seemed as if they were travelling through a desert, at least in the spiritual sense. But in heaven it will all be different. Instead of hunger and thirst, there will be satisfying provision; instead of sunburned deserts, there will be heavenly springs.

There is also a sense of continuation between what Jesus had done for them as the good shepherd in this life and what he will do for them as the eternal shepherd. In this life, he had given them times of spiritual refreshment, as described in Psalm 23. He made them lie down in green pastures beside the waters of rest, a picture of occasions when he fed their souls, by various means, on his wonderful acts and promises. But they had to get up and continue their journey through the valley of the shadow of death. The Jesus who fed them on earth will feed them in heaven, with the big difference that it will be a constant supply of heavenly provision.

The third detail to observe is that each of the great crowd will receive personal consolation from God: ‘God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ Why will they have tears on this great occasion? Who can say? Spurgeon suggests some causes of tears when the redeemed stand before the throne. First, when they see Jesus there will be tears of regret at having failed him many times; second, when they see the oneness of the great crowd, there will be tears at the disunity that their actions caused in the body of Christ; third, when they see who is not there, there will be tears.

A more important question is, Who can take these tears away? The gentle, tender touch of the heavenly Father will wipe away every tear. This suggests that God will take the time to deal with every tear that his people have had or will have on that day. Samuel Rutherford once commented that ‘It is the sweeter, that no napkin, but his own immediate hand, shall wipe my sinful face.’  None of the Lord’s people there can deal with my tears, any more than I would be able to deal with theirs. We don’t know how he will take them away. But he will.

One of the obvious deductions we can make from this vision of the great crowd is that John saw all of God’s people, including you and me. This is our destiny to see each other there. We should contrast the permanency of that togetherness with the changeableness of what we have now. The reality of the future should affect our interactions with one another in the present.

Usually we have snapshots after we have been to a destination (such as a holiday). Here we can look at the family album before we get to the destination. Adverts on holiday brochures usually have perfect people on the cover, but we know the picture is not real. In contrast the heavenly picture is of people made perfect, all of them.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Response of Real Disciples (Matthew 7:13-25)

Jesus, in this section of his sermon on the mount, challenges his listeners (and readers) about where they stand with regard to his teachings. His challenge asks them to avoid assessing things by the here and now and instead assess them by the day of judgement.

With regard to the here and now, he mentions three things that may distort our view of the overall situation. They are (1) the numbers on the broad road, (2) the success of religious activities, and (3) the appearance of the house built on the wrong foundation. Obviously he is instructing us to avoid judging by sight alone.

Of course, we are to see the illustrations as located in the times in which Jesus lived. So we need to ask who were walking on the broad road, and who were listening to the false prophets, and who were building their house on the sand? The answer to that question initially is Israelites. Within Israel, there were various ideas being spread about how one could please God and one could assume that they were all connected. But Jesus makes very clear that those teachings are not the same, and that most of them would lead to disaster.

This does not mean that we cannot extend his descriptions to others beyond Israel. But it is striking that those he condemns claim to be serving the true God. It would seem that when we initially apply this section of the sermon, we must begin by connecting it to those who are similar to the Israelites, to those who have a close connection to the truth, but who in reality are far from it.

The broad and narrow roads

The key to this illustration is the gate into each road. It looks as if Jesus is using a crossroads to illustrate his point. The gate to the broad road is wide, the road itself is downhill (is that what he means by easy?), and its terminus is destruction. There is a signpost indicating where the road will take those who travel on it. The gate is so wide you can take everything with you as you journey along. Because it is downhill, the journey is not hard, even for those who have problems.

In contrast, the gate to the other path is narrow. We are familiar with styles, and it is very hard to go through them with a lot of baggage. Moreover, the choice to enter through this gate is unpopular, with not many going through it. Also the road is at times difficult to find, maybe because of overgrowth, but for those who travel all the way it leads to life.

Why is the narrow gate unpopular? Various answers can be given to this question. First, since it is narrow, it is not easily seen. And we know how difficult today it can be for the gospel to have a space in the lives of people. Second, others when they see it, don’t like what they see because in their eyes it looks very unattractive because of its seeming limitations as a road to anywhere meaningful.

It looks to me that Jesus is saying that what is needed are two things. First, at the entrance to the narrow way, one must get rid of baggage, which is a reference to our sins, which requires repentance. Second, when one is on the narrow way, one needs information about how to deal with issues that come along. This information comes from the teaching of Jesus, which is also a reminder that he is present to help on the narrow way.

The false teachers and their followers

The next section of the Saviour’s application concerns false teachers. Jesus indicates that they will look good because they wear sheep’s clothing. The danger is in their hearts. Yet how can we know false prophets since we cannot read their hearts. Jesus points out that we can know them by their fruits, which is another way of describing their followers. Their followers will be spiritually unhealthy.

How can we discover the unhealthy fruit? Jesus says that we should not focus on what they say about Jesus, but on how they react to his teaching about discipleship. He mentions that they will call him Lord quite earnestly (they say the title twice), but that in itself is not evidence that they are healthy. In addition, there will be submission to the revealed will of Jesus, which he calls here the will of his Father in heaven.

In the next set of verses, Jesus may be describing the false prophets themselves or he may be referring to both them and their followers. We are not meant to read those comments about prophesying and casting out demons, and then try and work out which groups today engage in those practices, and then condemn them. After all, Jesus and his disciples also did those activities. What we are seeing here is the solemn fact that those not connected to Jesus can do things that give the impression initially that they are serving Jesus.

Those persons are described by Jesus in two ways. One is that they are workers of lawlessness, which is another way of saying that they do not do his revealed will for his disciples. We have seen in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus prioritised the state of the heart. If the heart is not right, outward actions are meaningless.

The Saviour also mentioned that he will say to such persons that he never knew them. He did not say that he did not know about them. From that point of view he knew everything about them. What he meant was that he and they did not have an intimate relationship. At as basic level, they had not spent time together. True disciples experience his presence as they read his Word, pray and obey his will. They have his company at such times and it can be said of them that he knows them very well from regular contact with him.

The obvious feature that stands out in this section of the passage is the emptiness of a merely external religion, even when right words are said and right actions are performed. Instead the question is, How well do I know Jesus by experience and how well does he know us by intimate contact?

The two houses and their foundations

The imagery of a building and its foundation is often used in the Bible to illustrate different points. For example, Jesus told Peter about how the church would be built on the foundation mentioned by Peter. Paul described the church as a building erected on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. He also referred to the possibility of believers erecting good or bad buildings on the foundation of Jesus. And here Jesus mentions two foundations, each of which had a good-looking building erected on it.

In this illustration, unlike the others just mentioned, the problem with one of the houses is the foundation. The other house had a good foundation, the teachings of Jesus. What would the bad foundation of sand be? Anything apart from the teachings of Jesus. There are lots of alternative foundations – religions, traditions, novelties, philosophies, but the point of a foundation is that it will remain solid no matter the weather.

One day, a storm will come and overthrow the building on the wrong foundation. Probably, the storm here is the Day of Judgement. We can imagine someone expressing confidence that his religion or his other ideas will do him very well when the judgement comes. Picture his surprise and shock when he discovers that it is otherwise. And then picture his sorrow that it is too late.


One detail that stands out from the applications that Jesus makes is that the majority are not always right. This is obvious in the reference to the two roads – the majority are not on the way to glory. It is also present in the reference to the false prophets – they have many followers. Jesus was informing his true disciples that often they will not belong to the majority.

The reference to few finding the narrow way does not indicate whether or not the majority will be in heaven or in hell. What is being stressed is that at any given time it will look as if the majority are not following Jesus. Imagine a group of twenty people. One gets saved in 2017, which means that nineteen rejected it. But what if over the next thirty years the nineteen come to Jesus, one every three years. At the end of the day, all will be in heaven, even if for the first few years the majority were unbelievers. I suppose we could extend the twenty to one hundred, and extend the time period from thirty to sixty or more years.

Jesus mentions three different ways by which a would-be disciple would miss out on getting to heaven. The first is not starting correctly by choosing the wrong path, the second is by listening to false teachers who paid no attention to the kind of lifestyle that Jesus taught, and the third is personal failure to follow the teachings of Jesus.

The proof of a true servant of Jesus is not revealed in the spectacular nature of his actions but in the sanctification of those he is used by Jesus to bring into his kingdom and/or to instruct about his requirements. Holy living is the authentic evidence that the correct message is being declared.

We can also say that the individuals who are lost have no excuse because they have heard the teachings of Jesus. In other words, they had refused to acknowledge that he is Lord of their lives. We all know that there is a difference between a person who has never heard the gospel and a person who rejects it.

The focus too is also on the fact that the persons themselves know whether or not they are genuine. They know if they entered the narrow path, they know if they are spending time with Jesus and getting to know him, and they know whether or not they are building their lives on the sand.

The Risen Saviour (Psalm 16:9-11)

If it had not been for Peter’s reference to this psalm in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:25-28) we would have assumed that the psalm was only an expression of David’s dedication to the Lord. Peter tells us, however, that the speaker in the psalm, at least in its closing verses, is Jesus, which means that this is the main way in which we are meant to read the psalm.

Of course, we may wonder how Peter, so soon after objecting to the death of Jesus and then denying him, could have such amazing insight. It may be that the Holy Spirit illumined his mind while he was thinking about the psalm. Or maybe the two on the way to Emmaus, who had this psalm explained to them by the Stranger who spoke to them concerning what the law, prophets and psalms said about the Messiah, had passed on this detail to the other believers. Or maybe he heard Jesus himself use the psalm during the forty days he was with them after his resurrection because it does detail how he felt as he died, what happened to him in the tomb, and where he would be after his resurrection. 

Is this psalm about David in the sense that he is talking about his own personal life experiences? It cannot be, because while David has experienced death, his death was not like the death described in the closing verses of the psalm. Nor has David experienced the resurrection yet, although he will do one day when believers will be raised by Jesus. Instead, here we have another example of David functioning as a prophet, just as he does in Psalms 22 and 110, which describe features of the experience of Jesus that are unique to him.

The confidence of Jesus (v. 9)

In verse 9, the speaker in the psalm expresses his confidence in the prospect of death. We could read his comments as describing his general outlook or they could describe what he felt as he knew that death was drawing near. Why did he have such confidence? We are told it is connected to two features. One is that he listened to the Lord’s counsel which he received day and night as part of his fellowship. The other is that he dedicated himself to the Lord’s service and sensed the powerful presence of the Lord with him as he followed the calling he had received.

We know from the Gospels that both these matters were true of Jesus. He rejoiced in his regular, almost constant interaction with his Father – it looks as if the only time he was not engaged in this activity was when he was asleep. From his Father, he received insight and encouragement as he made his way through life. We can think briefly of a couple of occasions when this is referred to.

On one occasion, he said to his disciples that the reason he was going to lay down his life was because he had received a command from his Father to do so. The command also included the authority to take up his life again. Probably Jesus is referring to a command he received from his Father before he was born. His obedience to walk towards this destiny pleased his Father. Jesus said about it, ‘For this reason does my Father love me because I lay down my life for the sheep’ (John 12:). We are not surprised that he had such confidence after experiencing this kind of approval.

The other occasion that we can think about is what happened to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus there was glorified in the Father’s presence and the Father sent two heavenly representatives to speak to his Son. Amazingly, in the midst of such splendour, the topic they discussed was the death that he would accomplish in Jerusalem. It is not surprising that Jesus should set his face like a flint and take strides to fulfil this task placed into his hands by the Father.

We should note how this confidence is expressed in verse 9. Elsewhere we are told that Jesus was the man of sorrows and there were many things that made him sad, especially the sins and their consequences that he saw all around him. Yet there were other things that made him glad and one of them was his trust in the Father. Even in us, faith has its fruits, one of which is joy. How much more was this the case with regard to the One who had perfect faith! Indeed, we are told by the author of Hebrews that thinking about the joy that was ahead of him that helped Jesus to persevere through the experience of the cross when he was enduring the Father’s wrath against the sins of his people.

The death of Jesus (v. 10)

There are different ways of describing the death of Jesus. We can look at it theologically and see what benefits it has brought to us. Or we can consider it devotionally and respond with heartfelt determination to serve him. Or we might consider it sympathetically as we focus on the way he was betrayed by Judas, denied by his disciples, mistreated by rulers, and condemned for a crime he had not committed. But here in the psalm we are able to look at the death of Jesus from his perspective. What did he think?

Jesus refers to both his soul and his body. He says of his soul that it will not be left in the place of the dead by the Father and he says of his body that the Father would not let him see corruption. Of course, the question arises as to why the prospect of abandonment was mentioned in this context. Is it because he knew that he would sense abandonment before he died, when he cried out on the cross about being forsaken by the Father. Yet that period of abandonment, while terrible, was brief. And so was the time that his soul would be away from the land of the living.

Of course, the soul of Jesus had gone to heaven when he died. We read in the Gospels of his sweet and simple expression as he died, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ But his soul and body were separated and his body was put in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea for three days. While it was there, the Father would not let it experience corruption. Recall what was said about Lazarus when he had been dead for four days. His family told Jesus on the fourth day that if they opened the tomb they would smell the corrupting process. But if one had gone into the tomb of Jesus there would not be such a smell.

Why? We get the answer to that question in the name by which Jesus calls himself in verse 10. He is the Father’s holy one. There is a depth in that title that could be explored for a long time. Sufficient to say at the moment that it reveals to us the sinlessness of the Saviour. He did not die because he was a sinner. Instead, he died to defeat death by rising in power over it. Although he died, his body was preserved from all corruption. This, in itself, was a statement of great honour bestowed on the One who was in the process of conquering death.

The risen experience of Jesus (v. 11)

In the psalm, we are conveyed by Jesus to the next stage of his experience, which begins with his resurrection, but does not stop there. He describes the resurrection as the moment when the Father made known to him the path of life. Of course, he knew about it through omniscience and information before the moment came. But then the moment did come, and what an incredible moment it was when the risen Saviour took his first steps on the path of life. It is good to remind ourselves today that he is still walking on the path of life.

In the Gospels, we are told a little about the first steps that he took. They were to speak to Mary Magdalene by calling her by her name. Then he went and spoke to the other women who had come to the tomb in order to tell them that all was well. Then he went along the path of life with the two on the way to Emmaus and what life he brought into their souls as their hearts burned within them. At some stage on the first Easter Sunday, he met up with Peter on the path of life and restored him. Later he went to where his frightened disciples were gathered and informed them that he wanted to give them peace. They were the first steps on the path of life.

The initial steps of this path were on earth, but forty days later the path took him higher into the presence of God. He could have said many things about that presence, but the detail that he highlights is that there is the fullness of joy. No doubt, that fullness is the joy that was set before him. And he did describe the reward of heaven as entering into the joy of the Lord.

The path of life took him to the entrance of heaven and who can describe the scenes as he entered into the world of glory. Luke does say that the eleven disciples at Bethany saw him enter heaven (the cloud of glory), but they did not see into heaven. Thankfully, we are told about his entrance into glory in Revelation 5 as the Lamb takes his place at the Father’s right hand, the place of highest honour.

In this verse of the psalm, Jesus says to the Father that at his right hand there are pleasures forevermore. We could summarise them first as pleasure connected to the place, which would remind us of the joy he knows from being with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Because he is God, there will be aspects of the pleasures that will be unique to the Trinity.

Second, we could summarise the pleasures as connected to the divine purpose in which Jesus will be engaged, which is to gather his people to himself. We know that in this life some tasks that were once enjoyable become tedious because of repetition. But that can never be said of the activity of Jesus as he draws each of his people to himself by the cords of love. The divine purpose will involve many other things after the new heavens and new earth come.

Third, we can summarise the pleasures as connected to people. We have already mentioned how Jesus rules in providence so to bring each of his people to himself by the gospel. He said that when this happens, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over each sinner that repents. But what will it be like when each of them reaches heaven and sense the joy caused by their arrival. And what will it be like when all the redeemed are gathered into his presence. We do know that when he sees the results of the travail of his soul he will be satisfied.

Today is Easter Sunday, an annual occasion when we can think about Jesus and his resurrection. Of course, in reality there has only been one real Easter Sunday, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead and experienced the beginning of the path of life. Keeping to the illustration, we can say that he has now walked many miles along this amazing path, and we know that he will walk along it endlessly. It is good for us if we are walking on it with him now, but it will be much better if we walk along with him in the world to come.
Preached on 16/4/2017

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

  The Sealed Number (Rev. 7:1-8)

In chapter 7 of Revelation we have a break or an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals. The significance of the six seals is detailed in chapter 6 and the seventh seal is mentioned in 8:1. We know that a purpose of a break or an interlude is to pause and think about an important matter connected to what is being described. As we have seen, the seals describe the history of the period between the enthronement of Jesus and his return. At his enthronement, he was given the scroll with the seals, and when he opened each of the seals something happened in history connected to divine judgement, closing with the sixth seal and it refers to the final judgement.
What information would John have wanted as he considered the seals and the scroll? One obvious answer to that question would concern the existence of the Christian church and how it would fare during that period. The fifth seal had referred to the persecution experienced by the church. Yet one would expect John to desire more details about the cause of which he was the last of the apostles still living. Whether he wished that or not cannot be known, but we can see that he was given two visions to think about, and each of them refers to the church.
It is not difficult for Christians to work out that the vision of the great crowd in the second part of the chapter refers to the church (although some who conclude so would be surprised to discover that many Bible interpreters called dispensationalists think the vision is of another group called tribulation saints). Yet while they conclude that the great crowd is the church, they wonder who is referred to by the 144,000.
Remember who is in control
The interlude commences with a reference to heavenly control of the elements, depicted in the activities of the four angels, under the authority of another angel. We perhaps do not see the significance of this, but John’s readers would have. In the ancient world, the elements were regarded by pagans as being ruled by different false gods. John here says the elements are under the control of the only God and his agents, the angels.
The four angels are depicted as being ready to unleash storms on the earth, which is similar to what happened with the seals. It is very likely that the four angels function in a similar way to the four horsemen of chapter 6. Before they begin to destroy, another angel appears and commands them not to do so until the servants of God have been sealed. Then we are told that the number to be sealed was 144,000, made up of 12,000 from each tribe of Israel.
Wrong ideas
Who are the 144,000? I will mention some views that I think are wrong, before mentioning who I think they are. To begin with though, we should observe that they are called the servants of God.
First, we may have encountered Jehovah Witnesses who say that the 144,000 are the special believers who will inhabit heaven in eternity, whereas the great crowd mentioned later in the chapter are those who will live on the earth in eternity. Needless to say, we don’t believe that suggestion because there is no hint in the Bible that there are different classes of saved sinners. Of course, the Jehovah Witnesses have many other errors, particularly their denial that Jesus is fully divine. In any case, the JWs cannot be classified as the servants of God.
Second, we may have come across an interpretation that is very popular among evangelicals today. It is certainly presented on TV satellite programmes and in literature such as the Left Behind series of novels which has sold several million copies in recent years. Of course, the view has serious scholarly support as well among those who believe that Jesus will reign on the earth for one thousand years. Further, many well-known preachers would endorse this interpretation, which is basically this.
Chapters 4–19 of the Book of Revelation described the last seven years before Christ returns, a period that they call ‘the great tribulation’ (they get the seven years from the last week of the seventy weeks mentioned in Daniel 9:27). By this time, the church has been raptured away to heaven. Nevertheless, the gospel will be preached by converted Jews (that is the 144,000) and there will be a great number of converts (the great crowd who come out of the great tribulation).
Obviously, this idea cannot be dismissed in the short time we have tonight. I would make one obvious criticism: similar to the Jehovah Witnesses, they divide the people of God into more than one group. This again is a failure to see that Revelation 7 should not be interpreted literally.
A third interpretation of the passage is that the 144,000 refers to converted Israelites and the great crowd to converted Gentiles. If this is correct, it would mean that nobody was converted from the tribe of Dan, because it is missing from the list. Further it would suggest that there will be equal number of converts from each tribe. But the main problem is that this view also divides the people of God into different groups.
Who are the 144,000?
Personally, I think both visions are referring to the same people, but looked at from different viewpoints. The first group, the 144,000, describes God’s people during the time of God’s judgments on those who rebel against him and the second group, the great crowd, describes them after the time of judgment is over. The point of the vision of the 144,000 is to show that the people of God are safe despite what is happening throughout history.
We read in Revelation 14 about the other occasion the 144,000 are mentioned. The difference between them is that in Revelation 7 they are not yet in heaven whereas in Revelation 14 they have arrived in heaven, which is a reminder that they reached heaven safely. Moreover, in Revelation 14, the 144,000 are described as those who have been redeemed from the earth, which is another way of saying that they are Christians, and which fits in with them being also the servants of God.
We are told that each of the 144,00 is sealed. John tells us that the sealing process took place before the troubles commenced (7:3). The seal was the mark of ownership, whereby God intimated that the sealed people were his. Believers belong to God in a variety of ways: by creation, by eternal choice and by salvation. They were sealed in order that they would not be harmed by God’s judgements, although some of them would be harmed by human opposition.
The Bible normally interprets the seal given to believers as the Holy Spirit who comes to indwell them when they believe in Jesus. As the seal, he uses his power to protect them, to give them strength to face the troubles of life, and to give them foretastes of the heavenly world. His presence in their hearts is the guarantee that should they die they will be resurrected from the dead: ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you’ (Rom. 8:11). 
Why 144,000?
Yet we should ask why they are described as 144,000. First, it is obviously a large number, and it is obviously a large number that is precise. Later on in the chapter, the large crowd is said to be such that no human could count. But we cannot deduce from that description that God does not know who his people are. God knows the exact number of his people. 
The significance of 144,000 is that God knows the exact figure of all who are his and that none will be overlooked during the time of trouble. Whatever will be their lot, every one of them will reach the harbour in the end. Not one of them will be missing. Wherever they are and whenever they live, they will be kept through everything and each of them will reach the heavenly city.
Second, the use of the tribes of Israel to describe the people of God points to the fact that physical Israel is no longer the people of God. This is clear if we consider the ways they are referred to in the book of Revelation. We saw twice, when studying the seven churches, that a person is not a true Jew because of their race. Jesus describes two synagogues as synagogues of Satan.
To Israel had been given great privileges: ‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen’ (Rom. 9:4-5). Nevertheless, they were no longer the people of God because they had refused to believe that Jesus was the crucified Messiah. Because of their refusal, they had been judged.
This does not mean that Jews will not be converted in the future; indeed, the time is coming when they will be converted as a race (as Paul teaches in Romans 11). But when that great time arrives, they will join the church of Jesus Christ and not be independent of it. Yet it is a fact that names once given to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament are given to believers in the New Testament, and among those names is the name Israel itself.
Third, it is important to note that the 144,000 are numbered as an army. This list of twelve tribes of Israel obviously has an Old Testament allusion and those readers who were familiar with the Old Testament would see the point. During the history of Old Testament Israel, it was common for each tribe to provide soldiers for a military campaign. John here is reminding his readers that they are involved in a battle against God’s enemies. To each of them came their call-up papers, which is the gospel invitation asking them to leave the army of the enemy and come and join the army of the king. They serve under a Commander who knows how to win the war, who has provided most of the victory already, and who will make each of them more than conquerors. They will receive a great reward for serving in his army.
Fourth, is there any significance in that the tribe of Dan is not mentioned? While there are a variety of listings of the tribes in the Old Testament, it is well known that the problem with the tribe of Dan throughout the history of Israel was one of idolatry. So it could be the case that the list of the tribes is highlighting the danger of giving worship to someone or something other than God. Or it could be saying that the true Israel, that is Christians, do not engage in idolatry.
‘Who will stand at the end of the day?’ was the question asked at the close of the sixth seal. Who will share in the victory parade? Those who have enlisted in the heavenly army and attained immortal glory by serving the heavenly Commander throughout the campaign that lasted throughout human history. And we will see next time what they will be like when they reach the eternal world.