Thursday, 28 September 2017

Conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-19)

Luke records the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience three times in the Book of Acts. Two of them are taken from accounts Paul gave in trial situations and are recorded towards the end of the book. The other account is the one described by Luke in Acts 9. Given that Luke was an intimate companion of Paul he would have heard the story from Paul’s mouth. In the early days of Paul’s Christian experience, he is addressed as Saul, which may reflect that he was then ministering primarily in Jewish settings.

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is one of the great turning points of history because of the incredible consequences that followed. All we need to do is recall the places to which Paul took the gospel and the books of the New Testament that he wrote and which have influenced life all over the world since then. The conversion was also an occasion of great personal change for Saul. As Calvin put it, ‘such a cruel wolf was not only turned into a sheep, but did also put on the nature of a shepherd.’

The man the devil was using

How does Saul appear at the start of the account of his conversion? We could say that he was an agent of the Jewish authorities as they attempted to crush the church. Or we could say that he was an eager participant in the process, even initiating new attempts to destroy the church beyond the borders of Israel. Yet we would also have to say that Saul was a man the devil was using in his attempt to defeat the church.

The devilish nature of the activities of Saul is shown in the intense hatred he had for the disciples of Jesus. Luke’s description that Saul was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ indicates that he had no other thought in mind. All his energies and capabilities were focused on this aim. How many believers he did this to we cannot say, although he does say later that he was an injurious person.

Nevertheless, we can learn from Saul’s experience that someone engaged in promoting the devil’s attempts to destroy the church may not be far from the kingdom. The devil may have been suggesting to Saul what he could be doing, but the person in charge of the process was Jesus, and he could intervene at any stage and change the circumstances at the moment he would know would be best.

It looks as if the Christians in Damascus did not believe that such a person as Saul could be converted. Neither did the apostles in Jerusalem when Saul later returned there. We see this Damascus response in the way Ananias reacted to the news that Saul had been changed. When those believers discovered that Jesus had overcome his opponent in love, they would have greater awareness of the amazing and gracious power of their Saviour.

In passing, we can note that the Christians had given themselves at title – they called themselves ‘the Way’. Why they did this is not known, but one reasonable suggestion is that they connected it to the title Jesus have to himself when he said that he was the way to God. As used by the Christians, it reveals that they realised they were the ones who had found the path to a right relationship with God.

A Christophany

What kind of experience did Saul have on the road to Damascus? Obviously, he saw the risen Christ, and he says in 1 Corinthians 15 that this qualified him to be an apostle (since seeing Jesus in this way was a qualifying mark of such). Yet he did not see the risen Saviour in the way that others saw him during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. Jesus was in a different state when he appeared to Saul than what he was when the disciples saw him ascend. Now Jesus was glorified, and to Saul of Tarsus was given the great privilege of being the first on earth to see Jesus as the exalted Saviour.

In Acts 22:6, Paul says that the incident occurred about noon, which is the time of day when the light of the sun is brightest. At noon, on that day, Saul saw a light in addition to the sun, which could indicate that whenever Jesus reveals himself there is no need for a source of light apart from himself. What could have gone through Saul’s mind when he saw a source of light other than the sun? Did he think of Genesis 1, which says that light existed before God made the heavenly bodies?

The experience Saul had was similar to divine visits given to certain individuals in the Old Testament when God revealed himself in spectacular ways. Such visits are called theophanies and they created a sense of awe and fear in those who experienced them. The individuals realised that they were in the presence of God. And Saul too recognised that he was in the presence of God because his response was to ask, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He would have been shocked when he heard the reply, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting?’ Bruce Milne says it was a reply that ‘in an instant both shattered and re-formed Paul’s entire world’.

We can deduce two things from this divine encounter. First, Saul discovered that Jesus was divine, which would have incredible consequences for his ideas about God. Saul did not believe that God is a Trinity before this moment, but now he would have to learn more about God and about how one of the divine persons had become a man and all that was and is involved in God’s plan of salvation. Second, he would have learned that all his religious activities until then were not connected to the service of God. Instead, he had been sinning against the Lord. Those two thoughts must have been in Saul’s mind as he was led by the hand to Damascus.

The process of conversion

The Saviour did not tell everything to Saul immediately. Instead he was told to go into Damascus and more would be revealed to him there. We can imagine Saul at this time. Instead of being an initiator, he has become dependent. Instead of arranging events, he has to wait for what will happen. In those three days of physical darkness, he had to depend on Jesus and wait for him to do something. We can see how in a moment any confidence in his own abilities would have been removed. What could he do? Nothing apart from praying and thinking and fasting.

We have seen that Saul had discovered that Jesus was both divine and an exalted man. Moreover, he had discovered that he himself had been fighting against the kingdom of God. Saul would also be able to recall what he had learned about the Messiah and his kingdom from the Old Testament. On the Damascus Road he had been given the key that would open the meaning of those passages, and we can see that he had used it because he was able to preach about Jesus in Damascus as soon as sight was restored.

When a person is converted, they are enlightened about Jesus and they discover that he is the Saviour. One cannot be a Christian without this enlightenment. They also know that he is a Saviour from sin. Paul had both these details. Those converted also begin to pray, which is speaking to God because of Jesus. Paul had engaged in numerous formal prayers in his previous life, but he had never truly prayed. He now was experiencing the amazing change that occurs when someone is converted – they start to speak to God and do so because they know he is the One who sent the Saviour. This engagement in prayer was the sign to Ananias that Saul was a changed man and had become a believer.

The confirmation

Jesus informed Ananias through a vision that he should go to Saul and lay hands on him in order for him to regain his sight. Although he was initially surprised and afraid, Ananias was persuaded to go when the change in Saul was outlined. Jesus could have given Saul his sight without involving Ananias, but then there would have been no witnesses to confirm Saul’s story. Imagine how difficult it would have been for anyone to believe Saul if the Lord had not sent Ananias to him. In addition, how would Saul know what the response of the Christians would be to him? He had been told that Ananias would come, but what about afterwards?

When Ananias reached the house where Saul was, he said one of the most significant words in Saul’s life in particular and in human history in general. Remember Saul is blind when he feels the touch of the hands of Ananias. The first word he hears from another Christian after his conversion is the beautiful word, ‘brother.’ He had travelled to Damascus to arrest Ananias. Now he hears Ananias welcome him into the family of God.

The he heard Ananias announce the sovereignty of Jesus. This sovereignty extended to Ananias as well as to Saul. Both he and Saul were servants of the same Master. Ananias knew, since Jesus had informed him, that Saul was going to be a greater servant than him. Yet he also knew that no matter what Saul would do in the future, he would only be a servant of Jesus. Saul has been told by Jesus on the Damascus Road some of the matters that he would yet preach throughout the world (Acts 26:17-18).

The third detail that happened to Saul was his experience of a miracle when his sight was restored. Whatever else the miracle showed him it revealed the power of Jesus to perform physical miracles whenever he wished.

Fourth, Paul received the Holy Spirit in a special manner, which I would say is connected to the fulfilment of the special calling he had received from Jesus to be his apostle. The Spirit had been working in his heart during the previous three days revealing to him truths about his own state as a sinner who had rebelled against God and about Jesus who had come to save sinners. Yet he also needed the Spirit as the enabler who would empower him to fulfil the calling that Jesus detailed to Ananias about Saul, a calling that would include witnessing as his ambassador to different peoples and rulers as well as intense suffering.

What is the message that Saul would bring to the world? He describes it in his testimony in Acts 26 and which he says he received from Jesus on the Damascus Road. It would be about Jesus and what he could do for sinners. Through the declaration of the message sinners would be taken from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, they would be forgiven their sins, and they would find themselves now set apart to God. Though he did not know this at that time, many thousands in his own lifetime would hear the gospel from his lips, and since then many millions have been helped by his testimony and his writings to discover the way of life.

Three comments

The encounter with Jesus caused physical and spiritual turmoil for Saul of Tarsus. Physically he was blinded for a few days. Spiritually, he had discovered a fact that changed everything – Jesus is God. Later, when writing to the Galatians, Paul described his conversion as ‘But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me.’ This discovery was an action of the Father as well as being an activity of the Son.

Saul received his first insights into a living doctrine that would have a strong emphasis in his teaching, that of union with Jesus. On the Damascus Road, Saul was informed that Jesus is united to his people. Saul had been persecuting Jesus when persecuting Christians.

There is something poignant in seeing that the one who had caused deep suffering for believers would himself experience similar suffering from others, all for the sake of Jesus. Saul would become a household name because of the great change he had experienced, but he also would go through many an ordeal for his faith, some of which he lists in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28: ‘Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.’

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Paul’s Days of Ignorance (Phil. 3:1-7)

On several occasions, Paul refers to his way of life before he was a Christian. He says that he grew up in Tarsus before moving to Jerusalem to study under a famous rabbi called Gamaliel. Paul was aware of the significance of Tarsus because he describes it in Acts 21:39 as not an obscure city. Tarsus was the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia and was noted for its schools of philosophy and rhetoric as well as being a centre for trade – it had a large harbour and ships sailed there from many parts of the world. It was inevitable that Paul would have been influenced in some ways by such an environment. Moreover, a sizeable Jewish community lived there, which would have provided Paul with a sense of belonging and a culture to absorb.

When was Paul born?
Again, there is no way to be precise about this. He became a Christian several years after Jesus ascended to heaven around the years 29 or 30. At the time of the death of Stephen, which was about three or four years later, Saul is said to be a young man (Acts 7:59). Maybe he was in his late twenties or early thirties then, which would mean he was born a few years after the birth of Jesus around BC6.

The family of Paul
Paul belonged to a Jewish family that identified with the Pharisees. He says in Acts 23:6 that his father was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he would adhere strongly to the religious beliefs connected to that group, such as the hope of the resurrection and to the existence of spiritual beings such as angels, both of which were denied by the Sadducees. He also would have a strong commitment to the religious traditions embraced by the Pharisees, and those traditions were very numerous and affected most ways of life.

The family tribe was Benjamin and this connection probably explains why he was given the name Saul, the first king of Israel, who came from the tribe of Benjamin. Many in the tribe were proud of the connection, even although Saul turned out to be an unfaithful king as far as obedience to God was concerned. It was common for individuals to have several names, so it is also possible that he had been given the name Paul when he was a child as well.

His family status also gave him another privilege, which was that he was a Roman citizen. Luke tells that when Paul informed the city officials of Philippi that he was a Roman citizen they became afraid because such persons should not have been punished in the manner that they had beaten him. Later, when speaking about his Roman citizenship with a Roman tribune who had purchased his citizenship Paul says that he was freeborn.

It was common for Jewish males to have a trade and on several occasions Paul worked as a tentmaker. Perhaps his family were engaged in that trade and he may have learned to practice it when he was young. It is possible that he took up the trade after he became a Christian, but it is more likely that he learned the trade when he was young.

Saul probably was not the first member of his family circle to become a Christian. In Romans 16, he refers to relatives who were in Christ before he was and who had moved to live in Rome. ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me’ (Acts 16:7).

In Jerusalem
Saul was sent to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, probably as a young teenager. The period of study would last for several years and Paul had family in Jerusalem where he could stay. He mentions a nephew from Jerusalem who helped him there when he was arrested a couple of decades later for being a Christian (Acts 23:16). The reason for this choice of location by his father was because he would have wanted his son to be instructed by a Pharisee. Although he was a Pharisee, Gamaliel was regarded as a moderate as far as his beliefs were concerned. Yet he would be very different from the teachers connected to the Sadducees, among whom were the priests, because most of them denied the existence of a spiritual world.

It looks as if Paul’s family had earmarked for him the role of a rabbi. Since he was from the tribe of Benjamin he could not serve God as a priest or a Levite. So he was sent to Jerusalem to be taught by Gamaliel. Before he went, he would have been educated by instructors in the synagogue in Tarsus or by a rabbi in the city. He would have become familiar with the Old Testament and would have seen the predictions it contained about the coming Messiah. No doubt he wondered when the Messiah would appear.  

In his letter to the Philippians Paul mentions regarding himself that as far as outward obedience to the law was concerned he was blameless (Phil. 3:6). By the law he probably means the ceremonial as well as the moral law. He was confident that he had not failed to observe all that was required of him. So he was consistent as well as dedicated to the law of Moses. Each detail of it he regarded as important and necessary to obey.

Paul would have recognised that he was not living in the glory days of Israel’s experience. The nation had descended into being a vassal state of the mighty Roman empire. There had not been days of greatness for Israel since the time of David and Solomon, and they were a thousand years away. How did Paul react to such a situation? He resolved to serve God as best as he could and he would oppose anyone among the Jews who suggested otherwise.

We can deal briefly with a couple of questions that are asked about this period in Paul’s life. One is whether or not he saw Jesus during those years when he was in Jerusalem. Given that Paul would have attended the Jewish feasts that Jesus also attended, it is very likely that he was in the vicinity of Jesus. But that does not mean that he ever saw Jesus or heard him speak, and since Paul was a Pharisee he would not have heard any of his friends suggesting that they should listen to him.

The other question is whether or not Paul was married. It is impossible to know the answer to this question. Yet some have suggested he was because of his comment in Acts 26:10 that he cast his vote to condemn Christians in Jerusalem, which could suggest that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, and members had to be married. If he was married, then he must have become a widower, and again his comment in 1 Corinthians 7:8 (‘to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am’) could be read as indicating that he had remained unmarried after losing his wife. But it is not possible to state that he was definitely married.

Paul the persecutor
At some stage in his life as an adult in Jerusalem Paul became a very strong opponent of the Christian faith. Later in life, he viewed those days as a time when he was ‘a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent’ (1 Tim. 1:13). Moreover, he says that he then ‘acted ignorantly in unbelief,’ so although he had imagined he was serving God when he put people in prison he later discovered that he was not. His aim was to destroy the Christian church and remove it from the earth.

Given that Luke, the author of Acts, was a companion of Paul, we can be assured that some of the details mentioned by Luke came from information that Paul provided. One such detail is the account of Stephen. When Stephen was put to death, Luke says that the mob placed their clothes at the feet of Paul, indicating that he was in charge of the execution. This indicates that the authorities had confidence in him.

The followers of Jesus living in Jerusalem before that time had not yet commenced evangelising the Gentile world. Instead they remained somewhat connected to the practices of Judaism, such as attending the temple at the time of prayer, as we can see from the early chapters of Acts. Initially they were popular with the people in general. Opposition to the disciples of Jesus came mainly from the Sanhedrin, and it was dominated by the Sadducees who strongly opposed a message that centred on a claim that the founder had risen from the dead. They wanted to crush the new movement, but it was the Pharisee Gamaliel who advised the Sanhedrin not to oppose the followers of Jesus in case it found itself fighting against God (Acts 5:34ff.). On the assumption that Paul would have agreed with the view of Gamaliel rather than that of the Sadducees, why did he then become such a strong opponent of the followers of Jesus? The answer seems to be connected to the story of Stephen and what he taught about Jesus.

Stephen had a very effective ministry in the city. He was opposed by several groups of Jews, among whom were Jews from Cilicia (Acts 6:9), which is where Paul came from. Eventually, Stephen was put on trial for his beliefs and his speech explaining his opinions is recorded in Acts 7. Luke then says in Acts 8:1-3 that a great persecution arose against the church that day under the leadership of Saul. This is what Paul was engaged in when he set off to Damascus to deal with the followers of Jesus there.

We can see from the speech of Stephen that he highlighted the regular unfaithfulness of Israel and minimised the ongoing importance of the temple. He grasped that the coming of Jesus had changed many things about the worship of God. No doubt, those ideas if they became popular would have strong effects on the people of Israel. People were beginning to see that the church was not really a subset of Judaism, but instead was a very different kind of gathering.

At that time Paul determined that the church had to be destroyed. Whether this determination was the outcome of something that had been simmering in him for a while, or whether it was a recent decision connected to the ministry of Stephen in Jerusalem, cannot be stated with certainty. Whatever the cause, Paul became a fierce persecutor of the church.

Divine preparation for service
We can see several ways in which Paul was being prepared for serving Jesus later. The divine Potter was at work shaping the man who would become so important in the life of the church. First, he was given a thorough grounding in the Old Testament – all he needed in a sense was the key to open all its rooms, and he found that key when he met Jesus.

Second, Paul would have realised the inadequacy of legalism for becoming right with God and for maintaining a relationship with God. His adherence to the requirements of the law were incredible, but of no value in a spiritual sense. He stressed this repeatedly in later years.

Third, Paul was to engage with people of all cultures as an apostle. He would have interacted with such and understood their ideas from the years he spent in Tarsus as well as with people he met later in Gentile-dominated Jerusalem.

Fourth, Paul’s personality was renewed when he became a Christian, but many of his traits would remain but now devoted to the service of Jesus. He was disciplined in his habits, determined in his goals, and devoted to God (as he thought). Those features are prominent too in his Christian life.

Fifth, his religious and civil privileges gave him access to places, even if he was eventually expelled from some of them. As a rabbi, he had access to the Jewish synagogues and as a Roman citizen he had certain privileges that he could use when he so wished.

Monday, 18 September 2017

God at Work (Titus 3:4-7)

We have been thinking in recent weeks about Bible passages that tell us what a Christian is. The word ‘Christian’ now has many different meanings and usually when it is used further clarification is needed. Sometimes it is used as an adjective, as when we speak of a Christian country as opposed to an Islamic country or a communist country. When used in this sense, it may have little connection with its biblical meaning.

Putting it simply, a Christian in a biblical sense is an individual who has experienced God’s saving grace. Yet even that short statement contains several allusions that need to be explained. What do we mean by God? What do we mean by experience? What do we mean by saving grace? Paul answers those questions in this passage. Many have wondered if this set of verses is a small creed that Paul composed as a summary statement of basic beliefs or if it was a memory help that was circulating in the Christian churches. While a definite answer cannot be given to those speculations, it is obvious that it would good for us to memorise it and think about it

How does he describe God? When we look at the verses, we see that Paul includes within this statement the Christian doctrine of the Trinity because he refers to the Father (‘God our Saviour’ in verse 4), to the Holy Spirit, and to Jesus. Yet we also see that the focus of his comments is what the Father has done and what caused him to do what he did through his own attributes and through the activities of the Holy Spirit and through Jesus.

What do we mean by Christian experience? When Paul here describes the work of the triune God we see that he follows a logical process from dealing with sinners in their state of sin, to their receiving of new life by the Spirit, to the permanent blessings they all receive as believers. So he is not focussing on details that may fluctuate depending on how they feel at a given moment, such as whether they are as dedicated today as they were yesterday. Instead Paul wants Titus to focus on the unchanging realities connected to salvation, to God’s saving grace in the lives of his people.

Paul begins by stating that salvation rose in the heart of the Father, whom he calls here by the title, God our Saviour. There was in the Father goodness and compassion, but those details primarily appeared in a saving way through the coming into this world of his Son. This description of God is a reminder of how wrong is the notion that somehow the coming of the Son changed the heart of the Father towards sinners. Instead, Titus is reminded that God’s heart overflowed in grace towards sinners, including the kind of sinners found in Crete.

Of course, the vast majority of sinners have not seen or heard Jesus physically. This means that the appearance of God’s goodness and loving kindness also includes the declaration of the gospel. As Paul says in Romans 1:16, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It is the announcement that the good God wishes to tell sinners regarding how they can be saved.

Paul reminds Titus that the way of salvation is not found in any works that they could produce. The apostle was a devout Jew before he became a Christian, and during those years he laboured intensely to maintain a righteousness based on his works, or on his external obedience to the law of God. Titus was a Gentile, and probably had no connection initially with Judaism, although he may have become a proselyte to the Jewish faith and joined them in their attempts to produce a works righteousness. If he had done so, he with Paul would have experienced failure. Or maybe he was a Gentile who desired an upright life, but found such a goal impossible to achieve. The declaration of the gospel, the story of the appearance of the goodness and loving kindness of God, brings great relief to all burdened with achieving works righteousness because they discover that God has arranged for how they can receive righteousness without their efforts.

The overall mercy of the Father

Paul traces the gift of salvation to the mercy of the Father. Mercy includes both the desire to show it and the giving of it. It is given to those who are needy. We can use the term in a physical sense, by which we mean acts of compassion to those who are destitute, or we can use the term in a spiritual sense by which we mean the giving of pardon and new life, with its many blessings, by God to very needy sinners.

What does Paul include in his concept of Fatherly mercy? He mentions activities by the Holy Spirit and he mentions changes to the status of sinners. As far as the activities of the Holy Spirit are concerned, the Father has an Agent who delivers the Holy Spirit – the Agent is Jesus. Here Paul is reminding Titus of the roles that Jesus fulfils as the Messiah (Christ) giving salvation to sinners. Paul is not writing here about what Jesus did on the cross, but on what he does having been exalted to heaven after his resurrection. The work on the cross provided the basis of salvation and is a completed work, but what continues is the application of salvation, and Paul stresses that each person of the Trinity is involved in this process.

The work of the Spirit

Paul describes the work of the Spirit the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Some, including Calvin, accept that the washing of regeneration could refer to baptism. In this interpretation, baptism is an illustration of an inner change brought about by the Holy Spirit. It is possible, however, to regard the reference to washing as only an illustration of conversion. Given that Paul uses the illustration of cleansing elsewhere, and does so without a connection to baptism, then there is not a necessity of assuming that he is referring to baptism here. Instead, his words can be regarded as describing the inner cleansing brought about within a sinner by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, without there being any reference to an external rite. Such a cleansing was predicted in the Old Testament as marking the experience of God’s people in the new covenant era (Ezek. 36:25-27).

Does the apostle describe one or two activities of the Spirit here? Is there a difference between regeneration and renewal? Paul uses one preposition (dia – through) in the clause, which points to only one activity, but described in two ways. While the idea of regeneration usually is regarded as a one-off activity, it is common for us to use the idea of renewal in a continual sense and take it to mean the same as progressive sanctification. Yet it is conceivable that Paul intends for regeneration and renewal to refer to what happens to a sinner at conversion – the sinner is made alive (regeneration) and is no longer spiritually dead, and so is a new creature (renewal). Regarding it in this way preserves the suggestion that Paul here is working logically through what takes place at conversion. The work of the Spirit precedes the sinner’s justification and adoption, both of which Paul mentions in verse 7.

Paul indicates that this work of the Spirit in regeneration and renewal is only the commencement of a copious experience of the Spirit. Here Paul says that it is the Father who pours out the Spirit and does so richly, although as mentioned earlier he does so through Jesus. It is possible that the richness of the experience of the Spirit is in contrast to what was known by Old Testament believers. One can deduce from it that it is a privilege to live in the age when the Spirit is poured forth in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies such as Joel 2. Whatever else the description means, it does include the fact that there is not a Spirit-impoverished believer. Each of them has been given the Spirit in a copious way, which means that they are equipped by God to do whatever role he has in mind for them.

Paul applies the title of Saviour to Jesus as well as having done so in the previous verse to the Father. The dual use of the title reminds readers of the shared activity of the Father and the Son – their focus is the salvation of sinners. It also reminds them of the equality of the Father and the Son in that each of them can be addressed as the Saviour, even although they have different roles in providing it.

Two permanent blessings

In verse 7, Paul mentions two aspects of salvation that occur at conversion and remain unchangeable throughout one’s Christian life. The first is justification by the Father – we are justified by his grace. Justification refers to our standing before God as those who have been forgiven their sins and received righteousness from the Father. Those who were unable to produce righteousness are regarded as righteous because the righteousness of Jesus is reckoned to them as a free gift from the merciful Father. The righteousness by which they are justified is not found in them. Instead, it is God’s gift of a permanent standing in his presence because, as Paul says elsewhere, those who are given it are now in a situation of peace with God.

Paul then mentions that those who have been justified are heirs, with the inheritance involving the guaranteed experience of eternal life. Jesus, in his prayer in John 17, says that the meaning of eternal life is fellowship with the Father and the Son. Such fellowship begins in this life after conversion, and while it should increase while the believer remains on earth, it will not be fully realised until the world of glory comes. Nevertheless, this hope is totally secure, which means that they can anticipate the fullness even while enjoying the foretaste in this life. And the foretaste comes because the Holy Spirit gives it to them in his role as the firstfruits of the future experience.

What is a Christian? Let us summarise what Paul says in this profound theological statement. A Christian experiences the mercy of God. This happens when the Holy Spirit makes him alive and a new creation. He then is justified by God the Father and receives the righteousness of Jesus as his standing in the courts of heaven. As a justified person, he becomes a member of God’s family and looks forward to the inheritance that he will receive in its fullness in the eternal world.

Jesus and the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14)

The previous chapter had closed with Jesus making a contrast between his yoke and the yokes that other teachers placed on their followers. In the two incidents about the Sabbath we see examples of how his method was very different from what the Pharisees did or expected from others. The first example concerns what Jesus prioritised and the second concerns works of mercy.

When we think of the Sabbath, what ideas should come to mind? The first one is that it is a creation ordinance along with work and marriage. So it is not a Jewish practice. Second, the Sabbath originally was God’s rest when he chose to delight in all that he had done in the first week of time. So it was not designed to be drudgery. Third, it is part of the moral law, one of the ten commandments, which means that it is not something that passed away with the passing of the ceremonial law. Fourth, it was a day for showing mercy as we can see from Isaiah 58. Fifth, it was the day when God’s people gathered together to worship him. Sixth, the day was changed from the seventh day to the first day after the resurrection of Jesus. Seventh, additional Sabbaths found in the ceremonial law are no longer to be observed.

The priority of Jesus

The problem that the Pharisees imagined that they had identified was based on their notion that what the disciples did was the equivalent of threshing the grain and so they regarded the action as working (one of about forty such ideas about forbidden work on the Sabbath), and so a breach of the fourth commandment occurred. The concern of the Pharisees was not connected to the possibility that the disciples were stealing the grain. Deuteronomy 23:25 allowed them to take the grain: ‘If you go into your neighbour’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbour’s standing grain.’

I suppose we need to ask why the disciples did this. It is very likely that they knew what the Pharisees believed. Were the disciples beginning to grasp that the demands of the Pharisees, which were nothing more than human traditions, were irrelevant?

Then we need to ask why Jesus responded to the Pharisees in the way he did. He could have decided to ignore what they had accused his disciples of doing. But if he had responded in that way, it would mean that he had kept silent about an aspect of God’s truth, which he would not do in any circumstances.

His response contains three arguments, each of which is connected to the Old Testament. First, he refers to an incident when David ate some of the special bread that usually only priests could eat. Moreover, this bread was only changed on the Sabbath, which implies that the incident involving David took place on a Sabbath. Yet, since David and his men were hungry, the priest in charge gave them the special bread which had been replaced and would have been eaten by the priests. It is perhaps interesting that while other Gospels refer to the incident, only Matthew says that the disciples were hungry, which could be a reminder of a detail that he recalled about the incident. The point is obvious – since hunger takes priority over God-given rituals, how much more would it have priority over man-made requirements.

Second, Jesus points out that Sabbath laws were desecrated every week by the priests because of the work they engaged in at the temple. We have already mentioned one of their activities, that of changing the special bread (Lev. 24:8). Another was the double burnt offering mentioned in Numbers 28:9-10. Both these activities involved work, but the priests could engage in that work because the highest authority (God) instructed them to do so. By implication, we can ask, ‘Who informed the disciples that they could eat the grain?’ And by deduction, we can reply, ‘Only God could give them that permission.’ It looks as if Jesus is saying that he gave the disciples permission to eat the grain, and in doing so was claiming to be divine.

Third, Jesus challenges the Pharisees about their knowledge of the character of God when he cites a verse from the prophecy of Hosea where God says that desires mercy and not sacrifice. The Pharisees would have been shocked by this application because in Hosea those being accused by God were the idolatrous and sinful Israelites. Jesus was telling them that in his estimation the Pharisees were like those unfaithful Israelites. Yet we have to remember that David told lies to the priest when he arrived at the tabernacle. The fact that he was given food was because of mercy. The priests broke the Sabbath as they worked in the temple, yet they were not punished because God is merciful.

We are not told where Jesus and his disciples were going as they walked through the field. But we are told what they needed, which was mercy because they were hungry. Mercy is always appropriate and it is not a sin to avail oneself of the opportunity. The Pharisees made it clear by their criticism that they had no idea who God is or what he is like. If they had been like God, they would not have had such a critical spirit.

Jesus calls himself the Son of Man who is the ‘lord of the Sabbath’. As we have noted before, the title Son of Man is taken from the Book of Daniel where it describes One who receives universal authority from God. It is a title that identifies Jesus as the promised Messiah. Yet here he is saying something more when he says that he is lord of the Sabbath. He is claiming to be the sovereign God. But he is also saying that as the sovereign God he desires to show mercy to sinners.

The man with the withered hand

Matthew then mentions an incident that involved Jesus performing a miracle of healing on a Sabbath. We could infer from Matthew’s account that it followed on from the previous incident, but Luke tells us that they took place on different Sabbaths. Matthew has the incident together because they stress the same matters.

Once again, we see the increasing hostility of the Pharisees towards Jesus. What makes their questioning most serious is that it took place in a setting of worship. They were claiming to worship the true God, yet here they were critiquing the One who had been sent by God to be the Saviour. Malice, we can say, had made them mad.

They did not realise that Jesus knew their thoughts. In reply to their question, he reminded them of the dignity of humans when he compared their concern for a sheep who falls into a pit on the Sabbath with what could be done for the man. They did what they could for the sheep and Jesus was going to do what he could for the man whose arm was damaged. It was obvious that it was right to do good on the Sabbath. We can deduce that it is appropriate to help any of God’s creatures who are in need on the Sabbath, which is why we take care of animals on that day. It is also a day for taking care of humans, which Isaiah says in Isaiah 58. We don’t keep the Sabbath if we don’t show kindness to those in need when they cross our path.

The occasion was an opportunity for Jesus to reveal his power as the great Creator when he healed the man’s arm. But I suppose we could ask what would have happened if the man had not stretched out his hand. The answer to that question is obvious. No one would have known in the synagogue that Jesus had healed him. The way of healing the man points to Jesus wanting people to know that he had power to help them. But the way for them to see it was by observing what he had done in this man’s life. So if the man had not stretched out his arm, he would have prevented the glory of Jesus from being revealed.

Moreover, we could say that if the man had refused to obey Jesus when told to stretch out his arm he would have denied for himself the blessing of assurance. The only way he would know that his arm had been healed at that time was by obedience to the command of Jesus. And it is always true that the path of assurance always involves obedience to the instructions of Jesus. A disobedient Christian cannot have assurance. He has grieved the Spirit and until he repents he will not receive such a spiritual blessing.

At the same time, we can see that the way the man showed his faith was by his obedience to the instruction of Jesus. James writes about the difference between a true faith and a false faith – the difference is seen in our works. We are not saved by our works, but our works reveal whether we have been saved. In that synagogue, the unnamed man recognised the authority of Jesus and just did what his new Master told him to do.

We see the response of the Pharisees was very different from that of the man whose arm was healed. Instead of rejoicing at this amazing miracle they were hardened in heart and resolved to destroy Jesus. The actions of the God of love did not melt their hard hearts. We would say that a terrible sin had taken place when people despise the evidence of grace. Yet that is what happened here, and the Pharisees continued to depart from the living God.

Three lessons

First, we can observe the approach of Jesus towards his opponents, which was to ask them simple questions. Their outlook was complex and involved the combination of a range of requirements. Sometimes the best way to deal with something is just to ask a few straightforward questions about the topic.

Second, the answer of Jesus for his opponents was that they should get to know God. A religion, even a very strict one like what the Pharisees practised, is of no value for one’s spiritual state. The God the Pharisees worshipped was not the God of the Bible, even although in many ways they were regarded as orthodox. This can be seen in their failure to grasp that God was merciful.

Third, the natural man does not like grace. We see this in response to what happened with the man with the restored arm. One would imagine that the Pharisees would have wanted to rejoice with him. Instead, they created an attitude of hostility towards Jesus and his amazing displays of grace.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Closing Thoughts (Rev. 22:6-21)

As we come to the closing section of this amazing book, we hear the voice of Jesus speaking through an angel to his servant John. He reminds John that the fulfilment of what was described was near. How do we interpret the meaning of near? I suppose the answer to that question is that it is near in a relative sense in comparison to the length of time that will exist afterwards. Although almost two thousand years have passed since the message was given, there is a long eternity ahead. We should also bear in mind that with the Lord a thousand years can be as one day.

A second detail to observe is what should be our attitude to the Word of God that is trustworthy and true. In the first chapter, a special blessing was promised to those who would keep the instructions of this book, and that promise is repeated in verse 7. Other comments are made about the importance of this particular book as well. In verses 18 and 19, a threat of judgement is made against any who would attempt to alter this book. This would indicate that the book would be a focus of attack by those who do not like its message. Instead, the message of the book should be made public (v. 10). And we can see in verse 9 that a definition of a true Christian is that he keeps the words of this book, and he should continue to live righteous and holy lives whatever others are doing (v. 11).

A third detail from this passage is that believers, including leaders, should watch out for particular sins. We would have been surprised at the first occasion of John bowing down to an angel, but in verse 8 he does it again. Yet we should observe that he admits to having done it, which is a reminder that we should not pretend we are innocent of sins of which we are guilty.

The gospel

A fourth matter is the gospel invitation mentioned in verse 17: ‘The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.’ It is not clear if the first two uses of ‘come’ are addressed to Jesus in reference to his second coming since it is mentioned shortly before. Yet since the next two uses are addressed to the unconverted, it could point to interpreting the previous two uses in that way as well. If that is the case, we are given insight into how the Holy Spirit feels with regard to the gospel offer. His involvement when the church announces the offer reveals the heart of God, and also shows that he wants to make the offer through his people.

The final two uses say that the gospel should be offered to those classified as thirsty and to those who are want to take it. This is a reminder that we should not be satisfied with being thirsty or with having a desire. In addition, we must make contact with Jesus through the gospel and enjoy the water of life.

As far as the context here is concerned, the water of life is what flows around the church in the eternal world. This points to the amazing fact that the blessings of eternal life can be enjoyed in this world by God’s people, even although they yet are sinful. Those blessings are connected to knowing God through Jesus, as the Saviour stated at the commencement of his prayer in John 17.

The consequences of responding to the gospel call are stated in verses 14 and 15: ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.’ The editors of the copy of the Bible that I used in preparing this address did not think this verse was said by Jesus, even although the preceding and following verses are obviously regarded as by him. It is a red letter Bible, so verses 14 and 15 are not in red. I don’t see how this conclusion was made since it seems to read on from the previous verse.

Those who wash their robes, which is a picture of cleansing from sin through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, will have access to the privileges found in the church of Christ throughout eternity. Earlier in the chapter, the church was described as the New Jerusalem, and as a city with gates that led to a street on which it was possible to eat from the tree of life. Doing so will be the way that the Lord will provide his people with what they will requires as his redeemed servants. John is told that such are blessed now, and not only in the future when the city is in full function.

The return of Jesus

Several times in this section Jesus refers to his second coming and saying that it would happen soon. In verse 12, he says that he is coming as the Judge of all: ‘Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.’ This is a reminder that the return of Jesus has solemn consequences. We may be inclined to limit this threat to unbelievers, but we should observe that Jesus says it will affect everyone. Obviously, the judgement day will be far worse for those who are not safe in Christ. Yet the New Testament does indicate that it is possible for believers, including pastors, to lose out on that day and not receive a full reward. So we need to walk carefully in this life.

Names of Jesus

In this closing section, Jesus calls himself by different names. He refers to his eternal identity in verse 13 when he says, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ In making use of those names, he is stating that he was there before anything else appeared and that he is the one who brings things to an end. Because he is the eternal God, Jesus should receive the same worship as the Father.

Then in verse 16, Jesus speaks about his royal character when he says, ‘I am the root and the descendant of David.’ Through this description, he is revealing that he has a kingdom that is connected to promises made to David. Moreover, Jesus is revealing that he existed before David as well as being his descendant. So he is stating that his roles in his kingdom involve him functioning as both God and man. He is the Mediator who rules over the kingdom for God’s glory and our good.

In the same verse, Jesus refers to himself as the bright morning star. The morning star is generally regarded as the planet Venus and it was called the morning star because it is usually seen shortly before daybreak, and thus indicates that the dark night will soon be over. Given this background, it is not difficult to see what Jesus meant when he described himself as the morning star.

First, it is a reminder that the world is yet in a state of spiritual darkness. Paul, when writing to the Ephesians, led them to recall that at one time they too had been spiritually blind, unable to understand God and his ways. This description of sinners is not limited to people of the first century but also describes each person who is living today without Jesus. Such have no real grasp of the beauty and bounty of God. Still, Jesus is there as the morning star, as the light who shines in the darkness, drawing people to himself in order for them to discover how kind and merciful the Lord is.

Second, as the morning star, Jesus announces that the day of brightness and glory is soon to arrive. In the natural world, the morning star is seen a short time before daybreak. When people see it, they can assume that it will soon be daylight. Those who have seen Jesus know that the eternal day will soon be here. And what an incredible day it will be! It will be a day without end, a day without disappointment, a day without problems, and a day without pain. 

In the meantime, as we live in the land of the shadow of death and wait for the arrival of the eternal day, we can focus on the morning star. We see him in the Bible where he reveals himself to those who take the time to search its pages looking for him. And when we discover his presence there, we often find that he too is looking ahead with anticipation to the day of which he is the morning star, because that is what he says here.

The response of John

John, who had misinterpreted what to say a short time before, now reveals his heart’s desire which is that Jesus would soon come. These are the last recorded words of the apostle of love and they express love for Jesus and love for his people. His desire and the desire of Jesus to come focus on the same glorious event. I suspect that even if we could speak to John in heaven we would find that he still has the same desire.

Then the apostle closes with a benediction for his readers: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.’ The benediction is a reminder of the deity of Jesus because only a divine person can give the blessings of grace. John points to this when he mentions that Jesus is Lord. As Lord he is in charge of the heavenly storehouse and we know that it is full of the riches of grace. So whatever we need, we can go to him for it, knowing that he will be delighted to provide us with spiritual help. He has grace for us as a shepherd feeding his sheep, as a physician healing his patients, as a teacher instructing his pupils, as a guide leading his travellers, as a friend sharing his secrets. His grace is appropriate, abundant and available.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Responding to Rejection (Matthew 11:25-30)

In this set of verses, we see the response of Jesus to the circumstances he was facing. The verses highlight three things – a prayer, an explanation of his role, and a most gracious promise to those who were burdened. We can see how observing this and listening to what he said would help and encourage the disciples as they listened to what he had to say.


Not many of the prayers of Jesus are recorded. Most of us are familiar with his prayer for his people in John 17, a prayer that is much longer than the one recorded here by Matthew. This prayer is connected to the situation that the Saviour was facing as attitudes towards him began to change among the people in general. It is striking that he prayed when the opposition increased, and what is also striking is the particular petitions he made. His prayer is one of thanksgiving.

The first detail that we see is that Jesus addressed the Father by two names – Father and Lord of heaven and earth. One describes the intimacy of their relationship and the other affirms the sovereignty of the Father. The title ‘Father’ reveals an eternal relationship whereas the name ‘Lord of heaven and earth’ recognises a position that is connected to what happens in the created world. He is Lord of heaven and earth even although rebellion was expressed in heaven by the devil and had been present on earth since the Garden of Eden and the fall of Adam. Nevertheless, the Father was still in charge.

In the prayer, Jesus gives thanks for the Father’s twofold response to the hearers of Jesus. Regarding some, the Father hid the gospel from them, and regarding others he revealed it to them. I suppose when he refers to the wise and understanding, he means those who were wise in their own estimation; and when he refers to little children, he probably does not mean only literal children, but all those who became like little children and accepted what they heard from Jesus. Here we have an example of the consequences that Paul later describes concerning people who heard the message – for some, it was a savour of life to life, and for others it was a savour of death to death.

The Saviour mentions that this response was gracious. We may be surprised at this description initially, but then we should ask what it was that made some believe the message. The answer to such a question is that God graciously brought it about and enabled them to accept what Jesus was teaching about the kingdom. Those who have tasted the salvation of God always recognise that they did so because the Lord showed mercy to them.

We should also observe that Jesus was delighted with what had occurred. Luke, in his account of this prayer, mentions that Jesus was rejoicing as he prayed (Luke 10:21).


Jesus now summarises his role, which can be summarised by the words ‘receiving’ and ‘revealing’. The receiving is described in the first clause of verse 26: ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father.’ This statement concerns a decision made in eternity when the Father entrusted to the Son the work of redemption. He is the Mediator whose roles will involve providing salvation for his people and judging the remainder. It must have been extraordinary for people to hear an individual, who looked very ordinary, say such an incredible statement. But he had more to say that was surprising because he then highlights his unique role.

Jesus claims two things: first, no one knows who he really is but the Father; second, normally no one knows the Father but Jesus, and to whom whoever Jesus chooses to reveal the Father. Of course, in making those claims, Jesus was saying that he was equal with the Father in ability. We can put them together and say that the Father revealed through Jesus the great truths of the gospel. There was divine harmony as they conveyed the gospel to sinners.


Matthew here records one of the great gospel texts that has often been used to encourage sinners to draw near to Jesus. His words are a call to discipleship and they also indicate who the ‘little children’ are. They are the ones who come to him for spiritual blessings.

First, we can think about who Jesus means by those who labour and are heavy laden. Among them would be the many people in Israel who were trying to please God by obeying the ceremonial law with all its demands. Peter was later to call this attempt a burden that was too heavy to bear (Acts 15:10). It was endless and demanding, and very easy to fail to keep.

Then there would be those who were trying to obey the instructions of the Pharisees, with all their many additional laws. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for imposing such laws on people (Matt. 23:4). Instead of functioning as shepherds who led people to the pastures of refreshment that God provides, they were like slave drivers who made life intolerable. They produced a religion that was marked by self-righteousness and misery, and they often go hand in hand.

Another type of person who can be described by such terms are those who find life in general to be hard. Life is laborious and brings into lives all kinds of burdens. Sadnesses and disappointments abound for many people. The variety of such experiences is very wide.

Jesus says to all such to come to him and if they do he will give them rest. Rest here refers to inner satisfaction and release of burdens. The burdens that he wants to remove is the burdens connected to being separated from God. All the searching in which those people had engaged in had been merely an accumulation of heavy burdens.

What does it mean to come to Jesus? It does mean taking a step, but it is not a step that is measured in feet and yards. Instead it is moving away from all those attempts to find satisfaction and security towards Jesus. This journey is made by faith, and it can take less than a second to make contact with him. As we make the journey, we repent of all those previous attempts or refusals to come to Jesus for his blessing.

At the same time, the weary sinners recognises the welcome he will receive from Jesus. The word ‘come’ points to Jesus accepting sinners with his arms wide open. We have no real grasp of the great delight he experiences when a person comes to him for mercy. He told his disciples in a parable that there is great joy in heaven when a sinner is converted. We are welcome to come to Jesus Christ. 


The Saviour then reveals the path of discipleship. When an individual followed a religious teacher, the decision to do so was usually described as taking on the yoke of the teacher. I suppose the reason behind the description is that a follower would do everything the teacher required. Discipleship is a journey of submission, but then it all depends on what the teacher is like.

This leads us to ask what kind of teacher is Jesus. He must have anticipated this response because he goes on to describe his method and his character. His method of teaching is always personal – ‘learn from me’. We can see that would have been the case literally when Jesus was here, but how can he teach us personally? The answer to that question is that he does so by the Holy Spirit, who takes the teachings of Jesus in the Bible and explains them to us in our minds. The presence of the Spirit is almost like having Jesus inside us rather than having him outside us, as was the case when he was with his disciples.

The character of our Teacher is that he is gentle and lowly in heart. Pupils who want to learn respond to a gentle instructor, but would be frightened of one who threatened them. They also recognise that the more a person knows the humbler he is. How much does Jesus know? As God, he is omniscient. He knows everything about his disciples and is able to instruct them according to their capacity.

The teaching that Jesus gives brings rest into their souls. This should lead us to ask what are the subjects he teaches to his disciples. There are many of them, so we can only mention a few of them. He informs his disciples about the salvation he has provided and they discover that it is far bigger than they first imagined. His description of God’s gracious plan brings assurance to their hearts.  

Jesus also instructs his disciples about the fact that the heavenly Father is sovereign and is always working everything for their good. There is no doubt that on many occasions they wonder at what is happening in their lives, especially when things go wrong and when nothing seems to make sense. On such occasions, they should remember that the Father has not forgotten them, but instead is focussed on preparing them for roles he has for them in the future.

The Saviour also informed them of the wonderful relationships they would have with God and with one another. They would become the children of God and all the members of his kingdom would be brothers and sisters of each other. As God’s children, they could pray to him as to a Father.

The disciples of Jesus also heard him explain to them how they could live for the glory of God. He informed them that the Holy Spirit would work in their lives to renew them and change them. Instead of being servants of sin, they would love righteousness. Instead of being selfish, they would love mercy.

Jesus also delighted to instruct his followers about the world of glory that would yet appear. He told his disciples that it was the Father’s good pleasure to give to them the kingdom. The day was coming when they would find themselves in a perfect world without any of the consequences of sin. This new world would be their home for ever.

The reality that those disciples would discover is that the yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light. Obviously, there is comparison here with the burdensome requirements of religious teachers and with trying to live for God without grace in operation in one’s life.

At the same time, Jesus is saying that his yoke is comfortable – we can imagine how difficult it would be for an animal to be attached to a yoke that did not fit. In contrast, the requirements that Jesus makes fit exactly and suit those who follow him. They delight to obey his commandments.

The Saviour for Great Sinners (1 Timothy 1:15)

Several of these trustworthy sayings are found in the Pastoral Epistles. They were probably short statements of faith that early Christians used as summaries. Perhaps Paul composed them or else he made use of them, and with this one he added a comment at the end.

Obviously, this saying is short and we might be tempted to say that it is also simple. Yet we would have to qualify such a comment and also say that while it is simple enough for a child or for a new Christian to understand, it also contains truths that volumes could be written about. I would like us to make our way through the verse and comment on the words that Paul uses.

His title
The title that Paul gives to Jesus is Christ, which is the transliterated form of the Greek word for Messiah. Right away we can see that Paul has crammed a great deal into the first word of his sentence. The Messiah is the main subject of the Old Testament and hundreds of predictions are made about him in its pages. We can summarise what it says about him by stating that some of the predictions indicate he would be sovereign over all others and some of the predictions inform us that he would suffer on behalf of others. Indeed, sometimes passages, such as Isaiah 53, will say both things.

His name
The name is Jesus and at one level it was probably a common name in Israel. It is our way of saying the Greek equivalent of Joshua. As with most people, this name was given to him at his birth. Yet he was not given this name because his mother liked it, or because her husband selected it. Both of them were told by an angel that God had chosen the name. Therefore, we can deduce from this detail that his name was significant. Indeed, they were told that the child would yet save his people from their sins. Probably, they had no full idea at the time what this meant. Maybe they thought he would be like Joshua and defeat all the enemies of his people. Perhaps they imagined that he would remove from the country all the wrong practices that were taking place. Eventually they would find out, but we don’t know what they grasped at the time of his birth. But we know, and therefore we are able to appreciate the further things that Paul will mention in this sentence.

The use of this word tells us two things about Jesus. One is that he existed before he appeared and the other is that he existed somewhere else than this world. Where did he come from? Elsewhere the Bible informs us that Jesus came from heaven. And it also tells us that he was not called Jesus when he lived in heaven. Instead, there he was called the Son of God. This means that in heaven he had a unique existence. He was not one of the angels who lived there. He was not a creature. Instead he was the eternal Creator, who with the Father and the Spirit, made all things and upheld all things. He was the recipient of worship of the angelic host, and indeed we are given an example of this in Isaiah 6.

This leads us to ask why he came. Did he come from heaven because he no longer wanted to live there? No, heaven was his home and during his time on earth he often referred to it in such a way. The reason why he came was because he was a willing participant in a divine plan. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit had decided on an amazing plan of recovery for humans who had rebelled against God. Each of the divine persons would have roles to perform in this plan, and the role that belonged to the Son was that he would come into the world and do something essential that was also extraordinary.

Following on from this, we can also ask how he came. We need to ask this question because one of the features that he continually possesses as God is that of omnipresence. If we are referring to places that he could be, we need to recognise that he was always everywhere. In that sense, he did not have to go anywhere because he was already everywhere. The way that he came involved an incredible addition to his divine person because he added a human nature to his person, which means that he became a man without ceasing to be God. Paul explains what happened in Philippians 2:6-9, when he explains how Jesus humbled himself by becoming a man, a servant. As others have put it, this was humiliation by addition, and not by subtraction.

Paul mentions that Jesus came into the world. The word he uses for world does not mean a physical place. It is the same word that is used for world in John 3:16 and includes within its meaning the badness of those who comprise it. Jesus came into the world that was in rebellion against God. Moreover, he did not merely visit the world, but came to live in it. The place that he came to live in was Nazareth, although he was born in Bethlehem. There he lived for about thirty years before moving to Capernaum as his home.

The amazing detail about his life was the fact that it was perfect, inwardly and outwardly. We find it difficult to imagine such a life because we know that we are not capable of it. When we think about his perfect life, we can discover several ways of thinking about it.

We can think of what it meant for the Father to observe this perfect life being lived on earth and the answer to that approach is revealed by the Father’s statement of approval that was given from heaven on the occasion of the baptism of Jesus. The voice from heaven said that Jesus was the beloved Son in whom the Father was well-pleased. Here we have the delighted verdict on the so-called thirty silent years.

Or we can think of what it means to have Jesus as our example. The fact that he was perfect does not mean he cannot be our example. We know that the best example in any circumstance is the person that knows how to do the task in the most suitable way. So we can look at Jesus as he interacted with his Father or with people and deduce from his methods what we should do. This is what the disciples did with regard to how he prayed and in response to their request to be taught to pray he gave to them what we call the Lord’s Prayer.

And we can think of his perfect life from the point of view of what we need in order to be saved. Salvation requires us to provide payment for our sins and a life of obedience acceptable to God. We can produce neither, but Jesus has provided both for those who trust in him. When we believe in him for the first time, his perfect life is reckoned to our account by the Father and this becomes our standing before the justice of God. We are accepted in him because of what he has done. So it is wonderful to see the implications of the fact that he came into the world.

Paul then mentions the task that Jesus came to perform, which was to save sinners. It is important to note that Paul does not say that Jesus came to make sinners salvable, which would mean that the choice was left up to them. Rather, Jesus came to secure the salvation of particular sinners. He was to do this by his suffering at Calvary and he knew that he was dying for a particular people. On the cross, towards the close of his period of suffering, he stated that he had achieved his goal when he cries, ‘It is finished.’

Jesus went to the cross as the substitute for his people and there he paid the penalty due to them for their sins. The penalty involved for him that he would bear the wrath of God against them for their sins. His sacrifice was one of love for them and for his Father, for the ones who should have borne the wrath themselves and for the One who punished him instead of them. In doing this he saved a number whom no one can count, each of whom will yet be with him in glory forever.

Paul then says that he was the worst of the sinners for whom Jesus died and he goes on to specify some of the sins he had committed. Does Paul mean that he was the worst sinner or that he felt he was the worst sinner? I suspect that he did feel it, and also we should recognise that this is a statement made under divine inspiration, which means that he was guided to say he was this by the Holy Spirit. Certainly, he was guilty of terrible sins.

Yet in making this claim, Paul was saying two other things. One of them was repentant, that he had realised those sins were against God, and that he deserved to be punished for them. At the same time, he was also saying that his sins had been borne by Jesus, and the only way Paul could know this was the case was by him trusting in Jesus by a living faith. So although he was a big sinner and although he was later a prominent servant of Christ, the fact is that he came to be saved in the same way that anyone else, which is repenting of sin and trusting in Jesus. In order for us to be able to make this statement our own, we have to follow the path that Paul took here and respond in the same way to the gospel.