Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Jesus explains two of the seven parables that he tells on this occasion about the kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God. We may wonder why Jesus calls it the kingdom of heaven or why Matthew translated the words of Jesus in this way into Greek. The best answer, I think, is that he was conscious that he was writing initially for Jews and they would know that the phrase kingdom of heaven meant the same thing as the kingdom of God. Another possible reason is that he wanted to stress the different nature of the kingdom of God, that although it was being built on earth it was very different from all other earthly kingdoms, and was in fact a heavenly kingdom.

We might be surprised at some of the details in the parable that have no relevance for the explanation. One of them is the statement that the weeds were sown when the workers were sleeping. We can imagine a preacher making a great deal of that detail. But Jesus doesn’t. Nor does he make any application concerning the conversation between the servants and the farmer. Again, we can imagine someone suggesting that this represents prayer, but Jesus doesn’t.

Who is sowing in the field?

The first detail to observe in this parable is the location where the sowing takes place. In the parable, it is said to be the owner’s field, and in the explanation of Jesus the field is said to be the world. Some commentators ignore this plain statement and say that the field is the church and then proceed to talk about church discipline, and in doing so misunderstand the parable. The field, says Jesus, is the world.

Obviously, Jesus is predicting that when the time of sowing commences the world will be his in a special way. We may assume from this that he merely means that the world is his because he created it. Yet a closer look at the parable’s explanation suggests otherwise.

In the explanation, Jesus says that he is the one who sows the seed. Yet he describes himself in a special way as the Son of Man. This title, as we know, comes from the Book of Daniel where the prophet was given a vision of one like a Son of Man coming to God and receiving from him a kingdom that includes the whole world, viewed both from a geographical perspective and from a time perspective. The vision was describing the ascension of Jesus from earth to the throne of God.

What the vision does not include is where the Son of Man came from. We know, however, where he had been. He had been to the cross where he paid the penalty for sin, he had been in the tomb for three days, and he had risen from the dead. So we can deduce that those unusual experiences had to occur before Jesus could sow the seed. We need to remember that the One who spreads the gospel is the One who died for sinners, who identified with them, who was raised for them, and who ascended to heaven to bring about his kingdom.

What is he sowing in the field? We may find the answer surprising, but he is sowing people. The good seed are the sons of the kingdom. King Jesus is setting up his kingdom in this world and he does so by bringing sinners into his kingdom. Of course, he uses the gospel to bring this about, but in this parable the good seed are saved sinners. They are planted by Jesus and expected to grow in a spiritual sense.

The parable indicates that Jesus plants his people strategically. After all, where did he find them? They did not come from another planet, instead they came from this world. Nor does Jesus plant them in another planet, instead he sets them up as an alternative kingdom in this world. He has a plan for them, which is to serve him as King.

The parable also indicates that Jesus plants his people in a hostile environment, even although the world belongs to him. Somebody else is active in the field (the world) and he is the devil. He too has a strategy, which is to plant weeds among the wheat. His plan here is not to plant them away from where the wheat is, but instead to plant them right where the wheat is. Jesus is saying that there will be false disciples among his professing people. I wonder what Judas thought when he heard that comment.

The servants in the parable ask the owner of the field if they should dig up the weeds and throw them out of the field. They had been sleeping when the enemy sowed the seed. I don’t think the point is that they should have been awake and somehow stopped the weeds from being sown. Rather, the point is that there are actions going on that they cannot see until the persons reveal that they are false disciples.

Surprisingly, the Owner of the field says to his servants that they should not throw out the weeds. The reason he gives is that the servants may indivertibly damage some of the true disciples. What does this point say to us? It could mean that some of the wheat looked like the weeds, or vice versa, and it would be hard to tell the difference. Or it could mean that some of the weeds may yet become wheat, so that is why they were left. After all, where do any of the wheat come from apart from being weeds at one time?

What we can see from the response of the Owner is that he is very patient, and that his patience will last until the Day of Judgement. It is good for us that the Lord is patient. He is more patient than his servants because they wanted to throw the weeds out right away. And he has a grasp of the big picture that they don’t have. It is not possible for them to know everything that is happening in the field. So they are called to trust in the patience of the Owner and to realise that he will take care of his people that he has planted.

Who will be the Judge?

The Sower of the good seed will be the Judge. At the end of the age, Jesus will have a harvest. What does he say will take place? There are four details that we should observe. First, there will be a demonstration of power. This demonstration of power will be seen in the authority of Jesus to command the angels to engage in the task of reaping. To put this into perspective, how many angels do we imagine the apostles could command to do anything? The answer is none. How many angels can Jesus command to do an action? All of them. Up in heaven, the angels are busy obeying Jesus but they are all waiting for this command to start reaping. And one day they will hear it.

Second, there will be a process of separation which will also be a process of purification. Jesus says that on that day Jesus will send his angels to get rid of all expressions of sin, including those who engage in breaking his law. Often Jesus speaks about the separation that will occur at the Day of Judgement. He speaks about sheep and goats, he speaks about two sleeping in a bed or two working together and suddenly they are separated permanently. Temporary separations in this life are unpleasant and sad, but what are they in comparison to eternal separation. Incredibly, there will be no trace of sin left in the kingdom of Jesus.

Third, what will happen to the ones who served the devil, whether they realised they were doing so or not. Jesus uses an awful picture to describe their fate – they are thrown into a fiery furnace. I suppose we could think of the fiery furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar through the three faithful servants of God, as recorded in the Book of Daniel. There was a rescuer for them who prevented the flames from harming them, and he looked like the Son of Man, said Nebuchadnezzar. But what will happen on the Day when there is no rescuer?

In the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, the three men and the Son of Man had interaction with one another and although the place was strange the contact was sweet. But in the fiery furnace of the Final Day, there will be nothing sweet. There will be verbal noises, but we are told that it will be endless weeping and gnashing of teeth. We are to remember who is giving this description. It is the One who never lies, who never exaggerates a situation. What a terrible place a lost eternity is! Despair, endless despair, says Jesus.

Fourth, what will happen to the good seed, the ones that Jesus planted in his kingdom? Jesus says that in contrast to the place where the lost will be, the place where his people will be is wonderful. Of course, he does not speak about the place where his people will be, instead he describes them. They will be righteous and they will shine like the sun. What does he mean? They will be actually righteous, totally holy in heart, with no sin. It is hard to imagine existing without sin, but then we knew some who were once were sinners but who now have no sin. I think that shining like the sun is a picture of glorification. The Saviour uses the brightest creaturely light to illustrate the common experience of God’s people in eternity.

The Father’s kingdom

Is there a difference between the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom over which the Son of Man rules? It looks from the parable that the kingdom of the Son of Man is in existence today, a kingdom described elsewhere as him ruling in the midst of his enemies, whereas the kingdom of the Father is a description of the eternal state in which no enemies are present. Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer told us to pray for the coming of the Father’s kingdom, which will occur when his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. So, they could be describing different stages in the kingdom of God.

Some applications

Here are four brief applications of this parable. First, take the long view. In other words, we are to be patient. Jesus tells us not to focus on the evil of the present but to focus on what will happen on the Day of Judgement. What will happen on that future day should govern what we do in the present.

Second, we should accept that evil will be present throughout human history. There is not going to be a period before the Day of Judgement when evil will disappear. The reason why evil will show itself is because the devil will be in the planting business. Sometimes, his plants will be religious; at other times, his plants will be something else. But they will be there.

Third, we should recognise that God’s kingdom will not be beaten. The weeds cannot take the wheat out of the kingdom of Jesus, no matter what happens or whatever is tried. This should give us great hope for the church today and tomorrow. What is the world all about? Two types of plants – those planted by Jesus and those planted by the devil. Or moving away from the imagery of planting, what we have in the world at any given moment is Christians and non-Christians. There is not a third category. Stark, but true.

Fourth, we should rejoice that Jesus owns the world. It is his, every inch of it. None of the plants of the devil own any of it, whatever they may imagine they have. Each of them will give an account to Jesus – he will judge what people did in his domain. The church seems weak today where we are and we should ask the Saviour to plant more of his people. Because he is King, he can do so.

Are We Greater Than Them? (Gal 3:25–4:6)

In the previous sermon in the series we looked at the question, ‘Was Adam a son of God?’ and concluded that he had been created with this privileged status. We also concluded that salvation includes a recovery of sonship, although that new status will be different from what Adam had been given. Another question that arises often is whether there is a difference between the privileges and experiences of believers before the first coming of Jesus and believers after he ascended to heaven.

What did a devout believer from Old Testament times look like? When we read the Book of Psalms, for example, we recognise that the poets who contributed to that collection were marked by profound spiritual insight and deep spiritual experience. We sit at their feet, as it were, and learn from them how to walk with God and how to respond to circumstances that divine providence brings our way in life. And in Psalm 103 the author describes God’s relationship with his people as being one of family connections.

Moreover, does the Old Testament speak of the relationship as one of Father and children? There are a few references to the fatherhood of God in the Old Testament. Isaiah mentions that God is the Father of Israel and links that fatherhood to the Exodus from Egypt: ‘For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name’ (Isa. 63:16). He also mentions that God is their Father because he is the Creator (Isa. 64:8); in that connection, he confesses that they had not prayed to him, which points to their realisation that in some way they prayed as children to a Father.

Malachi also refers to God as Father: ‘Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10). The context of that verse is the sin of idolatry, of turning away from God as a Father to foreign gods. In addition, several people are called by names that point to the fatherhood of God.

Nevertheless, although there was a sense in which God’s people in Israel recognised that they had a family connection to God, it is very unlikely that they were aware of a relationship of sonship with the first person of the Trinity or of a shared heirship with the second person of the Trinity. So we can say that they needed further information about what is included in the New Testament’s explanation of adoption.

Paul deals with this situation in Galatians 3:26–4:6, and we can see from that passage that the difference between Old and New Testament believers is connected by Paul to the doctrine of adoption. There is something about the new covenant experience that is much better than what was known by the psalmists and prophets and wise men and all believers who lived before the coming of Jesus. So what does Paul say in that passage?

The remedy for wrong thinking
The problem in Galatia had to do with some people insisting that new believers should adopt the ceremonial law. Paul had to show them that this was wrong. So he informed them that the Old Testament ceremonial law was like a guardian of young children who protected them from danger and admonished them when they wandered astray. Yet once children grow up, they no longer need that kind of guardian.

Paul is not describing an individual’s experience of the law when it convicts someone of sin. Instead he is describing different stages in the kingdom of God. In Israel, God’s people were like young children. Now the particular stage has moved on. Paul refers to the new stage in Galatians 3:17 when he refers to the coming of ‘faith’, by which he has in mind the gospel era. Instead of being the equivalent of a young child (requiring a pedagogue for protection and for implementation of rules), which marked Israel under the law, those in the family of God all have full family status. Paul does not deny that God’s people in the old covenant era were in the family of God, but he does say that believers since the coming of Christ have a better grasp of what family membership signifies. They have this grasp because time has moved on and there have been important developments in the kingdom of God.

Paul uses the practice of adoption to illustrate the change. Adoption in those days usually involved a slave becoming a son and heir of a prominent person. Today, we tend to think about adoption in the sense of an orphan or an abandoned child becoming a member of a family. In ancient times, adoption usually happened when an important person did not have a suitable heir. The heirless individual would choose a suitable person for the role, one who would have several suitable qualifications and be regarded as ideal for the great privilege he had been given. He would have moved from being a slave with little or no privileges to becoming a son in the important family into which he had been adopted.

As we think about how the ancient practice of adoption illustrates God’s gracious plan of salvation we should see immediately that the ones he chose to become his heirs were slaves of sin with nothing whatsoever to commend them to his grace. Each of them deserved to be punished by him rather than being so blessed by him. Moreover, and what should be very humbling for us to realise, is the fact that God already had an heir, his own Son Jesus Christ, who was totally worthy of such a position. He was not a son by adoption, but he was the heir of all things as the writer of Hebrews describes him. In the amazing plan of God, this wonderful Heir was to have co-heirs. His co-heirs would be those that he redeemed by his death on the cross and who would be brought into the family of God.

The change of status
What are the benefits of the change of status? What privileges do the children of God now have? Paul could have mentioned several, but he focussed on two important privileges that highlight the significance of family membership.

The first is union with Jesus, which in itself is a huge subject and which can be approached from different situations. We can speak of eternal union, representative union and practical union. So it is connected to different doctrines such as election, redemption, justification and sanctification.

Adoption is also an expression of union with Jesus. What benefits come our way because we are in the family of God? Paul mentions several distinctions have passed away with the coming of the new stage in the development of God’s kingdom. The apostle points out three distinctions that no longer apply: racial, status in society, or gender. We should recall that there were separations in Israel if you were a Gentile, a woman and a slave. Perhaps that is why Paul mentions those three areas here. Even in the temple in Jerusalem, there was a court for Gentiles and a court for women. Separation marked much of what went on. Such separation has no place in the family of God now. Often these verses are used to express Christian unity, and no doubt they do. Yet we should observe that Paul uses them to explain the development of the family of God. Going back to circumcision was going back to infant days in the church.

The second privilege was connected to the death of Jesus because he came to deal with the barrier of our sins. He came to redeem us from the bondage of sin, and we know that it was slaves who were redeemed. As mentioned earlier, we were not likely candidates for adoption into God’s family. Yet God sent Jesus to the slave market of Calvary in order to purchase his people, set them free from bondage (not only to sin, but also to the ceremonial law) and bring them into his family.

Whenever each of them believes in Jesus, God the Father sends the Spirit into their hearts to give to them a strong sense of adoption, of family membership. Obviously, the Holy Spirit has different roles to engage in as far as each believer is concerned. He convicts a sinner of his sin, then he regenerates the spiritually-dead sinner and he believes in Jesus. At that moment, the Father justifies the sinner and adopts him into his family. Following on immediately from the act of adoption the Father sends the Spirit to indwell the sinner. Paul’s description suggests that this gracious work of the Spirit was not so common in the time of the Old Testament, which may explain why there are only a few references to God as Father in the Old Testament.

There are many consequences that occur because of the great change that the status of adoption brings into the experience of God’s people. They include how they regard one another, how they engage in prayer, how they respond to sinful actions, and how they anticipate the future when Jesus returns. We will consider aspects of those consequences in future studies. At the moment we should pause and consider who we are if we are the sons of God.

So believers today have greater privileges that Old Testament believers. This does not mean that we look down on them. Instead we are to express gratitude to God for the incredible way he has revealed his mercy to us. When we read Hebrews 11 and its description of the exploits of faith performed by the persons mentioned, we admire their loyalty to the Lord. Yet we should notice the last verse of the chapter, which indicates that we have received something which they did not. No doubt, that is connected to the fulfilment of the promise that occurred when Jesus appeared in this world and gave greater information to his people and provided greater experiences for them. And among them is greater understanding and larger appropriations of what it means to be in the family of God.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The privileges that Adam enjoyed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens after the fall?

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

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

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

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

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

What does the gospel offer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preaching to Pagans (Acts 17:16-33)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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