Thought for the Week

These thoughts are brief reflections upon an aspect of the Bible teaching at St Mark’s each week, compiled by Aldo Guiducci:
 

Romans 8 v 12-25

'We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.' (Romans 8 v 22)

Here Paul shows us two facts about our sin that are important for us to grasp. The first is the pervasiveness and impact that our sin has had, and not just on ourselves. The whole creation, Paul says, has been groaning because of our rebellion against God and the effects that rebellion has caused. That our sin can cause such wide-ranging pain should give us pause, and prompt us to take careful stock of our lives. But against this backdrop Paul’s second point is one of hope – that creation’s groaning is akin to childbirth; that painful experience which leads to new life and deep joy. Do we struggle sometimes when we see the pain and suffering in the world around us? Do we question how God can allow such things to happen? Paul points us to the truth that the present struggles raging throughout the world are leading up to a culmination so glorious that, when it comes, it will make all the troubles of life pale into insignificance. We need to keep trusting that the God who is sovereign is faithful, and he will do what he promises to do.

 

Romans 8 v 1-11

'Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh…if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.' (Romans 8 v 8-9)

Throughout these chapters, Paul argues that there are two opposing powers at play: God and the flesh (sinful nature). These two things are always in opposition, since the essence of the flesh is to set itself up in God’s place, dethroning him in a person’s heart. The logic of Paul’s argument leads inescapably to verse 8 above, which can come as quite a shock, particularly in our modern pluralistic society. But they shouldn’t if we have understood what Paul has been saying, and understood the seriousness of sin. If sin is at the root of my behaviour then that behaviour, even when there is an apparently good outcome, is unacceptable to God. The bad news is that alone, I cannot please God. But the good news comes in verse 1, at the start of this passage: “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” because he alone takes us out of the realm of the flesh. Have we recognised our need of Christ, and been set free by him from our sinful nature? 

 

Romans 7 v 15-25a

'For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.' (Romans 7 v 19)

Paul’s words here probably strike a chord with all of us who profess faith in Jesus, and are seeking to live as his followers. How often we set out with good intentions, yet find ourselves slipping into sin before we have gone very far! The struggle that Paul describes is a common war that rages in the life of all believers – the desire to live according to what we know we should do, battling against the selfishness and sin that lurks in the wings. This should be an encouragement to us all: if someone like Paul was not immune to these struggles, we shouldn’t expect to be immune either. Though we shouldn’t use this to justify our behaviour when we sin, we can nevertheless take some comfort that our struggle is not unique to us. But how can we be free of guilt and shame for the times we fall short? Paul answers this in verse 25 – thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!  

 

Romans 6 v 12-23

'Do not offer any part of yourself to sin… but rather offer yourselves to God.' (Romans 6 v 13)

Whether in the media or in personal conversations, we sometimes hear people talk about faith in God as if it is a choice between belonging to God or belonging to ourselves. This is especially the tone we hear when the person speaking sees following God as being restrictive, oppressive or somehow becoming less than we could be. In this passage, Paul points out something profound: we all serve ('offer ourselves to') a master beyond ourselves. The Christian offers their life to God through Christ, who died for them. For the non-Christian, the offering is to sin. Nobody is impartial, Paul says; everybody is a slave – either to God, or to sin. Either you are living for God, or you are not. 

 

Romans 6 v 1b-11

'In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.' (Romans 6 v 11)

Grace is often misunderstood as a licence to keep on doing wrong. Surely if we are freely forgiven, some would say, we can carry on sinning with impunity – God will just forgive our next sin too. Paul’s words here help correct this false attitude. Jesus’ work was to set us free from sin, not just to cleanse us from it once in a while. We are no longer slaves to sin, but can turn away from that way of life to become more the people we were made to be – living righteously for God’s glory. And if we are tempted to forget this, and drift back into sin, we would do well to look again at the cross and consider this: our forgiveness may be free, but it wasn’t cheap. If our sin was such a big deal that Jesus had to die to deal with it, we should be very unwise to trivialise it.

 

Romans 5 v 1-8

'Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.' (Romans 5 v7-8)

How do we know that God really loves us? And how do we know his isn’t a lukewarm, fair-weather-friend kind of love? In these verses, Paul sets out the logic of the Christian claim that God loves his people passionately. Dying for somebody else is an enormous action, and the person contemplating doing so displays enormous love towards the one they die for. We rightly praise those who, when the need arises, lay down their lives for their friends. But, says Paul, how much more moving and powerful it would be for someone to lay down their own life to save a person who hates them! What depth of love would they possess to willingly die for their enemy? This is exactly what took place at the cross, and shows beyond shadow of doubt just how far God is prepared to go to rescue those he would ultimately call his people.

 

John 14 v 23-31

'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.' (John 14 v 27)

Do not be afraid is the most common command in the Bible. It is a clear indicator of God’s love for his fallen people that, despite our failings and our falling short, and despite the truth of God’s blazing perfection and holy wrath against sin, he comforts us with this command. In this passage, Jesus’ command flows from his promise: he is giving his peace to his followers, and doing it in a very different way to the world’s way of giving. Jesus’ gift of peace is not grudgingly given, nor is there the risk that he might renege on the offer and withdraw it. We can have confidence that his offer is genuine; he is trustworthy and so if we are trusting in him we have no need to be afraid.

 

John 16 v 5-15

'But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.' (John 16 v 13)

There have been those in the history of the church who have taught and done things contrary to Scripture, claiming that they are being led by the Holy Spirit. In case we are tempted to follow them, we would do well to note Jesus’ comments here about the Spirit – that he does not speak on his own. The triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is completely united, and it is impossible that the Holy Spirit would ever go in a direction at odds to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The Spirit brings to the church what he hears from Jesus; he is God’s spotlight that illuminates the glory of the Son. Any message which conflicts with what Jesus has revealed is not from the Spirit, but from somewhere else.

 

John 17 v 1-11

'And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.' (John 17 v 5)

As Jesus prays on this last night of freedom, he is only hours away from suffering the humiliation of his arrest, rigged trial and brutal execution. His humanity comes through very clearly from the gospel accounts, as we see Jesus wrestling in the garden with what he knows is to come, showing great distress as he does so. In the midst of this we can sometimes forget the Bible’s clear teaching that Jesus is both fully man and fully God. This verse helps remind us of this tension; in the middle of his prayers Jesus points to the fact that he existed before the world began, that he was present with God the Father, and that he was glorified in eternity before creation began. And, after living for around 30 years as a man with his eternal glory veiled, Jesus looks now to the culmination of his work – his death on the cross – as the event through which God will unveil him and reveal his glory once again. How deep is the mystery of the cross!

 

John 14 v 15-21

'Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.' (John 14 v 21)

To be saved, it is not enough to know facts about Jesus. Neither is belief in Jesus the same as taking out an insurance policy, where you make a decision once and then move on. John points to two things here that capture the essence of what it means to have faith in Jesus: a person must have Jesus’ commands (i.e. know what Jesus expects of us), and also must keep them. This means two things for us if we take Jesus seriously and want to follow him. Firstly, we must know his commands; how he wants us to live. This means finding out for ourselves from the Bible what Jesus says. Then, we have to keep them – live out our daily lives in the light of these commands, trying to do what Jesus says. There is a promise to those who do this: Jesus will return the love that the believer shows him, and will reveal himself in the process. How much we want this is a direct measure of our faith.

 

John 10 v 1-10

'I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full' (John 10 v 10b)

With these words, Jesus attacks the very heart of the lie that society (and not just modern society) puts forward about the Christian faith. In the eyes of many outside the church, followers of Jesus are missing out. Whether it is the “freedom” to hoard wealth and spend it on yourself, the “freedom” to be sexually liberated and follow every urge or desire, or simply the “freedom” to have yourself at the centre of your life, answerable to no higher power than your own ego, Christians don’t get to enjoy the very best. They limit themselves, and must lead stunted and incomplete lives.

Jesus exposes this lie for what it is. He has come, not to constrain or limit our freedom, but to set us free from the shackles of sin. The very things that the world thinks of as freedom turn out to be fetters, dominating us and preventing us from really enjoying life to the full. How many of those who “have it all” turn out to be miserable? In contrast, Jesus sets us free to be the people we were meant to be. It is the testimony of many down through the years that it is only by following him that we can have life to the full.

 

30th April 2017

John 6 v 1-15

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world”. Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. (John 6 v 14-15)

The miraculous feeding of the five thousand would immediately have made the Jewish crowd think of the feeding of the Israelites in the desert. The way that Jesus created food for so many people would have reminded them strongly of Moses and the feeding of the people with manna, which appeared miraculously each day during their trek across the wilderness. Here in the passage we see them make the connection, recognising Jesus as the prophet that Moses said would one day come. However, their thinking is worldly – they see in Jesus only someone who can satisfy their physical hunger, and so are ready to accept him as a political Christ, but nothing more. They fail to see that Jesus had not come primarily to satisfy men’s material needs, but their deep-seated, if not always recognised, need of forgiveness without which they could not enjoy eternal life. The same can be true today, where so-called “rice Christians” profess to follow Jesus for material benefits, while missing out on the deeper spiritual truth that Jesus is the bread of life (v35). 

 

23rd April 2017

John 20 v 19-31

 “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20 v 30-31)

Some people think that faith is just blind faith – that you can’t engage rationally with belief, it is just a feeling that some people have and others don’t. And certainly some belief systems do work on this principle; they are clearly so absurd and incoherent that any attempt to think about them and discuss them logically with others results in them falling to pieces very quickly. Not so with the Christian message. John ends his gospel (as Luke begins his) making this very point: that the whole reason the book has been written is to provide evidence, reasons to believe, that Jesus is who he claims to be. Not only that, John says, but that by believing in Jesus, we might have life in his name. It isn’t just clever arguments or intellectual understanding at stake here, but life. If we aren’t sure about Jesus and who he is, John here is throwing down the gauntlet – read my book, he says, and see what the evidence leads to.

 

16th April 2017

John 19 v 1-42; John 20 v 1-18

“Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” (John 19 v 14b-15a)

“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20 v 17b)

On first sight, it is difficult to think about the events of Good Friday and believe that it was a “good” Friday. The gospel accounts make appalling reading. An innocent man, dragged before a kangaroo court, beaten, abused and paraded around in front of jeering crowds. Worse still, a man whose moral integrity, teaching and miraculous abilities all point to his identity as the very thing Pilate calls him here: the king of the Jews. Pilate has some understanding of this; not only does he call Jesus by that title, he even has it fixed to the cross on which Jesus dies (v 19). But in a horrible twist, the very people over whom Jesus is king reject him utterly, calling for him to be put to death. So in light of that, why “Good Friday”? The answer lies in what happens next, on that first Easter morning. God vindicates Jesus’ claim to kingship, raising him from the dead and proclaiming the news that through the terrible experience of the cross, Jesus has decisively dealt with the problem of human sin. Jesus lives, physically not just in some spiritual sense, and has been raised up to the Father. Jesus’ words here are of tremendous comfort: in the midst of his ascension he makes a clear link between the relationship between him and God, and the relationship between his followers and God – for both, God is Father. The cross has broken down the barrier and restored the intimate familial relationship between God and his followers. No wonder we call it Good Friday.

 

9th April 2017

John 12 v 12-19

They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12 v 13)

On that first Palm Sunday, it must have been quite a sight. Crowds of people following Jesus, all praising him and welcoming him into Jerusalem with open arms and wide smiles. The expectations that this experience would have given his disciples must have made the brutal events of Easter only days later all the more traumatic for them. But Jesus “knew all people” (John 2 v 24) and was well aware how fickle the crowd would prove. He kept his focus on his Father, and the work that he was doing for him. There will be times it will be easy for us to be swayed by the crowds, or to expect that the current thinking of the day will always be the same. The truth is that the crowds, and popular opinion, are just as fickle today as they were then. We would do well to remember Jesus’ example, and trust in the Lord rather than public opinion. 

 

26th March 2017

Matthew 6 v 19-34

“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6 v 27)

It is interesting to compare Jesus' comments about worry in this passage to the way our whole society is shaped. Pick up a newspaper, turn on the evening news, and we are immediately bombarded by things for us to worry about. It’s interesting that it is the negative news stories – the ones which cause us to feel uncomfortable, or lament the state of the world – which are the ones which get the most attention. A news station which reports only good news doesn’t seem to attract many followers. Society seems to foster a sense of insecurity, even fear, in people. By contrast, Jesus points us to the truth so often lost amidst all the information we are fed; that worrying about things doesn’t improve our lives. Jesus isn’t saying we should be fatalistic, or that we shouldn’t have legitimate concerns. But he is pointing out the danger of being so consumed by the worries of the day that we forget the deeper things of life, supremely that we have a heavenly father who loves us and is in control of the world – no matter how desperate things can sometimes seem. 

 

19th March 2017

Matthew 6 v 1-18

“When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6 v 16)

I suspect that Jesus’ earlier words in this chapter, looking at giving to the needy and at prayer, are familiar to many of us. This section on fasting however is probably less well known. The occasional medical need aside, fasting – deliberately going without food for a set period of time - is not a practice that many of us in the West are in the habit of doing. There is much that we could think about here, but two things jump out immediately from the text. Firstly, Jesus starts by saying, “when you fast”. Not if, but when. He seems to take it for granted that God’s people will fast, in the same way that they will give to those in need, and pray regularly. Though for some there may be good medical reasons for not fasting, for the majority this is not the case. What do we make of fasting in light of Jesus’ words? The second point is related: there is reward from God when we fast, assuming we are doing it in the right frame of mind, and with the right motivation. Perhaps this is a Christian discipline we should take a closer look at?

 

12th March 2017

Matthew 5 v 13-20

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5 v 17)

Between the end of Malachi and the start of Matthew, most Bibles have a page dividing the Old Testament and the New. Many people seem to think that this page marks a change in the nature of God; the Old Testament God is all about wrath and vengeance, while the God of the New Testament is all about love and forgiveness. The Old Testament is all about rules and regulations, while the New is about freedom from these restrictions. To those who think this way, Jesus speaks the words of this passage, and points to an underlying truth: that the same God is the author of both the Old and New Testaments. The coming of Jesus did not replace or abolish God’s laws; they stand eternally because they are a reflection of God’s character which stands eternally. What Jesus did was to fulfil the law’s requirements; his life was a life of committed obedience to the whole of the law, and his death enables the benefit of that obedience to be transferred to all those who put their trust in him. 

 

5th March 2017

Matthew 5 v 1-12

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5 v 3)

Jesus opens the Beatitudes with the first blessing on the poor in spirit. What does this mean? And how does it connect to the last in the list (the blessing on those who are persecuted because of righteousness), who are also told that theirs is the kingdom of heaven?

The common theme seems to be that of a personal attitude in line with God’s attitude. Those who, like God, prize righteousness will come up against the judgements of the world and find themselves persecuted, because the world does not align with the righteousness of God. Similarly, those who look at themselves with God’s attitude will see just how far short of perfection they fall. In recognising the truth about themselves, these people will be humbled and made “poor in spirit”, and thus can be lifted up by God’s grace and inherit the kingdom. Those who do not have this insight, who do not see their moral bankruptcy, will take pride in their spiritual state because of their works – they will not have a poverty of spirit – and so exclude themselves from receiving the unmerited free gift of the kingdom from God.

 

26th February 2017

1 Corinthians 4 v 1-5, 21
“This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” (1 Corinthians 4 v 1-2)
Paul here is speaking as an apostle, but the logic holds true for all those called to minister in God’s church – that leaders should be regarded with the respect due those who have been entrusted with preserving and proclaiming the “mysteries God has revealed” – in other words, the gospel of grace. Those of us in the congregation on a Sunday should reflect on this as we consider those in the pulpit. However, that regard that Paul insists on is contingent: those who are leaders in the church must prove faithful to the one who has given them that trust. It will be a terrible thing for those who occupy positions of authority in the church to one day stand before God’s judgement seat and be found faithless. The message to everyone, leader or not, has a common theme – our first loyalty should be to Christ.

 

 

19th February 2017

1 Corinthians 3 v 10-11, 16-23

“Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become 'fools' so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (1 Corinthians 3 v 18-19)

Paul is once again warning of the futility of any kind of boasting about powerful personalities as leaders. That is certainly how the world thinks, but “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight”. Those who are truly wise in God’s sight are those who deliberately reject such worldly wisdom and adopt an attitude to people and to things which everyone else will call foolish. This attitude sees nothing as grounds for boasting, because everything and everybody is a gift from God to undeserving sinners. So it is totally out of place to boast about people and things which, quite undeservedly, have been placed in our laps by a lavishly generous God. When tempted to follow the ways of thinking that the world around us adheres to, we must remember that God’s wisdom and the world’s wisdom are in competition – we can’t follow both. It might be worth stopping to ponder for a moment what wisdom from the world we have unconsciously adopted, and whether it makes us look foolish in God’s sight.

 

12th February 2017

1 Corinthians 3 v 1-9

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3 v 6-7)
Having earlier mentioned the dangers of putting leaders on a pedestal, Paul returns to that theme here. Rather than just repeating the point though, Paul is here making a slightly different one. Different Christians (and Christian leaders) have different roles to play, but their ultimate aim always points beyond them. It is pointless to compare one part of ministry to another and try to work out which is the more important – the evangelist, the Bible teacher, the choir member or the one who welcomes on the door. Each human component in the life and witness of the church has its own place and is meaningful, but behind all true ministry activity is God, who works through it to grow his people. It is only God who can deliver this growth, and so it is fitting that he alone should receive the praise and recognition for it.

 

 

5th February 2017

1 Corinthians 2 v 1-12 (13-16)

“When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2 v 2-3)

It is tempting for many of us to try to impress people by using eloquence to sound more persuasive. Large parts of the advertising and marketing industries are built on exactly this: trying to woo the public by packaging up ideas and products in a way which appeals to them. This is normal behaviour in the world, and we see it everywhere. So it can be tempting to use a similar approach when we talk about the gospel, try to make it more appealing to the intellectuals, or more slick to the easily influenced. Paul here goes against the grain by setting out clearly how he behaved in Corinth – his message was blunt and uncompromised, focussed only on Jesus, and the message of the cross. We should beware of straying from this core of the gospel message, lest we end up concealing the truth by covering it in a sophisticated coating.

 

29th January 2017

1 Corinthians 1 v 18-31

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1 v 26)

Belief in Jesus Christ cuts across all divisions of class, race, gender, and wealth. There is nobody who is beyond his reach, and here Paul is emphasising that God doesn’t show favouritism. Jesus calls those who are marginalised, those in humble circumstances, and those who don’t count for much in the eyes of the world. But it would be a mistake to take this too far, and conclude that he therefore excludes the privileged, the educated or the powerful. Certainly, the Bible warns of the dangers of wealth (because of the self-sufficiency and rejection of God it can bring), but look carefully at what Paul writes in this verse. The Countess of Huntingdon once said, “I thank God for the letter M,” when talking about these words, because Paul says “many”, not “any”. While it is true that powerful people in the world often reject the gospel, preferring to go their own way, it is not always the case. Not many find the narrow door to life, but some do and may be used mightily by God as a result. 

 

22nd January 2017

1 Corinthians 1 v 10-18

“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised into the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1 v 13)

It is a human tendency to make idols. This can sometimes be overt – money and power, for instance – but sometimes it can be more subtle. It is all too easy to idolise our leaders; those we respect (especially in the church) can be put on a pillar so that after a while we forget they are fallible human beings like us, which can lead to bitter disillusionment if they stumble in some way. Within church circles this can be worse still, as it can lead Christians to form cliques and factions around a local leader who is held in high esteem. The focus shifts from Christ, where it belongs, resulting in divisions and disputes.

Paul here reminds his readers of two things. Firstly, that Christ is not divided (literally, “parcelled out”). His followers have all of him; it is folly to argue between each other over who has more of him. Secondly, that Christ – not a local church leader – was the one who was crucified for them. The cross that lies at the heart of our redemption is 100% about Jesus; with our focus rightly on that, idolising human leaders will be seen to be foolish. 

 

Aldo Guiducci