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:

 

Isaiah 11 v 1-10

‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’ (Isaiah 11 v 1)

Jesse was the father of King David, and Isaiah’s prophecy can be seen in many ways to speak of David’s reign as king of Israel. But there are hints in the passage (especially v 6-9) that there is another king, also coming from the line of Jesse, who will be a greater king still. This king will restore harmony within nature itself; there will be no more harm in God’s domain, and the 'earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord' (v9). Other passages will make clear that this king is none other than Jesus, whose birth we remember at Christmas.

 

Matthew 24 v 36-44

'So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.' (Matthew 24 v 44)

It is all to easy to live as though life will go on in the same way forever. The truth that this present age is passing away can seem very remote, and we can easily lose sight of God’s promise that Jesus will return to call time on the current order of things. Jesus here exhorts his followers to keep this bigger picture in mind, and live in its light. We should live wisely, ready to give an account of ourselves to Jesus at every moment, because his return may be much closer at hand than we think.

 

Luke 23 v 33-43

Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.' (Luke 23 v 42-43)

This passage deals religion a fatal blow, killing it dead. By religion, I am talking about the idea many people have that the way to heaven involves us earning it by our activities. This idea is commonplace, and leads people to either become proud and look down on those who don’t do as many good works as they do, or become despairing and worry they haven’t done enough to earn their salvation. In this passage, we see a convicted criminal under sentence of death approaching the end of his life. That he is guilty of a capital crime is certain (he confesses his guilt, v41), and he is in no position to make amends. In the short time he has left he can’t do any 'good' activities to try and offset his wickedness. Viewed through the lens of religion, his case is a hopeless one. Yet, as he confesses his wrongdoing and recognises Jesus for who he is – the King – the most amazing thing happens. Jesus’ response to the criminal’s petition is to assure him that he has been saved. His trust in Jesus is sufficient, without the need for any ceremonies, religious activities or good deeds. When we understand this, it should give us pause to check that the good deeds we do are being done for the right reasons – as a response to the salvation we have been freely given by Christ the King, and not as an attempt to earn it.

 

Luke 12 v 22-31

For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Luke 12 v 30-31)

It has been said that a good definition of idolatry is when we make a good thing into a God thing. Clothes, food and drink are all good things, and we are right to appreciate them and enjoy them. But when we elevate them from being good things to being God things – things which dominate our thinking and our affections, and which crowd out the place of God at the centre of our lives – we find they become soured, and often a source of stress and worry. We see this all around us in society today, as people’s desire for material possessions crowds out their need for God. Jesus’ warning to us not to go down this road also contains encouragement – when we seek God’s kingdom as a first priority, we find that God also provides what we need. It isn’t that we are to neglect our work, duties and responsibilities; rather, we are to regard them as much less important than pursuing God.

 

1 Peter 1 v 3-9

These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1 v 7)

Life as a Christian isn’t easy. At the start of his letter, Peter states the simple fact that his readers will most likely have 'had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials'. Is there a point to all this suffering, all these trials? Has God forgotten about us? The Bible is emphatic in telling us that there is a purpose, a meaning to all our suffering. The trials we go through, though unpleasant, exist for a reason. Through them, the believer – making the choice to trust and follow God in spite of the suffering – purifies and refines their faith. Peter makes the comparison with gold, which is also refined in the fire; unlike gold however, our faith has eternal value. When Jesus returns, our faith in him will be finally and fully vindicated, and be a great source of praise and glory.

 

2 Timothy 3 v 14 – 4 v 5

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. (2 Timothy 4 v 2-3a)

Preaching the word, telling the world the truth about Jesus and the message of salvation, will not be easy. Paul writes to encourage Timothy to be strong and courageous in carrying out his ministry, and his message has great relevance for us today. Preaching the word is not about making people feel warm and comfortable – although it should always encourage God’s people. It is often about rebuking wrong behaviour, and correcting false beliefs. This has always been the case; since the beginnings of the church there has been the danger of false teaching leading God’s people astray. Paul warns Timothy – and us – that the time will come when sound doctrine will be rejected in favour of myths, which better suit people’s desires. Though not a novel phenomenon, we certainly see this around us today, when the prevailing wind of our culture goes against the plain teaching of Scripture in so many areas of daily living. When the clash comes, which do we lean on: the current fads of our society, or the timeless truth of God spoken through his word? We would do well to consider that what society views as true has varied wildly from generation to generation; the revelation of God has stood firm throughout the ages.

 

2 Timothy 3 v 1-17

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3 v 16-17)

What are we to make of the Bible? Can we trust it to have the definitive word from God for us today, or are we at liberty to sit in judgement on it, deciding for ourselves which parts we like (and so obey) and which parts we don’t (and so disregard)? These verses from Paul’s letter make very clear that the whole of the Bible – all Scripture – has been inspired by God, and is useful to us. In case we are tempted to draw an artificial distinction between the Old and New Testaments (like the blank page between Malachi and Matthew in most paper Bibles we might pick up), it is worth remembering that 'Scripture' at the time Paul was writing would have unmistakably meant the books we now call the Old Testament. Thus, Paul argues, we should treat books such as Genesis, Exodus, and the rest as authoritative over us. Of course, it goes without saying that we need to unpack the contents of the books in the appropriate way, taking into account the genre and context into which each was written (see, for instance, 'How to read the Bible for all it’s worth' by Fee and Stuart). If Jesus himself quotes from Genesis as if it were God’s word (see Matthew 19:4-6), on what basis might we think it doesn’t have authority over us?

 

2 Timothy 2 v 14-26

Warn them before God against quarrelling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. (2 Tim 2 v 14b)

The Bible encourages God’s people to be united in the truth of the gospel. Unity is a key theme that runs through the ministry of the early church, and is what Jesus prays for his people in the garden of Gethsemane (John 17:21). What is this truth we are to unite behind? Paul tells us a few verses earlier: 'Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel' (v8). As we move away from the shining truth of the gospel, we can find ourselves in progressively murkier, more speculative areas. Three times Paul warns his listeners to tread carefully here: we are to avoid 'quarrelling about words' (v14); 'godless chatter' (v16); and 'foolish and stupid arguments' (v23). Unity in the church is not served by arguing about peripheral or trivial matters; we should instead focus on the vital core of the gospel message and maintain unity amongst the body of Christ. Disputes over obscure points or intellectual point scoring do nothing to advance the mission of the church nor do they build up its members in love or godliness.

 

2 Timothy 2 v 1-15

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. (2 Tim 2 v 10)

The proclamation of the good news about Jesus is right at the cutting edge of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty. The Bible teaches us both the need for the church to be faithful in preaching the gospel, and simultaneously that it is God’s spirit which is at work in bringing repentance and faith. We see that in the words of Paul’s letter here, where he brings together the human level ('therefore I endure everything') and the divine ('for the sake of the elect'). God has chosen those who will be saved (the elect), but that does not preclude or lessen the urgent action Paul must take to proclaim the good news and so enable the elect to repent and believe. Paul recognises that his activity is used by God as a vital part of his plan of salvation, and so is not tempted to fatalism or apathy. Are we likewise gripped by both the certainty of God’s promises and the need for our response to them?

 

2 Timothy 1 v 1-14

So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God (2 Tim 1 v 8)

We live in an age of tolerance, where the only taboo is to hold strong beliefs which contradict somebody else’s. In such an environment, there is great pressure on believers in Jesus to keep quiet about their faith, and not speak boldly about the truth of the gospel. The church in Paul’s day faced the same challenge to compromise and water down what they were saying. In the opening passage of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, a young leader in the church, Paul encourages him to be bold, and not to be ashamed of the message of Jesus. Indeed, he goes so far as to call Timothy to join him in suffering for the gospel – and crucially, to do so by the power of God, not in his own strength. These words encourage us today to beware of going along too easily with the tide of our culture, and downplaying the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. The world needs to hear the message of the gospel to be saved, but at the same time will be hostile to it. Jesus’ great commission to the church is to 'go and make disciples of all nations' (Matt 28:19) – are we boldly playing our part in that today?

 

Mark 12 v 41-44

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on. (Mark 12 v 43b-44)

'All things come from you O God, and of your own do we give you'. What is the right amount for Christians to give to God’s ministry? This is a very sensitive issue, and one which can be tricky to raise from the pulpit without seeming either somewhat self-serving, or narrowly focused on a particular financial appeal of the day. But it is an important issue, one which we would do well to contemplate and humbly consider. For some, the Old Testament model of the tithe – 10% of one’s income – has been felt to be a good starting point. But it can only be a starting point, and should not be taken as a target (or even as a limit). The apostle Paul, speaking about giving, observes that 'Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver'.

It has been commented that when reflecting on all the sins to which we are prone, greed is the one that people are least likely to ascribe to themselves. We seem to have a curious blindspot about it. The counterpart to greed is not poverty, but generosity. Generous giving is the great antidote to greed, and by the action of giving we demonstrate our reliance on God and his provision in our lives. After all, everything we have ultimately comes from him, so when we give we are really only returning to God that which is his (1 Chronicles 29:14). In the words of the Stuart Townend song, Simple Living - 'Not what you give but what you keep, is what the King is counting'.

 

Mark 6 v 30-44

They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand. (Mark 6 v 42-22)

The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is familiar to many people, but this familiarity should not tempt us to gloss over it, or to skim our way through it. There is always a risk if we do this that we miss key pieces of the story, and so fail to unpack its meaning properly. Jesus wasn’t in the habit of performing miracles to entertain the masses; every one of his miracles pointed to his identity as God’s Messiah. Here we see an enormous crowd (probably larger than you think – consider that we are told there were five thousand men there; no mention is made of women or children) being fully fed from a couple of fish and five loaves of bread. Not only that, there is a huge amount of food left over. This is a picture of extravagant abundance; the message here is that Jesus is able to provide far more than we need. He is not a miserly Messiah, who grudgingly parts with the bare minimum required – he is an overwhelmingly generous giver who pours out his grace abundantly, giving us much more than we ever asked or imagined. When we repent and turn to him, we can approach him joyfully, not fearfully, knowing that he is willing and able to meet our deepest needs and satisfy us fully. Following Jesus does not mean missing out, as some mistakenly think that it does. Rather, as Jesus himself says in John 10:10, 'I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full'.

 

Philemon

I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (Philemon v 10-11)

The affectionate reference to Onesimus is typical of the warm bond of love that existed between Paul and his converts, and speaks powerfully of what God’s grace had done in Paul’s life. As Saul of Tarsus, Paul was once a self-righteous Pharisee, the heir of Jewish exclusiveness. Here, we see him speaking not only about a Gentile, but a Gentile slave from the very dregs of society – as a son. Paul was clearly convicted in his heart of the truth he wrote to this church earlier: 'there is no Gentile or Jew, … slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all' (Col 3:11). We should note however that these words are written in the context of the church – Paul is not saying this is true of all people, but rather that it is true of all believers in Jesus. Paul makes a pun here in v 11 ('Onesimus' literally means “useful”), using it to show that Onesimus’ new-found usefulness is brought about by his new-found faith. When men and women put their faith in Jesus, it radically transforms their relationships with those around them. Have we fully recognised this in those neighbours, work colleagues and relations who have been awakened by the Holy Spirit and brought into new life? Do we show new converts the same warm bond of love that Paul demonstrated with Onesimus?

 

Colossians 4 v 7-18  

He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here. (Colossians 4 v 9)

There is sometimes the temptation to skip over the ending of Paul’s letters; the personal greetings can seem to have much less general relevance than the body of his message. Yet if we do this, we can overlook some details which can be instructive. Here, for example, we see that one of the bearers of the letter to the Colossian church is Onesimus, subject of the book of Philemon. Onesimus was a runway slave, who became a follower of Jesus following his flight from Colosse. It is a striking comment on how Paul’s thought has leapt across the barriers of social distinction that he can describe him as 'one of you', an unthinkable equality in the culture of the day, but a reality within the body of Christ which is the church. Are we following Paul’s lead in this area, regarding all Christian brothers and sisters as equals within the church family?

 

Colossians 4 v 2-6  

And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message. (Colossians 4 v 3)

Prayer is often difficult. That this is a common struggle is perhaps why the Bible encourages God’s people to pray as often as it does; there would be less need to tell people to do something if they found it easy. In keeping with this, Paul here issues the challenge to the church at Colosse to devote themselves to prayer. But it is also very striking that he asks them to pray for him in his ministry. We can sometimes fall into the trap of putting Christian leaders on a pedestal, and treating them as if they are super-spiritual. This is very unhealthy and unhelpful: unhealthy for us, since it can lead us to set a lower standard for ourselves than we expect from them, and unhelpful for them for the same reason. Our leaders are only human, and need our prayer support every bit as much as any other Christian brother or sister – arguably more so. Paul highlights that the work of gospel ministry is entirely driven by God’s spirit, and so we must pray if we want to see people respond to the message of God’s grace. Are we praying enough for those who preach, teach and minister around us?

 

Colossians 3 v 17 – 4 v 1  

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4 v 1)

Although it is God’s word to us, and full of timeless truth, it is important for us to recognise that the Bible was not written in the 21st century. It was written into a culture in the ancient Near East, and we must read it bearing that in mind. If we forget this, we risk taking away an incorrect view of its message. For example, in this passage Paul gives instructions to slaves and masters. Does that mean he encourages or supports slavery? In Biblical times slavery was a fact of life, and to imagine society without it would have been next to impossible. What would have been striking to Paul’s original hearers would have been his injunction to treat slaves fairly and well, recognising they too are human beings made in God’s image and possessing rights. Such thinking would have been radical to many at the time, which goes to show that the Bible challenges every culture and civilisation down through the ages, whenever they adopt beliefs or practices which oppose God’s purposes for his people.

 

Colossians 3 v 12-25  

 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3 v 12-13)

One of the mysteries of the gospel is in the moment a person becomes a Christian. It is an act of the will to turn to Christ in repentance and faith (the first recorded words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel are his command to repent and believe the good news, v15), but at the same time it is equally true that a person becomes a Christian because they have been chosen by God. Here, we see this truth used as a reason for behaving in a way that is against many of our natural instincts, as a spur to godly living. We didn’t earn this status. We have been chosen, set apart by God and freely forgiven, and this requires us to act in line with our status. Just as children growing up in a royal family are expected to behave according to the status they have been born into ('royal children, royal manners'), so Christians should live in line with their experience of being born again.

 

Colossians 3 v 1-11  

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3 v 11)

The people of God – the church – are Christ’s body. Paul speaks about this in various ways through his letters, but one theme in particular comes through prominently. If we are Christ’s body, he argues, then we should be united. Unity is a key aspect of being a single body. All the various cultural, societal barriers and divisions are broken down. Whatever your nationality, religious history, place on the social scale: none of it matters. The Christian gospel is truly good news, and it is made freely available to all without distinction. All those who belong to the body of Christ, who are trusting in him for their salvation, have him as their foundation, their core, their identity. Since each of them has “died, and [their[ life is now hidden with Christ in God” (v3), the fundamental centre of their existence is bound together with God himself. It is for this reason Paul tells them that “Christ is all, and is in all”.

 

Colossians 2 v 6-15, (16-19)  

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him (Colossians 2 v 6-7a)

Do you remember when you first grasped the amazing truth of who Jesus is, and what he has done? For some people, they clearly remember becoming a Christian; having a “road to Damascus” moment like the apostle Paul in which their whole world was turned upside down and transformed. For others, their experience was a gradual, dawning realisation that the gospel message is true. Either way, the important thing is not the past but the present. Just as the sign of a strong marriage is the relationship between husband and wife today, not how impressive their wedding day was years before, so the sign of authentic faith is the relationship we have with Christ today. Paul encourages us to keep going with our lives firmly anchored in Christ, our passion undimmed from that first realisation that Jesus is Lord. Sticking close to Jesus will keep us away from the pitfalls of false teaching and hollow ideology which depend on “human tradition… rather than on Christ” (v8).

 

Colossians 1 v 5, 19

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation...God was plased to have all his fullness dwell in him.

The identity of Jesus is of crucial importance. Is he just a remarkably insightful man, or something more? Paul is emphatic that Jesus is nothing less than God himself, come in the flesh. The truth that Jesus is fully man and fully God is fundamental to the Good News: only a human being could stand in our place as our representative, and only God could undergo the agony of the cross to satisfy the justice our sins warrant without an ininocent third party being punished (which would be monstrously unjust). This is just the tip of the iceberg, with many books written about the mystery of the incarnation, and it is important to realise that we do not have to understand the truth exhaustively to accept it. Paul's letter to the church at Colossae is clear that Jesus is both a physical human being and at the same time the perfect image of God, the firstborn (ie inheritor) of all creation, indwelt by the all the fullness of God. Nothing and nobody in all the cosmos is greater than him, and it is he who is our rescuer.

 

Colossians 1 v 1-14  

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. (Colossians 1 v 13)

While other religions say that if their adherents do certain things, then they will receive, the message of Christianity is the opposite. Paul says that those who follow Jesus have already been rescued, that their reward is already certain. Some have taken this to be a licence for Christians to be unconcerned about righteous living; if we have been freely forgiven then it doesn’t really matter how we live. This passage is just one of many where Paul corrects this error. God has not just rescued us from the dominion of darkness, he has also brought us into the kingdom of his Son. We have not just been saved from something, but for something. A few verses earlier, Paul speaks of his prayer that God’s people 'may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work' (v10). We have been freed to live life the way it is meant to be lived, and the choices we make matter.

 

Galatians 6 v (1-6), 7-16  

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6 v 7)

In last week’s passage we saw Paul exhorting us to recognise how Christ has set us free, to stand firm, and not to be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. He emphasised how our freedom was given to us to live lives pleasing to God, not lives of self-indulgence. Here, Paul makes the point that God sees the deepest motivations and desires of our hearts, and warns that our thoughts and actions have consequences. It matters how we live. To some extent in this life, but supremely in the light of eternity, the way we choose to use the freedom God has given us will determine where we end up. Those who use their freedom for selfish ends will end up reaping destruction, while those who use it to live in step with God’s Spirit and seek to please him will find they are living as they were designed to live, and reap eternal life in all its fulness. Paul encourages us to keep going, not to become weary in doing good, because there is a tremendous harvest in store if we do not give up.

 

Galatians 5 v 1, 13-25  

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5 v 1)

Religion is deadly. It is a slavemaster, forcing its adherents to carry out tasks and perform activities while holding out the false promise that by doing so, they will be able to earn God’s favour and merit his approval. Paul shows that Christ came to set us free from this tyranny, dying in our place to liberate us from our need to try to earn our salvation. We are no longer subject to the yoke of religion. But Christ has set us free for a purpose – we have been freed to live lives of meaning, which are pleasing to God, not to live lives of self-indulgence and dissipation. We must be wary of replacing one form of slavery (religion) for another (the flesh). As verse 24 puts it, 'Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires'. We are free to live life in step with God’s Spirit, so we should stand firm and resist the lure to return to slavery, religion or the flesh, which diminishes us.

 

Galatians 3 v 23 – 29  

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3 v 28)

Paul’s description of how people become children of God through faith in Christ culminates in this marvellous description of inclusion. In the 1st century world, the differences between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female were vast and near-insurmountable. Paul here tells us that although in the eyes of the world these differences are huge, in God’s sight they melt away completely as his children all stand on equal footing in his sight. It is worth clarifying two points. Firstly, that Paul is not saying (as some in our culture today would like to believe) that there is literally no difference between male and female. He is talking about equality in status and dignity before God, not denying the biological reality of gender. Secondly, and more importantly, he is clear that people become children of God, and have the barriers he mentions broken down, uniquely through faith in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter your race, your social status or your gender – what matters is that you are trusting in Jesus.

 

Romans 5 v 1 – 5

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. (Romans 5 v 1)

It is through Jesus Christ alone that our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God restored. The world does not want to hear this. The world wants to believe that people can save themselves; that through doing good deeds or performing certain rituals human beings can make themselves acceptable to God. In these verses, Paul demolishes this idea: twice, he uses the word faith to emphasise that our justification, and our access to God’s grace, comes not by what we do but by accepting what has been done for us. Our peace with God comes through Jesus, as we trust in what he has accomplished. This is tremendously liberating, but also tremendously humbling. It is liberating, because it tells us that we need not fear that by our actions we can lose our salvation. It is humbling because it also tells us that there is no way that through our actions we can gain our salvation. We must receive it by faith, or not at all.

 

Revelation 22 v 1 – 6, 12 - 21

On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22 v 2b)

Ultimately, the book of Revelation brings closure to the great challenge that has been unfolding ever since humanity was cast out from the garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, we saw that when sin entered the world, and the relationship between God and humanity was fractured, God banished Adam and Eve to keep them from eating from the tree of life and living forever in their fallen state (Gen 3:22). From the outset, God had a plan to reconcile people back to him – the work of Jesus – before in his love God would allow them to experience eternal life that was worth living. Here in Revelation, we see the culmination of this plan: The tree of life is now on open access to all the people of God. It lies of both sides of the river, and its fruit is always in season. Eden has become something greater than it was at first; a beautiful garden with two human beings is now a vibrant city full of joyful people with God and Jesus at its centre. There is no discord or argument; the nations of the world have been put right and healed, as symbolised by the leaves of the tree of life. What a great vision of the future!

 

Revelation 21 v 1 – 5, 9 – 10, 22 – 27

Nothing impure will ever enter it, not will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21 v 27)

In the closing two chapters of Revelation, we see a vision of the final consummation of the kingdom of God, and a picture of the glorious eternity that lies beyond this world. A picture of great beauty and peace, with no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain. All the things that are wrong with this present world will be swept away, and there will be nothing in this final scene that is discordant or wicked. There is nothing to threaten the inhabitants of the city of God, which is why the gates are never shut. Who are these inhabitants? The New Testament is crystal clear that salvation is possible through only one means – Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In the closing chapters of Revelation, we again see the Bible emphasise this truth. The only people who can enter the city, who are free to dwell with God (v3), are those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life – those who are known by Jesus and have trusted in him. In the light of eternity, nothing can be more important for us than to ensure we have our names in his book. 

 

Revelation 19 v 1 – 16

At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, 'Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!’ (Revelation 19 v 10a)

In the midst of a passage of great praise and triumph at the fall of God’s enemies, we see here an important warning. There are three hallelujahs, three expressions of rejoicing at the victory that God has won. At the height of this the apostle John, caught up in the wonder and joy of it all, falls down at the feet of the messenger of God in worship. The rebuke is swift and sure – John is to worship God alone; God is the only one worthy of our adoration and exaltation. This episode is worth taking note of. We are often tempted, especially in times of great blessing, to direct our gaze to the wrong source. Whether it is an angelic messenger as in the case of the apostle John or (more commonly) a human being that we admire or look up to, the Bible warns us against putting them on a pedestal and exalting them. Nothing and nobody is worthy of our worship, and the truth is that when we sin by forgetting this we both offend God and disappoint ourselves. We invariably find that the object of our worship – our idolatry – lets us down, and we are hurt and disappointed as a consequence.

Revelation 12 v 7 – 12

‘But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.’ (Revelation 12 v 12)

What has gone wrong with the world? Scripture is clear that human sin is at the root of the problem, and that human beings have moral accountability for much of the pain and suffering in the world. But throughout the Bible we also see a cosmic struggle being played out, between God and Satan, the devil. This passage makes the point that the devil causes strife and pain wherever he goes, and that he is active in the world at present. There is good news, however, and the book of Revelation shows how God’s plan unfolds through history. Though malevolent and dangerous, we are reminded that the devil’s time is short – his end has been determined by the sovereign power of God and he is powerless to prevent it. His rage in the present, though a source of suffering for many, will soon be over when his defeat is completed at Jesus’ return.

 

Revelation 7 v 9 – 17

'...they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (Revelation 7 v 14b)

The focus of John’s vision has shifted to earth, where he sees an enormous multitude drawn from every corner of the world. In case we are in any doubt that this multitude – a countless assembly – stands for all the followers of Jesus (the church), we are given two signposts relating to their white robes, a symbol of purity. Firstly, they have all washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, demonstrating they have recognised their need for purification, and that the Lamb is the source of it. Secondly, that washing their robes in his blood has made them white. This metaphor is remarkable – the contrast between the normal intense red colour of blood and the resulting white robes shows that the blood here is significant. It is only through the shed blood of Jesus that purification from sin is possible, and that all the sins of all his people can be dealt with by Jesus’ work upon the cross.

 

Revelation 5 v 11 – 14

‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!’ (Revelation 5 v 12b)

This passage is an extraordinary glimpse behind the curtain at what is going on in the throne room of heaven. We are presented with rank upon rank of the heavenly host, all focussed on the throne at the very centre of the universe. Standing in the very centre of this throne is the figure of the one to whom the whole of heaven bows in worship and adoration, singing endless songs of praise. Who is this figure? In the symbolic picture language that Revelation uses, we might expect it to be a lion or an eagle, a symbol of strength and power. Instead, we see 'a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain' (v6). That the writer of Revelation sees in his vision a once-slain Lamb – a clear allusion to Jesus, crucified in weakness and humility – at the centre of all things should once again challenge us to think again about the meaning of true power and authority. The cross is eternally central to God’s purposes, and any attempt to move beyond it will simply result in moving away from it.  

 

Revelation 1 v 4 – 8

'Look, he is coming with the clouds,' and 'every eye will see him, even those who pierced him'; and all peoples on earth 'will mourn because of him.' So shall it be! Amen’ (Revelation 1 v 7)

Some have difficulty with John’s enthusiastic approval that ‘all peoples on earth will mourn because of [Jesus]’. But John isn’t being vindictive here. When Christians suffer persecution the name of their God is reviled and their cause is despised. But this is not final. John records in vivid symbol the overthrow of the wicked and the vindication of God and of good. And this he does not as a mildly interested spectator; he is whole-heartedly committed to the cause of God and eager that His cause is seen to prosper. So John does not simply record that the wicked will in fact be overthrown. Their overthrow means the triumph of good and the vindication of Christians who had suffered so much. John exults in it.

 

Luke 24 v 1 – 12

'Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!' (Luke 24 v 5b-6a)

The message of the angelic messengers is the great triumph of the Passion of Christ. There is no point looking for Jesus among the tombs and gravestones – He is Risen! When Christians speak of Jesus being alive, they don’t mean in the sense of his teaching still being relevant (although they are), or the deeds he accomplished still having significance (although they do). They mean that Jesus really is alive today – he has risen bodily from the grave, and is no longer dead. This staggering news is amazing for at least two reasons. Firstly, it shows that alone in all of history, Jesus has conquered death itself. This leads to the second reason which Peter, who visited the empty tomb, writes of in 1 Peter 1:3: through the resurrection of Jesus, his followers have been born again to a living hope. Jesus’ resurrection changes everything for those who are trusting in him, displaying in human history that the price has been paid which clears our debts and makes us right with God. No wonder Christians down through the ages have declared, 'Alleluia! He is Risen!'.

 

Luke 20 v 9 – 19

But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours’ (Luke 20 v 14)

Jesus’ parable of the tenants shows us the ugly side of human nature. Sin is ugly, and this parable draws out two of its most notable features. In the first instance, we see how sin involves a downward spiral in moral behaviour, as the heart becomes ever more callused and cruel. To begin with, the tenants merely beat the servant who is sent to them (which is bad enough). Subsequent servants receive progressively worse treatment, culminating in the tenants’ treatment of the owner’s son, whom they kill. Left unchecked, sin grows insidiously in the human heart. The second point is the sheer irrationality of sin. Their choice to kill the son was not impulsive; it was a decision they reached after careful consideration. But their rationale was ridiculous – how could killing the heir make his inheritance come to them? Surely it was obvious that the owner would come against them in judgement? In the light of the truth of God’s power and his coming judgement, the decision to pursue a sinful life is equally irrational. However, we must be careful not to think that sin can be conquered by our trying harder. The answer to sin is found, not in our trying to lift ourselves by our bootstraps, but in our accepting the rescue that Jesus came to bring.

 

Luke 18 v 31-43

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.’ (Luke 18 v31-33)

The culmination of Jesus’ ministry and mission is his death. He knew full well that this was the purpose for which he came into the world; the importance of his death is demonstrated by the frequency with which he talks about it. It is important that we recognise this, because the world around us does not, and will try to divert us from it. Those outside the church may point to Jesus’ life as good moral teaching, but will shy away from the meaning of his death. It is also important that we recognise that Jesus’ full knowledge of his death in advance, coupled with his resolute purpose of heart not to try and avoid it, speak volumes about his love for the sinners he came to save. That he willingly chose to give himself up for us should always fill us with awe, amazement and deep humility.

 

Luke 15 v 3-7

’Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep’ (Luke 15 v 6b)

’For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19 v 10)

Both of these passages beat with the compassionate heart of God towards the lost. The parable of the lost sheep paints a picture of a God who cares about each and every one of the people he has made, and who longs to bring the lost back into the fold. Far from being cold and aloof, Jesus’ parable reveals a deep longing for those who have strayed to be brought back to safety. The same is seen in his dealing with Zacchaeus; the concern and love shown to the tax collector results in a complete change of life and outlook, illustrating Jesus’ mission to reach the lost and the outcast. Nobody is too broken, too weak or too sinful to be outside his love and compassion – it is precisely those who sense their unworthiness that Jesus has come to call.

 

Luke 17 v 11-19

As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’ (Luke 17 v 12-13)

‘How is it that many true believers often pray so coldly? What is the reason that their prayers are so feeble, and wandering, and lukewarm, as they frequently are? The answer is very plain. Their sense of need is not so deep as it ought to be. They are not truly alive to their own weakness and helplessness, and so they do not cry fervently for mercy and grace. Let us remember these things. Let us seek to have a constant and abiding sense of our real necessities. If saints could only see their souls as the ten afflicted lepers saw their bodies, they would pray far better than they do.’ – J. C. Ryle.

 

Luke 13 v 22-35

He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.’ (Luke 13 v 24)

There are those who don’t like the idea that not everyone will get into heaven. They readily accept that God is perfectly loving, but overlook the complementary truth that God is perfectly just. In this passage, Jesus uses the picture of a narrow door to illustrate that in fact there will be many people who will not be able to enter. That Jesus, the most loving person who ever lived, should give such a stark warning should make us sit up and listen. Jesus goes on to make the point that entry into the kingdom of God is a matter of relationship with, not just knowledge of, God. It is not enough to know about Jesus in an academic sense; after all, the demons know all about Jesus. What counts is having a relationship with him, recognising his claim over our lives as our king, and choosing to live in the light of it.

 

Luke 9 v 51-62

Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’ (Luke 9 v 62)

There is a cost to following Jesus, which Jesus himself is very clear about. The wonderful truth of the gospel is that God gives sinful men and women his grace freely; there is no need – indeed, there is no way – to earn it. But to accept that grace, to receive his forgiveness and his offer of new life, requires a radical change of heart and life. Jesus doesn’t call converts, he calls disciples. And he makes clear that to follow him, to embrace the new life God holds out, means putting him at the centre of it all. Anyone who thinks they can be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, without denying themselves and putting Jesus first is mistaken. We cannot compromise on this – Jesus makes the point clearly at least three times in this chapter alone (v23-24, 60, 62).

 

Luke 9 v 18-36

They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ (Luke 9 v 19-20a)

The answer we give to this question is the most fundamental, profound and important answer we will ever make. A person’s eternal destiny hinges on the response they make to the question, 'who is Jesus?'. Since he first began his ministry around Galilee some 2000 years ago, people have been divided over what they make of him. Some say he was a prophet. Some say he was a madman, or a liar, or a fraud. Some recognise him as the unique Son of God. Ultimately, what others say about him is not important – it is what we say about him that matters. We have to make a choice, to accept his claims about himself or to reject them. If we haven’t looked at the evidence about Jesus and considered it for ourselves, how can we be confident that we have made the right decision?

 

Luke 8 v 22-33, 38-39

In fear and amazement they asked one another, ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.’ (Luke 8 v 25b)

There have always been those who deny the truth about Jesus’ identity. Many people would say that he was a great moral teacher, and so he is – but Jesus is much more than that. Luke’s account of Jesus calming the storm shows beyond doubt that he is more than just a man, since no mere human being can still a raging storm with just a few words. And in case we are tempted to think that first century people were naïve and credulous, and that Jesus somehow duped those who were with him (perhaps being able to tell from the look of the clouds that the storm was about to blow itself out naturally), Luke has already ruled that out. A few chapters earlier, at the beginning of Luke 5, we see his first disciples were fishermen – tough professionals who would have been very familiar with the squalls on the Sea of Galilee. If they were afraid they were going to drown (v24), we can be sure that this storm was the real deal. They recognised Jesus’ power – have we?

 

Luke 7 v 16-28

'I tell you, among those born of women there is no-one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he' (Luke 7 v 28)

In this passage, Jesus draws the huge distinction between what it means to be a member of the human race – a person born naturally – and what it means to be a member of God’s family, born again. To be human is a wonderful thing: the pinnacle of the created order, made in the image of God himself, as the book of Genesis attests. But the effect of human sin has been to mar this image, causing the image-bearers to fall short of God’s glory. John was a great man, a prophet empowered to herald Jesus’ arrival and work, but he was still stained by sin, in need of rescue. All those who have been born again through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection have had their sin borne away, and are in a completely different category – made righteous in the sight of God, members of his family and brothers and sisters with Christ. Jesus’ point is that to be in this group means to have undergone a profound change; to have crossed from death to life.

 

Luke 6 v 46 – 7 v 10

'But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without foundation' (Luke 6 v 49a)

What are we building our lives on? Jesus’ words in this parable are familiar to many of us, and so we are in danger of passing over them too quickly and missing the importance of what he says. At least two points should give us pause for thought: firstly, the clear implication is that there are people who hear what Jesus is saying and who don’t change their behaviour in response to his words. It is not that they haven’t heard; rather, they disregard what they hear. Secondly, the house built with a firm foundation is indistinguishable from the one without – at least, to begin with. There are plenty of people today who hear and ignore Jesus’ words, and go on to build their lives on another foundation with apparent success. Are we such people? Are we consciously living with Jesus as our foundation, or are we actually mimicking the world’s values and behaviours? Jesus’ warning is that ultimately, lives constructed on anything other than him will prove to be in vain, and are destined for collapse and ruin.

 

Luke 5 v 17-32

Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5 v 31-32)

How important is our respectability to us? In today’s passage we see Jesus turn the conventional thinking of his day on its head, as he associates himself with tax collectors, the social outcasts of the first century Jewish society. The respectable pillars of society, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, are outraged by this, and are challenged by Jesus with the words of the verses above. The danger of being respectable is that it can make us think we are morally superior to those who are less respectable – but the truth is that all of us, regardless of our standing in society, are morally sick and need the Great Physician to heal us.

 

Luke 5 v 1-11

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, 'Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!' (Luke 5 v 8)

A recurring theme we see in Scripture is that the closer to understanding Jesus’ identity people get, the more aware of their own sin they become. Here we see Simon Peter glimpse something of who Jesus is through the miraculous catch of fish, and instinctively fall at his feet in humility and confess his own sinfulness. This combination of self-awareness and humility in the presence of Jesus is the distinguishing mark of a true disciple of Christ, and is a good acid test of where a person stands before him. Only those with a false sense of their own worthiness, or a false understanding of who Jesus is, can imagine approaching him with any other response than that shown by Simon Peter. Though Simon Peter’s response is the appropriate one, the amazing truth of the gospel is that Jesus does not treat us as our sins deserve, but welcomes us as friends and lifts us from our knees.

 

Luke 4 v 14-21

He began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing' (Luke 4 v 21)

The words of the prophet Isaiah were uttered centuries before Jesus was born. Down through the years, God had spoken to his people through the prophets, who together painted a vivid picture of what God’s Messiah would be like when he finally appeared on the scene of world history. The fact is that every one of these prophecies is fulfilled in Jesus. In his book, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell says: 'The Old Testament contains over three hundred references to the Messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus'. Many of these prophecies, such as the circumstances surrounding his birth and his death, would have been totally outside Jesus’ control were he only a man trying to act in line with what Scripture had foretold. The fact that Jesus fulfilled all these ancient announcements strengthens our confidence that he is who he claims – God’s Messiah, come to redeem his people and set them free. How else can we explain this staggering coincidence?

 

Luke 3 v 15-22

'And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased".' (Luke 3 v 21b-22)

The idea of God as trinity is difficult to grasp. In trying to get out from under this difficulty, people sometimes point out that the word 'trinity' doesn’t appear in the Bible. They are, of course, absolutely right. However, this passage in Luke points very clearly to the truth that God is three distinct persons – God the Son, rising from the river after his baptism, has God the Holy Spirit descend on him in the form of a dove, while God the Father speaks to him from heaven. While we struggle to reconcile the idea of one God being a trinity of persons, the Bible simply presents the truth of it. It has been said that the Bible is like a pool shallow enough for a child not to drown, but deep enough for an elephant to swim. While God has given us reason and rationality, there are times when wisdom leads us to trust in what God has revealed without trying to understand it fully.

 

Ephesians 3 v 1-13

'His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms' (Ephesians 3 v 10)

God’s purpose was always to raise up a people for himself, who would reflect his character and live to worship him. Though there were some hints in the Old Testament, the truth that this people would include people of all racial backgrounds – Gentiles as well as Jews – was only revealed with the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As Paul explains the revelation of this mystery that was hidden, he points to the church, to those who believe in Jesus and live under his authority, as being the mechanism through which God’s wisdom is made known. It is the dynamics of God’s people living in the world which showcase God’s great plan of salvation. The church has a key role to play in pointing to the awesome wisdom of God, drawing attention to his grace and mercy and acting as a beacon to attract those God is calling, and challenge those who oppose him.

 

Luke 2 v 41-52

'Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?’ (Luke 2 v 49b)

‘The expression is one that ought to sink down deeply into the hearts of all Christ’s people. It should supply them with a mark at which they should aim in daily life, and a test by which they should try their habits and conversation. It should quicken them when they begin to feel slothful. It should check them when they feel inclined to go back to the world. “Are we about our Father’s business? Are we walking in the footsteps of Christ?” Such questions will often prove very humbling, and make us ashamed of ourselves. But such questions are eminently useful to our souls. Never is a church in so healthy a condition as when its believing members aim high, and strive in all things to be like Christ’ – J.C. Ryle

 

Luke 2 v 1-14

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news“ (Luke 2 v 9-10a)

Many in our society today have a very small view of who God is, if they believe in his existence at all. This attitude is not unusual; the Bible is full of people with little or no regard for God. When these people encounter God in the pages of Scripture, the result is always one of shock and fear. People are suddenly confronted with the truth of who God is and how sinful they are, which leads to an expectation of judgement. But how wonderful the Christmas message is: the angel comforts the frightened shepherds, telling them that rather than punishment, God has sent a saviour who will be a cause of great joy. Merry Christmas!

 

Luke 1 v 39-45 (46-55)

'Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!' (Luke 1 v 45)

As Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the Holy Spirit fills her and causes her to utter these wonderful blessings. The whole piece is a great anticipation of what the unborn Jesus will do when he arrives. It is only in the final part of the blessing there is an aspect of choice on Mary’s side: Elizabeth tells her 'blessed is she who has believed”. Although God’s grace cannot be earned, our response to his grace is important – do we believe his promises to us, or choose to doubt and go our own way (and most likely miss out on the blessing he offers)?

 

Luke 3 v 7-18

'Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father". For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.' (Luke 3 v 8)

The first two things John says to the crowds who came out to him are important for us to hear too. The command and the warning go together: the link is repentance. For many of the Jews of the first century, their understanding of their status as God’s chosen people had led to presumption and hardness of heart. John called on them to repent of this mindset and turn back to God in humility. His warning is just as relevant to us today. Just as John’s original hearers thought that because they were members of the Jewish nation, God was automatically their father, so the same incorrect thinking affects our current generation. Many people mistakenly think that because they were born into a Christian family, or go to church, or live a 'moral' life, that they are made right with God because of these things.  Abraham’s descendants, those blessed by the promise of God, are not of automatic descent, says John. The choices we make, how we live, matters.

 

Luke 3 v 1-6

'In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abiline – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas' (Luke 3 v 1-2a)

Luke records this information in his gospel for one crucial, yet often overlooked, fact. The gospels are first and foremost records of historical events that actually took place some 2000 years ago. Luke is at pains to stress this – from his very opening words in Luke 1, he emphasises that he is writing down things that actually took place, not mere invented stories or poetic interpretations. In this passage he sets the events in their historical context referencing figures who are easily identifiable from non-Biblical history. Why is this important? The Christian faith rests on solid, historical evidence. This presents a significant challenge to those who assert that Christianity is just blind faith with nothing to back it up – on the contrary, the evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is extensive. The question is, have those who dismiss it taken the trouble to investigate it first?

 

Luke 1 v 67-80

'…to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God' (Luke 1 v 77-78a)

What do you think of when you think of God? An angry, vengeful deity bent on meting out judgement against sinners? Here in the song of Zechariah, moved by the Holy Spirit, we see God’s heart towards his people. Far from a message of retribution for their sins, God is speaking a message of forgiveness that arises out of his tender mercy. It is an amazing truth that God loves his people so dearly, and wants to see them restored and made righteous so much, that he is prepared to come to them in the person of his Son, and ultimately die on the cross for them. When we understand something of this truth, we get a true sense of the worth and value of every human being. This should give us pause whenever we are tempted to act in an unloving way towards anyone.

 

Hebrews 12 v 18-29

'See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?' (Hebrews 12 v 25)

The whole message of Hebrews is about the superiority of Jesus over all the other messengers who came before him. While God spoke to his people by his Holy Spirit through the prophets at various times down through history, his last – and clearest – word to the world was 'the Word made flesh' (John 1:14). Jesus is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation, in which we see God’s character perfectly portrayed. While this is amazing good news, the writer of Hebrews sounds a note of caution: the very fact that this message is so clear and authoritative makes our response to it of paramount importance. If we reject Jesus, there can be no excuse or mitigating circumstances which we might plead. If judgement came upon those who rejected mere men (the prophets), how much more can we expect judgement to come on those who reject God himself, come in the flesh?

 

Hebrews 10 v 11-14, (15-18), 19-25

'But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool' (Hebrews 10 v 12-13)

Jesus is unlike anybody else who has ever lived. In these verses, the writer of Hebrews draws the comparison between him, and all the other efforts made by people down through the years to get right with God. The Old Testament is filled with sacrifices which were made year after year by the Israelite priests to deal with the problem of human sin. Year after year these sacrifices took place, an endless parade of activity which highlighted the gulf that separates the holy God from his unholy people. The meaning is clear: the sacrifices were ineffective at taking away the problem of sin. But then Jesus enters the frame, and makes a sacrifice unlike any other – the sacrifice of his perfect, unblemished life. This final sacrifice did what none of the others could, and dealt decisively with the problem of human sin. After this sacrifice, nothing more is needed, which is why Jesus 'sat down' – a visual symbol that the problem of sin had been solved. Why would we trust in anything else?

 

Ephesians 6 v 10 – 18

'And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests' (Ephesians 6 v 18a)

As we mark today, the 100th anniversary of the armistice which ended the fighting of the first World War, it is fitting to be reminded once more that life is a battle against 'the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms' (verse 12). This passage expounds how we are to face off against the enemy in this battle, and it ends by pointing us to the primacy of prayer in the struggle.

To quote John Piper, 'Life is war. That’s not all it is. But it is always that. Our weakness in prayer is owing largely to our neglect of this truth. Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief. It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den. God has given us prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie so that we can call headquarters for everything we need as the kingdom of Christ advances in the world.'

Do we recognise the struggle in our lives and turn to prayer to call in firepower for conflict with a mortal enemy? Or have we stopped believing we are in the fight, and instead look at prayer as a means of asking for 'more comforts in the den'?

*John Piper, “Let the nations be glad!”, IVP, 1993 (p45-49); see also Simon Guillebaud, “For what it’s worth”, Monarch Books, 2006 (p81)

 

Hebrews 11 v 32 – 12 v 3

'Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart' (Hebrews 12 v 3)

As somebody has said, 'You cannot know what prayer is for, until you know that life is war'. Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish converts who were finding life following Jesus hard going, and were being tempted to revert to their former way of life. The book speaks directly to us today too – how often we find it hard going to follow Jesus amidst the pressures of the secular world around us. How are we to keep going? The writer here gives us a solid piece of encouragement by pointing us back to Jesus; reminding us how Jesus suffered terrible opposition but resolutely followed his mission through to the end and was crowned with glory and honour. As we consider Jesus and what he did, the author of Hebrews says, we will be strengthened to keep running the race marked out for us (v1) without losing heart. If we lose that focus on Jesus, we will find it much harder to keep going when the going gets tough – as it certainly will.

 

Hebrews 1:1-4; John 5:36-47; 2 Timothy 3:16

'In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son' (Hebrews 1 v 1-2a)

'You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life' (John 5 v 39-40)

'All Scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness' (2 Timothy 3 v 16)

What is the basis of authority in our lives? On what do we base our decisions, make our plans, and focus our energies?

The opening verses of Hebrews show how God has dealt with human beings over the generations, speaking by his Holy Spirit through the prophets over many years. The words of these prophets have been written down so that even much later, God’s people could still hear the message they brought. As the passage from 2 Timothy above asserts, these words, written down for us in the Bible, are – in their entirety – God’s word, both authoritative and powerful for us. We are not at liberty to pick and choose the passages we like; the whole of Scripture has been breathed out by God.

But before we think this means we are to become legalistic rule followers, the writer to the Hebrews continues that the culmination of God’s revelation, his final word to humanity, comes through Jesus, his one and only Son. The Bible’s goal; God’s purpose in speaking through the generations, has been to point people to Jesus. The passage from John is the climax to this: Jesus tells the Pharisees that they study the Scriptures diligently, but have missed the crucial point that it is Jesus (the one to whom the Bible points) who gives eternal life. For us the message is clear: Jesus is the source of eternal life, and we find him revealed by looking into God’s word. If the basis of authority in our lives is found anywhere else, we will miss out on this great truth.

 

Hebrews 5 v 1-10

'Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him' (Hebrews 5 v 8-9)

For those of us who recognise Jesus’ identity as God’s Son, the second person of the Trinity, these words are extraordinary. Among other things, they show the importance – the meaningfulness – of our experiences of life in this world. Jesus, God’s eternal perfect Son, learned obedience. More than that, he was made perfect. Does this mean that he was in some way ignorant or imperfect before the Incarnation? What the writer of Hebrews is showing here is not a deficiency in Jesus’ character, but how through his suffering Jesus was fully outfitted for the completion of his mission. An analogy might be the sitting of an exam: sitting the exam doesn’t make the candidate more capable in the field of examination, but it confers on the candidate the seal of approval on their capability.

Even though Jesus was God Incarnate, perfect from before the creation of the world, it was nevertheless important for him to undergo trials and suffering to be appointed as the perfected source of eternal salvation. As well as showing us the meaningfulness of life’s experiences, it points us to another truth: if Jesus had to suffer to be made perfect, why should we think that God is not using our suffering for some greater good (Romans 8:28)?

 

Hebrews 4 v 12-16

'For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.' (Hebrews 4 v 15)

How can we have confidence that God will accept us? What grounds do we have for believing that the connection we have to him is solid and unshakable? In these words from Hebrews, we are reminded that the answer lies in the uniqueness of Jesus. Unlike all the other high priests from the Old Covenant (and for that matter, all the other routes to God that have been proposed over the years), Jesus is uniquely qualified to be the perfect mediator. On the one hand, he is divine ('the Son of God', verse 14) enabling him to relate to God perfectly. On the other, he is fully human; able to 'empathise with our weaknesses because he has been exposed to all the temptations and struggles that we have as human beings. Crucially, and importantly, Jesus never sinned, and so has nothing to mar his flawless relationship with God. He is able to represent us perfectly before the holy God, fully accepted by him on account of his sinlessness. The writer of Hebrews tells us that this should give us confidence to approach God’s throne of grace, so that we can receive mercy and grace from him.

 

Galatians 5 v 22-23, 6 v 7-10; Matthew 5 v 43-48

'Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows' (Galatians 6 v 7)

'…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’ (Matthew 5 v 44-45)

These passages are appropriate for harvest time, as they remind us of truths that are reflected by our experience of the land. For those of us lucky enough to live in the countryside we can be aware of this much more than those dwelling in urban environments; to the original hearers of these words the impact would have been strongly reinforced by their experiences living in an agrarian society.

In the first passage, Paul points out that a person reaps what they sow. Just as a farmer’s crop depends on the seed that was sown earlier, so the harvest of our lives depends on the choices we have made previously. If we have chosen to live with ourselves at the centre of everything, the resulting harvest is bitter; if we have chosen to please God in the way that we live, the end result is eternal life.

This can prompt the question: what does it look like to live a life that pleases God and so produces a good harvest? The second passage helps to illustrate this, also using the language of the land. In a radical piece of teaching, Jesus tells us to love our enemies as well as our friends, and goes on to show how God does this in a very practical way. Whether a person is righteous or unrighteous, whether they are living for God or in defiance of him, God send the sun and the rain to nourish their fields and enable their food to grow. He provides for the needs of even those who oppose him. For us to be living in line with our status as God’s children, Jesus says, we should likewise love, bless and pray for even those who do us harm.

 

James 5 v 13-20

'Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years' (James 5 v 17)

It can be very easy, as we read our Bibles, to forget that the people we are reading about were just normal men and women. We can often see them as idealised people, heroes of the faith, who never struggled with the doubts, uncertainties and weaknesses that we know all too well. That can lead us to think that, although God answered their prayers, he would never answer ours. In this passage, James seeks to correct this false thinking. Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament, was just a man – but a man who walked in step with God and who sought to do God’s will. Elijah struggled at times, just as we do, but his prayer was effective. James’ point is that our prayers can be just as effective. The key is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus when things are tough, and trust that he is willing and able to answer prayer. It is not the strength of our faith, so much as the object of our faith, which is important.

 

James 3 v 13 – 4 v 3, 7-8a

'Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you' (James 4 v 7)

There is an interesting tension in the way the Bible talks about the devil. It makes clear that he is a real agent, a spiritual power who stands opposed to God’s purposes and God’s people, and we are given clear warnings about him in Scripture. At the same time, the Bible makes clear that the devil’s power has been decisively broken by Jesus’ finished work on the cross. Though he remains a dangerous adversary (eg 1 Peter 5:8), the devil is powerless against those who resist him who are trusting in Jesus. The promise given in James is that as we submit ourselves to God and resist the devil, so the devil will flee from us. Our resistance must be an active choice on our part, but in so doing we have assurance that Jesus’ power will prevail over him every time. The key lies in our resistance being rooted in submission to God; it is only in his strength that we can overcome the enemy.

 

James 3 v 1-12

'Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check’ (James 3 v 2b)

What we say is a good barometer for how we are doing in terms of living a righteous life. In this chapter, James makes the point that our words reflect our character, and provide insight into the way our hearts are leaning. What we say matters a great deal; his comparison between the tongue and the rudder of ship or a bit in a horse’s mouth shows what enormous power our speech has, and puts the lie to that old expression, 'sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me'. If we want a fair assessment of whether we are living a godly life, it would be worth replaying some of our recent conversations and seeing what we find. Do our words build up and show love to others, or do they betray selfishness and self-promotion at the expense of others?

 

James 2 v 1-10, (11-13), 14-17

'What good is it, my brother and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds. Can such faith save them?’ (James 2 v 14)

A superficial reading of the letters of Paul and the book of James might suggest that they are in opposition: Paul says that salvation is through faith, while James seems to suggest salvation hinges on deeds. A fuller reading of James shows how this perceived difference is not actually what is being said: James is anxious to show that deeds are the natural output of faith. A person’s beliefs are manifested by their actions in the same way that a tree’s nature is shown by its fruit. James is not arguing that we are saved by our deeds; rather, that our good deeds are evidence of our saving faith. If we have no deeds, it is not that we are not doing enough to be saved (which would be completely at odds with the gospel message of God’s grace); rather, it is evidence that our faith is not real (v17). Do the deeds of our lives demonstrate a saving faith, or are we in danger of deluding ourselves that we have faith when all the evidence is to the contrary?

 

James 1 v 17-27

'Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’ (James 1 v 22)

The book of James is a deeply practical one, and details many aspects of what it means to live a holy life. This verse is a key part of his message, and it addresses a danger that faces many of us. It can be very easy to listen to the Bible’s teaching, and agree with what is being taught – but then go away from church and live life as if we hadn’t heard it. James warns that if we do that, we are deceiving ourselves. True faith, says James, will always result in a changed life. This is the same thing Jesus speaks of when he says that we can tell a tree by its fruit. Our works don’t save us (God’s grace does that) but they do reveal our faith. The reality is that if we are not doing what the word says, our faith is not real; we are deceiving ourselves. It can be helpful every so often to take stock of our lives and ask ourselves the question: Am I doing what the word says?

 

1 Kings 8 v 1-6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

'Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.' (1 Kings 8 v 30)

In the sight of all the people, Solomon is dedicating the new temple he has built for the Lord. In a festival of great celebration and countless sacrifices, he has been describing the promises and the blessings that God previously swore would be available to Israel. It is interesting that when he comes to speak of the way that the temple would enable people to communicate with God through prayer, his first expectation is that God would need to forgive his people.

Solomon is well aware of the stain of sin – the countless sacrifices (v5) speak of the gulf that separates God in his holiness from even his own people.  The good news of Jesus is that this longstanding problem of sin has finally been dealt with at the cross. Solomon’s amazing temple and all the sacrifices of the Old Testament priesthood have been superseded by Jesus. Through him we are able to draw near to God, and receive God’s forgiveness through the one, sufficient sacrifice Jesus made for us.

 

1 Kings 2 v 10-12, 3 v 3-14

'Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for – both wealth and honour – so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.' (1 Kings 3 v 13)

As Solomon ascends to the kingship, he is asked by God what he would like to have. Solomon could have asked for power, for wealth, for a mighty empire that would establish him firmly in the annals of history. Instead, he asks for wisdom from God to govern God’s people, demonstrating that his first concern is for the success of God’s kingdom. God’s response is to give him this, and also all the other things as well. It is a clear foreshadowing of what Jesus would say many centuries later: 'Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well' (Matt 6:33). As we consider our own lives, we would do well to remember this, and check to see what it is that we are seeking as a first priority. Putting God’s kingdom foremost in our desires is never a mistake; when we have that as our anchor we will find that all the other things fit into their proper place around it.

 

2 Samuel 22 v 47 – 23 v 7

'When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth' (2 Samuel 23 v 3b, 4)

‘How welcome this note of certainty should be for God’s people. One could not look at the flux and flops of history and deduce that a righteous Ruler over mankind is coming to reign. Our world seems to be plunging to chaos rather than rising to civilisation, wallowing in oppression rather than finding justice. And many of the Lord’s own people walk through their personal lives riddled with uncertainties, wondering how their apparently senseless circumstances find a niche in divine wisdom. We could never infer kingdom hope from personal experience. David, however, tells us it is a matter of divine revelation. Hence the coming kingdom is not a political proposal but a divine certainty. God’s people in this world seldom have circumstantial certainty but we have kingdom certainty.’ – Dale Ralph Davis

 

2 Samuel 12 v 1-13a

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this must die!’…Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’ (2 Samuel 12 v 5a, 7a)

Part of sin’s corrosiveness is its ability to compartmentalise us. Rather than being an integrated whole, consistent in our values and behaviours, sin causes us to become inconsistent and fractured. A common side effect of this is hypocrisy; we see things in other people that we condemn, overlooking the fact that we ourselves are guilty of the same things. In these verses, the prophet Nathan reveals this truth to David when he tells the king the story of the rich and the poor man. David is incensed by the callousness and lack of pity displayed by the rich man, and is taken aback when Nathan reveals that the story is nothing more than a mirror showing David his own behaviour.

When confronted with his sin however, David recognises the truth and humbly repents. The important lesson for us is to do the same; when we are made aware of our sin the right response is to recognise the truth and repent. To push the truth under the carpet will only lead to greater fracturing and more inconsistency in our lives.

 

2 Samuel 11 v 1-15, 26-27

The man said, ‘She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ Then David sent messengers to get her (2 Samuel 11 v 3b-4a)

The account of David and Bathsheba is a textbook example of how sin grows from very small beginnings to potentially devastating proportions when it is not stamped out swiftly. This chapter shows the full sweep of this development: beginning with David choosing to stay home in comfort, when he would normally join his men heading out to fight for him (v1), we see him in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he learns that Bathsheba is a married woman, things should have stopped there (to say nothing of the fact that David himself was married). The tipping point comes when he takes the decision to send for her – leading to his downfall into adultery, deception and eventually the murder of her honourable husband. There are many messages here, but a prominent one is this: David had no idea when he flirted with the idea of asking Bathsheba to visit him that he would end up becoming a murderer as a result. Sin grows, like a fire, when it is allowed to take hold. When we see sin lurking in our lives, we must take decisive action – quickly – before things get out of control.

 

2 Samuel 7 v 1-14a

When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. (2 Samuel 7 v 12-13)

Who is this son of David that God is talking about through the prophet Nathan? At first glance, the obvious answer is Solomon. Solomon takes over the kingship from David, is firmly established as king, and builds the great temple in Jerusalem. However, there are a couple of discordant notes: Solomon is made king while David still lives (1 Kings 1), rather than after his death; and Solomon’s throne doesn’t remain firmly established after his death, but is torn apart by rivalry (1 Kings 11). It is through the lens of the New Testament we see the true fulfilment of this prophecy in the person of Jesus. Jesus was born of the line of David generations after David died; his kingdom was established by his death and resurrection; and he has built a house for God’s Name – the church, in whose members God lives by his Spirit. Jesus has ascended into heaven, where he has begun his eternal reign at God’s right hand (1 Pet 3:22).

 

2 Samuel 6 v 1-7, 9-10, 12-19

'When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God' (2 Samuel 6 v 6-7)

This sobering episode highlights something that our current generation is in danger of forgetting. The good news of God’s grace, and our redemption through the death of Jesus on the cross, is a wonderful truth and should act as a great encouragement and comfort. But it should not blind us to the truth of who God is. Our God is a God of blazing perfection – he is God Almighty, not 'God all-matey'. To forget this, to reduce the awesome majesty of God to merely that of a friendly companion, is to blaspheme against him. Uzzah, acting instinctively to protect the ark when the oxen stumbled, forgot the indescribable holiness of God when he reached out and laid hands on the ark. Even living in the light of the New Testament, we should not think that God is any less majestic now than he was then. Though we approach him with confidence through Jesus’ blood, we nevertheless must approach him in holy fear, for 'our God is a consuming fire' (Hebrews 23:29).

 

2 Samuel 5 v 1-5, 9-10

And the LORD said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler’ (2 Samuel 5 v 2b)

David became king over Israel in fulfilment of the promise God had made. At times, this must have seemed very unlikely, especially with King Saul actively pursuing David and trying to have him killed. We too live in times when it can seem that God is very distant, and when his promises to us can seem to grow dim in the light of current events. In such times, it is important for us to cling to the truth that God’s promises never fail. He is faithful, and he will deliver on the words he has spoken. The historical truth of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection highlight that God’s plans, though often misunderstood by those in the midst of them, always succeed. There has never been a single promise he has made which has not come to pass. What makes us think this will change now? 

 

2 Samuel 1 v 1, 17-27

’Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.’ (2 Samuel 1 v 24)

In his attitude towards Saul, we see another example of how David foreshadows his descendant, Jesus. The once promising King Saul had turned away from following God wholeheartedly, and so God had promised David that he would become king in place of Saul. David accepted this, but treated Saul with enormous respect and reverence – even love – and refused to retaliate against Saul when Saul became consumed with jealousy and repeatedly tried to kill David. When Saul is finally killed in battle, David mourns deeply and sincerely for him, even as he ascends to the kingship. Centuries later, God’s ultimate king, Jesus, would show tremendous love towards those who were his enemies, refusing to retaliate even as they put him to an agonising death. He calls us to follow him; if we are to do that faithfully we too need to 'love our enemies' (see Luke 6:27).

 

1 Samuel 17 v 1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49

'All those gathered here will know that it is not by the sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.’ (1 Samuel 17 v 47)

The story of David and Goliath is well known in our culture, and is often pointed to when describing the triumph of the underdog. From the plucky small business taking on and winning against the corporate multinational, to the courageous youngster standing up to the surprised playground bully, whenever an oppressed minority takes a stand and overcomes their oppressor, the comparison with David and Goliath is often not far away.

Unfortunately, this is almost always a distortion of Scripture. In the contemporary examples, the hero of the story is the victim who becomes the victor. But in the story of David and Goliath, the hero is not David. The verse above shows who the true hero is: God himself. It is not because David is courageous, or is underestimated by his enemy, or relies on his natural talents, that he is victorious. 'The battle is the LORD’s' is what David proclaims to the onlookers – it is God who defeats the Philistine. We should remember that the Bible only ever has one hero; any suggestion to the contrary is a deception.

 

1 Samuel 15 v 34 – 16 v 13

But the LORD said to Samuel, 'Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things that people look at.’ (1 Samuel 15 v 7)

What does success mean to you? How do you benchmark how well you are doing in life?

Sometimes, even God’s people get this wrong. In this passage, God’s faithful prophet Samuel makes the mistake of judging the person he was looking at in human terms. God had told Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons would be king, and when Samuel sees Eliab, he concludes that this is the man. Eliab is the eldest son, and is clearly strong and capable. Humanly speaking, he is the obvious choice. God quickly corrects Samuel’s thinking, pointing out that where human beings judge on outward appearances, God sees the heart and can judge with much greater discernment. This episode is of course is a foreshadowing of Jesus, who 'had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him' (Isaiah 53:2b). Like the boy David in the presence of his brothers, in the eyes of the world Jesus was weak and unassuming; not born in a palace, a member of the nobility or the priestly classes, or a great military leader. Jesus’ moment of ultimate triumph and victory took place as he died on a cross, despised and rejected by the people he came to save.

In the many judgements and decisions we make on a daily basis, we must be careful to weigh things using the right criteria – are we seeing things from God’s perspective, or from a purely human angle?

 

1 Samuel 8 v 4-11, 15-20; 11 v 14-15

'We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles' (1 Samuel 8 v 19b-20)

How hard do you find it to be different? How comfortable do you feel when you notice that everyone else is doing something different to you? In this passage, we see how God’s people Israel, who were called to be set apart (‘holy’), found it very uncomfortable. They demand a king, so that they can 'be like all the other nations'. They want to fit in, to stop being different. In doing this, they make two mistakes; they trivialise the amazing privilege they have of being set apart by God, and they elevate what they think a human king will offer them ('to go out before us and fight our battles'). They think it is progressive to become 'like all the other nations', but in fact it diminishes Israel, and damages their relationship with God.

The church in the West often finds itself doing something very similar. In trying to seem relevant, it emulates the culture around it so well that it ceases to be different, and loses its distinctiveness. God’s people in every age are called to be holy, to be set apart, and act as salt and light in the world – a signpost to him. Are we honouring that call?

 

1 Peter 2 v 1-10

'Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy' (1 Peter 2 v 10)

In this passage, Peter reminds us of the connectivity we enjoy when we come to believe in Jesus. He highlights two dimensions of this connectivity: horizontal and vertical. Horizontally, that where once we were not 'a people', now we are the people of God. Faith in Jesus binds us together as a unified people, a group who once were separated and alone but who now are called together as a family. Vertically, that where once we were under God’s wrath, deserving of his judgement against us, now through faith in Jesus we have received mercy through his death on the cross. We are able to have a relationship with God, connected to the one who both made us and redeemed us by his amazing love. In an age when individualism is the current in which we swim, it is important for us to recognise that in Jesus we are connected to a wider, deeper vision of life which is richer and fuller than we ever would have dared to believe.

 

John 3 v 1-17

'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.' (John 3 v 16)

This verse is probably the most famous in the whole of the Bible, and even today can be seen on banners and placards at sporting fixtures and other large gatherings. In a nutshell, it captures the essence of the Good News – that because of his great love, God gave the world his Son to rescue people from death and bring them to eternal life. This amazing truth is a source of great wonder and comfort, and is grace from start to end. But intrinsically bound up with this is another facet of thetruth that makes many uncomfortable, and which is not as well publicised on banners and placards. Two verses later, in verse 18, John warns: 'Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.' Our response to Jesus is of vital importance; either we are saved by him, or we are still under God’s wrath.

 

John 15 v 26-27, 16 v 4b-15

'But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’ (John 16 v 13a)

When they hear about the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost), some people mistakenly think of an impersonal, pervasive energy, like 'the force' in Star Wars. This in turn can lead to a distorted view of our relationship with God, as it can prompt us to think that by performing the right prayers or actions we are able to use the Spirit as we might use electricity. But notice how Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit throughout this passage – as 'he', not 'it'. The Spirit is a person (the third person of the Trinity), and the way we interact with a person is completely different from the way we interact with forces.

The Spirit’s role is to guide the church into 'all the truth'; not meaning the truth about every subject but the specific truth about the person of Jesus, and what he said and did. The existence of the New Testament is permanent evidence that the apostles were guided into the truth about this.

 

John 17 v 6-19

'My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.' (John 17 v 15)

At times, many of us feel like retreating from the world and hiding away. We long to escape from the troubles of life in the present; to pull up the drawbridge and spend our time insulated from the stresses and opposition of the world. At times like this we can find ourselves asking why, if God really loves us, he doesn’t just pull us out of our difficulties and set us in more comfortable surroundings. In his prayer for those who would follow him, Jesus specifically prays for this issue. He highlights that those who belong to God are not called to leave the world, but to live in the world as witnesses who can testify to his truth. For our sake, it is good that this is so: if God quickly removed those who follow him from the world, we would never have had the opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus and ourselves be rescued. The Christian hope is not that we will never suffer; rather, it is that when we do, God draws alongside us to sustain us and uphold us. Suffering should never be mistaken for being unloved by God. We should consider that Jesus, who lived with God the Father in the closest relationship of love imaginable, himself knew all about the experience of suffering.

 

John 15 v 9-17

'If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.' (John 15 v 10)

Love, it turns out, is more than just a feeling. It is much more grounded than that. In this passage, Jesus tells us that our remaining in his love comes about by our keeping his commands. For many, this will come as a surprise; surely, they will say, Jesus’ love is unconditional? The answer to this is 'yes and no' – yes, Jesus’ love towards any person is unconditional, and is offered as a free gift of his grace. But – and this is important – his love demands a response. We must either accept it or reject it. To accept it, Jesus says, involves making a conscious choice to follow him – to keep his commands. He draws the parallel with his own relationship with God the Father, showing that this closest of close relationships turns on his willingness to follow the Father’s loving commands.

One of the reasons this can seem strange is because we mistakenly believe that commands necessarily mean a curtailing of our freedom. The reality is that following Jesus’ commands actually makes us free. When playing a game, following the rules enables the players to be free to enjoy the game. When people ignore the rules, it quickly turns into chaos and the result is a spoiled game that nobody enjoys.

 

John 15 v 1-8

'If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit' (John 15 v 5b)

As we take a moment to consider our lives, how much fruit do we see? In this passage, in which he talks about the vine and the branches, Jesus speaks four times about the branches producing fruit. He makes clear that the branches can only produce fruit if they remain in the vine, and that apart from the vine they can do nothing. But the promise here is that those who remain in him 'will bear much fruit'. It is worth reflecting for a moment that the fruit we bear is a good indicator of how well we are connected to the vine; how close our walk with Jesus is. We should expect to see fruit in our lives if we are living in step with his Spirit. And what is that fruit? Galatians 5 tells us it is 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control'. If we are not displaying these traits, we must ask ourselves whether our walk with Jesus is as close as it should be.

 

John 10 v 11-18

'No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.' (John 10 v 18)

There are many examples of people down through the years who have sacrificed their lives for others. This is a great act of love, and shouldn’t be belittled, but the fact is they were going to die anyway – what they have done is chosen the timing of their death for the benefit of others. Jesus’ death was different. As the one person who ever lived who never sinned, he was not under the penalty of death. When he willingly lay down his life, he wasn’t just arranging the timing of his death but was choosing to exchange his limitless life for the limited life of sinners in the most amazing substitution in history. When we grasp this, it makes what Jesus did on the cross even more humbling; that the man who never needed to die chose to do so for our sake.

 

Luke 24 v 36b-48

'And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.' (Luke 24 v 41-43)

What happened to the piece of fish? Luke’s mention of this seemingly trivial piece of information is actually very significant. The whereabouts of the fish speaks directly to the question of the nature of the resurrection. Some people think that the resurrection was a spiritual or metaphorical event; that it didn’t actually happen physically. The gospel writers take great pains to counter this assertion – the tomb was physically empty, Jesus’ body was physically raised to life again. Jesus eating a piece of fish is another piece of physical evidence for the disciples that he really was physically present with them; not only could they touch his hands and side, but they could see a solid piece of food being taken and eaten in front of them. This has importance for us to when we contemplate our final destiny – too many of us have non-Biblical ideas of what the future holds. We too will be raised to life with physical, perfected bodies, and we too will physically walk in the new Earth, not float about like disembodied spirits.

 

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)

Why was the Bible written? As a record of history? As a source of good moral teaching? At the conclusion of his gospel, right after the account of Thomas meeting with the risen Jesus, John explains why he has written all these things down. His account isn’t exhaustive (v 30); there were many other events, sayings and signs that Jesus did which he could have included in his gospel. He has selected the events he recounts to keep the focus tight on the key message he wants to share – that we can have confidence that Jesus is God’s chosen king, his unique Son. But even more than that, he wants to drive home the truth that by believing we can have life in Jesus’ name. John writes his gospel as a reasoned, rational explanation of the truth of Jesus’ identity so that we can weigh the evidence and see that the gospel message is true. The challenge to us is plain: have we looked at this evidence carefully to decide what we make of it?

 

Mark 16 v 1-8

'But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you”.’ (Mark 16 v 7)

Jesus is risen! That is the glorious message of Easter Sunday, the fact of history that on that morning 2,000 years ago the people who went to his tomb found it opened up and Jesus’ body gone.

This first historical encounter with the truth of the resurrection is noteworthy for at least two reasons, which again show God’s generous and inclusive love in action. Firstly, the first people to receive this amazing news are a group of women – people who were considered second class in the society of that time. God shows the upside-down values of his kingdom by honouring them first with the facts of the resurrection. We should take note of this, and remember that those our society regards as outsiders are held in high regard by God. Secondly, the words of the messenger at the tomb which seem strange at first reading: 'Tell his disciples and Peter…'. Why single Peter out like this? After denying Jesus, Peter felt distraught. When he first heard about the resurrection he might have wondered whether Jesus would ever want to see him again. By singling him out, mentioning him by name, the messenger provides assurance to Peter that he is still precious to Jesus. Peter is not excluded because of his earlier failure; Jesus’ love for him is still strong. This should be an encouragement to us when we reflect on times of failure and are tempted to question whether Jesus still loves us.

 

Mark 14 v 1-14

'Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor’ (Mark 14 v 4-5)

This comment from some of those present is surely a reasonable one. Wouldn’t the money have been better spent by giving it to the poor than by pouring it out in such an extravagant fashion? Why then does Jesus defend the woman’s actions? Doesn’t he have concern for the poor?

The point here, as is so often the case in Mark’s gospel, is about Jesus’ identity. Jesus is in a class all by himself; far above anything else. Love for Jesus is even more important than love for the poor. Indeed, it is our love for Jesus that overflows into love for others, especially the poor. Love like this lies behind the anointing of Jesus’ body. This woman acted out of gratitude and love for Jesus. In light of this, her extravagance with this very expensive perfume was not a waste. Of course, Jesus was not unmindful of the needs of the poor, but he wanted to make the point that compared to him, all other concerns should be secondary (compare Luke 14:26).

 

Mark 10 v 32-45

'When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John' (Mark 10 v 41)

Motives are as important as actions. Sometimes we can do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Here we read how the other ten disciples were indignant at James and John because of their asking for the greatest seats of authority with Jesus. And they were right to be – but was it because James and John had made an inappropriate request, or because James and John thought of making it before the other ten disciples did? The fact that Jesus goes on to teach all twelve (and not just two) of them about the true nature of greatness suggests the latter. God sees all our hearts and knows the motives that prompt us to action – remembering that should help us avoid falling into the trap of being hypocrites (who were the people who tended to receive the sternest rebuke from Jesus during his earthly ministry).

 

Mark 9 v 35-37, 10 v 13-16

'Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ (Mark 10 v 15)

What is Jesus saying in this passage? Some have thought that Jesus is talking about innocence here – that to enter the kingdom of God a person must be a good person, not a guilty one. But anyone who actually has children will quickly realise this reasoning is flawed – wonderful though they are, little children are often guilty of all sorts of things. The key characteristic of a child is not innocence, but dependence. He or she will unashamedly come to a parent asking for something, with no pretence or expectation that they will have to pay for it or earn it. It doesn’t occur to a toddler that a parent would expect something in return for providing breakfast – they just ask for it. Jesus is reminding us here that God’s kingdom is based on grace, on God’s undeserved favour, not on our works. He warns us that to think we can earn our place in the kingdom is totally wrong, and that those who try will find that they aren’t able to enter. Pride in our own abilities is completely misplaced, and will lead to ruin if we ignore what Jesus is saying, rather than trust him to provide the rescue we badly need.

 

Mark 11 v 15-19

'On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there.' (Mark 11 v 15a)

Jesus’ clearing of the temple is an episode that some people want to gloss over, as it contradicts the idea of 'gentle Jesus meek and mild'. In these verses we see Jesus get angry; angry enough to start physically remonstrating with people in the temple, and cause quite a scene. Uncomfortable as it may make us feel, the truth is that there is a time for righteous anger. To stand by and do nothing in the face of wickedness is not a godly response to wrongdoing. There will be times when it is right – even necessary – for those who belong to God to feel moved to take action against injustice or blatant sin. But we must be careful to ensure that our anger, when it is roused, is righteous anger. It is much more likely that we will be angry for the wrong reasons than it is for us to fail to become angry for the right reasons. When we become angry, it is vital to check whether we are angry because we feel personally slighted, or because God is being dishonoured.

 

Mark 8 v 31-39

'For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it' (Mark 8 v 35)

These are strong words! Jesus doesn’t say 'might', or 'could possibly' – he says 'will'. There are no shades of grey, or potential mitigating circumstances here. Jesus is setting out the blunt truth of the gospel message; that all people need rescuing by him. The only way a person can be saved is by turning to Jesus, and the good news (gospel) of the salvation he offers – 'losing their life' (in the sense of surrendering their drives and ambitions, not ceasing to physically live). The alternative – saving their life in the sense of rejecting Jesus’ claim to be pre-eminent in that person’s desires, drives and focus of living – ultimately leads to death. If we are at our core trusting in anything other than Jesus, if our lives are founded on status, money, personal networks or anything else, Jesus warns us that we are heading for disaster. The question is, what are we living for? And in the long run, is it worth it?

 

Mark 1 v 9-15

And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness (Mark 1 v 11-12)

The Bible provides us with many assurances that God has not abandoned us when we are going through tough times. An example of this can be seen in these verses. At Jesus’ baptism (the point of which was for him to publically associate himself with sinful humanity), we have a great picture of the love that exists within the trinity. God the Holy Spirit descends on God the Son, as God the Father proclaims his love and pleasure in the Son. Here is a tremendous scene of deep, abiding love. But in the very next verse, we see God the Spirit sending the Son out into the wilderness to be put through hardship. This is a great encouragement to us: it confirms not only that times of trial are used by God for our good (The Father loves the Son, but puts him through Satan’s testing), but also that trials are not a sign of God’s rejection (The Father is 'well pleased' with the Son, but puts him through Satan’s testing). If God the Father saw fit to put his beloved Son through testing, why should we think that testing is a sign of God’s withdrawal?

 

Isaiah 40 v 25-31

'He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing' (Isaiah 40 v 26b)

For centuries, people have looked up into the night sky and marvelled at the heavens. The stars twinkling down at us from across unimaginable distance are an awe inspiring sight. For many people, looking up at such a view prompts deep questions about the cosmos, life and the purpose of it all. The Bible speaks of the heavens declaring the glory of God (eg Psalm 19), and there are two things in particular Isaiah draws our attention to in this passage. Firstly, the scale of God’s sovereign knowledge. He knows each and every star, in fine detail. To us they are a numberless multitude; to him, they each have a name by which he calls them. Secondly, the extent of God’s ongoing power in sustaining the universe. The Bible knows nothing of the deist idea of a God who lights the blue touchpaper and then retires to a safe distance to watch the universe unfold. On the contrary, God is intimately involved in the universe, sustaining it moment by moment. The stars are blazing this very instant because God is continuing to uphold them. If he turned away for a moment, they would wink out of existence. Our confidence is in a God of such awesome knowledge and power – what an encouragement!

 

1 Peter 1 v 3-12

'In [God’s] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead' (1 Peter 1 3b)

The Christian hope is a living hope. It isn’t a belief in a process, or a philosophy, or a way of living. It’s a belief – a trust – in a living person, Jesus Christ. Jesus isn’t just a great figure from history, he is the Living One, who is alive today and forever (see Revelation 1). The resurrection of Jesus, a physical event that actually took place in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, is the foundation of our hope. Because of the resurrection, we can have confidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be, that his death was sufficient to pay in full the debt we owed, and that we can have a vibrant relationship with him today. This relationship – a new birth – is rightly called by Peter a living hope because it is so much more than a creedal statement or a dry legal contract. It is nothing less than a direct connection to God himself, a dimension to life that we can’t earn, don’t deserve, but have been given freely in God’s amazing mercy.

 

Romans 5 v 1-5

'Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ' (Romans 5 v 1)

So much of how we are defined in life comes through what we do. What our job is, what we do for leisure, what we do for charity – so much value is ascribed to our activity. This can easily be a source of unease or disillusionment: for example, unemployment can make us feel worthless, while a packed agenda can nevertheless leave us worried that we aren’t achieving enough to meet the standards we aspire to (or our boss expects).

The same is true of religion. Those who seek to approach God through doing things can never be sure if they have done enough. They have no lasting peace, because there is always the nagging doubt that they aren’t quite meeting the mark. In this verse, Paul shows the gulf that separates true Christianity from religion – Christians have been justified by faith, not by performing deeds. It doesn’t depend on what we do, but on what Jesus has done for us. Through him, we have peace with God. What a remarkable assurance the gospel provides us with!

 

Hebrews 6 v 13-20

'[Jesus] has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek' (Hebrews 6 v 20b)

Melchizedek is a mysterious figure who appears in Genesis 14. Unlike all the other major figures in the book of Genesis, Melchizedek is presented without a genealogy. Melchizedek brokered peace between Abraham and the king of Sodom, and brought out bread and wine. Abraham, who was the great-grandfather of Levi (from whom the Levitical priesthood comes), gave a tithe to Melchizedek; this showed that Melchizedek was superior to Abraham (and Levi, and therefore the Old Testament priesthood).

The writer of Hebrews explains how Melchizedek foreshadows Jesus. Jesus’ genealogy is also unique (being born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit); he is the great high priest who is superior to the Old Testament priesthood; he brokers peace between us and God through his perfect sacrifice on the cross, rendering the old priesthood and sacrificial system obsolete; and the bread and wine of the communion service point to that sacrifice through which we can be totally forgiven and receive God’s mercy.

 

Romans 15 v 4-13

'Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God' (Rom 15 v 7)

The amazing truth of the gospel is that it dissolves barriers. The call of Christ is made to all people, without distinction. In this passage Paul quotes from four separate books of the Old Testament to show that God’s purpose from the outset was to bring hope to Jews and Gentiles alike. His words to the church in Rome are just as important for us today. We are called to accept all those who trust in Jesus for their salvation, regardless of their ethnicity, education, background or denomination. Though we may well hold different views on a variety of subjects, if we are both trusting in Jesus as Lord, we are to accept one another as brothers and sisters in God’s family. For the church in Rome, the potential stumbling block was race: Jew or Gentile. What is it for us, and do we see how Paul’s words apply to us today?

 

Matthew 2 v 1-12

'…they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh' (Matt 11b)

The three gifts of the Magi are well known to those who know the nativity story. Perhaps less well known is what they actually were, and what the giving of them meant. Gold is probably the most familiar (and easiest to understand) – an expensive metal in both the society of the day and in our own, gold is the gift fit for a king. The king in baby clothes was there before them. Frankincense was a costly, aromatic resin in constant use by the priests in the temple; this gift points to Jesus as the ultimate priest, who would in time bring final reconciliation between God and human beings. Myrrh was a natural gum or resin used to embalm the dead. The man born to be king was the man born to die. In these three gifts we see who he is, what he came to do, and what it would cost him. If we have truly understood the gospel then, like the wise men, we must surely bow in wonder before a God who could love us that much!

 

Luke 2 v 15-21

'When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child' (Luke 2:17)

The shepherds had experienced a life-changing episode on that first Christmas. One minute they were out doing their day job (in their case, day and night job), and the next their whole world was unexpectedly turned upside down. An encounter with an angelic being, literally lighting up their world with the glory of God, led them to seek out and find the baby in a manger. From then on, nothing was the same anymore. Two things stand out from Luke’s account. First, that the angel provides them with the gospel message in a nutshell, rather than just telling them to go and find the baby; to paraphrase, 'Good news! A saviour who is also Lord has been born to you. You must go and see him!' Second, and importantly, what the shepherds did once they had met with Jesus. They didn’t just quietly go back to their jobs as if nothing had happened; they spread the word about what they had been told about the child. In other words, they couldn’t help but share the gospel message they’d heard – it had made such an impact on them. The challenge to us is the same: has our encounter with Jesus made such an impact on us that we can’t help but share the good news we have found with others?

 

John 1 v 1-14, Hebrews 1 v 1-4

'...but in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son' (Hebrews 1:2a)

How does God speak to his people? Where do we go to hear his voice, understand what is on his heart, and make sure we are living in a way that pleases him? In the days of the Old Testament, God communicated through the prophets, people (mostly men) who would be touched by God’s spirit for a time and who would speak his words. But as the opening words of both Hebrews and John’s Gospel make clear, in these last days God has spoken through his Son, the Word who became flesh and who dwelt physically in the world. The magnitude of the Incarnation is mindblowing! As we celebrate today the baby in the Bethlehem manger, we should consider this: Jesus is the ultimate Word from God, the 'exact representation of [God’s] being' (v3). If we want to know what God has to say, we should look to Jesus, and no further than Jesus, to hear him.

 

Luke 1 v 26-38

'How will this be’, Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ (Luke 1:34)

There is a tendency in our scientific, sophisticated age, to assume that people of earlier times were credulous and naïve. There are some who would tell us that people around the time of Jesus would have a much easier time believing in a virgin birth than would we of the present age. But if we reflect on this for a moment, we will quickly see this is nonsense. Just because they weren’t blessed with 21st century medicine doesn’t mean they weren’t familiar with the facts of life. Mary’s words in this passage make this point plain enough; even when talking with an angelic being she is mystified how she can bear a child when she is a virgin. Her accepting the angel’s response is a mark of great faith; a faith which is even more profound when we consider that she would know the stigma she would have to bear, carrying an apparently illegitimate child in the culture of that time. Miraculous though Jesus’ birth would be, practically nobody around her would believe the truth about it – a virgin birth would be no easier to explain then than it is now. 

 

Isaiah 40 v 1-11

'All people are like grass, and their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall because the breath of the LORD blows on them.' (Isaiah 40:5b-6a)

Following the theme of God’s anger from last week, here Isaiah points us to the unvarnished truth that everyone fails to be faithful to God – all of us are like grass which withers away. The amazing thing is that this passage sets this truth in the context of God speaking comfort to his people. God knows that his people are unfaithful, but he speaks tenderly to them, and tells them that their sin has been paid for. How? A clue lies in the words of verses 3 and 4, which several centuries later are identified in the New Testament with John the Baptist (eg Matthew 3:3), the herald of Jesus. It is through the coming of Jesus that the bad news of people’s faithlessness can be transformed into the good news of God’s blessing.

 

Isaiah 64 v 1-9

'But when we continued to sin against [your ways] you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags' (Isaiah 64:5b-6a)

As we begin the period of Advent, it is good for us to remember the reason for that first Christmas. These words of Isaiah set the scene for the Nativity all those years ago, and it isn’t an easy message to hear. Though we like to think of ourselves as good people, the truth is that we continue to sin against God’s ways. The result? God is angry. I wonder how often in our modern society we stop to consider that point. Our sin makes God angry, and all the righteous deeds we might do can’t deal with that anger – Isaiah says that our righteous deeds are like filthy rags because of our sin. It is vital we take the truth of this angry God on board, so that we are listening out for the answer to Isaiah’s question: 'How then can we be saved?' The answer starts to be revealed with the baby born in Bethlehem.

 

Matthew 25 v 31-46

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.' (Matthew 25:34)

Five hundred years ago the Reformation turned the attention of the church back to the scriptures, and rediscovered the truth that salvation is a gift from God, which comes through faith alone. But just because it is by faith alone doesn’t mean that faith is unaccompanied by works. The famous story of the sheep and the goats illustrates this clearly; a person’s works are a clear indicator of that person’s faith, and it is very reasonable to conclude that 'faith without works is dead' (as James describes in detail in his book later in the New Testament). But verse 34 above reinforces that the reward for God’s people is a gift: firstly, the people are described as 'blessed by my Father' (not 'owed by my Father'); secondly, that their inheritance was prepared for them since the creation of the world – ie long before the works of the people had been performed, God had prepared them a kingdom. Never let us fall into the trap of thinking that God owes us anything – everything is a free gift which he willingly bestows because of his love for us.

 

Matthew 25 v 14-30

’Master’, he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.’ (Matthew 25:24)

What a contrast in attitude towards their master this servant shows compared to the others! Despite the master showing him great trust by giving him a bag of gold (sometimes confusingly called a talent, a unit of mass of around 59 kg), this man shirks his responsibility by burying it in the ground rather than putting it to use. When called to account, he then tries to blame his inaction on the master, by caricaturing him as an unreasonable taskmaster. The story does not end well for the lazy servant, with what has been given to him taken away, and he himself being cast away. Let’s make every effort not to be like this with the responsibilities the Lord has given us. God has entrusted us with his riches, revealed at the cross, and given us time to use them. If our view of God is wrong, it is likely to lead to wrong action too, which may have serious consequences in the final analysis.

 

Micah 4 v 1-5

'In the last days…[the LORD] will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore’ (Micah 4:1a, 3)

As we commemorate Remembrance Day, reflecting on the terrible loss of life in war, it is right that we should recognise the sacrifice made by so many for our sake. Many people through the years have given their lives for friends and loved ones back home, to safeguard their freedoms and way of life. But conflict keeps rearing its head in human affairs. Is there any hope that one day there will be an end to war? In these verses, we find such a hope – that one day, disputes will be judged by God himself, judgements which even the strong nations will accept without question. War will finally be over. In his next chapter, Micah begins to provide more detail about how this will be brought about: with a ruler coming out from Bethlehem. Ultimately, the Bible assures us that the end of war will be brought about by the final reconciliation between people and God, which has been enabled by the unique sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross.

 

Revelation 7 v 9-17

'These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.’ (Revelation 7 v 14b)

This passage is a great encouragement for believers in Jesus, because these words are written specifically about them. Who is this great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language? They are the saints – all those, regardless of their backgrounds, who have put their trust in Jesus; who have 'washed their robes… in his blood'. If you are trusting in Jesus, these words have been written about you, and God is providing assurance that in eternity you will be with him in paradise.

 

Matthew 24 v 30-35

'Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.' (Matthew 24 v 35)

On this, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we remember how the church was brought back to a focus on the Word of God as the basis for its faith. The Reformers recognised that the only reliable foundation for understanding God’s character and purposes is through his word, and that it is only by faith in the Jesus whom the Bible reveals that we can be saved from God’s judgement against our sin. Today’s passages all point to different facets of God’s Word, showing how when the Bible is read with understanding it leads to holiness, and builds the church. The last passage, quoted above, is a good reminder to an age obsessed with transient social media and constant change. God’s word is solid and unchanging. What he has said stands forever, and will exist even after the present creation has given way to the new heavens and the new earth. How important it is for us to ensure we have a good grasp of something which will last into eternity!

 

Matthew 22 v 15-22

Then he said to them, 'So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.' (Matthew 22 v 21)

Jesus’ skilful response to the trap the Pharisees tried to catch him in amazed his hearers, and caused his questioners to leave dumbfounded. The passage is probably well known to many of us, and the key message is that we should give to God what belongs to him – namely, everything we have and everything we are. But Jesus says more than this, and we shouldn’t overlook the first part of his answer. He commands us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. In our context, that means that we are to discharge our responsibilities as citizens fully – whether that means carrying out civic duties diligently, not cheating on our taxes, or fulfilling our obligations to our employer. The only time we are justified in not doing this appears to be those rare occasions when the requirements being laid on us directly contradict what God tells us we should do. Ultimately, the whole world (and we who live in it) belongs to God, and his claim trumps any other – but we should be careful not to use this truth to try and justify unrighteous living.  

 

Romans 16 v 1-5, 16-27

'I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.' (Romans 16 v 17-18a)

As Paul wraps up his letter to the Romans, he concludes with a final warning. Throughout his letter, Paul has set out the timeless truth of the gospel, which was promised in the Old Testament and centres on the life and work of Jesus (Romans 1:2-3). He knows that the gospel is offensive to human hearts, which will try to soften, twist or nullify the message of the cross, and so he warns his listeners to watch out for those who try to divide the church, or who encourage believers to adopt attitudes which are contrary to what he has been teaching.

This warning was not just for the first century church, but for us today. The cross and its ramifications stand in opposition to what societies down through the ages have asserted, as they seek to live in defiance of God’s identity and sovereignty. Even today we will encounter voices, both inside the church and outside, who will try to lead us astray with teachings contrary to what the gospel says. Steer clear of these people, Paul says – they aren’t serving Christ, but themselves.

 

Romans 15 v 14-33

'I urge you, brothers and sisters … to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.' (Romans 15 v 30)

It is a human temptation to put our leaders on a pedestal, treating them as more important than those that they lead. The Bible will have none of this; earlier on in Romans chapter 3 Paul made the point that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and that there is no place for boasting amongst any of the members of Christ’s body. Some of the dangers of pride are obvious. But there is another aspect whose danger is more hidden. If we elevate our leaders, regarding them as super spiritual, it can lead to a failure on our part to pray for them, thinking that they don’t need our prayers. This would be a grave mistake, and one Paul steers us away from. If the apostle Paul asked the believers in Rome to pray for him, recognising the importance of those prayers in the fight for the gospel, should we be doing any less for our leaders in the church today?

 

Romans 15 v 1-13

'We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up.' (Romans 15 v 1-2)

Building on the point we looked at last week, here Paul goes further with his encouragement for the 'strong' (those who have a greater depth of spiritual understanding) in their relationships with the 'weak'. Not only should the strong accept those whose faith is weak (Roman 14:1), they should bear with them for the good of the weak, foregoing what they are entitled to. Authentic Christians, far from asserting their rights, will gladly restrain themselves if it helps build up those among them who are weaker in their faith (see also 1 Cor 8). The ultimate aim of the strong is to be more like Jesus, who despite having the greatest possible right to assert his own desires voluntarily relinquished them all out of love for the people God had chosen. When we are tempted to look down on those we regard as 'weak', we should remember that 'knowledge puffs up, while love builds up' (1 Cor 8:1).

 

Romans 14 v 1-12

'Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters.' (Romans 14 v 1)

Throughout the ages, Christians have had different stances on a variety of issues. For the early church, the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols was a cause of division. More recently, differing opinions have been expressed over the issue of whether Sunday should be kept special, being observed as a day set apart from the other days of the week. In these verses, Paul emphasises the importance of acceptance within the body of Christ, and that quarrelling over disputable matters is a bad idea, as it damages the unity to which we are called. But it is vital we note his use of the word 'disputable'. There are some basic, doctrinal truths which are not a matter of dispute for followers of Jesus: the identity of Jesus, the physical reality of the crucifixion and the resurrection, and the truth that it is only through Jesus’ atoning work that anyone can be saved. Where disputes arise over matters about which the Bible is crystal clear, we would do well to hold fast to what it says and not compromise the faith we have been entrusted with. 

 

Romans 13 v 8-14

'Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.' (Romans 13 v 14)

Repentance is not a once-for-all event. We do not simply repent of our sins once at the beginning of the Christian life and it is all coasting from there. It is an ongoing, conscious activity in which the believer chooses to turn away from their natural desires, and to follow the more difficult road of obedience to Jesus’ commands – what Jesus means when he says, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me' (Matt 16:24). This is hard. Even those who have been following Jesus for some time must battle their old nature, fighting the temptation to 'gratify the desires of the flesh'. The only way this can be done is by clinging to Jesus – Paul uses the metaphor of wearing him like a suit of armour – and leaning on his strength to empower us. Let us never forget that the gospel is not a self-help programme, but a rescue mission. If we try to go it alone without our rescuer, we will surely be lost.

 

Romans 12 v 9-21

'Love must be sincere…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.' (Romans 12 v 9a, 14)

Echoing many of Jesus’ own words in this passage, Paul here highlights what it means to demonstrate true love in action. And what a difference between what he describes, and what the world around us – and often the attitude of our own hearts – looks like. How often, when somebody hurts us or offends us, do we actively bless them and seek their good? How often do we repay evil with evil, or look to get our own back? How hard it is to do what Paul tells us we should do! How can we manage it?

The clue is given above in verse 2: 'Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind'. Notice how the verb of what we should do is passive ('be transformed'), not active. We can’t manufacture this attitude authentically by ourselves; it is God’s Spirit at work in us that enables us to behave supernaturally and live lives of radical love.

 

Romans 12 v 1-8

'..in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.' (Romans 12 v 5-6a)

We human beings naturally compare ourselves to one another, measuring our abilities and performance against what others do. This, says Paul, is a mistake, and leads to either pride or to a sense of inferiority. Neither of these is what God wants for us. The key to evading these errors is for us to recognise where our talents, skills and abilities come from – they are gifts, given to us freely by God’s grace (v6) not because we have earned them. Once we have grasped this, we will see that pride is unwarranted – our proficiencies are down to God’s generosity, not our greater importance – and that there is no call for an inferiority complex – God has given us gifts according to his plan for us, which is unique. The rich diversity of gifts amongst God’s people are given for the benefit of the whole church, and should be recognised as such – no member is more important than another (see also 1 Cor 12: 12-31).

 

Romans 10 v 5-15

'How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?' (Romans 10 v 14a)

Following on from last week’s theme about concern for those who have not accepted the salvation that Jesus offers, in these verses Paul raises the practical point of faith’s beginning. For a person to believe a message, they must first hear it. If we are truly concerned about the fate of our non-Christian neighbour, we must be willing to share the good news of Jesus with them – to keep silent would indicate that either we don’t care, or that we don’t believe they are in peril. Not everyone is called to be a missionary or a full-time evangelist, but all of us should be able to explain in simple terms what we believe and why. We should be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” (1 Peter 3:15). Our actions prove our love for Christ, but it is in our words that others will come to understand the basis of this love.

 

Romans 9 v 1-9

'I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people' (Romans 9 v 2-3a)

How seriously do we take the future of those who don’t know Christ? How concerned are we for those around us who have never heard or responded to the good news of the gospel? Paul here gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of his own heart, and in so doing provides a powerful example of what love for our fallen neighbour should look like. Paul knows that apart from the rescue that Jesus offers, the future holds no hope at all. He expresses his concern for those who are not in Christ in the strongest possible terms: that he could wish to exchange places with them for their sake. And of course, this is exactly what happened on the Cross, as Jesus exchanged places with sinners and bore their punishment so they could go free. Do we have such a concern for our non-Christian family members, friends and colleagues? And if so, how is that manifested?

 

Romans 8 v 26-39

'He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?' (Romans 8 v 32)

How can we be sure of God’s love towards us? How can we have confidence that he won’t condemn us at the time of judgement? In this passage, Paul sets out the logic of the Christian conviction about these things. God the Father loves his Son. From all eternity, theirs has been a relationship of perfect love. And yet, for our sake, God the Father gave up his Son – sent him to the cross – so that we might be forgiven. If we grasp the enormity of that act; if we understand the implication of these historical events, our minds will be put at ease. For God to give up the Son he loves in such a way can mean only one thing – that his love for us is beyond anything we can imagine. In the light of this amazing sacrifice how, Paul asks, can we doubt that God will give us everything else that we need? He has given us the crown jewels. Why would we expect him to hold back the costume jewellery?

 

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