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:

 

Luke 12 v 49 - 56

'Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.’ (Luke 12 v 51-52)

What is this? Jesus coming to bring division? That can’t be right, can it? Isn’t he the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd? How are we to understand his words in this passage from Luke’s Gospel?

Some would argue that the Bible is full of contradictions, and point to this as being one of them. But the truth is that the Bible is God’s word, and so presents a coherent message to us. Careful reading and thoughtful consideration allow its apparent contradictions to be harmonised; we should expect nothing less.

So it is here. Jesus is indeed the Prince of Peace, but the peace that he brings is (as the angels tell us at his birth) upon 'those on whom [God’s] favour rests' (Luke 2:14; ie not everybody). He is indeed the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep – but the sheep are described as those who hear his voice and follow him. The Bible is clear that not everyone will accept Jesus; many, indeed the majority, will reject him. This distinction, between Jesus’ followers and his opponents, is what Jesus is talking about in this passage. Friends, colleagues, even family members will be divided by what they make of Jesus, and since a person’s response to him lies at the root of their identity, we should expect to see a fundamental division between the two groups of people.

It is when Jesus returns, when he ushers in the consummated kingdom, that peace will reign and all wars and discord cease. Until then, Jesus warns us, we should expect to live in a world that exists in a constant state of conflict between those who accept and those who reject him.

 

Luke 12 v 32 - 40

'You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.’ (Luke 12 v 40)

For those of us who call ourselves Christians: are we living in a state of expectant waiting for Jesus’ return, or is it something we never think about in the busyness of everyday life? In this passage, Jesus warns his hearers to be watchful and ready to greet him, for his appearance will be sudden and unexpected. As ever, Jesus is aware of the temptations that face us and warns us precisely because he knows we have a tendency to lose our focus on his return.

Those who have ever experienced a burglary will know the shock, horror and sense of disorientation that hits a person when they come through their front door to find their world turned upside down. A place of comfortable security and refuge has, in a moment, become a place that seems unfamiliar and filled with vulnerability. It is a terrible experience. Jesus makes the point that if the owner of a house knows at what time a thief will come, he would not let his house be broken into. By the same token, he says, we should be prepared for the time when Jesus will return, because it won’t be something we can see coming in the immediate run-up, and it will turn the world upside down.

Life tends to have a rhythm that we become used to, and are lulled into thinking will never change. When it does, and we are hit by a dislocation in the 'normal' running of things, like the loss of a job, a shock diagnosis or a bereavement, the illusion that life will go on as it has always done is stripped away and we can see that our current pattern of life will not last forever. Jesus wants us to be forewarned and forearmed about this, so that we can live our lives with the focus on something that is sure and certain – his return.

 

Luke 12 v 13 - 21

'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’ (Luke 12 v 15b)

Money can be a real enigma. It is a useful tool, enabling us to help and support those around us, but at the same time can become – even unconsciously – a snare which traps us and makes our lives narrow and barren. Jesus consistently warns his followers about the dangers of greed, indicating that this sin is a prevalent one which needs to be resisted and rooted out. And yet, it is remarkable how few of those who follow Jesus seem to recognise that they have a problem with greed.

One of Jesus’ warnings comes through his parable of the rich fool, in which the rich man is looking to make even more money. Although he is already wealthy, he labours to replace his barns with even bigger ones to store all his crops so that he will have a comfortable, luxury-laiden future. The Bible doesn’t say that having wealth is wrong; indeed, there are plenty of examples of wealth actually being a sign of God’s favour. It does, however, teach that problems begin when people put their trust in money rather than in God for the future. The futility of living like this is called out by Jesus in this parable; in seeking to shore up his future by building an ever stronger treasury the rich fool focuses his life chasing more and more riches, and dies before he ever gets to use them.

This is a real danger for us in the affluent society we live in today. We can forget that this life is transitory; that things will not continue to unfold in a steady, consistent pattern indefinitely. If we allow ourselves to forget this, we can end up devoting our lives to goals which in the final analysis are every bit as foolish as that of the rich fool of the parable. What is there to be gained by being 'the richest man in the graveyard' at the end of our time on Earth? What are we trusting in, and what are we aiming for in life?

 

Luke 11 v 1 - 13

‘So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.’ (Luke 11 v 9-10)

Just how generous do we think God is? Is he open-handed or grudging when it comes to providing for our needs? Do we need to wear God down with our prayers and supplications to extract small favours from him?

In this passage, Jesus is asked about how we should pray, and the subtext he answers seems to hit exactly this theme. He sets up two scenarios: a friend who is reluctant to help, and a human father’s love for his child. Both of these examples give helpful contrasts between people and God, which illuminate the central teaching of v9-10. The friend needs some cajoling to respond to the person seeking bread; not so with God. The 'evil' father – Jesus speaks in hyperbole here to make the point – gives good things to his child; how much more will the 'good' God give to his children.

God is abundantly generous, and delights to give to his children – but what is it that Jesus is talking about here? Money? Material possessions? Health? What does God give so freely and generously that Jesus uses three separate illustrations in v9-10 to describe it? The answer comes in v13: It is the Holy Spirit, God’s very presence, that he pours out so lavishly. Far from being aloof and far off, God longs to draw close to his people in intimate relationship and be present and active in their lives. The promise here is that nobody who approaches God with empty hands asking for him to bless them will be turned away by him. God is the perfect Father who knows the deepest needs of his children and loves to meet them – as his children, all we need do is ask honestly and expectantly.  

 

Luke 10 v 38 - 42

But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made … 'Martha, Martha,' the Lord answered, 'you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one.’ (Luke 10 v 40a, 41-42a)

‘The fault of Martha should be a perpetual warning to all Christians. If we desire to grow in grace, and to enjoy soul-prosperity, we must beware of the cares of this world. Except we watch and pray, they will insensibly eat up our spirituality, and bring leanness on our souls. It is not open sin, or flagrant breaches of God’s commandments alone, which lead men to eternal ruin. It is far more frequently an excessive attention to things in themselves lawful, and the being 'distracted by all the preparations'. It seems so right to provide for our own! It seems so proper to attend to the duties of our station! It is just here that our danger lies. Our families, our business, our daily callings, our household affairs, our intercourse with society, all, all may become snares to our hearts, and may draw us away from God. We may go down to the pit of hell from the very midst of lawful things. Let us take heed to ourselves in this matter. Let us watch our habits of mind jealously, lest we fall into sin unawares. If we love life, we must hold the things of this world with a very loose hand, and beware of allowing anything to have the first place in our hearts, excepting God. Let us mentally write 'poison' on all temporal good things. Used in moderation they are blessings, for which we ought to be thankful. Permitted to fill our minds, and trample upon holy things, they become a positive curse.’ – J. C. Ryle

 

Luke 10 v 25 - 37

'Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?' [Jesus asked.] The expert in the law replied, 'The one who had mercy on him.' Jesus told him, 'Go, and do likewise.’ (Luke 10 v 36-37)

The original Jewish hearers of this parable would have been stunned to hear the hero revealed as a Samaritan. To the first century Jew, a Samaritan was the worst kind of mongrel heretic, and would have been reviled and shunned by everybody in Jewish society. The expert in the law couldn’t even bring himself to say the word 'Samaritan', instead replying with 'the one who had mercy on him' (v37). In telling this parable, Jesus explosively expanded the view of who we should consider as our neighbour when it comes to God’s command for us to ‘love our neighbour’ – literally anybody and everybody should be included in the category of our neighbour.

But there is a sting in the tail of this parable. As a social commentary on the importance of love, or as an encouragement for us to do better, the parable leaves us with an uneasy feeling. If the answer to the question 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' (v25) involves a consistent, extravagantly high quality response like that shown by the Samaritan in the story, we are left with the dawning realisation that we are not meeting the mark. Even at our best, we fall short of the standard God expects, and therefore cannot earn our way into heaven.

In verse 21, Jesus says, 'I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.' God in his grace has chosen to show his love to precisely those who haven’t earned it. Children aren’t expected to earn the love of their parents; good parents love their children for who they are, not for what they do. In verses 38-42, we see Jesus commend Mary for simply receiving from him something she has not worked to earn. God is pleased to give his grace to the undeserving, to those who know they cannot earn their way into his good books and who simply come to him open handed, recognising their need and humbly asking. That is the good news, the gospel – and this parable is a powerful pointer to it, for those who have eyes to see it.

 

Luke 10 v 1 - 11

[Jesus] told them, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest fields. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’ (Luke 10 v 2-3)

What do we think of, when we look at the non-Christian world around us? Have we been persuaded by our relativistic culture that there is no real significance between the different belief systems we see, and no difference in the ultimate destiny of all their different adherents?

The picture Jesus paints as he sends out his seventy-two followers in this passage is that of a harvest field. The clear implication is that the world, rather than being a wilderness without purpose, is more like a field deliberately sown with a crop which the farmer wishes to bring in. God wants to bring people into his kingdom, under the reign of his king, Jesus. There is an abundant crop – no shortage of people he wants to bring in – but there are not many workers who are involved in the harvesting. We are to ask him to provide more workers, to get more people involved in the task of proclaiming the good news about Jesus and the rescue he offers. But as well as asking God to raise up more workers, Jesus wants his followers to do the work of the harvest themselves as well. His emphatic 'Go!' is immediately followed by a warning that the world will be full of hostility towards Jesus and his messengers. The work is of utmost importance, but it will not be easy. If we try to do it in our own strength we will quickly falter. Success will depend on our leaning on the Lord of the harvest – when we pray that he will send workers out into the harvest field, we are praying not just for others but for ourselves to be raised up and equipped for the task.

 

Luke 9 v 51 - 62

Still another said, 'I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.' 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 61-62)

Following Jesus means putting him first, and making him the top priority in our lives. There is no higher priority than him in the lives of his followers; everything else is subordinate. Our culture is one of a marketplace of ideas, which can lead us to slip into a 'pick-and-mix' type of Christianity – we selectively take the parts we find comfortable, and leave the ones we find too challenging. This compromised form of belief puts Jesus on a par with other things in life; there are some areas of our lives where we are happy to do what he says, and others where we prefer to listen to other voices such as those of work, career, friends, or family.

In this passage, Jesus warns against such compromise, using some stark words to highlight the importance of putting him centre stage. It is not that Jesus is criticising or demeaning family relationships; in other places he is clear that such relationships are very important (e.g. Mark 7:9-13). He is speaking here in hyperbole to make his point – next to loving him, all other loves should pale by comparison. Following Jesus half-heartedly is not really following him at all, he says. If there is something else in our lives which is holding us back from following Jesus wholeheartedly, we need to identify it and cut it out. Only then will we find we can be fully effective in helping to build God’s kingdom.

 

Luke 8 v 26 - 39

[The demon-possessed man] had broken his chains and been driven by the demon into solitary places… the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8 v 29b, 39b)

Human beings were made for relationship. In the beginning, right at the start of Genesis, we see how life was meant to be lived – perfect relationships between God and people, and perfect relationships between people. Sadly, the arrival of sin into the world broke that perfection, leading to dislocation in all our relationships. People became cut off from God and from one another.

We see that sense of isolation here in this passage. The demon-possessed man is driven into solitary places; cut off from friends and family, and trapped in a state of barren loneliness. He lives amongst the tombs; away from living people and surrounded by death. But then he encounters Jesus, who wonderfully brings release from his bondage and who frees him to restored relationship with other people. The passage ends with this man who was once alone and cut off, travelling throughout the town, meeting and talking with everyone, telling them about Jesus and what he has done.

This scene still plays out today, as people who are cut off from others because of their sin come to know Jesus and find themselves liberated as a result. Jesus brings restoration of our relationships with one another as well as our relationship with God, enabling us to live life as it was meant to be lived.  As in the case of the man in the passage, it is often a mark of those who have experienced this that they naturally tell others about Jesus and the difference he makes.

 

John 16 v 12 - 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)

Although this passage has sometimes been translated 'into all truth', a better rendering of the original Greek is 'into all the truth' (see 2011 NIV translation). It is speaking about the specific truth about the person of Jesus and the significance of what he said and did, rather than being a vague promise that Christians will always be led into knowing the truth about any given situation. There are sadly those in every age 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 should 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 14 v 8 - 17

'Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work’ (John 14 v 9b,10)

What are we to make of Jesus? Many people have tried to make out that he was simply a good moral teacher – but if we take the Biblical record seriously (and there are compelling reasons why we should), this answer gives us a serious problem with that solution.

Throughout the gospels, interspersed with his amazing miracles and profound teaching, we find statements by Jesus such as the one above. Especially when we consider the context in which he said these things (a fiercely monotheistic first century community), it is impossible to come away thinking that Jesus is just a good moral teacher. The author C. S. Lewis summarised the possible solutions to the challenge of Jesus’ identity in his famous 'trilemma' – Jesus is either wicked (lying and knowing he lies), or insane (lying but believing what he says to be true), or else uniquely one with the Father: God himself (telling the truth). A wicked man or a lunatic would not have done the things Jesus did or taught with the clarity and insight that Jesus constantly exhibited. When we stack up the testimony of the miracles and the quality of his moral teaching, the only reasonable answer is the third option: that to see Jesus is to see the Father.

We live amidst a culture that is hostile to this message, because if it is true then people cannot just continue to live as they have always done. Jesus as a human teacher I am free to ignore; Jesus as God himself come into our world I must respond to. Have we understood who Jesus is? And if so – have we worked through the implications which that understanding brings for our lives?

 

John 17 v 20-26

'My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17 v 20-21)

The world can be a tough and sometimes lonely place. Often, we might be encouraged when a Christian friend offers to pray for us, especially when we are going through difficult times. How much more encouraging is it to remember that Jesus himself prays for us! In these words from John’s gospel, we see how in the garden before his arrest, as Jesus lays his soul bare before God the Father, he prays specifically for those who will follow him in the future – and that includes us, if we are trusting in him.

It is worth noting what it is that Jesus prays for us – that we would be “one”. Jesus here speaks of a unity of thought and purpose, which is bound up with God’s purposes and which points to the truth that Jesus was sent into the world by God the Father. It is as Christians come together, united in the good news of Jesus, that the world is shown its need of a saviour and the amazing grace God has poured out. Our unity is very important, and it has two dimensions. It is not enough that we agree with one another (though that is important); we must also be in agreement with God. If we sacrifice the truth he has revealed in order to agree with one another, that will not bring glory to God. A gospel devoid of the truth is not good news, and will not help the world see that God has sent Jesus as our king and our redeemer. Let us resolve to bear with one another in love, and at the same time hold fast to the truth revealed in Scripture.

 

Jesus replied, 'Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.’ (John 14 v 23-24a)

The heart of the Christian faith is having a heart for Jesus. In this passage, Jesus describes the wonderful reciprocal relationship of love that exists between Jesus, his followers, and God the Father. Those who love Jesus are loved by the Father, and both the Father and Jesus will dwell with them. What does it mean to love Jesus?

Jesus is quite clear: those who love him are those who obey his teaching. Conversely, those who do not love him do not obey his teaching. His words here are a rebuke to those who would say they are Christians yet show no interest in finding out what Jesus approves of, nor do what Jesus says. Loving Jesus involves finding out what he teaches, and putting it into practice. This is why Bible study is so important: it is through reading the Scriptures that we learn what Jesus says, and so getting into a habit of daily Bible reading is a great discipline to develop to help deepen our love for him. If we don’t know what the Bible says, how can we be sure we know what Jesus teaches? And if we don’t know what he teaches, how can we obey him?  

 

John 13 v 31-35

'A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13 v 34-35)

What is the hallmark of a Christian in the world of today? What is the distinctive feature that the non-Christian world sees when it looks at God’s children, the church? Is it self-righteousness? A holier-than-thou judgemental attitude? In these words, Jesus tells his followers what they should look like – people who love one another.

In case we are tempted to think about watering this down – what the minimum threshold for this love might look like – Jesus spells it out for us: his followers must love one another 'as I have loved you' (v34). This is a love which doesn’t count the cost. A love which doesn’t hold back. Jesus’ love took him all the way to the cross for the sake of those he loved. And that is what he calls us to – a radical way of living which flies in the face of our individualistic, self-focused age.

Soon after his death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers set the world on fire with this radical way of living. The church was unique in that people from every social level and background, with nothing in common except for their faith in Jesus as God’s triumphant King, loved one another in a way which set them apart from the society around them. People on the outside took note of the change that Jesus had made in the lives of those who followed him, and were deeply challenged by it. Do we provoke the non-Christian world around us to think again about who Jesus is and the difference he can make?

 

John 10 v 22-30

The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, 'How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.' Jesus answered, 'I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.' (John 10 v 24-25)

Who is this Jesus? Questions about his identity have raged ever since he first walked on the earth 2000 years ago. The Jews wanted to know if he was their long-awaited Messiah. Or did they? Jesus’ answer to their question is illuminating: he has told them the answer to who he is, but they didn’t believe him. Jesus was making the point that everything he did – the miracles he performed, the teaching he gave, the life he lived – all pointed to his identity as God’s King. The answer to whether he was the Messiah was staring them in the face. And yet, they didn’t believe. Why not?

Jesus’ answer to this second question speaks to the sovereignty of God. Those who do not accept Jesus’ identity reject him because they are not his sheep – they have not been given to Jesus by God the Father (v29). This tension between human responsibility and God’s sovereignty is a theme that runs throughout Scripture, and frequently acts as a corrective, preventing both arrogance (since we are responsible for our conduct, and are therefore culpable for sin) and despair (since God is in control and is able to save us from it). Here we see it playing out in the question of Jesus’ followers. Those who follow him are saved, not because they are somehow more intelligent or worthy than those who reject him, but because they have been called according to God’s grace. There is no place for smugness in the family of God; all who follow Jesus have received a wonderful gift for which their only contribution has been to gratefully accept it.

 

John 21 v 1-19

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' … The third time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time (John 21 v 15a, 17a)

Here at the end of John’s gospel, we see the one-to-one encounter between Jesus and Peter that Peter had probably been expecting with some trepidation. Jesus had already met with his disciples twice after he had risen from the dead; on this third occasion he corners Peter after breakfast and asks him what on the surface looks like a simple question. But there are some barbs in it. By three times addressing him as 'Simon, son of John', Jesus deliberately avoids using the name which he himself gave him: Peter, the Rock. By asking if Peter loves him 'more than these' Jesus is drawing his attention to the boastful assertion Peter made before the arrest in the garden that he would stick by Jesus even if the others fell away (see Mark 14:29). Finally, in asking the question three times, Jesus deliberately echoes the three denials that Peter made during that awful night before the Crucifixion.

That Jesus drew Peter’s focus to his failure was important precisely because it showed Peter that Jesus knew everything. Nothing was swept under the carpet, where it could fester and cause Peter angst later on – it was all on the table, out in the open. And after all this, when Jesus finishes with 'Follow me!', it shows Peter that their relationship is completely restored. So it is with us. When we stumble and fall, as we so often do, Jesus invites us to return to him for complete forgiveness in full knowledge of what we have done. To all who look to him, Jesus says in effect 'whoever you are, whatever you’ve done – come home. All is forgiven!'

 

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 Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20 v 30-31)

What are the Gospels? Why have they been preserved down the centuries to be in our hands today?

The first thing to note is that the Gospels are narrative historical accounts, describing events which took place in a specific place at a specific time. They are not legends (the earliest copies we have are too close in time to the originals for legends to have sprung up). They are not fictional (the writers in antiquity did not write in the style of our familiar novels in the 21st Century; fictional works were very obviously fantastic and did not include much of the mundane detail we see in the Gospels). They provide eye-witness testimony to real events which took place close to the time they were written.

This leads to the answer to the second question: why were they preserved? In this passage, John explains his motivation for writing his Gospel – it’s purpose, says John, is to provide credible testimony, evidence, to support us in having faith in Jesus as the Son of God. He makes clear that there were many other examples, far more material, he could have drawn on as he wrote his account. His Gospel is not an exhaustive account of what took place during Jesus’ earthly ministry, but rather it provides the necessary details to show who he is, and why we can have confidence in him as our Saviour. The question is, will we weigh up the evidence John provides for ourselves?

 

Luke 19 v 28-40

They brought [the colt] to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. (Luke 19 v 35-36)

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is unlike almost all his ministry which went before. Previously, he tended to withdraw from public gaze, retiring into the wilderness, telling those he healed not to tell others what he had done. He kept a low profile as much as he could. Why now should he enter Jerusalem with such fanfare?

Jesus knew that the time had come when he was to die for sinners on the cross. As he approached that moment, the pinnacle of his mission, he wanted to draw the attention of the whole nation of Israel to himself. His earthly ministry of teaching was almost over, but his work as the sacrifice for sin remained to be accomplished. It was important that this great sacrifice was not done in a corner, but visible to the world. Why?

If Jesus had been suddenly stoned in popular tumult, or privately beheaded like John the Baptist in prison, there would have been plenty of contemporary people who could have denied that the Son of God died at all. The wisdom of God so ordered events that such a denial was rendered impossible. Publicly he rode into Jerusalem. Publicly he was seen and heard in the city until his arrest and trial. Publicly he was condemned by Pilate, taken out and crucified in full view of the people. Of all the events of his ministry, his death was the most public, and the most witnessed by the Jews. This publicity helps ground our faith in the knowledge that these events actually took place; that we believe on the basis of verifiable, historical fact rather than just a clever theory. It is the historicity of the cross and the resurrection which makes the Christian faith both intellectually credible and existentially satisfying.  

 

John 12 v 1-8

'You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’ (John 12 v 8)

Jesus’ words here need some unpacking if we are not to misunderstand what he is getting at. What are we to make of him saying we will always have the poor among us? Is he suggesting that attempting to combat poverty is futile, or that we should accept the position of those who are  destitute without trying to improve their situation?

The context is important – Jesus is at this point only days away from his arrest, trial and execution. Mary, a close friend, has given Jesus an extravagant gift which he recognises is probably the last one she’ll ever give him. It was a costly gift to give; that she gave it to Jesus, and did so in such humility (anointing his feet) shows the depth of her love for him and recognition of his majesty. Jesus’ reference to his burial (v7) shows that he knows the end of his mission is in sight, and is making the point that there is little time left for his friends to make such gestures.

We might also consider that rather than directing the action of his followers, Jesus is simply stating a fact. Greed is endemic to the human condition, and this will inevitably lead to every society having its share of the poor. Jesus is not endorsing this, just making an observation – indeed in plenty of other places in Scripture he exhorts his followers to give to the poor (eg Mark 10:21).

Finally, we should consider the issue of priority. If we understand who Jesus is, we will rightly prioritise him above everything else. The great news is that when we put him first, we are motivated to serve others in a new and vibrant way as his Spirit moves in us. We see this in the lives of countless Christian people: their faith in Jesus is precisely what fires them to tackle poverty and injustice in our society.

 

Revelation 19 v 11-21

‘Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet… The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse’ (Revelation 19 v 19-20a, 20b-21a)

As we see on our screens only too clearly, war is a bloody and drawn-out business. Each side contends against the other, both sides take losses, and the end is often uncertain in both timing and outcome. The build up to the final showdown in human history starts out looking like the preparation for just such an event: armies drawn up together against the white rider and his army. But something surprising happens as we read the account – there doesn’t seem to be a battle at all. The beast and his cohort are so overmatched by the rider that we read nothing of a fight, only that they were all destroyed, seemingly without much effort. We see a similar pattern in the next chapter, as Satan himself is bested in a seeming anticlimax to the preparation for the fight.

The message here is clear – God’s white rider is so mighty a conqueror that no-one can even begin to stand against him. We don’t have to do too much detective work to establish his identity – one whose appearance is like the Jesus from Chapter 1, who like Jesus is called the Word of God, and who is called King of Kings and Lord and Lords. And we know that the final triumph over all his enemies, even death itself, has already taken place on the cross 2000 years ago. The great encouragement of Revelation is to remember that the battle, though seeming fierce around us now, is already won. All that remains now is for Jesus to return, and we are called to patient endurance while we wait.

 

Revelation 19 v 1-10

Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgements. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants (Revelation 19 v 1b-2)

Life on earth now is hard. We live in what has been called the 'now and not yet' kingdom; the time between Jesus’ first coming (when he inaugurated the kingdom of heaven) and his second coming (when he will consummate it, bringing it into its fulness). As we look around at the dark state the world is in, with all the pain and suffering and horror, it can be hard to remember that Jesus has already won the victory. But the Bible is quite clear that he has.

The vision that John was given in Revelation was provided for the church through the ages, to remind God’s people that the final end of evil is certain, and that the darkness will be lifted. In this passage we see the multitudes of heaven praising God for his justice and righteousness, for his condemnation of the wicked and his vindication of the just. We must hold on to this revealed truth of the final judgement, because by it we can carry on living in this fallen world with hope rather than despair. God is sovereign and will hold everyone, the low and the mighty alike, to account when his kingdom comes in all its fulness. The resurrection of Jesus is proof that this hope is certain, and we can be confident that one day we will be rid of the presence of evil forever.

 

1 Corinthians 15 v 50-58

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15 v 51-52)

Death is the final destination in this world that everyone is heading towards – but it is not the end. In this closing section on his teaching about the resurrection, Paul points us to the certain fact that there will come a discontinuity from the present order. Our tendency is to think that what we can see of life today is all there is, and all there will ever be. This thinking is mistaken. As he looks ahead to the final day of history, Paul highlights at least two key features.

Firstly, the end will be sudden and it will be unexpected. We will not all sleep, Paul says, pointing to the reality that the return of Jesus may happen during our lifetime – we may in fact not die before the Second Coming; we cannot be sure when the ‘trumpet will sound’. We should live in the light of this, as if we may be called to give account at any moment.

Secondly, we will all be changed. The end of history will usher in a new heaven and a new earth, and our experience of it will be new as well. We will still be ourselves, but different – finally free of the presence of the sin we have struggled with our whole lives, free to live perfected lives for eternity. This glorious future is held out as a sure and certain hope for everyone who trusts in Jesus, and who is looking ahead to his return. God has provided us with assurance of this, both by the evidence of Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead, and the downpayment of the Holy Spirit who testifies to our spirit the truth of the gospel message.

 

1 Corinthians 15 v 20-28

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15 v 26)

Death is the great leveller, the final destination of life in this world that everyone is heading to, whether they accept it or not. Though rarely discussed or thought about in our culture, it is a grim certainty that all of us will likely suffer the loss of loved ones and finally face it ourselves. What are we to make of it? Some people do their best to ignore it, others try to make a joke about it. Some try to explain it away as a part of the natural order of life, but that’s where our experience and instinct about it stand out in sharp contrast – death feels dissonant to us, and we reflexively recoil from it. Why?

The Bible shows us that death is not a natural part of life, but is instead an intruder into our existence, brought in by sin. It is an enemy. Because of our fallen nature, we are in its power and when our time comes, whether beggar or king, we have no power of our own to defend against it.

Paul here spells out how the gospel message of Jesus brings us hope, the only hope there is. The resurrection vindicates the truth of who Jesus is, and shows that he has triumphed over every enemy. Even death, that terrible foe, has been defeated by him. Jesus rose from the dead, and his promise is that all who follow him will likewise be freed from death’s grasp and live with Jesus for all eternity. What a saviour!

 

1 Corinthians 15 v 12-20

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15 v 19)

There have sometimes been those, even some who would call themselves Christians, who have denied the resurrection of Jesus. They have argued that the resurrection is a metaphor; that it points to inward renewal or change of life, but should not be taken literally as an actual physical fact of history.

If this is true, then we are left with a pseudo-gospel which is about doing the best we can to follow the example of Jesus, assuming we select him as our role model in preference to any other wise man or leader.

The New Testament authors are quite clear however that the resurrection was a real physical event. Paul mounts an argument in these verses, which follows the assertion that the resurrection didn’t happen through to its logical conclusion. If Jesus is still in the grave, says Paul, then the gospel is a fraud and there can be no hope of life beyond death. Far from being a wise man to be admired and emulated, Jesus turns out to be a liar, and much of his teaching shown to be false. In this scenario, life here on earth is all there is, and Christians are needlessly enduring persecution and suffering based on an empty gospel and a fraudulent saviour. Far from seeing something worthy and noble in it, Paul is scathing – Christians are to be pitied as they turn their backs on so much of what society sees as valuable, in return for a false hope.

The truth of the resurrection is the hinge of history. The New Testament authors went to such pains to convey this truth precisely because of its central importance. We should not be too quick to dismiss it.

 

1 Corinthians 15 v 1-11

After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15 v 6)

Jesus is alive. The cornerstone of the gospel, the key fact of historical Christianity, is the claim that Jesus physically rose from the dead and presented himself to human beings as a testimony to the fact. Paul writes a great deal about the theological significance of the resurrection, and how the power and truth of the message about Jesus hinges on it. How can we have confidence it really happened? In this verse, Paul provides a two-fold answer to his contemporary readers.

That Jesus should appear to 500 people at the same time dismisses any suggestion of hallucination. When people hallucinate, the effect is specific to that one person. If more than one person hallucinates at the same time, each person will have a very different experience. So if, as Paul records, more than 500 people encountered the risen Jesus together, that cannot be accounted for by a hallucination. Something else must have happened.

Secondly, the fact that most of these eye-witnesses were still alive is hugely significant. Paul is effectively saying 'I am not making this up, don’t take my word for it. If you don’t believe me, talk to these eye-witnesses yourself to hear the truth from them.' If Paul’s account of what happened wasn’t true, the surviving members of the group of more than 500 would very quickly have set the record straight. But Paul’s letter withstood the scrutiny of the day, and has survived down the ages to give us assurance of the things that actually took place.

Jesus rose from the dead to demonstrate that his sacrifice accomplished victory over sin and death, and to show that those who trust in him will never die but enjoy eternity with him in glory. The evidence is there, and Paul’s invitation is to come and investigate it.

 

1 Corinthians 13

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13 v 3)

Motives can be hard to crack. Sometimes people can appear to do kind or selfless acts, but a little digging reveals their activity is underpinned by a selfish heart that is actually focussed on itself, rather than the other. In this famous verse from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul focuses on the central theme of love that true faith rests upon. His point is simple: love is the essential ingredient in life, without which nothing has any value. What drives our behaviour is every bit as important as our behaviour itself, because it is our motivation which truly reveals what our hearts treasure. Paul makes the provocative statement that even if a person gives away all their possessions to provide for the poor, suffering physically as they do so, it counts for nothing if they are not fired by love.

Coming as this passage does, hot on the heels of chapter 12, it is clear that the love that is being spoken of is not some vague, ill-defined feeling. Chapter 12 speaks all about the spiritual gifts brought by the Holy Spirit to God’s people, and ends pointing from this to 'the most excellent way' (12:31). What really matters to God is our heart of love (or lack of it) towards the community around us. The greatest effort, the greatest sacrifice, if done without love, is worthless in God’s sight and counts for nothing.

 

1 Corinthians 12 v 1-11

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Corinthians 12 v 4-6)

Scripture makes clear to us that we, those who believe in Jesus and are trusting in him, are Christ’s body. He is the head, we are his own body parts. Through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, Christ comes to make his home in us, and joins us together into a radiant community which displays his glory to those around us.

Especially in the Western world, we can sometimes forget the community aspect of our being the body of Christ, focussing much more on the personal aspect of God indwelling us. This can lead to a skewed, overly-individualistic understanding of our identity in Christ. In these verses, Paul helps remind us that God’s purposes for us are much broader than that. We are individuals, and differ from one another, but we are bound together and unified through what God has done. Three times, Paul highlights the diversity which has its root in God’s unity. God’s people receive different gifts. They offer different kinds of service. They perform different kinds of work. God’s people are not homogeneous clones, but a rich diversity of different individuals. Our faith in Jesus does not erase our differences. But beneath them, foundational to our identity as his children, we see the unity of God at work. It is the same spirit, the same Lord, the same God who is the fountain which provides all this diversity.

Because of this, we shouldn’t compare ourselves with one another, trying to establish a pecking order or hierarchy of faith. Whatever our station or function within the community of God, it is the same God who has individually empowered and equipped us for the service and activity we do. We are together Christ’s body, the church, here in the world and no part is greater than any other.
 

Matthew 2 v 1-12

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2 v 11)

In these verses of Matthew, coming straight after the birth of Jesus, we are presented with something remarkable. We might have expected the first people to come and visit God’s long promised saviour to be important representatives of his own people, the Jews. Instead, we find that Jesus’ first visitors are foreigners, Magi from the East. These wise men have been travelling for quite a while, over some distance, to come and see him. When they finally get to him, we are told they 'knelt down and paid him homage'. In other words, they worshipped him, in stark contrast to the behaviour of his own people who will later have him crucified. Not only that, but their choice of gifts shows that the wise men recognise who Jesus is in a way not seen in the rest of Matthew’s gospel until the very end. Gold, a gift that speaks of kingship and recognises Jesus’ kingly authority. Frankincense, an expensive incense used in the temple that speaks of Jesus’ role as priest, as our mediator with God the Father. Myrrh, a resin used for embalming the dead, which foreshadows Jesus death at Calvary as the fulfilment of his mission. At the start of this New Year, let’s resolve to get to know Jesus better, so that like the wise men we will respond to him in true worship.

 

John 1 v 10-18

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1 v 12-13)

The arrival of Jesus that first Christmas produced a number of profound divisions in the world, which would dramatically impact the lives of people for centuries to come. One of the most obvious (in the Western world at least) is the division of the era before his arrival (BC, or Before Christ) and the era that began with his arrival (AD, Anno Domini, the year of the Lord). Whether people know it or not, the very calendar they use is defined by Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Less obvious, but more fundamental and deep rooted, is the division spoken of in these verses.

Some people think that all human beings are God’s children, but in these verses the apostle John applies a corrective to this thinking. Certainly all human beings are God’s creation, uniquely made in his image and bearing the dignity and intrinsic worth that comes with such a status. But not all human beings are God’s children. Jesus himself calls attention to this truth later in one of his discussions with the Jewish leaders (John 8:31-47). The division between those who are God’s children and those who are not boils down to a person’s response to Jesus. Being a child of God is not a matter of being born of a certain family, or social group, or any one of a hundred other factors which so often mark people out and put them into categories. It comes down to whether a person has received Jesus; has recognised his claim to be lord of their life and is trusting in his name. John assures us that all those who have accepted Jesus have been given the right to become children of God. These are the ones who are God’s heirs, who will inherit the kingdom along with Jesus.

This truth is tremendously liberating. It frees us from the fear of not having the right connections, or background, or credentials, to merit being part of God’s family. The offer is there for all who receive Jesus, not a subset or inner circle but everyone who believes in him. Equally, this truth challenges those who are relying on things such as background, social status, education and so on to attempt to make themselves acceptable to God. This division – whether a person is a child of God or not – goes right to the heart of our identity, and in the final analysis marks us as either a member of God’s family or an outsider. Given the stakes, we do well to consider very carefully what we make of Jesus and his claims over our lives.

 

Luke 2 v 8-20

‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ (Luke 2 v 11-12)

The angels’ message to the shepherds that first Christmas night – that the long-awaited Messiah had just been born – was almost too good to be true. To help them believe it and bear witness, the angels gave them an accompanying sign: they would find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. That a baby would be in cloths was commonplace; the extraordinary part (the sign) was that he would be lying in a dirty animals’ feeding trough.

This was no chance occurrence. The prophet Micah had prophesied 700 years beforehand that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and God had had plenty of time to arrange the arrival of his Son. He went out of his way to make the details extraordinary. Rather than arrange that a faithful virgin and a just man, of the line of David, be based in Bethlehem to accord with the prophecy, he chose Mary and Joseph who lived in Nazareth, and planned for Mary to get pregnant far away from the prophesied town. Then, rather than provide a personal reason for them to go to Bethlehem (such as a private legal or personal matter), which would have provided them lodging, he instead arranged that the Roman emperor would issue an empire-wide census, forcing everyone to travel to their hometown to be registered.

Considering all this, it is far-fetched to think that a God who wields an empire to move one woman from Nazareth to Bethlehem can’t arrange for there to be an available guest room. That Jesus would spend his first night on earth in a manger was exactly what God had planned, and speaks volumes about how human expectations and God’s priorities are completely out of alignment. The angels’ praise at Jesus’ arrival highlights this. They cry out 'Glory to God in the highest!' at what? At the Messiah, the saviour, God’s own son, being born and laid in a manger?! Jesus has gone from the very highest station – the throne of heaven itself – to about as low as he could go to begin his earthly life. What a God! What a Saviour!

 

Luke 1 v 39-45, (46-55)

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leapt in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1 v 41)

‘Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their silence for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breath again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?’ – Madeleine L’Engle

Poised now in the final few days of Advent, it is amazing to think about how profound that first Christmas was. That God himself, the uncreated Word who existed from all eternity, should enter onto the stage of human history as a helpless baby, born in poverty and obscurity. The love and humility Jesus showed as he willingly swapped the glorious throne room of heaven for an animal’s feedbox cannot be overstated. Is it any wonder that after centuries of silence, the Holy Spirit should suddenly touch so many people – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna – to herald what was now taking place in their midst? God was ensuring that the significance of the incarnation would be well attested to, both then (through spoken words) and now (through the contemporary words written down for us by Luke the historian). When we have understood something of the wonderful mystery that was taking place, we will find our perspectives cannot help but be shaped by it.

 

Luke 3 v 7-18

‘But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ (Luke 3 v 16b)

The familiar words of John the Baptist point towards Jesus, the coming Messiah. We often hear them around Advent, as they reflect the same waiting that we experience in the run up to Christmas. John makes the point that Jesus’ baptism will be marked by the Holy Spirit and with fire – that there will be renewal and salvation, as well as testing and refining. The baptism with the Holy Spirit was fulfilled at Pentecost, when God’s spirit was poured out on all the believers; the fulfilment of the baptism with fire will be at Jesus’ return when judgement is brought on those who refuse to repent.

As the various sections of the crowd ask John what they should do to demonstrate repentance, it is noteworthy that each of his responses – to share tunics and food (v11), to avoid collecting more than is due (v13), to not extort money (v14) – show a particular concern for the poor in society. As we await the return of our saviour, who at his first coming appeared in humility and poverty, we should consider carefully how well we show this concern. Does our love for God manifest itself as a love for the poor along the lines John spells out?

 

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 Abilene… (Luke 3 v 1)

Luke the historian takes pains at the beginning of his gospel to set the date and location of the events he is about to describe. The reason for this is plain: he is anxious to ensure his readers know that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was a physical, verifiable set of events that actually took place in human history.

Jesus’ birth in Bethelehem that we remember at advent was a real, physical phenomenon. The world wasn’t expecting it, wasn’t looking for it, when suddenly God the Son appeared in its midst. As well as remembering the familiar Christmas story, advent is also a season of expectant waiting and preparation for Jesus’ return. As with his first coming, Scripture tells us that his second too will be a physical phenomenon, which will take place when the world isn’t expecting it and isn’t looking for it. Unlike his first coming however, the return of God the Son will be an event nobody will overlook or miss – it will be the climactic end of history, marking the final consummation of God’s kingdom. On that day, every eye will see him and understand.

Living as we do in a time of great uncertainty and anxiety, we can take heart from the knowledge that God is even now working out his purposes in human history, preparing for the glorious return of his Son. It may come sooner than we think – certainly the world around us will be taken by surprise. We should make sure that we are watchful and prepared, for it is certain that he is coming.

 

Luke 21 v 25-36

‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly, like a trap.’ (Luke 21 v 34)

In these verses, Jesus is answering a question about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (hence verse 32, which applies to this theme), but expands beyond it to talk about the final judgement at the end of time when he returns. Many have tried to fix a date to when this will take place; all have been mistaken, and Jesus elsewhere tells us not to try (Acts 1:7).  What we can be certain of is that Jesus will come again, and that his return will herald the consummation of his kingdom and the final restoration of his people. In the midst of trials and hardships, this truth has been the guiding light for believers down through the centuries, and we remember it particularly during this season of Advent.

In part because we don’t know when it will happen, our focus on Jesus’ return is often clouded by the pressures and distractions of life. Jesus is aware of this, and warns us not to let ourselves be drawn away from living life in the light of his second coming. It is easy to let the anxieties of life get on top of us, and for patterns of godly living to slip away, if we focus too long on the wrong things. Let us be wise, and strive to live each day as if Jesus’ return is just around the corner. In this way, whenever we see him face to face, we will be expecting it and not caught out.

 

Ruth 4

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son… And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4 v 13, 17b)

The story of Ruth is a heartwarming one; from its opening note of tragedy the story unfolds as Ruth’s selfless devotion to her mother-in-law and trust in God leads her to find security and love in the kinsman-redeemer Boaz. There are many lessons which can be learnt from it, about trusting in God even in hard circumstances, the importance of integrity and faithfulness, and the wisdom of seeking and taking good advice. But beyond all this, it is important for us to remember that this little story is narrative history about what happened to a small family living in Israel in the days of the judges. Why is that important? The end of Ruth points to a startling fact: this humble widow from Moab is not just blessed by God, but is revealed as the great-grandmother of king David, and so a direct ancestor of Jesus. God works in his world in ways we don’t expect, often that can only be comprehended in hindsight. Things which can seem inconsequential to us may have profound impacts on those who come after us, so we should be watchful and attentive to hear God’s call and obey him.

 

Ruth 3

'Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.' (Ruth 3 v 3b-4)

What was Naomi’s plan here? This was not some suggestion of a seductive act, but rather that Ruth should act in accordance with Israelite law and custom. It was common practice for a servant to lie at the feet of their master, and even share some of their covering during the night. By doing this, Ruth would be indicating to Boaz that he could be her kinsman-redeemer; that he could find somebody to marry her or marry her himself.

Since Ruth was a foreigner, Naomi’s suggestion probably sounded odd to her. But Ruth chose to follow the advice because she knew Naomi was kind, trustworthy and filled with moral integrity. Each of us knows a friend or family member who looks out for our best interests. We should be willing to listen to those who are older and wiser than ourselves, and consider carefully the advice they give us.

This is particularly appropriate for Remembrance Sunday, as we remember those who have fallen in war. We should pay attention to the older generation, and those who have experience of being involved in conflicts, so that we can learn from them and seek to avoid repeating the terrible mistakes of history.

 

Ruth 2

'May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.' (Ruth 2 v 12b)

Following Ruth’s courageous decision to forsake her homeland and people to accompany Naomi back to Israel, the hardships of their lives begin to be replaced with a ray of hope. As she goes out to the fields to try and glean enough grain to provide food for herself and Naomi, Ruth finds herself working in the fields of a relative of her mother-in-law, a man named Boaz. Boaz is impressed by Ruth’s selfless dedication to her mother-in-law, and her willingness to become part of the Israelite people, and so starts to provide generously for them both.

It’s interesting to note that Boaz recognises two things about Ruth’s situation. As well as blessing her for what she has done (v12a), he also blesses her for her status as one who is taking refuge under God’s wings (v12b).

If we have turned away from a life of worldly living, and come instead to live as a member of God’s people, there are parallels for us with Ruth’s story. Just as Ruth found her life began to be turned around when she abandoned her old way of life to join with Israel, so we too can experience a profound change if we turn away from a life centred on us and begin to follow Jesus. We too can find great reward as we take refuge under the wings of the Lord, the God of Israel, as he reveals himself in Christ.

 

Ruth 1

They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. (Ruth 1 v 4-5)

The beginning of the book of Ruth is a tragedy. Fleeing a famine, a family travels from Judah to Moab and settles there. As they look to make a life for themselves there, the husband dies, leaving the widow with two sons. These boys try to take care of their mother: they marry and try to replace their father as breadwinner, but they both die within ten years of arriving in Moab. The book starts with three widows, related by marriage, united in mourning.

With the famine in Judah at an end, it was an obvious choice for Naomi to return home. She had family and old neighbours she could look to, and seek to integrate back into the society she had come from. For Ruth however, the choice to leave Moab must have taken tremendous courage. She was looking at leaving her own society, her wider family, neighbours and friends, to travel with her mother-in-law to a nation which was foreign to her and which was known for being distinctive from (and often hostile to) the surrounding nations. Why would she want to make such a bold move?

Ruth’s love for Naomi shines through here, her commitment to stay with her demonstrating its depth. More than this, however, there are hints that more may lie behind her decision to go with Naomi. She had married into a Hebrew family, and had learned through that experience about God. This seems to have a bearing here: in Ruth’s refusal to abandon Naomi, she says, 'Your people will be my people and your God my God' (v16) and 'May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely…' (v17). Could it be that even in the midst of tragedy, Ruth was learning to trust in God and believed that among his people she would find a home to replace the one she had lost?

 

Job 42 v 1-6, 10-17

‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42 v 5-6)

Grappling with his tremendous suffering, struggling to make sense of it all, Job has argued with his friends, wrestled with the seeming unfairness of it all, and finally come face to face with God himself. Until this final encounter, Job’s perspective has been rooted in his life experience of the world, and his understanding of how it all works. He has tried, and failed, to harmonise what he believes about the world with his current experience of it.

All this changes when he meets with God. As he is confronted by the awesome sovereignty and otherness of God, Job comes to understand that it is God that is the ultimate standard by which the universe is judged, weighed up, and understood. It is this recognition that finally enables Job to look beyond his miserable circumstances and see something beyond them – and that something is bigger than him or his troubles. These final reported words of Job show the dawning of this insight; he has moved from a second-hand understanding of God ('my ears had heard of you') to a first-hand experience of him ('my eyes have seen you'). His response is to both 'despise himself', as he realises that his thinking had been so blinkered, and to repent as a right response to this revelation.

For us too, this is important insight. As we struggle through the hardships of life, it is all too tempting to lower our gaze to the difficulties and lose sight of the God who is at the centre of all things. We must repent of this, and seek to keep our attention firmly fixed on him if we want to make sense of life.

 

 

Job 38 v 1-7 (34-41)

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? (Job 38 v 4a)

Here in this last act of the book of Job, God finally steps onto the stage and addresses him. Job has been raising a number of questions about the nature of his suffering and the meaning behind it, and has been dissatisfied with the answers he has received from the mouths of those close to him. Now at this final encounter, he comes face to face with God himself out of the storm, to hear from him directly. Surprisingly, God doesn’t answer any of Job’s questions. Instead, he asks Job a set of questions by reply; questions which no human being could possibly answer. What is going on here?

The truth is that Job’s questions were not at the heart of the matter. Instead, God uses the opportunity of Job’s ignorance of the created order – the mechanics and underlying causes of the natural world – to reveal his ignorance of God’s moral order. If Job could not understand the world he could see, how could he hope to understand the mind and character of the God he couldn’t see? In these verses, God is pointing to the truth that it is his character, his being, which is the ultimate standard by which to judge. There is no higher authority. When we recognise this as we are going through difficult times, we will be drawn to the conclusion that Job came to – we must remember our position before the eternal, almighty, incomprehensible God and humbly trust in his providence. Living in the time that we do, we can have confidence that he loves us and will bring us through the trial, because of what we have seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

 

Job 23

I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. (Job 23 v 12)

Why me? Job’s suffering prompted his friends to offer their advice to him, and in it we can see glimpses of the truth. Eliphaz the Temanite rightly recognises the holiness of God, and the need for genuine repentance and asking God’s forgiveness when we sin. However, he wrongly applies this truth to Job’s situation; Job had already sought God’s forgiveness (7:20,21; 13:23) and walked closely with God throughout his experiences. It is too simplistic to equate suffering with unconfessed sin.

Job continues in his questioning, saying that his suffering would be more bearable if he could at least understand the reason for it. If there was sin for which he could repent, he would! He knew about the wicked and the fact that they would be punished, and he knew that God could vindicate him if he chose to. Job’s overriding desire was for God to clear his name, prove his righteousness and explain why he was chosen to undergo all this hardship. Job tried to make his friends see that questions about God, life and justice are not as simple as they assumed.

Suffering can very rarely be neatly explained, and we do well to tread softly when trying to unpack it in the hearing of those going through it. The most helpful thing Job’s 'comforters' did was probably sit with him in silent solidarity (2:13) – the comfort evaporated quickly once they opened their mouths!

 

Job 1 and 2

When they saw [Job] from a distance, they could hardly recognise him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2 v 12-13)

Why do bad things happen to good people? This conundrum has been debated by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and continues to gnaw at us in the 21st century. Some see this problem of suffering as proof that God doesn’t exist; others, that God is either unloving or powerless to prevent it. Some, believing that God is both loving and powerful, conclude the answer must be that suffering is punishment for sin and disobedience, and that good people must in fact be wicked.

The book of Job confronts this ancient puzzle head on. The opening verse presents Job as a righteous man, who lives a blameless life. By the end of chapter 2, his life is in tatters and his friends are struck dumb by the shocking depths of suffering that Job has been plunged into. The book will go on to explore the theme of suffering in much more detail, but for now we should note that chapters 1 and 2 allow the reader a glimpse behind the scenes, as it were. An important lesson here is that there is more to reality than we can perceive from an earthly viewpoint. Job doesn’t get to see the dialogue taking place in the throne room of heaven, and isn’t party to the motives and the moves being planned there. When we undergo suffering, and seek to make sense of it, we might do well to consider with humility that there might be more to our situation than we can at first comprehend. Just because we can’t see meaning in it doesn’t make it meaningless.

 

James 5 v 13-20

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. (James 5 v 13)

Towards the end of his book, James points us to this simple truth – whatever is going on in our lives, we should be actively bringing it before God and seeking his involvement in it. This recognition of God, and the reminder that our lives should be in orbit around him, not the other way around, will have a tremendous balancing effect on us.

In this first instance, when we are in trouble, we should bring our concerns and problems to God in prayer. In so doing, we are reminded that we have a Father who loves us deeply, and who is in ultimate control of our lives. He cares for us. Whatever hardships we face, this knowledge will help encourage us as we realise that there is a purpose behind the trouble, and that God is using it for our good (Romans 8:28).

Equally, when we are enjoying life, when things are going well, we should be actively praising God and thanking him. When we thank God, we are recognising that the good things that we have and that we enjoy come from him, and are a blessing from him. We are less likely to puff ourselves up and convince ourselves that our prosperity and happiness is all down to us.

 

James 3 v 13 – 4 v 3, 7-8a

But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such 'wisdom' does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. (James 3 v 14-15)

There has perhaps never been a time quite so self-centred as our own. Our society is unashamedly individualistic, and increasingly encourages us to forget about those around us and focus on ourselves and our own desires. Where once it was normal to see oneself in the context of a family group or a place within a community, the messages we are constantly being bombarded with now are about seeing ourselves as autonomous individuals. 'Assert yourself', 'Go for it', 'Be true to yourself' – all these sorts of slogans direct us to put our own interests first and look after number one.

In this passage, James warns us that the selfish ambition that we are so easily drawn into is not a godly mindset, and not an attitude that we should adopt. It will lead to envy, greed and destructive competitiveness, as we end up putting ourselves rather than God at the centre of our lives. As we consider Jesus’ attitude, how he approached ambition and self-interest, we quickly see how it is diametrically opposed to how the voice of society is encouraging us to live.

Humility comes from wisdom, as we recognise that we are not the masters of our own lives. Seeking God’s wisdom will deliver us from the need to compare ourselves to others and to want what they have. Earthly wisdom, and the things it delivers, are transient and will not last. When we find ourselves feeling envious – or proud – we would do well to remember that ultimately all that we have or that we achieve in making a name for ourselves will count for nothing when we stand before Jesus on the last day.

 

James 3 v 1-12

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3 v 5b-6)

Forest fires can wreak tremendous damage. Those living in wooded areas during hot, dry weather can suddenly find their homes, livelihoods and indeed lives threatened by an approaching wall of smoke and fire that consumes everything in its path. James points out that this unstoppable force started with something quite trivial, a small spark, and draws the comparison between this and our tongues.

Just as a small spark can set off a blaze of terrible destructive power, so a few ill-chosen (or perhaps deliberately chosen) words can likewise stir up great trouble. Dissention, pain, anger and even violence can result from something that has been said which can cause enormous strife. Just like a spark catching in dry tinder in the forest, words are extremely difficult to control once they have been spoken. James is here highlighting the truth that our words matter enormously, and can therefore quickly have enormous impact on those around us.  

Soberingly, in highlighting the truth that the tongue is incendiary, James is saying that we generally use our tongues destructively. Worse still, the way we speak and the uses to which we put our tongues tend to corrupt, setting us on a downward course. James tells us all this to highlight the danger, helping us to face up to it and recognise the truth. The tongue is beyond our control – can any of use truthfully claim to have gone even a single day without saying something untrue, or hurtful, or unkind? The tongue is beyond our control because it is the outflow of our hearts (Matt 15:18). Our hearts are defiled and unclean, and there is nothing we can do to fix them. Wonderfully, God knows how desperately our hearts need to be restored, and has taken action in Jesus to put them right.

 

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

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2 v 15-17)

Have you ever heard the expression, 'that person is so spiritually-minded that they’re no earthly use'? It is sometimes applied to people who on the surface seem very pious and godly – perhaps talking a lot about prayer or advocating Christian values – but who don’t actually act in a way which lives out their words. They don’t practise what they preach.

In this passage, James is drawing attention to this sort of inconsistency, and showing what is actually going on with it. His point is that true faith always leads to action, because a person’s actions are driven by their beliefs. If our 'faith', which is rooted in God’s love, does not inspire us to act in loving ways towards others, it is not true faith. James does not deny that salvation comes by faith, but he denies that true faith exists in the absence of deeds. James actually takes issue with the expression we started with: in reality, a truly spiritually-minded person is always of earthly use.

As we take stock of our own spiritual health, we need to recognise the complementarity of faith and deeds. The vitality of our relationship with Christ is built on faith, but evidenced by how we live. To put it more provocatively: if you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

 

James 1 v 17-27

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. (James 1 v 21)

It has sometimes been said that the book of James is at odds with Paul’s books and letters, in that Paul speaks about salvation by grace while James talks all about actions rather than belief. A little probing of the text quickly reveals that both James and Paul are actually talking about the same thing, just with different emphases. An early indication of this can be seen in this verse, where James exhorts his audience to do two things: to get rid of the evil in their lives (repent) and humbly accept the word that was planted in them (believe the good news). This is exactly the same message with which Jesus opened his ministry (e.g. Mark 1:15) and links strongly to Paul’s assertion that salvation comes through faith in the work Jesus has done (eg Ephesians 2:8).

In his book James does indeed have much to say about deeds, but it is clear that he recognises that deeds arise from a person’s beliefs. Rather than saying our deeds are what saves us, the central theme of James is that our deeds are visual indicators of the faith that we hold. If we 'humbly accept the word planted' in us, our behaviour will reflect this and we will find ourselves doing the sorts of deeds James describes.  By contrast, if we reject the word – reject the good news about Jesus and what he has done for us – we will find our lives empty of the deeds that spring from a vibrant faith in him. Our deeds act like a mirror, revealing what goes on in our hearts. Have we taken a good look recently, and do we like what we see?

 

Ephesians 6 v 10-20

Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6 v 19-20)

How do we find prayer? Many of us struggle in this area, finding it hard to pray and being easily distracted from it. For some, the pressure of life tends to crowd it out, and it becomes part of the periphery of life. There is often a link between how comfortable a person is finding life and a growing risk of prayerlessness. As the saying goes 'you cannot know what prayer is for, until you know that life is war'. Comfort breeds complacency.

Paul was very clear on the importance of prayer at the end of his description of the armour of God. There are three points which stand out from what he says which should encourage us. Firstly, that it is good to ask for prayer. Paul recognised his dependence on God, which was what prompted him to ask others to pray for him. Secondly, that it is God who provided for his specific needs. Apostle though he was, set apart by God to proclaim the gospel, he nevertheless asked his friends in the church to pray that God would give him the words he needed. Thirdly, that even though he was personally appointed by Jesus to preach the gospel and empowered by God’s Spirit, he could find it hard to share the gospel. Twice in the passage we see the word 'fearlessly', which shows that Paul could struggle at times to be bold. Recognising this struggle, he also recognises his need of God’s Spirit to strengthen him and enable him to do the work he has been entrusted with.

The encouragement to us is clear: prayer is a powerful help for us to live godly lives, doing the work the Lord asks of us, and we should not be afraid to ask others to support us in prayer, especially when going through tough times.

 

Ephesians 5 v 15-20

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5 v 15-16)

How should we live as Christians? That is the big question Paul addresses in these verses, as he reminds his audience of who they are, and where they have come from. The contrast is huge; Paul highlights this using the metaphor of darkness and light. All Christians started out in a state of darkness, stumbling around lost in their sin, until they were rescued by Christ’s sacrifice and brought into the light. This means at least two things: firstly, that Christians have no place being smug about their actions or their lives, as their status as 'children of light' (v8) is bestowed, not earned. Secondly, that Christians should now live in a qualitatively different way than they did before they came to know Jesus, just as light is qualitatively different from darkness.

This is not always easy, which is why Paul here warns us to be careful. What can be easy is to slip back into patterns of behaviour that belong to our past, rather than those which are appropriate to our present status. This is something we must resist. It is important that we seek to live wisely, and make the most of the opportunities that God provides us with, because we live in a world which is still darkened by sin. Not only will living wisely be pleasing to the God who has rescued us, but it will also help reveal the truth about him to those around us, which may help draw them to Jesus.  

 

Ephesians 4 v 25 – 5 v 2

In your anger, do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4 v 26-27)

It is not sinful to become angry. Sometimes we forget this, and equate feeling angry with falling into sin, but this would be a mistake. Jesus never sinned, but he did express anger at times (e.g. Mark 3:5). Anger can be a perfectly appropriate response when we are confronted by injustice or wickedness, but it must be handled carefully – hence Paul’s warning to us to in this passage.

In the first instance, our anger is often born of mixed motives. We may be incensed by something unfair, but this can be coloured by our own interest in what is going on. We will tend to be much more angry about stealing if we are the one the thief stole from. Secondly, our anger can burn out of control if we allow it, hurting others and damaging relationships if not managed properly.

Venting our anger thoughtlessly can cause harm to others; bottling it up it can cause us to become bitter and cause harm to ourselves. Paul tells us in these verses to deal with our anger immediately in a way that builds relationships rather than destroys them. If we nurse our anger, we will provide Satan with an opportunity to divide us. If we are angry with somebody right now, what can we do to resolve our differences? We should not allow the day to end before we start to work on mending the situation and our relationship.

 

Ephesians 4 v 1-16

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4 v 15)

In these confusing times, it can be easy to lose our way when speaking to people. Although some people speak truthfully in a way that wounds others, being more concerned to tell the unvarnished truth than sparing the hearer pain, they tend to be a minority in western culture. Far more common are those who feel it is right to speak kindly to others, avoiding hurting the feelings or offending the sensibilities of their hearers, even when that means avoiding telling the truth.

Both of these ways of speaking fall short of how Christians should communicate. As Paul sums up in this passage, we should be 'speaking the truth in love' – it is that which will lead to the church becoming mature. While it is important to speak lovingly to others, saying things which are for the hearer’s benefit and seeking to build them up, it is equally important that what we say is true. There is much being said quite publicly in Christian circles today which makes this error: in (rightly) seeking not to upset and offend, what is said is (wrongly) deviating from the truth and distorting the clear teaching of the Bible.

A clear way to avoid this mistake is to know Scripture well – to read it attentively and mediate on it so that we absorb it deeply. Are we making time in our busy lives to look at God’s Word for ourselves and consider how it applies to our lives?

 

Ephesians 3 v 14-21

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. (Ephesians 3 v 14)

The family of God includes all who have believed in him in the past, all who believe in the present, and all who will believe in him in the future. We are all one family because we have the same Father. He pours out his blessings on us, promising his love and power in our lives, and he does so as members of his family. Although he loves us and blesses us each individually, he does it in the context of our being united together in one body, the church (eg Ephesians 2:22).

In our individualistic society, we too often forget that God calls us into relationship with him as part of a family. The Bible knows nothing of 'lone wolf' Christianity; the idea that a person can follow Jesus in complete isolation from anybody else is completely foreign to the New Testament writers. Each person has their own unique gifts and contribution to make to the life of the church, and it is important that we stay in contact with other believers in the body of Christ. Remaining connected in this way brings blessings on ourselves and upon others. Those who isolate themselves from God’s family and try to go it alone cut themselves off from God’s power, and will find both their ministry in the world and their personal spiritual health suffer as a result.  

In these difficult times in the midst of the pandemic, it can be even tougher to stay connected with one another. Perhaps we need to reflect on the importance of doing so, and work at ways we can continue to be a blessing to one another, and receive blessings in return.

 

Ephesians 2 v 11-22

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two (Ephesians 2 v 14-15a)

Society today puts great emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness. The focus on inclusion, on bringing the outsider into positive relationship with the majority, is something which has gained a lot of traction lately but in fact it is not a new idea.

Twenty centuries ago in Palestine, society had a number of divisions which kept people apart. Chief among these was the great divide between the Jews and the Gentiles; between God’s chosen people and the rest of humanity. This was a barrier that could not be overcome, with any number of laws and prohibitions keeping the two groups apart and hostile to one another. It can be hard for us to grasp just how revolutionary and shocking the message of the gospel was to that society – that this most unbreakable barrier had been destroyed by Jesus’ death on the cross, who had brought the Jews and Gentiles together and forged a new single humanity out of the two groups. That this deepest of cultural hostilities could be overcome, and a new single humanity formed from out of the two groups, was an amazing message of hope.

Paul emphasises that the foundation and the purpose of this unity and peace is found in Jesus – it is through him that this amazing reconciliation is made possible. He is showing us that through the good news of Jesus, there is no division within society – whether race, class, wealth, gender or anything else – that cannot be dissolved by putting our trust in Jesus. With him as our foundation, all people can find rest and peace in this one new humanity: the ultimate in inclusivity.

 

Ephesians 1 v 3-14

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight … adopted… through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1 v 4-5a)

For many the pain and uncertainty of the times we have been living through have caused much soul searching. Health of self and loved ones, job losses, isolation from family and friends – the difficulties of daily living in this COVID-19 pandemic have grown so much that fundamental assumptions about life have been challenged. Is God really in control? Does he care? Are we safe in his hands?

This wonderful passage gives us an emphatic 'yes!' to all these questions. God is completely sovereign; completely in control. So overarching is his dominion that he chose us before the creation of the world itself. And our confidence in his good purposes towards us is equally certain: he chose us to be blameless and set apart for him – a people who would be his cherished possession. He loves us so much that he has adopted us into his family, through the blood of Jesus (v7). This surely is the most amazing part of all – that God should pay with the blood of his own beloved Son to adopt us. A final point: in the 1st century Roman world, the adoption of a son was irrevocable. A natural son might be cast out of the family for some crime or relational breakdown, but under Roman law an adopted son could not. Once adopted, forever adopted. What tremendous assurance we can have, when the whirlwind of life howls about us, that God is for us and that we are safe in his hands!

 

John 14 v 1-11

Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except though me.’ (John 14 v 6)

All of Jesus’ 'I am' statements are claims unique to him. Jesus never says, 'I am a…' as though he was one of many, but rather 'I am the…'. He is the good shepherd, the bread of life, the light of the world. Here is this passage, he makes another unique claim: that he is the way, the truth and the life – the only way to God.

In our pluralistic society, this claim is deeply unpopular with many people who argue that this is far too narrow. Can’t there be other valid ways to God, apart from Jesus? This is not a new objection to Christianity; Christians in the Roman world were not persecuted for their belief in Jesus so much as for their exclusive belief in Jesus. In Rome, as in today’s world, there was pressure to compromise on the uniqueness of Christ. But the truth is that, far from being narrow, the good news about Jesus is wide enough for the whole world, if only the world chooses to accept it. Through the gospel, God has provided a sure way to get to him, a way which is guaranteed and which is not limited by a person’s background, race, gender, or any anything else. It is not limited to an elite few, but is a path open to all without distinction. Jesus calls all of us to come to him, and promises that all who do will indeed find that he is the way, the truth and the life.

 

Revelation 1 v 9-20

‘His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!”’ (Revelation 1 v 16b-18a)

In this passage from the beginning of Revelation, we get a description of John’s encounter with the glorified Jesus – and what a description! John had travelled with Jesus for three years as a close friend, and had even glimpsed Jesus’ unveiled glory once before, on the mount of transfiguration (e.g. Mark 9). It seems none of that could prepare him for the experience of meeting the ascended Jesus – his response to the awesome sight was to collapse in terror.

Jesus’ words here are tremendously comforting. On the one hand, his 'I am' statements  are awe-inspiring: he alone encompasses the whole of creation (the First and the Last) and life itself (the Living One), the one who defeated death forever (was dead and is now alive for ever and ever). No wonder John was shaken to the core to meet him face to face. Yet Jesus’ first words are 'Do not be afraid'. The words John records here are spoken to us as well, and are meant to bring us comfort. In spite of his awesome power and majesty, Jesus seeks to encounter his people tenderly and with great gentleness. The one who defeated death itself did so for us, and calls us to not be afraid but to trust and follow him into eternal life.

 

John 11 v 17-27

Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ (John 11 v 25-26)

Death is the great enemy, which causes enormous pain and misery in the world. Many of us know this all too well from our own experience; if we don’t yet, we will find out in due course. In this passage, we see that Jesus knows this pain himself. On hearing of Lazarus’ illness he deliberately stayed away in order that he could reveal a greater miracle than merely curing Lazarus, yet even knowing the miracle he was about to perform, Jesus was ‘deeply moved’ (v33, 38) and openly wept (v35) due to the grief and pain Lazarus’ death had brought.

The raising of Lazarus from the dead was a vivid demonstration of what Jesus had said a few verses earlier. Though death is the great enemy, it is not the ultimate reality – God is. Jesus has conquered death, and all those who trust in him will live on with him in eternity. When we are confronted by death, we must cling to Jesus’ words and trust that what he tells us is the truth. He has given us plenty of evidence and reasons to do so. Jesus asks us the same question he asked Martha: 'Do you believe this?' Living as we do in the days after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we have even greater reason than she did to put our faith in him.

 

John 10 v 7-21

'I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.’  (John 10 v 7b-9a)

What does Jesus mean when he calls himself 'the gate for the sheep'? In the first century, the shepherd functioned as a gate at the opening of the sheep pen (often a cave, shed or open area surrounded by some kind of wall). The sheep were kept safe in the pen overnight, with the shepherd letting them in and out, and protecting them from those who might try to harm them. Jesus draws a sharp contrast between himself as this protector, and all others, who he says were thieves and robbers – people just out for themselves, with no real regard for the sheep.

Jesus is the gate to God’s salvation for us. He offers access to safety and security, to ultimate satisfaction in life. Christ is our protector. Some people are affronted by Jesus’ claim to be the unique gate; that all others are thieves and robbers. They resent the idea that Jesus is the only way of access to God. Our society today grows increasingly hostile to the exclusive claims of Christ, and there is increasing pressure on us to accept other paths as equally valid. But Jesus is God’s Son – why should we seek any other way or want to customise a different approach to God?

 

John 8 v 12-20

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.' … He spoke these things while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put (John 8 v 12, 20a)

John’s gospel opens with a description of Jesus being light shining in the darkness, which evil cannot overcome. The darkness tries to hide the truth; it is the light which reveals it. By the light Jesus brings, we see ourselves as we really are: sinners in need of rescue by a saviour.

In this passage, Jesus was speaking to the people in the part of the temple where the offerings were put. It was here that candles burned to symbolise the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert on the way to the Promised Land, and it was in this context that Jesus claimed to be the light of the world. The pillar of fire represented God’s presence, protection and guidance to those who were following it; likewise, Jesus brings God’s presence, protection and guidance to all those who follow him. When we follow Jesus, the true light, we can avoid walking blindly and falling into sin. He lights the path ahead of us so we can see how to live. He removes the darkness of sin from our lives.

If we allow the light of Christ to shine into our lives, if we let him guide us, we will never need to stumble in darkness.

 

John 8 v 48-59

'Very truly I tell you,' Jesus answered, 'before Abraham was born, I am!' At this they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. (John 8 v 58-59)

Every so often somebody comes along who says that Jesus has been gravely misunderstood; that he never claimed to be divine. Passages such as this one immediately refute this falsehood: Jesus’ final statement to his critics in this exchange is to boldly and openly claim that he is God himself.

This passage in John’s gospel is the culmination of a long argument between Jesus and some of his opponents, which centred around Jesus’ identity. Jesus speaks more and more openly about who he is, and when the figure of Abraham is brought into the conversation Jesus makes his profound statement, 'before Abraham was born, I am!' In saying this, Jesus is not only claiming to have existed centuries ago – to have been around before Abraham was born – but he is also laying claim to the personal name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush ('I am who I am', Exodus 3:14). Jesus is explicitly claiming to be none other than God himself. And in case we are tempted to think we have this wrong, we should note that Jesus’ hearers were in no doubt what he was claiming. To their ears, Jesus had just uttered terribly blasphemy, and in the temple too, and their immediate response was to pick up stones to stone him for the crime.

 

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. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.’ (John 17 v 15-16)

With the end of his mission in sight, his arrest only a few hours away, Jesus prays with his disciples. Knowing that he is about to return to his father (v11, 13), he prays some very specific things for them, that they might be strengthened and encouraged through the difficult days ahead. Many of us, when we face hardships, want nothing more than to be free of them – to be taken to a place far removed from the pressure and the pain. It’s worth noting that Jesus explicitly prays that this doesn’t happen; that rather than the disciples being taken out of the world and its suffering, they should remain and be protected from the evil one who prowls around the world. A moment’s pause shows why this is a good thing for us: it is through the disciples’ testimony that the good news of Jesus has made it down through the years to reach and rescue us. In the same way, it is for the good of God’s people that every generation should likewise not be pulled out from the world, but be protected from the evil one as they go about proclaiming the salvation Jesus brings. Though this experience is harder than immediate removal from our struggles, we are encouraged that this is only a temporary situation – like Jesus, we are not of this world, and ahead of us lies an eternity with him that will far outweigh the 'light and momentary troubles' we face in the present (2 Cor 4:17).

 

John 6 v 25-40

Then they asked him, 'What must we do to do the works God requires?' Jesus answered, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. … For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ (John 6 v 28-29, 40)

The verses here come before and after Jesus’ statement 'I am the bread of life' (v35), and help us to understand what he is getting at. Many people approach God with the idea that they have to do something to earn his approval and merit his favour. The crowd at the start of this passage are no different; they want to know what they must do to meet God’s requirements. Jesus cuts cleanly through this notion of achievement. He says that the 'work' people have to do is simply to believe in him – the bread of life – because the Father’s will is that all who believe in him will have eternal life. Just as we sustain our physical life by regularly eating wholesome food (bread), so our spiritual life is sustained by regularly coming to Jesus and having a right relationship with him. Just as physical bread can satisfy our physical hunger and nourish our bodies, so Jesus (the bread of life) can satisfy our spiritual hunger and nourish our souls. It is Jesus who gives us eternal life, rescuing us from the mistakes and the mess we have made of our lives, and who will raise us up at the last day.

 

John 10 v 11-18

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10 v 11)

There are so many voices in our lives telling us what to do, how to live. Which ones do we listen to, and which ones do we ignore? Getting this wrong can have serious consequences, and lead us to make decisions which can have terrible outcomes. Who can we trust to act as our shepherd, and guide us along the right paths in life?

Jesus makes the claim that he is the good shepherd we should follow. It is an exclusive claim; he does not say he is 'a' good shepherd but 'the' good shepherd (see for example verses 5 and 8), and he backs that up by making the contrast between the hired hand, who is out for himself, and the good shepherd whose priority is his sheep and who lays down his life for them.

When we are tempted to doubt, or feel our allegiance swayed by another voice, let’s remember that Jesus did indeed lay down his life for us. This concrete fact of history can help us dispel the whispers in our ears that he doesn’t really love us, or want the best for us – his death on the cross demonstrates the extent of his love, and gives us assurance that we are safe in his care, whatever life throws at us.

 

Mark 1 v 21-39

‘He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.’ (Mark 1 v 34b)

The first half of the book of Mark is all about Jesus’ identity: who is Jesus? In this opening chapter, we see the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, with him teaching and performing miracles with amazing authority. The demons know who he is (v24, v34) yet Jesus forbade them to speak 'because they knew who he was'. Why not let them broadcast his identity straight away and save all the confusion?

There are at least three reasons. In the first instance, those speaking were demons – enemies bitterly opposed to God. Though they happened to be telling the truth about Jesus, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t lie to those listening to them, and no way to tell if they did. It would have been very unwise to allow them to provide a testimonial. The second reason is related; Jesus did not want to rely on third-party validation of who he really is, but wanted people to judge for themselves on the basis of the evidence he provided. This in turn feeds into the third reason, and explains why Jesus himself did not proclaim that he was the Messiah – his identity as Messiah, God’s chosen king, was very different to people’s expectations of what Messiah would be and do. Jesus didn’t want to allow this misunderstanding to cloud people’s perceptions of what his mission was; he would rather allow people to see him in action and form their own opinions.

For us, living some 2000 years after the events Mark records, the same challenge applies. What do we make of Jesus? Are we happy to fall into the trap of uncritically believing what third parties around us say about him, or do we instead look at what Jesus himself did and taught, and form our own opinion of who he is?

 

Mark 1 v 9-15

‘The time has come,' he said. 'The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1 v 15)

Mark recounts the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in these succinct words. He distils the proclamation of the good news of God into these three sentences, which together capture the heart of Jesus’ message. Firstly, 'the time has come'. Down through history, God had been working out his plan of salvation and the time of its culmination had now arrived. Jesus’ appearance on the world’s stage is the pivotal moment. Secondly, 'the kingdom of God is near'. The kingdom is near because Jesus, God’s king, has arrived on the scene. For the first century God-fearing Jew, the arrival of God’s king was a long awaited promise come true during troubled times, and would have been a great comfort and source of joy. For us too, living in times which are no less troubled and anxiety riven, the news that God’s kingdom is near gives us tremendous hope amidst all the chaos in our lives. We have not been forgotten, overlooked or abandoned by God – he loves us and has come near to us in his son, the King. Thirdly, 'repent and believe the good news!'. The King calls us to change course, abandon a way of life that is going the wrong way and put our trust in him. In these few words Jesus counters two opposing errors people can make when they think about life.

The first error is to discount the sin in our lives, and act as though it doesn’t matter. Jesus’ command to repent tells us that in fact, sin matters very much, and that we are to root it out in our lives and seek to live in obedience to God. The second error is to think we must earn the forgiveness of our sin. Jesus’ command to believe tells us that rather than perform actions to offset our sin, we are instead to trust in him – ultimately, in the action that he took on the cross on our behalf to deal conclusively with our sin for us.

As we reflect on our lives at the moment, let’s make sure we are those who are repenting and believing the good news.

 

Psalm 142

‘Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.’ (Psalm 142 v 7)

Psalm 142 was written by David as he took refuge in a cave during the period when King Saul was hunting him. It expresses the great anguish that David felt, and so has become a psalm which is often used as a prayer in times of distress.

Like David, when we are going through tough times we should not be afraid to express the truth of our situation – and our feelings – to God. Nothing is served by putting on a brave face to God, or pretending everything is okay. David is quite open that he is in trouble (v2), his spirit grows faint (v3), and he feels abandoned by everybody (v4).

But at the same time, David makes clear that his hope – his only hope – of rescue lies in God. He cries out to the Lord precisely because he believes that God and only God is able to save him. His realism about his situation and his clinging to God as the rock of his salvation are woven tightly together, and are what enables him to end the psalm on a note of hope. It is because God is his only possible source of rescue that David reasons God will save him, and this for two reasons: firstly, so that David will praise him in the future; and secondly, that others will be drawn to David because of God’s goodness to him.

This is all rooted in the fact that God always acts to glorify and magnify his own name. Just as David threw himself completely on God, trusting him to rescue him so that God’s name would be exalted, so we too can have confidence that if we are trusting in God, he will ultimately work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28) so that his name will be glorified.

 

Psalm 107

‘Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress’ (Psalm 107 v 13 (see also 6, 19, 28)

Suffering in the world is not new. Since the first human beings rejected their maker and tried to go their own way, there has been dislocation and pain in the world. Some people, reasoning that because of his love God will not allow his people to suffer, quickly come up against the harsh reality of this present life – live long enough, and you will experience suffering.

This psalm not only acts as a corrective to the wrong expectation of a pain-free life, but wonderfully shows that God will nevertheless show mercy to his people. In four separate examples, case studies of human folly, we see the same themes play out: people reject God and suffer as a result; they repent and turn back to him in their distress; and God rescues them and brings them out of their suffering. The repetition of these themes underlying different scenarios shows how they are a common factor in the human experience – both the rebellion of God’s people, and the wonderful forgiveness that God offers.

The psalm is bracketed by God’s great and enduring love – the focus of both the first and last verses. The psalmist is wanting us to realise that in spite of life’s trials and tribulations, our God is a God of amazing love who, in the final analysis, will rescue and sustain his people. As we continue to struggle through the challenges of lockdown and the wider horrors of the pandemic, let’s not lose sight of this great truth. God does not abandon his people; he is attentive to their prayers and will save them from their distress.

 

Psalm 63

‘On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.’ (Psalm 63 v 6-8)

How many of us in this present time of anxiety can relate to David’s experience of lying awake all night? Doubtless a good number know all too well the slow creep of the clock through the hours of darkness, the restless waiting for the dawn to appear. In those late watches of the night, our problems can often seem magnified and the difficulties we face seem insurmountable.

What is it that goes through our minds at such times? David made a point of focussing, not on his problems, but on the God whose love and power was enough to protect him from all of them. Just like David, we too should turn to our God who is our help, whose right hand upholds us. As we do that, as we cling to him amidst the storm, we too will find that we are empowered to sing under the protective shadow of his wings.

It is worth pausing to reflect that David’s focus on God is not half-hearted: v1 tells us ‘my whole being longs for you’. David found such peace because he wholeheartedly looked to God for relief; he didn’t succumb to idolatry and seek satisfaction elsewhere. When we are confronted with the difficulties and anxieties of life, can we too claim to be fully satisfied in praising God’s name (v4-5)?

 

Psalm 13

‘How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?’ (Psalm 13 v 1a)

Psalm 13 seems particularly relevant to us today, as the New Year brings with it another national lockdown. More disruption to our lives; children’s education impacted by the need to stay at home; livelihoods, relationships and perhaps even our health put under incredible strain for at least the next several weeks... how long will this last?

The Psalms are a great resource for us at times like this, containing as they do the undisguised anguish and expressions of raw emotion of God’s people. The Psalms help us recognise that it is okay to cry out to God; that expressing our pain and frustration to him is not sinful. God knows us intimately, he is our maker and sees the battles we face. Even more than that, God has actually experienced the harrowing realities of human life in the person of Jesus – he is not impassive, aloof or indifferent to the pain we are going through.

This psalm opens with the psalmist’s anguish, but closes with a sense of peace. What enables him to make that transition is his focus on what God has revealed. It is when the Psalmist looks at God’s unfailing love, rather than his own current troubles, that he is able to rejoice. Living after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have even more concrete assurance of God’s love for us than the Psalmist had when he wrote these words. It is this confidence in what God has done which can lead us to sing the Lord’s praise even in the shadow of the pandemic.

 

Romans 8 v 28-39

‘What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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?’ (Roman 8 v 31-32)

As the UK moves wearily once more into another lockdown prompted by the rising COVID-19 infection rate, questions naturally surface about what is going on. For those who are struggling to make sense of it all, what are we to say to give them assurance that God is really in control, and if so that he really cares what happens to us?

These words of Paul go straight to the heart of the matter, and are a tremendous encouragement to believers in every age struggling in difficult circumstances. His argument comes down to this: God has acted, openly and visibly in world history, in sending his Son to die on the cross. The death and resurrection of Jesus are not philosophical ideas or wishful thinking, but historical world events that actually took place. Given how much God loves his Son, and that God was prepared to give him up for us, Paul says, what possible grounds can we have for not believing that God is on our side? He has already given us the biggest thing we can imagine. Compared to giving up Jesus, his own beloved Son, for us, anything else will be a minor matter for God. If a wealthy benefactor bought us a new car as a free gift, would we find it hard to believe he would fill it with fuel?

This truth, grounded in history not wishful thinking, gives us hope that even in the midst of difficult times God is still with us and will see his good plans for us worked out in full.

 

Matthew 2 v 1-12

‘When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matthew 2 v 3)

The coming of the Magi, described by Matthew, provides a striking contrast of responses to the birth of Jesus. The Magi were Gentiles, likely from Babylonia; impressed by what they saw in the night sky, these men journeyed west to Judea to find out what it meant. It is quite astonishing that they travelled so far, enduring the hardships such a journey would entail, facing such uncertainty in finding the one the star betokened. What is more, they brought costly gifts to give to the infant Jesus, recognising him as the King of the Jews (see verse 2).

Set against this, Matthew records that closer to home the news of Jesus’ birth was met with concern and disquiet. While King Herod might understandably be anxious about the birth of a rival, it is more surprising that 'all Jerusalem with him' was also disturbed. Although partly this may be due to their concern at what action a nervous Herod might take, it is also consistent with the character of God’s people down through the years, and foreshadowed Jerusalem’s later rejection of their true king (see Matthew 23:37).

A warning to us stands out clearly from this passage. The Jewish chief priests, scribes and advisors around Herod knew their Scriptures well, and had no problem in pointing the king to Micah 5:2; that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. But did they go to greet the long-awaited King of the Jews? Although they were well-versed in the truth about him, they did nothing about it. We should take note that knowledge is no substitute for obedience, and examine ourselves – are we acting on the knowledge we have of Jesus, or living in spite of it?

 

Luke 2 v 1-21; Titus 2 v 11-14

‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people’ (Titus 2 v 11)

In his letter to Titus, Paul is here making reference to the event we celebrate at Christmas. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was perhaps the most extraordinary thing the world had ever seen, as God himself became a human being and entered the world as a newborn baby. Why did he do it? What prompted him to 'empty himself'  (Philippians 2:7) of his divine privileges in such a way? In this verse Paul gives two answers to these questions.

Firstly, we see that Jesus’ birth is the appearance of God’s grace. God didn’t have to send his son to earth; he chose to do it out of the riches of his grace, his unmerited favour towards those he loves. Jesus’ birth demonstrated the amazing love that God has for those he has made, that he would freely give such a gift.

Secondly, we see that the birth of Jesus contains within it the offer of salvation to all people. As Luke 2:21 reminds us, the baby was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. Jesus means 'the Lord saves'; his arrival fulfilled a number of prophesies made over preceding centuries about how God would finally triumph on behalf of his people. Although the Jews expected the Messiah to come for their salvation, they had missed that God’s promises extended beyond the Israelite nation to include people of every ethnicity and culture. Through the mission that the baby born in Bethlehem would grow up to undertake, God’s offer of salvation would be made to all peoples, without distinction.

 

Luke 1 v 46-56; 2 v 1-21

‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ (Luke 2 v 11-12)

Soon after the birth of Jesus, a group of ordinary shepherds out tending their sheep in the countryside have an astonishing experience. Our familiarity with the Christmas story can make us blind to just how extraordinary the contrast is within the events that Luke records. On the one hand, the most amazing thing in history is taking place: God himself, the creator of the entire cosmos, is entering our world as a human baby. If we didn’t know the story, we would expect that this would be accompanied by enormous fanfare, set against the backdrop of an immense palace with all the nobility and the mighty in attendance. How else could such a majestic baby be coming into the world?

But what do we find? In the first place, the angels bring this amazing news to a bunch of nobodies out on the fringe of society. That is extraordinary, but it is not the most extraordinary thing. More than that, we are told that God has given a sign that the Messiah has arrived – a way that the shepherds will know that the Lord has come. And what is that sign? 'You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger'. The long-awaited King will be found, not wearing royal clothing in a golden crib, but swaddled anonymously and lying in an animals’ feedbox.

The most extraordinary thing about the nativity is the ordinariness of it. That the Messiah arrives in such an unassuming way is a sign, because it shows right from the start that he will be a king like no other. The most majestic person imaginable appearing in such humility completely upends the value system we human beings hold about worth and importance. What a Saviour!  

 

Luke 1 v 67-80

'…the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.' (Luke 1 v 78b-79)

Soon after the birth of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to prophesy – to tell out what God was doing in the world. Through Zechariah, God revealed that this baby would grow up to hold a unique prophetic ministry: he would prepare the way for the Lord, acting as his herald. But what would this coming of the Lord look like? Would it be a time of blazing wrath, a time of punishment and condemnation for sinners?

The answer is no. In these verses, Zechariah speaks not of judgement, but of tender mercy. This coming of the Lord, fulfilling so many of the promises God made in the past, will be like the sun rising after the night is over. The picture is of a land shrouded in darkness, a people who are stumbling about unable to see, living under the dark shadow of death. Suddenly a light from heaven begins to shine on them, revealing hidden things and acting as a guide. The one who is to come after John, the Messiah, will be this light and will banish all the shadows – even that of death.

 

Isaiah 49 v 1-13

'It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’ (Isaiah 49 v 6)

From the beginning, way back in Genesis, God made clear that his redemption plan was for the whole of humanity. Israel, as God’s chosen people, was called to be a light to the nations and to show through its national life the character and magnificence of God. Sadly, the people often forgot this aspect of their calling, focussing more on priding themselves as God’s chosen people and less on their role as a signpost pointing other nations to him.

Here in this passage of Isaiah, God reminds his people that his plan has a much wider scope than just the Israelite nation. Although their focus has narrowed in to centre just on themselves, restoring Israel is too limited a view of what God is about. His servant will be a light for the Gentile nations as well as to Israel, to the end that all of the earth will be included in his salvation plan. The identity of this light-bearing servant is revealed in the New Testament as Jesus, the true light that gives light to everyone (John 1:9).

 

2 Samuel 23 v 1-7

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 day, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth. (2 Samuel 23 v 3b-4)

In his final words, King David relays a message given to him by the Spirit of the Lord. This message both reveals what makes a great king, and looks forward prophetically to a coming future Ruler. David, chosen by God as king over Israel because he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), was the pinnacle of Israel’s line of kings because of the way he ruled: righteously, in the fear of God. These two things go together; it was his recognition and response to God’s sovereignty and power (‘fear of God’) that is the backdrop of his approach to the responsibility of kingship.

In these Spirit-inspired words, David anticipates a universal Ruler; one who will rule over people (not just Israel), and who will be brilliant like the light of the sunrise as he revives and renews his people. This Ruler will nurture and nourish those he rules, not crush or oppress them, and will do so by reigning righteously in right relationship with God. The imagery is that of the bright light of the sun coming up , a theme which we often see in the Bible in the context of the coming of Jesus the king.

 

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea (Psalm 46 v 1-2)

Crises and difficulties can come upon us suddenly, and can seem insurmountable. Life is full of uncertainty, and things which seem to be plain sailing one minute can quickly turn upside down into chaos the next. In these verses, the Psalmist reminds us that at all times, amidst the good moments and the bad, God is present with us as a source of help, strength and refuge. It is only because we have this as our hope, the promise of God that he will not abandon nor forsake us, that the Psalmist can go on to say 'therefore we will not fear'. We must cling to the truth of God’s love for us, revealed supremely in Jesus, to give us confidence that we ultimately have a refuge against which not even the earth giving way or the mountains tumbling into the sea will prevail.

 

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121 v 1-2)

The mountains the psalmist refers to are the peaks he is travelling towards, which stand in the way of him reaching his destination. They were known for being haunts of bandits and robbers, and were hazardous to pass through. The psalmist poses himself the question: who will protect me from the dangers of the road? In answer, he reminds himself of what he knows to be true – that the Lord, the one who made the whole of creation, is the one who watches over him. The same holds true for us today, who face trials and difficulties on a variety of fronts. Whether it is health worries, job insecurity or unemployment, fears about our family – our help ultimately comes from the Lord. Though this doesn’t mean that we will never suffer in this life (we most certainly will), this psalm reminds us that our world and our lives are not really spinning out of control, but are held by a loving God who is powerful to rescue. The final verse, v8, points forward to the ultimate hope we have: 'the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore'. Beyond this life lies eternity, and the same Lord who watches over us now will be with us there too.

 

Matthew 25 v 1-13

Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matthew 25 v 11-13)

Every age has its own challenges. This Sunday, as we enter a second lockdown, we remember those who have fallen in war. They too must have grappled with the uncertainties of life and the future, of what lay ahead in a time of great stress. While these times of trial are not easy, bringing with them hardship and often anguish, they do help shake us out of complacency and can bring Jesus’ words into sharper focus. When life is easy, we can forget the urgency of Jesus’ warnings to keep watch. The truth is that one day, all of us will be called to account before God, and we will find ourselves there with little or no warning. Jesus solemnly warns us that the outcome of that event will have eternal consequences, and that the appropriate response is to be mindful in the present of the way we are living. We should live each moment as though the Lord’s return is at hand, because it would be an awful thing to be caught unprepared.

 

Matthew 9 v 35-38

Then [Jesus] said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’ (Matthew 9 v 37-38)

Amidst all the persecution that Jesus’ followers have endured over the years for following him, it can be easy to overlook the truth Jesus highlights in this passage. Although the world is hostile to the gospel, there are many people in it who will be receptive to the message about Jesus once they have the opportunity to hear it. The problem, Jesus says, is not that there is a lack of potential disciples; rather, that there are too few holding out the good news of the gospel to them. It is for more workers, rather than more wheat, that we should be praying for. Similarly, Christians should be conscious of the need for non-Christian friends, colleagues and family to have the opportunity to encounter Jesus. For many people, the pandemic has thrown a number of life’s certainties into doubt, and provoked a lot of soul searching. It may be that they will recognise in the good news of Jesus the answers they are looking for – if there are those willing to share that good news with them.

 

Revelation 7 v 9-17

‘After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.' (Revelation 7 v 9)

In this glimpse of the culmination of God’s salvation plan, John sees in his vision this great multitude praising God in the throne room of heaven. Their identity is made clear later in the passage – they are those who have 'washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb' (v14). Revelation is rich with imagery; here, we have a strong picture of this huge assembly having been made clean through Jesus’ blood (i.e. trusting in his death on the cross for their forgiveness and salvation). Those claiming that Christianity is a 'Western religion' are brought up short by this passage, where we see that this great host of people is made up from across the whole spectrum of humanity – every people group and every language. God’s kingdom is being built from every part of the world, and the invitation is extended to all, without exception. But we should carefully note one thing –every member of the multitude John sees is wearing robes washed in the Lamb’s blood. It is this central feature which binds this amazing diversity of people together in perfect unity, and is foundational to God’s kingdom.

 

Acts 28 v 28-31

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28 v 30-31a)

What comes to mind when you think of mission? Down through the years men and women have travelled great distances and undergone great hardships to take the gospel to people who haven’t heard it, as the New Testament spells out. But we would be wrong to think that is all it is. Right at the end of the book of Acts, we see a great example of mission based at home. For two years, Paul stays put and welcomes people into his house, using the opportunity to explain the gospel to them there. In a similar way, we are called to be faithful witnesses to the truth about Jesus in our own communities – amongst the neighbourhoods we live and work in.

In these days of the Covid-19 pandemic, we might not easily be able to invite people into our homes, as once we did – but we can still recognise the opportunities in our everyday lives to talk to people about Jesus, and the difference he makes. Many of us have become members of digital communities as well as physical ones, and it may be that we can share the good news in ways we wouldn’t have expected a short while ago.

 

3 John v 1-4 

‘Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well’ (3 John 2)

We see in this verse a prayer which resonates strongly with our experience of the world at the present time. John’s prayer for his friend Gaius is intensely practical and earthly – that he would enjoy good health. Health can be supported by a good lifestyle, exercise, medicines and the like, but when we remember that our lives are sustained moment by moment by God we will see it is always appropriate to pray for good health. As we struggle through this pandemic, we do well to remember this and pray especially for those who are vulnerable in our society. But we should also notice that John’s prayer for Gaius’ health builds on something deeper: the condition of his soul. John’s first focus is on his friend’s spiritual health; satisfied that things are going well there he then looks to the physical need. As we rightly pray for the physical health of our friends and family at this time, are we also concerned for their spiritual health and wellbeing?

 

2 Timothy 2 v 1-10

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 Timothy 2 v 10)

What a time Paul was having! Chained as a criminal in a prison, he knew what it was to suffer for preaching the good news about Jesus. Paul recognises that to be a Christian, especially a Christian leader, will be hard. There will be challenges and suffering along the way and Paul encourages Timothy in two ways to meet these things head on. In the first place, at the start of the passage, he calls Timothy to work with others as a team and be united. With the struggle against COVID-19 having a huge impact on the life of our church community today, it is important for us to remember the importance of unity and not allow ourselves to fragment or fall into different camps. Paul’s second reason points beyond the suffering to the purpose of it all: the salvation of those whom God has called. As we reflect on this, that church leaders suffer as they do for the sake of the communities they serve, let us keep them in our prayers and ask that God would bring great blessing out of their struggles.

 

Romans 1 v 8-17

‘That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes’ (Romans 1 v 15-16a)

What should we expect to hear in a sermon when we come to church on a Sunday? What is the purpose of the sermon? In some churches, the sermon lasts an hour; in others, it is more like five minutes. Is there a common thread that should run through them, regardless of their length? In this passage in Romans, we find Paul express his eagerness to preach to a group of Christian believers he has not yet met in person. What is it that he is eager to preach? It might come as a surprise that his overriding concern is to preach the gospel, the good news about Jesus (that they already know), to them. But he goes on to explain why this is so important – it is because the gospel is 'the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes' (v16). Only in the gospel do we find the truth that brings salvation to us, and so it is of first importance to hear it often, to ensure we are sticking firmly to the truth. When a Sunday service moves away from preaching the gospel, it moves away from God’s power of salvation.  

 

Colossians 1 v 9-14

‘We continually ask God … so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord, and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.’ (Colossians 1 v 9b-10a)

What it means to grow as a Christian is summed up well in these words of the apostle Paul. Growth is a key part of the Christian life, not an optional extra. We have not just been rescued from the “dominion of darkness”, we have been “brought…into the kingdom of the Son” (v13). We were rescued for a purpose. And that purpose, Paul tells us here, is to live a life worthy of the Lord and to grow in the knowledge of God. It is worth reflecting on two truths here: first, that how we live matters to God. We are called to “bear fruit”; as we grow in our knowledge of God our lives will manifest behaviours and actions which blossom from this knowledge. But this activity is not something that we empower ourselves to do, as if we can turn over a new leaf in our own strength. Paul stresses the second truth through using the little phrase “so that” in verse 10: the root of our growth, and the power that enables it, comes from God himself. If we are serious about growth, and living for God today, we must remember first and foremost that it is he who equips us with what we need to flourish and grow in holiness, and come before him in prayer. 

 

John 17 v 20-26

'I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.’ (John 17 v 20b-21a)

In these verses we see an example of Jesus praying specifically for us – for those who will come to faith after the time of his earthly ministry, believing in him through the message passed down by the apostles. The theme of his prayer might at first surprise us – he prays for unity in the church; that his people would be one. But actually, this prayer flows quite naturally from a right understanding of the intimate relationship between God and his people; modelled as it is on the perfect relationship between the Father and the Son. It is when we are united that we display the truth of the gospel, the good news about Jesus, most clearly. Sadly, all too often we see discord and factions in the church, rather than the unity we read about here. This unity, like the love which produces it, is supernatural: it is fundamentally the same as the unity that exists between the Father and the Son. It only endures when believers keep in touch with their Lord, and contemplate the glory that has been his from eternity. As spokes in a wheel draw closer together the nearer to the hub they get, so we will only draw closer together in unity as we draw near to Jesus.

 

Mark 1: 30

Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her (Mark 1.30) 

There is no remedy like this. Means are to be used diligently, without question, in any time of need. Doctors are to be sent for, in sickness. The help of friends is to be sought. But still, after all, the first thing to be done, is to cry to the Lord Jesus Christ for help. None can relieve us so effectually as He can. None is so compassionate, and so willing to relieve. When Lazarus fell sick, his sisters sent immediately to Jesus: 'Lord,' they said, 'he whom you love is sick.' (John 11:2.) Now let us do likewise. 'Cast your burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain you.'…'In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.' (Psalm. 55:22; Phil. 4:6.) We live in a world of sin and sorrow. It needs no prophet's eye to foresee that we shall all shed many a tear, and feel many a heart-wrench, before we die. Let us be armed with a formula against despair, before our troubles come. Let us know what to do, when sickness, or bereavement, or cross, or loss, or disappointment breaks in upon us like an armed man. Let us do as they did in Simon's house at Capernaum. Let us at once 'tell Jesus'. (Reflection by Bishop J C Ryle)

 

Proverbs 15 v 1-33

The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly (Proverbs 15 v 2)

In the Bible, wisdom usually refers to the right application of knowledge. Here we see that the wise person is able to use their tongue to 'adorn' knowledge; to use knowledge in a way which is profitable. The fool on the other hand is one who spouts 'folly'; words which are lacking in insight or understanding and which miss the mark. It is quite possible to have access to lots of information, yet still be unwise. It is also quite possible to do a lot of talking but say nothing worth hearing.

The application of this to us today is clear: we should be people who think carefully before we speak, particularly with regards to the pandemic and the key workers who are labouring in the midst of it. Much folly has been spoken this year by people, whether fanning the flames of conspiracy theories about the origins and severity of the virus, or stirring up controversy about the wearing of masks. Wisdom requires us to not only speak what is true – and much of what has been said by many is clearly untrue – but also what is edifying and loving.

 

Romans 13 v 1-7

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Romans 13 v 1)

The question of whether those who belong to God’s kingdom need to submit to earthly authorities is settled clearly by Paul in this passage from Romans. Earthly authority, Paul says, is derived from God, who has established human power structures and placed those in charge as his servants. With the exception of cases where commands are given which clearly go against what God has said, Christians are to obey those in authority to promote justice, peace and order. More than that, recognising that those in charge have been placed there by God, Christians should pray for them, that they might rule with fairness and wisdom. Rulers and government officials are human beings too, who face temptation and difficult choices, and like us need God’s grace to live wisely. If we want to see legislation shape our society in a way that is honouring to God, we should be on our knees asking for his protection and guidance for our leaders.

 

2 Corinthians 1 v 3-11

‘Praise be to … the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.’ (2 Cor 1 v 3-4)

The desire to be comforted in the midst of trouble is universal, and speaks to a deep human need. Paul here writes how it is ultimately God who is the source of all comfort; that the apostles can comfort the church is only because they have themselves received comfort from God. God is the generous giver, who provides for his people’s needs freely out of sheer grace. The supreme comfort he provides is through Jesus’ death and resurrection, which brings the comfort of forgiveness and salvation to all who believe, but other comfort also flows from him. Examples include medicine and healthcare providers, who are able to comfort and relieve those who suffer with physical affliction. We should give thanks to God for them, and ask that they might be used to bring comfort to those who are struggling today, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic.

 

1 Thess 3 v 6-13

‘Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again’ (1 Thess 3 v 10a)

The desire to meet with one another and share our experiences is a normal part of our fellowship, and it can make life tough when we are unable to do so. In his letter, Paul agonises over being separated from the church in Thessalonica, and longs to see them again. His only option was to write letters to his friends, and to send Timothy to them to act as his emissary. In our own time, we also find ourselves separated from one another, and having to rely on telephone or video calls to connect with most of our loved ones. Like Paul, we too know the experience of being kept apart and how painful it can be; like Paul, we can pray that God would strengthen us and our friends in faith, and speed the end of this time of separation. Our God is sovereign, and will bring the pandemic to an end in his own timing. Until that happens, we are to wait prayerfully in patient expectation that 'in all things God works for the good of those who love him' (Romans 8:28).

 

Psalm 78 v 1-8

‘We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.’ (Psalm 78 v 4b)

It is no wonder God commanded his people to tell what they knew of him to the next generation. How would we know of the amazing things that God has done in history, supremely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, if we had not been told? Some people forget this, believing that those who come after them will naturally acquire a knowledge of the truth without being told, but this is false. As Don Carson has said, 'one generation believes the gospel, the next assumes it, and the following generation denies it'. As we have seen, society can change very quickly, and the things that seem to be solidly built into its fabric one moment can be dislodged and lost surprisingly quickly. If we love our children, and the people of the generation which succeeds ours, it is vital that we pass on to them the knowledge and insights God has given us concerning his grace and mercy, and the truth of Jesus Christ.

 

John 11 v 1-44

Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.’ (John 11 v 25-26a)

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused great pain and brought home to many the fragility of life. There will be many today grieving over the loss of friends and loved ones. Numbers and statistics can never do justice to those who feel the acute sting of grief; every person is precious and their loss a terrible blow to those who love them. Jesus himself knew this experience; verses 33-35 tell us how he was deeply moved and wept on his way to the grave of his friend Lazarus. But the great hope held out to us in the gospel is that death does not have the final word. Jesus has conquered death; by his resurrection power he holds out the free gift of eternal life to all who trust in him. He assures us of this by both speaking this truth plainly, and then demonstrating his power by raising Lazarus from the tomb as an illustration of what every believer will experience. Though grief is real, and its pain sometimes seems unbearable, we can have hope as we look to the sure and certain promise of Jesus that one day, death will be undone and grief done away with forever.

 

Isaiah 55 v 1-13

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55 v 8-9)

Life can be very confusing. Living under the assurance that God loves us, and wants the best for us, it can be a great challenge to our faith when things go wrong and the bottom drops out of our world. We find it hard to reconcile our head knowledge with our heartfelt experience. Why does God allow so much suffering? We see a glimpse of the answer here: God’s ways are not our ways. His plans for us, which are for our good, so often unfold in ways which we don’t expect or can’t understand. It takes faith to accept that our eyes are often not up to the task of seeing what God is doing in the present. Those seeing Jesus, the Son of God, suffering and dying in agony on the cross were completely unable to recognise the amazing victory that was being won there. Not one person in all the gospel accounts could fathom how the cross was anything other than a crushing defeat, until God raised Jesus from the dead and opened their eyes by the Holy Spirit. We are commanded, not to try to exhaustively reason things out, but to trust and obey what God has said. If we do, we will find in the final analysis that our faith in him is always vindicated.  

 

James 5 v 7-11

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. (James 5 v 7)

At its root, the Bible’s command to God’s people to be patient is founded on God’s faithfulness. Just as God repeatedly showed his faithfulness to the agrarian society of first century Israel by sending the rains at their appointed time, so too he will prove to be faithful to us in due time. Until then, we are to wait patiently. Knowing this can be a great relief and a comfort to those who are struggling and suffering, and can encourage them to hold on and keep trusting in God’s promises through the dark times. As we continue to wait for the current COVID-19 crisis to pass, we too can take refuge in God’s faithfulness which can help dispel our frustration and sense of helplessness. The Lord is coming, and will bring all things to their fulfilment when he does. All we need to do is be patient and trust him.

 

Proverbs 3 v 1-12

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3 v 5-6)

God has given humanity the ability to think and to reason, a gift which helps us to make sense of the world. This is a very valuable gift, but like so many good things there is a danger that we can make it an idol. When we reach a point where we think that because we can’t understand something – suffering, or injustice perhaps – then there is no answer, we are straying dangerously close to putting our reason in the place of God. How often have we been tempted to look at a situation and think that God isn’t in control, or that if he is then he doesn’t know what he is doing? King Solomon, the writer of this proverb, understood the dangers of over-reliance on human wisdom well, and counsels us to ultimately put our trust in God, not what we can figure out. There are always limits to our knowledge, and it is foolish to assume that our understanding is complete. If we put our trust in the one who really does know exhaustively what is going on, we will find we stay on the path of truth.

 

Psalm 139 v 15-16

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’ (Psalm 139 v 15-16)

Here we have a great reminder of the knowledge and sovereignty of God, which can act as a great comfort when
we feel afraid or alone. In all the chaos and uncertainty of life, here the Psalmist reminds us that it was God who formed us; that his eyes have been watching over us since before we were born and that there is nothing that happens to us in this world which he is unaware of, or surprised by. Not only that, but we are told that the days that we have – every moment from the start of our earthly lives until the end – are written in the Lord’s book. Combining this awareness of God’s sovereignty with his love for us revealed in Jesus brings great confidence and peace even amidst the storms of life. Our lives have meaning, and God is always alongside us working out his purposes beyond what we can see.

 

Psalm 23 v 1

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (Psalm 23 v 1)
This psalm, written by King David (himself once a shepherd) is a marvellous picture of providential care. The shepherd’s role was to care for the sheep, to guide them through the arid wilderness from one fertile grazing land to another, protecting them from predators and wild animals, and seeing that they came to no harm. The safety of a sheep depended on having a good shepherd. David here recognises, in spite of the difficulties and trials that he faced, that with the LORD as his shepherd he lacks nothing – everything he needs is given to him freely. When we are beset by anxieties, many of which have surfaced in recent weeks, we need to remember that we too have a Good Shepherd and look to him. Like the shepherd in this psalm, Jesus cares deeply for us and is able to provide us with all that we need – we lack nothing of lasting value if we are trusting in him.

 

Matthew 28 v 16-20

'Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' (Matthew 28 v 19)

On Trinity Sunday we reflect upon the mystery of the Trinity; that there is only one God, but that he is three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It can be easy to overlook the significance of the fact that God is three persons. The interpersonal relationship that exists within God himself is unique, and enables us to make sense of the truth that God is love, as each member of the trinity is in perfect loving relationship with the others. It humbles us to see how God’s relationship with us, his image bearers, is in some senses modelled on his very character of interpersonal relationship. And it challenges us as we consider that Christianity is a monotheistic faith with a tri-unity at its heart. It is hard to get our heads around, and has been so since the beginning of the church, yet remains at the core of God’s revelation through Jesus. That Matthew’s original hearers, first century Jews who were fiercely monotheistic, were able to accept it should help us to do likewise.

 

John 7 v 37-39

'Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.' By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7 v 38-39)

Pentecost was a watershed moment in human history. Prior to that day, God’s Spirit had come upon a few, special individuals for limited periods of time. It was not the common experience of God’s people to experience His presence – hence the need for the priesthood and temple. On the day of Pentecost, God poured out his Spirit on all who believe in him, as Jesus said he would. Each believer is connected by the Spirit to God in a unique, extraordinary way: indwelt by the very fountain of God’s grace. This has only been made possible by Jesus’ finished work upon the cross, and requires nothing more – or less – than a person to turn to him in faith and believe in him. It is quite something for us to grasp that we can today have an experience that was only available to a select few in Old Testament times. Let’s remember that, and ensure that familiarity does not rob us of a sense of wonder and awe.

 

John 17 v 1-11

'I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.’ (John 17 v 9-10)

In his prayers before he is arrested, Jesus prays for two things: his glorification (which comes through his work on the cross and subsequent resurrection), and his followers. These two things are linked together; the glory that Jesus has been given by the Father comes to him through his followers, whose very existence displays the magnificent and infinite grace God has poured out through his son. It is noteworthy that Jesus here prays for his followers – both the disciples with him in the garden (v9), and those who will follow down through the centuries (v20) – and not the world. Although all men and women are God’s creation, and under Jesus’ authority, it is only those who know Jesus who are granted eternal life by him (v2,3). We too should pray for our brothers and sisters in the church, so that the world may believe in Jesus.

 

Acts 1 v 1-8; Luke 24 v 45-53

After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1 v 3)

Why was there such a long period, 40 days, between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension? There are at least two reasons given to us by Luke as he closes his first book (Luke) and begins his second (Acts).  

The first reason is proof. The resurrection was such a momentous event, and so unexpected by everybody, that many struggled to believe it had really taken place (indeed, many still do today). The truth that Jesus has bodily risen from the dead is so important, so foundational to the gospel message, that Jesus spent time with his disciples over a period to confirm to them the reality of what they had seen and were experiencing.

The second reason follows on from this: preparation. Jesus spoke with them about the kingdom, preparing them to take on the mantle of being his ambassadors in the world. Luke explains in the opening verses of Acts that Jesus’ earthly life as reported in Luke’s gospel was what Jesus 'began to do and teach' (Acts 1:1). He continued to work and teach through the lives of his followers, and took pains to complete their 'training programme' before he was taken up to heaven.

Jesus is alive, and continues to work in the world through his church, even today.

 

Matthew 28 v 16-20

Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.’ (Matthew 28 v 18-19a)

The authentic Christian faith is not about passively receiving forgiveness and other blessings from God, but rather about actively obeying Christ. Our faith is supposed to overflow in fulfilling God’s saving purposes for others and our world.

In this final section of Matthew’s gospel, we see Jesus claim unique, ultimate authority over the whole of creation. This is an assurance to his disciples, then and now, that when we go out to share the good news we are not going in our own authority but in the authority of the King of kings. We have good news, in fact the best news ever, so we must not keep it to ourselves but share it with others, since it is only through hearing that people can believe and be saved (Romans 10 v 14-17). Yet this is something many find intimidating, either through fear of being inadequate, losing reputation, or being rejected. What is liberating is to realise that God wants to use each one of us and work with our own personality and style, whether we are naturally loud or quiet, extrovert or introvert.

Finally, we should note that Jesus’ command is for his people to make disciples, not converts. Evangelism – sharing the good news – is not about seeing people be converted and stopping there, but about encouraging and nurturing people to grow up into Christian maturity. Earlier, in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus teaches about the importance of the gospel message being understood and changing lives, rather than just being heard superficially. Our concern should be not just to share the good news, but to see it produce a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (Matthew 13 v 8).

 

John 21 v 1-22

When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread (John 21 v 9)

Jesus doesn’t just help us in our struggles – he comes to heal us from our past failures. For this to happen, Jesus doesn’t just brush those failures under the carpet however; he wants us to face up to those failures so we can be properly healed and restored, so we don’t carry them with us into the future.

In this passage at the end of John’s gospel, we see Jesus doing exactly that with Peter. John is at pains to highlight this in the way he describes the encounter. Jesus has just cooked the fish on a fire of burning coals (v 9). The word used is literally of a ‘charcoal fire’. The only other place this word is used in the entire New Testament is in John 18:18, where Peter was warming himself by the ‘charcoal fire’ when he denied Jesus. Secondly, Jesus addresses Peter as 'Simon, son of John' – not Peter, the ‘rock’ – highlighting his failure to live up to that name and his need for restoration. Thirdly, Jesus deliberately asks Peter the same basic question three times, mirroring the three times Peter denied Jesus.

This whole episode would have been very painful for Peter (John confirms as much in v 17), but it was necessary for there to be no lingering fear of rejection or complete forgiveness. In the same way, true repentance requires us to face the reality of our sin, to see the truth in all its painful light, so that we can be assured that God knows it too and that he has forgiven us through the cross. Only when we realise the depth of our brokenness can we understand the amazing grace of God in Jesus.

 

John 20 v 19-31

Again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you!’  (John 20 v 21a)

The expression 'Peace be with you' was an ordinary greeting used by the Jews in Jesus’ time. Saying it as a greeting when he miraculously appears in the presence of his disciples in the locked room would seem to be quite natural; a normal way to address his friends. Why then was the phrase repeated by Jesus in verse 21? Is there more to his use of the expression than we might first assume?

As R.V.G. Tasker puts it in his commentary of these verses: Before its occurrence in verse 21, Jesus has showed his disciples his hands and his side, and their gladness appears to be due not solely to the relief that Jesus is no longer dead, but to the knowledge that that they now have as their Lord one who has allowed his hands to be pierced for them in a sacrificial death, and from whose pierced side there had flowed the water and the blood symbolic of redemption and sanctification. The peace of verse 21 is the peace of the pardoned sinner, the peace which Jesus called 'my peace' for he alone could bestow it, and he could only bestow it after his Passion.

If we have understood and accepted what Jesus has done for us through his death and resurrection, we too can receive this peace which he leaves with us indelibly, and which nothing in the world has the power to take away.

 

Luke 24 v 13-35

He said to them, 'How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.  (Luke 24 v 25-27)

The final chapter of Luke’s gospel is not the end of his narrative. He continues to relate the history of God’s activity in the book of Acts. But fittingly, he closes his first book here with an account of the Resurrection, the event which supremely demonstrates the identity of Jesus and the success of his mission. There are three themes which emerge from what he relates, which are highly relevant for us today.

Firstly, none of his followers expected the Resurrection. When confronted with the evidence of the empty tomb, they at first refused to believe it. This simple fact adds great weight to the authenticity of the gospel; if this was a fictional tale the author would hardly be at pains to show the disciples as so slow to believe. It similarly refutes the suggestion that the Resurrection was somehow a mirage prompted by followers of Jesus so desperate to see him rise from the dead that they hallucinated it. Nobody believed it would happen.

Secondly, Luke’s account makes a point of showing that the whole of the Bible points towards Jesus and his saving work. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus reveals to the two followers the truth about himself 'beginning with Moses and all the Prophets' – in other words, the body of Old Testament Scripture held by the Jews. This deals a death blow to those who assert the Old and New Testaments are discontinuous; that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New. The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus were God’s plan from the beginning, and he has been foreshadowing it through Scripture right from the start.

Thirdly, Luke highlights something that all believers have experienced when they encounter Jesus through the Scriptures. 'Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?' (v32). Many have echoed these words when describing how Jesus seems to walk off the pages of the Bible when they first grasp the truth of the gospel for themselves. As we hear God’s word being explained and read it for ourselves, we should not be surprised to experience our hearts being set ablaze by God’s Holy Spirit with an inner conviction of the truth it reveals.