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:

 

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.

 

Matthew 21 v 1-11

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, 'Hosanna to the Son of David!'  (Matthew 21 v 8-9a)

Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem is about as high profile as it can get. Having walked most of the way, he rides the final stretch on a donkey, accompanied by large crowds of people – this is an impressive arrival involving an improvised red carpet made of cloaks and branches, hailed by a cheering multitude. It is not a passing recognition by a few people.

And yet, it is sobering to reflect that, within a few short days, this exultant horde of people shouting excited and enthusiastic praises will be braying for his death. Jesus knew this full well; he has by this stage told his disciples on a number of occasions what awaits him in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, out of his love for his people Jesus willingly fulfils his mission, entering the city he knows will quickly turn against him.

The passage reveals two things of timeless relevance: the fickleness and inconstancy of human nature, and the steadfastness and resolve of Jesus’ love. We do well to remember the changeability of our hearts, and how quickly they can stray from godliness and holy fear into sin – this gives us humility. We do better, however, when we remember the changelessness of Jesus’ great love for us and what he was prepared to go through for us in spite of our unreliability – this gives us hope.

 

Matthew 20 v 1-19

'So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.' (Matthew 20 v 10-11)

On first hearing this parable, you could be forgiven for thinking that this story is very unfair. Working in a vineyard is hard work, and those who had been hard at it since the early morning found themselves in a queue to get their wages along with some people who had only turned up shortly before it was time to down tools. It may have been a bit galling that the latecomers were paid first; it must have been very galling that they were paid exactly the same amount – a denarius; a day’s wage – as those who had been toiling all day.

If it seems unfair to us, it is because we are viewing what the labourers received as wages. Wages are earned, and it is instinctively wrong to us that people who do dramatically different amounts of work should receive the same wage. But – each worker agreed originally that the pay they were to receive was fair. It was only when they compared themselves to others that they began to grumble, as pride began to manifest itself.

When we view the parable through the lens of grace (undeserved reward) rather than wages, we see things differently. From the perspective of grace, we see a generous landowner who delights to give extravagantly. In the same way, Jesus reveals that the heart of God is filled with abundant generosity; his provision for his people is not dependant on how much they have done for him, but rather their willingness to follow him alone.

Let’s make sure we avoid the temptation to compare ourselves and our lot with that of others – that leads to pride and resentment – and instead recognise that God owes us nothing, but gives freely and generously out of the abundance of his grace. Those who trust in Jesus have eternal life, not because of great works or sacrifices they have made, but rather because God is gracious to the undeserving.

 

Matthew 18 v 10-14

'What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off' (Matthew 18 v 12-13)

The parable of the lost (or wandering) sheep is a marvellous picture of the extravagant love of God. It highlights the tremendous importance he places on each one of his people; the parable reveals a tender-hearted shepherd who is deeply concerned for each sheep as an individual. Especially at the present time, when the media is full of statistics about the spread and impact of covid-19, we should cling to the truth this passage teaches us. The parable shows us that God is deeply concerned about each and every one of us. He is not a remote, corporate figure who is happy with a 99% success rate, but a loving shepherd who is prepared to go to any length to rescue the missing 1% and bring the whole flock in safely. It is also worth noting that Jesus tells this parable in the context of children (see earlier in Matthew 18, including v10 and v14). In first century Jewish society, children were seen to be of very low status and were ignored by most people until they came of age. Jesus tells his parable precisely to challenge this hierarchical view of human worth. Each and every sheep is extremely valuable in the shepherd’s sight. Whenever we are anxious, we can lean on the assurance that God is passionately concerned for each one of us, and is working things out – sometimes in ways we cannot comprehend – to ultimately bring the whole of his flock safely home.

 

Matthew 17 v 14-23

Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, 'Why couldn’t we drive it out?' He replied, 'Because you have so little faith.' (Matthew 17 v 19-20a)

A high spiritual experience is all too often followed by a crashing anti-climax. This is what Matthew records here: as Jesus and his three disciples come down from the mountain they are met by tragedy, need and failure. His disciples have tried – and failed – to heal a boy suffering from demonic epilepsy. The root cause of this failure is clearly identified by Jesus as a lack of faith. It is striking that it is not the amount (a mustard-seed amount would do; v20), but the object of faith, which is shown to be important. The fact that the disciples, who have been living and working with Jesus for some time and seen his power at work, nevertheless failed due to a lack of faith in him is significant. It makes evident the reality that faith is both something required of us, and at the same time given as a gift by God.

 

Matthew 17 v 1-9

‘There [Jesus] was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light’ (Matthew 17 v 2)

Sometimes, we might have a tremendous “mountain-top experience” which gives us a new insight into our lives, or the world around us. Can such an experience of God’s power sustain us indefinitely, or does our faith rely on an ongoing connection with him? In the transfiguration, the three disciples get a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, which he has had since before the creation of the world, but which was veiled during his time on earth. They had the extraordinary privilege of seeing this glory with their own eyes. Yet before the end, they all fled from Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and Peter denied him three times. This hard truth should remind us that for our faith to be strong and vibrant, it must be rooted in a present experience of God’s grace, not a remembrance of past experiences, no matter how vivid they were at the time. As vessels of the Holy Spirit, we tend to leak quite readily, and need to 'be being filled' (Ephesians 5:18) for us to flourish.

 

Matthew 9 v 1-12

Jesus said, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. But go and learn what this means: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice". For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (Matthew 9 v 12-13)

Why does a person choose to follow Jesus? What kind of follower is Jesus looking for? In these verses, Jesus confronts some of his critics, who are bristling at the company he is keeping. Why is Jesus spending time with an outcast like this tax collector, they wonder, rather than with more respectable company like them? In response, Jesus shines a spotlight on the way we are tempted to compare ourselves with others, overplaying flaws and weaknesses in others while remaining blind to our own. He highlights that he is interested in seeking out those with realistic self-assessment, who are honest about their spiritual condition and recognise their need for rescue. For those who refuse to accept their true condition, and deny that they are sick, the Doctor will not come. To become followers of Jesus, they will need to wake up to their need of him rather than stubbornly insist they are righteous.

 

Matthew 7 v 1-12

'Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.' (Matthew 7 v 6)

There is a big difference between being judgemental and being discerning. Earlier in the passage, Jesus has been very clear that his followers are not to be judgemental. We should recognise that all have sinned and fall short of God’s standards; we are hypocrites if we sit in judgement on others. However, Jesus does not encourage us to be undiscerning. On the contrary, he is keen for us to recognise that in sharing the Good News with those around us, there will be those who are utterly hardened to it. As a pig does not recognise the great value of a pearl, finding in it only a hard object that is tasteless and hard to chew, so there will be those who are completely unable to see the extraordinary value of the Gospel. When confronted with such people, it is an irresponsible use of time and effort to continue to hammer on a door that is firmly closed. Jesus warns us to move on, and not squander the Good News on such cases. This in itself calls for wisdom; it will take discernment to understand when the time is right to stop speaking and turn our attention elsewhere.

 

Matthew 5 v 21-26; 43-48

'You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbour and hate your enemy". But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Matthew 5 v 43-44)

How much of what we think is God’s word is actually God’s word? Or to put it another way, how much of what we believe is actually made up by people, rather than commanded by God? In this passage, Jesus quotes something his listeners were familiar with and readily accepted: “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But if they read their Scriptures, they would have searched in vain for anywhere where it says “hate your enemy”. This was purely an invention of the scribes; a man-made tradition which was added to God’s commands and given to the people. Jesus called this out, highlighting this as a false instruction smuggled into doctrinal teaching, and contrasting it with God’s actual position. We should perhaps take some time to reflect on what we believe, and ask ourselves whether it is from God’s unchanging word that we have formed our position, or from some other source.

 

Matthew 5 v 13-20

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

Some people have the idea that the Old Testament and the New Testament are two totally separate entities. They see the Old Testament as being about rigid justice, and the New Testament about love and forgiveness. According to them, the Gospel means that we don’t need to worry about the law and rules for living laid down by the prophets, and are free to live as we please. However, in these verses, we see a different picture: Jesus makes quite clear that the words that God spoke through the prophets are just as authoritative today as they used to be in the past. It is not that Jesus’ life and actions negate or abolish them, as if love is in conflict with the law and has overcome it. Rather, it is that Jesus fulfils the law by living a perfect life. Forgiveness is possible because in him we have a substitute who has fulfilled all the law’s requirements. Jesus’ challenge to us is to both trust in his perfect life to act as the fulfilment of the law and, recognising their timeless truth, to seek to live out God’s commands to the best of our abilities (v19).

 

Matthew 4 v 12-23

‘From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Matthew 4 v 17)

There is an interesting contrast between Jesus’ words and the experiences recorded in the Bible of people encountering manifestations of the kingdom of heaven. In both the Old and New Testaments, whenever people see visions of heavenly beings their response is one of terror (e.g. Isaiah 6:5, Revelation 1:17). Clearly in such moments, an awareness of our sin and unworthiness arises that is so strong, it drives us to hopeless fear. How comforting that Jesus should tell us to “repent”, rather than “despair” that the kingdom of God has drawn near! Rather than the judgement we should expect, Jesus’ message from the outset is that there is hope for restoration – that there is the possibility of redemption, of repentance (literally turning away from our old way of life), and the promise of new life in the kingdom of heaven. We would do well to listen to his call and seek to live lives of repentance, while there is still time.

John’s recognition of Jesus’ identity was confirmed at Jesus’ baptism, when John saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in the form of a dove. The act of baptism is an important one, in which Jesus identifies with God’s people and marks the beginning of his ministry. For God’s people today, baptism remains an important part of their spiritual development, in which the water symbolises the cleansing from sin and rebirth into new life. We should note that there is a deeper truth that underlies this symbolism; as John testifies, it is Jesus who baptises with the Holy Spirit, and actually brings this new life. While affirming the importance of the act of baptism, we also recognise the greater importance of Jesus filling us with the Holy Spirit to enable us to live as his people.

 

Jesus replied, 'Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.' Then John consented. (Matthew 3 v 15)

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance; of turning one’s life around and going in a new direction. When Jesus comes to see him at the river Jordan, and asks to be baptised, John is confused. Jesus is the Messiah – why does he need to be baptised? In his reply, Jesus affirms that it is 'proper for us', both Jesus and John, to go through with the baptism for this is God’s will for them. In so doing they 'fulfil all righteousness' which, in Matthew’s Gospel, refers to obedient conformity to God’s will. By submitting to baptism, Jesus was acknowledging God’s claim on him, as on others, for total consecration of life and holiness of character. In being baptised at the start of his ministry, Jesus demonstrates his willingness to act as God’s Servant whose role is to identify with God’s people and eventually to suffer and die for their salvation. At the close of his ministry on earth, Jesus’ Great Commission is that his followers should be baptised and taught to obey all that he has commanded.

     

Matthew 2 v 1-12

‘…they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh’ (Matthew 2 v 11b)

The visit by the wise men (‘Magi’) provides another example of how God’s plan unfolds in a very different way than his people would have expected. Some time (perhaps two years) after the shepherds came to see the baby Jesus, we find these foreigners from another country making the long journey to visit him. Their understanding of who Jesus is seems to be on another level from the shepherds: their first action on seeing him is to bow down and worship him – shocking behaviour in a fiercely monotheistic culture like first century Judea. It is after this public recognition of who Jesus is that they offer him their three expensive gifts, which again have been understood to point to three key aspects of Jesus’s identity. Gold speaks of kingship, of royalty, and of Jesus being God’s king. Frankincense was something used by the priests of Israel as part of their acts of worship in the temple, and speaks of Jesus as a priest, a mediator between human beings and God. Myrrh was used for embalming the dead, and points to his future death on behalf of God’s people to bring the salvation that had been promised through the prophets so many years before.

 

Matthew 11 v 2-11

'Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.' (Matthew 11 v 11)

Jesus tells us that John the Baptist was even more than a prophet – the herald of God’s Messiah. Surely this sets him apart as exceptionally important. Yet Jesus sets out a startling contrast: while John is indeed the most important of human beings (“those born of women”), there is a class of beings who are greater still – those who are members of the kingdom of heaven. Elsewhere Jesus tells us these people are those who follow him, and who are thus born again by God’s spirit.

 

Isaiah 11 v 1-10

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

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

 

Matthew 24 v 36-44

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

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

 

Luke 23 v 33-43

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

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

 

Luke 12 v 22-31

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

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

 

1 Peter 1 v 3-9

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

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

 

2 Timothy 3 v 14 – 4 v 5

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

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

 

2 Timothy 3 v 1-17

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

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

 

2 Timothy 2 v 14-26

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

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

 

2 Timothy 2 v 1-15

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

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

 

2 Timothy 1 v 1-14

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

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

 

Mark 12 v 41-44

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

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

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

 

Mark 6 v 30-44

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

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

 

Philemon

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

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

 

Colossians 4 v 7-18  

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

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

 

Colossians 4 v 2-6  

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

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

 

Colossians 3 v 17 – 4 v 1  

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

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

 

Colossians 3 v 12-25  

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

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

 

Colossians 3 v 1-11  

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

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

 

Colossians 2 v 6-15, (16-19)  

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

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

 

Colossians 1 v 5, 19

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

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

 

Colossians 1 v 1-14  

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

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

 

Galatians 6 v (1-6), 7-16  

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

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

 

Galatians 5 v 1, 13-25  

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

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

 

Galatians 3 v 23 – 29  

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

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

 

Romans 5 v 1 – 5

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

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

 

Revelation 22 v 1 – 6, 12 - 21

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Revelation 19 v 1 – 16

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

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

Revelation 12 v 7 – 12

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

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

 

Revelation 7 v 9 – 17

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

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

 

Revelation 5 v 11 – 14

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

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

 

Revelation 1 v 4 – 8

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

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

 

Luke 24 v 1 – 12

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

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

 

Luke 20 v 9 – 19

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

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

 

Luke 18 v 31-43

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

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

 

Luke 15 v 3-7

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

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

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

 

Luke 17 v 11-19

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

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

 

Luke 13 v 22-35

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

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

 

Luke 9 v 51-62

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

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

 

Luke 9 v 18-36

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

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

 

Luke 8 v 22-33, 38-39

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

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

 

Luke 7 v 16-28

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

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

 

Luke 6 v 46 – 7 v 10

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

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

 

Luke 5 v 17-32

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

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

 

Luke 5 v 1-11

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

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

 

Luke 4 v 14-21

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

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

 

Luke 3 v 15-22

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

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

 

Ephesians 3 v 1-13

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

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

 

Luke 2 v 41-52

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

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

 

Luke 2 v 1-14

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

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

 

Luke 1 v 39-45 (46-55)

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

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

 

Luke 3 v 7-18

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

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

 

Luke 3 v 1-6

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

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

 

Luke 1 v 67-80

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

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

 

Hebrews 12 v 18-29

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Ephesians 6 v 10 – 18

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hebrews 11 v 32 – 12 v 3

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hebrews 5 v 1-10

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

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

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

 

Hebrews 4 v 12-16

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

James 5 v 13-20

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

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

 

James 3 v 13 – 4 v 3, 7-8a

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

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

 

James 3 v 1-12

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

James 1 v 17-27

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

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

 

1 Kings 8 v 1-6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

2 Samuel 22 v 47 – 23 v 7

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

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

 

2 Samuel 12 v 1-13a

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

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

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

 

2 Samuel 11 v 1-15, 26-27

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

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

 

2 Samuel 7 v 1-14a

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

2 Samuel 5 v 1-5, 9-10

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

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

 

2 Samuel 1 v 1, 17-27

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

1 Samuel 15 v 34 – 16 v 13

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

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

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

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

 

1 Samuel 8 v 4-11, 15-20; 11 v 14-15

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

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

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

 

1 Peter 2 v 1-10

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

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

 

John 3 v 1-17

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

John 17 v 6-19

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

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

 

John 15 v 9-17

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

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

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

 

John 15 v 1-8

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

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

 

John 10 v 11-18

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

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

 

Luke 24 v 36b-48

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

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

 

John 20 v 19-31

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

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

 

Mark 16 v 1-8

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

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

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

 

Mark 14 v 1-14

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

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

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

 

Mark 10 v 32-45

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Mark 11 v 15-19

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

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

 

Mark 8 v 31-39

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

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

 

Mark 1 v 9-15

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

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

 

Isaiah 40 v 25-31

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

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

 

1 Peter 1 v 3-12

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

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

 

Romans 5 v 1-5

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

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

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

 

Hebrews 6 v 13-20

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

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

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

 

Romans 15 v 4-13

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

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

 

Matthew 2 v 1-12

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

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

 

Luke 2 v 15-21

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Luke 1 v 26-38

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

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

 

Isaiah 40 v 1-11

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

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

 

Isaiah 64 v 1-9

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

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

 

Matthew 25 v 31-46

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

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

 

Matthew 25 v 14-30

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

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

 

Micah 4 v 1-5

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

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

 

Revelation 7 v 9-17

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

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

 

Matthew 24 v 30-35

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

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

 

Matthew 22 v 15-22

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

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

 

Romans 16 v 1-5, 16-27

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

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

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

 

Romans 15 v 14-33

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

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

 

Romans 15 v 1-13

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

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

 

Romans 14 v 1-12

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

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

 

Romans 13 v 8-14

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

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

 

Romans 12 v 9-21

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

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

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

 

Romans 12 v 1-8

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

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

 

Romans 10 v 5-15

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

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

 

Romans 9 v 1-9

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

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

 

Romans 8 v 26-39

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

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

 

Romans 8 v 12-25

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

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

 

Romans 8 v 1-11

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

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

 

Romans 7 v 15-25a

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

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

 

Romans 6 v 12-23

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

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

 

Romans 6 v 1b-11

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

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

 

Romans 5 v 1-8

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

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

 

John 14 v 23-31

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

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

 

John 16 v 5-15

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

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

 

John 17 v 1-11

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

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

 

John 14 v 15-21

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

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

 

John 10 v 1-10

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

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

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

 

30th April 2017

John 6 v 1-15

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

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

 

23rd April 2017

John 20 v 19-31

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

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

 

16th April 2017

John 19 v 1-42; John 20 v 1-18

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

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

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

 

9th April 2017

John 12 v 12-19

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

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

 

26th March 2017

Matthew 6 v 19-34

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

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

 

19th March 2017

Matthew 6 v 1-18

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

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

 

12th March 2017

Matthew 5 v 13-20

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

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

 

5th March 2017

Matthew 5 v 1-12

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

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

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

 

26th February 2017

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

 

 

19th February 2017

1 Corinthians 3 v 10-11, 16-23

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

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

 

12th February 2017

1 Corinthians 3 v 1-9

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

 

 

5th February 2017

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

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

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

 

29th January 2017

1 Corinthians 1 v 18-31

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

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

 

22nd January 2017

1 Corinthians 1 v 10-18

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

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

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

 

Aldo Guiducci