Verse of the month: May 2017

“Abraham was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)

Approaching Toronto (Canada) by train

Abraham was a pilgrim: he had been called out of one city (Ur) to go to another – a heavenly city that could be visualised only with the eye of faith, but is nevertheless more ‘real’ and ‘solid’ than any place on this earth. And that heavenly city is our destination too.

Posted in Verse of the month | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Jesus preaches in Nazareth

Luke 4:14-30

Have you ever thought that there’s something a bit odd about this story? Within the space of about five minutes we go from “all [the congregation] spoke well of [Jesus]” (verse 22) to all of them being so angry that they’re trying to kill Him (verse 28)! That’s no mean achievement even for someone who sets out to be deliberately provocative. So what’s going on here? Is there more to this incident than meets the eye? Maybe Luke hasn’t told us the whole story…

Well, there is some information that Luke hasn’t given us, and it’s in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:1-6). There we find that Jesus hasn’t just turned up in Nazareth on Saturday morning to fill a preaching slot. He’s been in town for several days, probably visiting His family (because with His elderly mother and all His brothers and sisters, each with their families… that’s quite a lot of obligatory visits) as well as doing the usual miraculous stuff that He does everywhere He goes. Except that… for some reason, He hasn’t done very many miracles in Nazareth. There have been a few healings, but only a few. His power has met with some sort of resistance – Mark says that it’s because the people don’t have faith. What’s going on?

Many years ago, we were members of a large charismatic church when the Toronto Blessing suddenly swept round the world. And we encountered it when we went one evening to a small group leaders training session and found that the church elders had all been to a conference somewhere and been zapped by the Toronto Blessing. So now they were very keen to pray for all of us so that we would be zapped by the Holy Spirit too. Well, they went round the room, praying for each person one by one (about 20-30 people were there), and one lady rolled off her chair and lay giggling on the floor, and about twenty minutes later somebody else started laughing gently – and nothing else happened at all. And we were sitting there thinking, ‘Was that it?’ It was a bit of an anti-climax!

And maybe something like that is what happens at Nazareth. For thirty years the local people have known Jesus only as the local carpenter – Joseph’s son. Then suddenly He disappears off down to the River Jordan to see John the Baptist, and the next thing they know He’s building up a tremendous reputation as a teacher and a healer all over Galilee – but in other places, not in Nazareth. He hasn’t shown His face in His home town at all for several months – and when He does finally turn up, the show is a bit disappointing. And we can perhaps guess what people are thinking… [If our Jesus thinks He’s the Messiah then shouldn’t He be giving His home town some special attention? How dare He ignore His own family and neighbours! Or is the whole Messiah thing just an exaggerated rumour?]

If those are the kind of thoughts that are running through their minds, then by the time Saturday morning comes round it’s no surprise that the atmosphere is already slightly frosty. But nevertheless, they’re willing to listen to what He has to say in the synagogue service. And He gets off to a good start, because the passage He chooses to read (Isaiah 61:1-7) is one of their favourites: it’s one of Isaiah’s prophecies about the Anointed One, the Messiah, who will bring good news of freedom and blessing from God, defeat all their enemies and bring in the Kingdom of God.

Except that… after reading “the year of the Lord’s favour” Jesus stops abruptly in mid-sentence, rolls up the scroll and puts it away (verse 20). [Why has He done that? Hey! You’ve left out “the day of vengeance” and all the good bits about passing judgement on the Gentiles and having dominion over them!] Then He says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). Now that really should be wonderful news, shouldn’t it? What Isaiah promised for the distant future has become a reality in the present. Here, sitting right in front of them, is their long-awaited Messiah! And they would love to believe it – but He hasn’t come up to their expectations. That undercurrent of resentment is bubbling away, and Jesus knows it. So He takes the bull by the horns and points out that “no prophet is accepted in his home town.” (verse 24) All through the Old Testament, the great prophets of the past were more successful in dealing with the heathen than with God’s own people. For example: both Elijah and Elisha had lived and worked in that very part of Israel (in Galilee) at a time when the Israelites were being unfaithful to God and worshipping idols. Both of them had reached out to Gentiles as well as to their own people – and both of them had done miracles for Gentiles. And what amazing miracles they were! The widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17) was fed miraculously during the three-year famine and had her son raised from the dead; and Naaman the Syrian (II Kings 5) was healed of leprosy.

But the congregation don’t like this at all. They don’t like being compared to the corrupt Israelites of the past, the ones who rejected God’s prophets. They don’t like being reminded that God loves the whole world, not just the Jewish nation. But they hate even more the idea that the coming Kingdom isn’t going to mean the fulfilment of their national aspirations: that the Messiah isn’t going to defeat their enemies but bless them. They suddenly realise that Jesus wants to tear up the Messianic agenda as they’ve always understood it. So He must be a false Messiah and a false prophet – and that’s why they consider it their duty to try to kill Him (verses 28-30).

This reaction seems very extreme, but actually pretty much the same thing happened a few years later when Christians started sharing the gospel with the Gentiles. All through the book of Acts, the apostle Paul’s footsteps are dogged by hostile Jews who try to kill him and do their utmost to destroy the Gentile churches that he plants – mainly because they can’t bear the thought of sharing their God and His blessings with anyone else.

But we can’t enjoy the fullness of God’s blessings unless we share them. “Give, and it will be given to you… with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38) That verse isn’t just about money. Think about Jesus’ ministry: very few of His miracles were done purely for the benefit of His disciples… Think of all those healings. Think of the water being turned into wine, and the feeding of the five thousand. Now His disciples ate that food and drank that wine too, but only as part of a larger gathering. The good things of the Kingdom aren’t just for our benefit – we’re meant to share them.

That’s one reason why we ought to share our needs and problems with one another – so that we can pray for one another, and not just for ourselves. That’s one reason why we ought to be looking for ways to benefit the community around us, and not just be content with meeting together on a Sunday. That’s one reason why we ought to be more proactive in sharing the Good News of the Kingdom. If we want to enjoy the fullness of God’s blessings, we must be prepared to share them.

Posted in in depth | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Pilgrims’ Progress: Facing death

Numbers 20:22-29

Not long after the incident at Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13), Aaron is told that he is about to die, in fulfilment of God’s judgement. He will not enter Canaan, but will go straight to the final home of God’s people (verse 24). He is given due warning, so that he can hand the office of high priest over to his eldest surviving son Eleazar (symbolised by the transfer of Aaron’s sacred garments).

Aaron accepts his fate with dignity, and without protest. With Moses and Eleazar, he heads up the hill for his final appointment, and never returns. “By this solemn procession Aaron lets Israel know that he is neither afraid nor ashamed to die, but, when the Bridegroom comes, can trim his lamp and go forth to meet Him.” (Matthew Henry)

Few of us are given even a rough idea of when we shall die, but unless Jesus returns soon there will be a time for all of us when our pilgrimage is abruptly terminated. Will we then be able to say, like Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:7)? Will we ‘go forth’, like Aaron, to meet our Bridegroom with courage and joy?

Posted in Pilgrims' Progress (Exodus & Numbers) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Narrow Way: The flesh and the Spirit

Galatians 5:19-26

The battle against sin may have been decisively won when Jesus died on the Cross, but our sinful nature has a powerful hold on us and refuses to admit defeat – which makes further conflict inevitable, even after we have become Christians. As long as we live in this life, our old and new natures will be at war with each other (Romans 7:18,19).

Now our old nature may get buried deep under a veneer of ‘religiousness’; but it is always there – and sooner or later it will reveal itself in words and actions. The ‘acts of the flesh’ are the product of unrestrained self-centredness, of a life that is proudly independent of God and unconcerned about the needs of other people. When the ‘flesh’ rules, you get sexual immorality, religious apostasy, social breakdown and uncontrolled self-indulgence (gambling, alcohol abuse and other addictions) (Galatians 5:19-21). The way of the flesh leads in the opposite direction to God’s Kingdom. So we must not follow it! People who are happy to live in this way (Paul is not talking here about occasional lapses but about persistent habits) are evidently not Christians, whatever they may claim to be. “Those who live like this will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:21)

However, it would be a mistake to think that we can become holy by our own efforts, by obeying a list of external rules (“do this”, “don’t do that”). That would just be another variation on the Law – which had already been tried, and had failed. It could only prescribe good behaviour; it could not provide the motivation or the power to carry it out, nor could it help people to win the struggle against the flesh. That is something only the Holy Spirit can do. True holiness is now achievable, not by obeying rules but by allowing the fruit of the Spirit to grow in one’s life. When the Spirit rules (in contrast to the flesh), we get a deep relationship with God, good relationships with other people, and strong personal character (Galatians 5:22,23).

But we are not mere passengers; our relationship with the Holy Spirit is a partnership. Holiness doesn’t just happen automatically; we have to continually make conscious choices to live by the Spirit and march to His tune (Galatians 5:26). Thus the Christian life continues as it began – in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, on whom we are totally dependent. On a daily basis, with His help, we must kill off our old sinful habits and submit our desires to Him. For unless we repudiate what is evil, we shall not be able to embrace what is good.

Posted in The Narrow Way (Galatians) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

In God’s hands

Psalm 31

David has always made it his habit to trust in God for protection and security. Now once again he is in danger: he and his 400 followers have come out of hiding in order to protect the border town of Keilah from Philistine attack, and Saul has seen his chance to trap and destroy them (I Samuel 23:1-7). The people of Keilah, grateful for what David has done for them, are offering him protection. But David puts his life completely in God’s hands, and prays that he will not be disappointed:
“In You, LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame.” (Psalm 31:1)

Difficult decisions have to be made – but amongst his band of warriors is Abiathar the priest, who has with him the ephod containing the two sacred stones (the Urim and Thummim). These are effectively a ‘hotline’ to God, enabling David to ask questions and get direct answers. “For the sake of Your name, lead and guide me” (Psalm 31:3), he prays. And God warns him not to stay in Keilah, but to make his escape while he can (I Samuel 23:9-12).

David’s faith in God was unwavering – yet even he often had moments of doubt and fear (Psalm 31:22). Human beings are fickle in their affections; the citizens of Keilah supported David enthusiastically so long as Saul was at a distance, but God knew that they would disown him as soon as they felt their own lives to be under threat. David’s ability to make a safe getaway was due entirely to God’s help.

To Saul, it must have seemed as though David had a charmed life! But David knew better: God had a plan for his life (to make him king of Israel), and he simply trusted God to bring it about.
“I trust in You, LORD;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in Your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
from those who pursue me.” (Psalm 31:14,15)
And since we are the children of a loving heavenly Father, we also know that our lives are not at the mercy of chance or fate, but are under His personal care – whatever happens to us.

This incident was typical of David’s life story, which was one of almost unbroken success.
“Praise be to the LORD,
for He showed me the wonders of His love
when I was in a city under siege.” (Psalm 31:21)
No two stories are the same, of course: Jesus was captured by His enemies and put to death, and this was God’s will for Him. But David’s words from this psalm (verse 5) were on His lips as He died: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” (Luke 23:46) For whether we live or die, we are in God’s hands – and are kept safe there.

Posted in A life in poetry, Facing the music (Psalms) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Narrow Way: The Law and the Spirit

Galatians 5:13-18

But there was much more to the Jewish Law than the issues raised by the Judaisers (circumcision and diet). Without the restraining influence of its moral demands, surely Gentile converts would continue to live in their sinful, pagan ways? Paul’s gospel of grace was open to the criticism that it encouraged lawlessness.

So we have to be just a little bit careful when talking about our Christian freedom, and not use it as an excuse for doing absolutely anything we like! We are meant to be free from the ‘flesh’ (our natural inclination towards sin) as well as from the Law – in other words, free from sin, not free to sin. A church that becomes infected with legalism atrophies; but moral licence causes it to disintegrate (Galatians 5:15).

In fact, the Gospel has two aspects that are equally important. Jesus gives himself for us, to bear the curse for our sins (Galatians 1:4; 2:20). And then the Holy Spirit is given to us, to enable us to overcome the power of the flesh and live genuinely holy lives (Galatians 5:16,17). It is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of change in our lives. He works with us; He provides us with motivation, energy, desires and resources that do not come naturally to us; and He perseveres with us until we become like Christ. And He is so much more effective than the Law that we no longer need to concern ourselves with it (Galatians 5:18)!

This does not mean, however, that ‘rules’ have been replaced by ‘spontaneity’, because the sinful nature is difficult to shake off, and ‘what comes naturally’ may still come from our old nature, not our new one! What it means is that a Christian lifestyle is not achieved by slavishly following all the details of the Jewish Law. Actually, Christians are not lawless; we are under a new ‘law’, the law of love (John 13:34,35). And it is much more demanding than the old one!

Posted in The Narrow Way (Galatians) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pilgrims’ Progress: Leadership yet again

Numbers 20:1-13

After about 35 years of wandering in circles, Israel again find themselves near Kadesh-Barnea. This time the water supply fails, provoking yet another volley of complaints – and the airing of all their old grievances. And as usual, the people ignore God’s existence and blame Moses and Aaron for all their problems – problems that they had brought upon themselves by their disobedience so many years ago! This grumbling, resentful attitude must have been absorbed from their parents, for by now only the very oldest of them have any memory of Egypt; most have lived their whole life in the wilderness.

Once again Moses and Aaron turn to God for help; and He tells them how to find and release the hidden water. They are to speak to the rock, which will obey them and thus put God’s rebellious people to shame. But on this occasion – quite uncharacteristically – Moses doesn’t follow his instructions faithfully. Years of relentless criticism must have taken their toll, and something inside him seems to ‘snap’, releasing all his suppressed anger and frustration. He strikes the rock instead of speaking to it (which is disobedience); but his sin is worse than that. In calling the people ‘rebels’, he sets himself up as their judge; in saying, “Must we bring you water?’’ (verse 10) he sets himself up as their deliverer. Thus he usurps the place of God and dishonours Him.

The people are happy with the outcome; they do not suffer as a result of Moses’ sin. But God is furious. He had been willing to be gracious to His people, but Moses’ words and actions have given the opposite impression. It’s a terrible lapse for a man of such spiritual stature, and his punishment is correspondingly severe: he and Aaron will also be denied entry into the Promised Land.

Leadership in God’s church is a tremendous privilege; but it carries with it a corresponding responsibility. The larger the group of people under someone’s authority, the greater the temptation for that leader to behave ‘like God’ to them. And we who follow them are also tempted to idolise them, forgetting that they are as human (and sinful) as we are. Church history is littered with the names of popes, bishops, and other powerful men who started their careers full of promise but eventually tripped up by abusing their authority. Tinpot tyrants, physical and sexual abusers, and those who just enjoy the adulation of the masses… they leave a nasty taste in the mouth, and dishonour both God and the Church. So we need to pray for our leaders, that they may finish their course as well as they started…

Posted in Pilgrims' Progress (Exodus & Numbers) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Narrow Way: Christian freedom

Galatians 5:1-12

As Paul stated at the very beginning of the letter (Galatians 1:4), “Christ gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age” – from slavery in both its Jewish (legalistic) and pagan (idolatrous) forms. Christian conversion is a form of emancipation – but it can all be undone if we then succumb to the suggestion that we ourselves have to do anything to make ourselves acceptable to God (Galatians 5:1). Our precious freedom must not be thrown away again!

Legalism will always have a strong attraction for religious people; but we must resist it. We can’t have it both ways. If we try to add our own righteousness to what Christ has given us, then we are implying that Christ’s righteousness on its own was not enough to save us. This is the basic issue: if we are contributing anything at all to our justification, then we are not trusting Jesus to save us.

Christians do not work for our righteousness; we wait for it! All too obviously, we are not completely righteous yet; we are still sinners. But because of what Jesus did for us, we have the confident expectation of being declared righteous at the final judgement. In the meantime, we are marked out as God’s people not (as the Jews were) by circumcision – and not even (surprisingly) by baptism – but by the seal of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13) on our lives. And this too is not something that we can do for ourselves; God must do it for us!

Posted in The Narrow Way (Galatians) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment