7. The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Focus on Christ Meditations: 7.  The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Isa 61:1,2   The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, .

As we briefly browse some of Isaiah prophecies in our search for hints of the Coming One in the Old Testament, to focus the ‘mystery’ that the apostle Paul spoke about, especially in respect of Christ himself, we cannot move on into the New Testament without first observing this most truly remarkable prophecy, not as remarkable as the Isa 9 word perhaps, but remarkable nevertheless.

Imagine you were a Jew living in Israel, say twenty years before the birth of Christ. You go along to the local synagogue on a Saturday morning to hear the scrolls read, and the rabbi expound the week’s reading before conducting prayers. This morning the scrolls of Isaiah are brought out and the above ‘chapter’ is read. I wonder what you would have thought about it?

Perhaps you hear these words and hear them as Isaiah explaining his own ministry. As a prophet, the Spirit of God is on him and by the Spirit’s enabling he brings God’s word, a word that can bring healing to those with broken hearts who are anguished by the hurts of life. For those who feel prisoners to dark thoughts, to feelings of inadequacy, and to failure, he sometimes had words of comfort and encouragement for those whose hearts were inclined towards the Lord. He proclaims that today is the day of God’s blessing for those same ones who seek the Lord, a day when God comes to judge all the negative things that inhibit our relationship with Him and comfort those who mourn, not only for the loss of loved ones, but for their own state perhaps.

Oh yes, God’s word does all these things but it seems it is limited to the spiritual world. You think of others in your community, the sick, the infirm, the disabled, yes even those troubled by evil spirits (and there do seem to be a lot of them) and you dare to wonder why God’s word, read and expounded every Saturday, seems unable to touch them – but you keep those thoughts to yourself for it seems unworthy of God.

You allow your mind to wander back to those earlier chapters of Isaiah. First there was that tantalising suggestion of a child who would come to bring the presence of God to the land in chapter 7, and yet there was linked with him the thought of judgment, but it was unclear and somewhat of a mystery. And then in chapter 9 there had been those almost unbelievable words about this child being God Himself, an even greater mystery. And then in chapter 11 there were words about a ‘branch’ of the house of David who would come (v.1) with the Spirit of God upon him (v.2,3) and as he rules he will bring justice (v.3-5) and the end result will be a life of incredible peace where, The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (v.6) This was all going to be the work of one who was coming with the powerful presence of God upon him to achieve these things. Surely that must be what is being referred to here, now, in Isaiah 61, surely this must be more than just what Isaiah achieved through his ministry?

And so the questions would have hung in the air and fifty years on from this imaginary moment, in the synagogue of Capernaum in the north of Israel, in Galilee, a demon possessed man would cry out in response to the presence of God that had come (see Mk 1:23) and would be delivered by the Coming One. The word of God had been read week by week and expounded week by week and the man had been able to remain there untouched. But now….   A while later, presumably in the same synagogue, a man with a shriveled hand (see Mk 3:1), quite probably a regular attendee of the synagogue who had heard the word being read many times but who had remained unchanged, this man found the presence of God so obviously there that he walked out healed.

The truth was that weeks before, not in Capernaum but in Nazareth, Jesus walked into the synagogue as was his regular custom (Lk 4:16), it being his local synagogue, and whether it was because he volunteered to read the scrolls or whether they had heard of his preaching already (Lk 4:14,15) and they wanted to honour him, he was handed the scroll of the day which just happened to be the Isa 61 prophecy and, after he had read it out loud for all to hear, he declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) The response to him was one of challenge, not a good start one might think, and anyway what did that actually mean? Was he saying that he has like Isaiah, a prophet-preacher whose words would heal and release – or what?

The ‘what’ we have already seen in the previous paragraph. This child – now grown man – did indeed come with the powerfully presence of God upon him for when he spoke demons were cast out and sick and disabled people were healed. This was not merely a ministry of words, but a ministry of power and authority. No wonder the initial response in the Capernaum synagogue had been, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching–and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mk 1;27,28)

Up until now, the ministry of the local synagogue had merely been to read and proclaim the word of God; now Jesus brought a new possibility, it could be (see Jn 14:12) a ministry that changed more than intellects, it changed whole lives – but they weren’t ready for that, for ‘religion’ then and now, wasn’t and so often isn’t open to let Jesus be Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One.

If there was any doubt about it, Jesus himself spelled it out: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) or, as Peter summarized it on the Day of Pentecost, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22)

But back in the days before Jesus came, the Isaiah 61 prophecy hung there, so to speak, like a wanted poster; yes, this is what we want, if only it can be, but how can such a thing be? The words only version is pretty good, but is there something more? How can ‘something more’ come about? The mystery tantalizingly hung there, words declared by God, words that stirred questions, words that brought the possibility of hope, words just waiting to be fulfilled. Does that sound familiar?

To reflect upon: Jesus said anyone who believed in him would do the things he had been doing (Jn 14:12). Does our church do that?

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86. Saved by Mercy

Meditations in Exodus: 86. Saved by Mercy

Num 16:41  The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the LORD’s people,” they said.

I finished the previous meditation with the following: What more can one say. It is like coming to the end of some great film full of action and suddenly, ‘The End’.  Silence. It is over, but you are left there, standing and wondering. Why were these men so foolish as to mess with God? The death of Korah and company by what appears a limited earthquake or even sink-hole followed by fire, must have been devastating. Yes, Moses had clearly been the Lord’s instrument but the magnitude of what happened was so great that surely there must have been no question that this was an incredible act of God. I finished as I did because it struck me that this is how it must have been, total silence  and horror, but if it was it was short lived.

“The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the LORD’s people,” they said.” (v.41) What was it about this people that made them so blind? Well we said it then and we’ll say it again – Sin. Modern Christianity so often says little about Sin but it is the reason for the Cross. It is inherent in every single person. Before we came to Christ we were held by its power. When we came to Christ he not only justified us, forgave us, cleansed us and adopted us, but he also put his own Holy Spirit within us, power to overcome, power to change us, but without Him we would be the sort of people Paul demonstrates in Romans 7 when he speaks of his old life saying, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:18,19)  Because of this the apostle John wrote, “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:19) And if we’re still wondering remember Paul said, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers.” (2 Cor 4:4) There can be no other explanation why these people – the whole community – grumbled against Moses.

Moses and Aaron must have either been outside the Tabernacle or they still used the tent of Meeting outside the camp because we read, “But when the assembly gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron and turned toward the Tent of Meeting, suddenly the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron went to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and the LORD said to Moses, “Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” And they fell facedown.” (v.42-45) The crowd come to have it out with Moses and turn towards the tent at which point the pillar of cloud appears over it – the Lord has come, He has heard and yet again He tests Moses with His proposal to destroy this people. In fact clearly plague has started to appear in the people (v.46b) so Moses and Aaron fall face down in prayer for a third time.

But the role of the priesthood is to intercede for the people and stand between them and God and so we read, “Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, for the plague had stopped.” (v.46-50)

The people with their attitude have forfeited the covenant and are in blatant rebellion against God. It is not an unintentional thing (remember the Law we considered recently) but wilful and purposeful. They don’t care. They are the chosen people of the earth, they have been called to be a blessing to the earth, to reveal God to the earth, to be receivers of His blessings and demonstrate His goodness to the world but instead a bunch of them rebel and when terrible judgment falls on them, the rest grumble against God’s servant. How incredible, how bizarre!

But why didn’t God just strike all of them down in a second, for He could have? The answer must be in what followed. The fact that Aaron stepped in with his priestly role with an act of atonement must have been what the Lord was wanting. The lessons are strong and clear. Blatant sin warrants death but even then where there is an intercessor, God will hold back and give another chance for no other reason than He is merciful. Yes, He is! There is no reason why He should hold back at this point. He is almighty God, Creator of the Universe. He has made a perfect world and mankind have thrown it back in His face, so to speak. He could have just wiped out and utterly destroyed the earth. He has the power and might to do that; we are but ants to Him and you and I tread on ants with little thought. Why hasn’t God wiped out this rebellious anthill? Be very clear: we have done nothing to deserve mercy; that is the thing about mercy it is given for no reason other than God chooses to.

Again we fall back to the Lord’s words through Ezekiel: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) and “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32) and “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezek 33:11) THREE times the same message which perhaps the apostle Peter picks up on when he writes, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

We have emphasised again and again in these studies the battle that is going on to bring this people through to a place where they can truly be a light to the rest of the world but it is hard work in the face of their constant failures. On the one hand with the human race we have a people made in the likeness of God so often revealing His grace (theologians call it ‘common grace’) so good things are seen in us, but all the time there is this struggle, because of free will, with this propensity to be self-centred and godless. It is an incredible battle that is going on and the only reason we are still alive is the mercy of God. Do a Moses and Aaron and fall on your face and worship the One who is holy, the One who is all powerful, the One who sent His Son to satisfy justice on your behalf, to spare you for no reason other than He wanted to!  That is mercy. We didn’t deserve it but we got it.

14. The Light of the World

Meditating on Great Themes in John:   14. The Light of the World

John 8:12  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.”

If John was writing his Gospel as a college dissertation today he would probably get 2 out of 10 for style. I say this because we come on to this amazing declaration by Jesus which comes in this form, first here and then in 9:5 but what gets worse, the miracle emphasising this is wrapped round that latter verse but there have already been numerous references to Jesus being light. How much better today, we might think, if it was all neatly packed together in one bundle, but the Bible is not like that, it brings it out bit by bit as it occurred in the various circumstances, so let’s check out these ‘light’ references.

We saw the first references in the Prologue: In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (Jn 1:4,5) i.e. the source of all life was in Jesus and he himself was like a light that shone gloriously in this dark, sin-tainted world, and he was not recognized or understood. But then came, speaking of John the Baptist, “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” (Jn1:7-9) John’s job was to point out the life that brings light to every human being.

Then we saw in what we called John’s Recap, John summarizing Jesus ministry as follows: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (Jn 3:19-21) This light – Jesus – reveals hearts. Those who are open to God allow his light to shine in and transform. Those who prefer evil shy away.

We have seen previously that the background to this part of John was the Feast of Tabernacles and now Jesus has come to the temple courts to teach (8:2). The fact that they bring a woman to him here (8:3-12) suggests he was teaching in the Court of the Women. On the first day of the Feast there was a ceremony called the Illumination of the Temple in which four great candelabra were set up and lit at dusk, producing such a great illumination that light was spread far and wide.

Whether those lights continued throughout the Feast and afterwards is uncertain, but even if not, the candelabra were probably still there and so Jesus possibly stands alongside them (being early morning the light would now be out) and makes this claim which might be interpreted as him saying, “Well, you’ve seen the great light that has been here but I am a light that lights up the entire world. If 8:1-12 was indeed part of the original writing, he is speaking straight after the dismissing of the charges against the woman caught in adultery and it is like he is also saying, “I am the light that shows up the imperfections of every man and woman but I have come to dispel their darkness with my light.

After ongoing discussion and argument Jesus leaves the temple precincts (8:59) and as he goes he comes across a man who had been blind from birth (9:1). Rather than get into a debate with his disciples about the cause of this man’s blindness, he simply heals him (9:2,3,6,7) but not before he has declared, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (9:4,5) Perhaps we can simply suggest he is saying, “We must do the Father’s works while we still have the opportunity. There will come a time where the light of the world will appear to be snuffed out (temporarily at least) and it will be dark and these works will be halted, but while I am still here in person, I will shed light into the lives of all who come to me.”

The fact of this man having been blind from birth makes the picture even more vivid. It is like Jesus is showing through this miracle that he comes to bring light and therefore revelation to all those who have been spiritually blind since birth – as we all were. He alone opens our eyes so that we can see; that is part of his work and that of the Holy Spirit.

After a lot of discussions, arguments and provocations by the Jews and specifically the Pharisees who were against Jesus, he declares, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (Jn 9:39) I like the Message Version’s rendering of this: Jesus then said, “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretence of seeing will be exposed as blind.” Those who have been spiritually blind will be enabled to see the truth when they come to Jesus but those religious people who thought they were the ones with the truth, will be revealed as actually being spiritually blind. This is what this light actually does – provide sight for those who recognise their blindness and reveal the true state of those who are self-sufficient and think they see it all – but don’t.

Later on, in further light references, Jesus declares, Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.” (Jn 12:36) and “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” (Jn 12:46) The wonder is that we can become light bringers when we come to him and when we do come to him his light shines in and through us so that darkness (sin) not longer has a place in us. The word ‘light’ appears 24 times in John’s Gospel and again it is all about transformation, us being changed from living in darkness to become and living in light. How wonderful.

35. World’s Way

Ephesians Meditations No.35

Eph  4:17-19 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.

We start with another ‘link-word’ – “so” i.e. because of all I’ve been saying, Paul says, about being part of this body with Christ as the head, this has consequences – you are the people of God, so live like it. That perhaps sums up what we have here today. But look at how strongly he says it: So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord.” This is as strong as we’ve seen Paul in this letter. This must be very important.

So what is he telling them with such urgency? “that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” When he speaks of Gentiles here, it is simply shorthand for ‘unbelievers’, because in fact many of them at Ephesus were Gentiles and not Jews by birth. He has previously, you may remember, in Chapter 2, reminded them of how they used to live, and in many ways this is simply a stronger reminder of that with the exhortation that they should no longer live like that – because they are the body of Christ and are growing up into the head.

But what was it that he had against unbelievers? “the futility of their thinking.” We do really need to understand that the godless, self-centred thinking of the unbeliever is futile. Now if you have ever been a watcher of Sci-fi you will remember the cry of the Borg, “Resistance is futile.” Oh yes, we understand what ‘futile’ means. It means ‘hopeless’. The unbeliever may struggle and strive to achieve, but ultimately it is all hopeless, because you cannot have true peace without knowing God through Christ.

Now Paul describes their state even more: “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” Do you see the two things there? There is a mind thing and a relational thing. First the mind thing: “they are darkened in their understanding.” I like the JBP version here – “they live blindfold in a world of illusion.” They don’t understand the truth because darkness prevails, the darkness of sin – the self-centred and godless approach to life – and because of the deception that Satan brings them. (see 2 Cor 4:4 & 1 Jn 2:11). Sin and Satan has blindfolded them and they are trusting in a lie, “I’m all right.”  Second, the relational thing. Sin and Satan have separated them from God. Ask an unbeliever and they will either deny God exists or say something that suggests that He is a million miles away. Neither of these two things is now true of the Christian. Our minds have been enlightened by God and we do see the truth through Christ. We now have a close relationship with the Lord. So, is the implication, don’t live as if you are confused and away from God!

But Paul goes on to explain why they are blind and away from God: “because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” They are ignorant of the things we have been learning about in this letter and the reason they are ignorant is because they have hardened their hearts against God. The unbeliever is not passive; they actively harden themselves against God. The extreme of this is the crusading atheist but it is still true in lesser ways in all other unbelievers. If it wasn’t they would seek God until they find Him, or they would listen and hear what the Lord is saying to them, for He surely does speak to all men and women, I am convinced. This ‘hardening’ may simply be the resistance that says, “I want to rule my life and no one else can.” Thus they push God away and harden themselves to Him. (This only goes to show the marvel of the gospel that God by His Spirit can penetrate sometimes the chinks of this hardness and bring a hunger and then a conviction).

But there is an outworking of that which Paul goes on to explain: “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” This spiritual hardening has a practical outworking. Hardness means a loss of spiritual sensitivity, and a loss of spiritual sensitivity means you are left with only material awareness and when that is utterly self-centred (because that’s all you are left with) then personal pleasure and getting your own way becomes the ultimate and sole focus on life. We see it in a multitude of ways, but this is a true description of the unbeliever. Watch the lives around you, or that you see in the media, and you will observe godlessness and self-centredness. No longer having any boundaries, as God is rejected by society, we thus see the exact working out of what Paul is saying in Western societies. When he speaks of ‘impurity’ and ‘continual lust for more’ you can see these exhibited in Western societies more and more obviously. All you have to do is look with enlightened eyes with God’s help.

What is the point of these verses? It is Paul saying that this godless and self-centred lifestyle is what unbelievers are stuck with. There is absolutely no room for it in the Christian life because we are joined to Christ, part of his body, and he is holy. Check it out. Make sure there is no expression of the godless, self-centred life in you if you are a believer.