17. Radical Change

Wilderness Meditations: 17. The Place of Radical Change

Acts 9:1-4  Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

A Hesitation:  I have pondered for a day whether to write this study, but the message underlying it has remained strong and is one that brings together the previous two studies  and emphasizes what I believe the Lord wants to say to us in these days. I want us to consider Saul – or Paul as he became – and his Damascus road experience. I have always considered it a desert road experience and yet I am not certain that that is accurate. Having researched it, the truth is we don’t know what route he took from Jerusalem to Damascus, all we know is what the above verses say, that he was nearing Damascus.

Possibilities: Because I find it an area of the unknown and, more especially, an area I’ve never considered before or heard anyone else speak on, it bears a quick consideration. It seems there were three main highways, trade routes from the south to the north. To the far east was what was known as the King’s Highway, possibly the main trade route. To the west was what was first a coastal road that at various times has gone by different names, ‘Way of the Philistines’, the Coastal Road and The Via Maris,  going up the coast and then sweeping in across Israel to go north on the west of the Sea of Galilee and then north and east across the mountains – south of Mount Hermon and down to the plain of Damascus. However, a more likely route was the Hill Road or Ridge Route that went more directly from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee and continued up the east side of the sea, northwards to Damascus – a rough road, wild at times. Paul was not travelling alone (see v.7) and whether these were friends, other Pharisees, or simply travellers, we aren’t told and we hear no more of them apart from fact that they led the blinded Saul into Damascus.

Transformation: Although a modern writing would have given more details, what we have in the text of Acts and the epistles is quite clear. Paul’s testimony: “I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Gal 1:13,14) As he later testified in Acts, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” (Acts 22:4,5) and even more, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.(Acts 26:9)

The account of his encounter with Jesus on the road down to Damascus is well known, as is the incredible change that took him from being a church persecutor to church builder, opposer of Jesus to herald of Jesus, from legalistic Pharisee to grace-filled apostle. Now consider this further: The transformation that took place is about as dramatic as you can think, but mostly we don’t like the dramatic, we prefer the known, the ordinary, the expected. But in the days we have been living through are none of those things; they have been dramatic, the future is unknown, it is certainly not the ordinary and uncertainty has replaced expected.

Yes but… Now I can hear the defensive voices rising – but I made that same radical change when I turned to Jesus and, yes, I am sure that that is so for many of us. But here’s the thing, I am certain that one of the main questions that have been coming from heaven in the recent months is, what have you been learning in all of this? I don’t know what your answer would be because I’m sure I haven’t seen the full picture of what I have been learning, but in the first of these three additional studies I wrote about how we need to adjust our thinking to see God in the midst of our circumstances. In the second one we saw God moving in the most unexpected place which required a letting go of the present days of ‘success’, submitting to God’s strange directions, directions that challenged the present security.

Change? For some of us these will be radical changes. For some of us we have so struggled to cope with the uncertainties imposed upon us, that to say that we sense the Presence and the Peace and the Provision and Power and the Protection of God in the midst of all this, is a bridge too far for us. To say that we can cope with God purposefully pushing us in new directions can be seen as just yet another lot of uncertainties that make life even more scary.

We can pretend but the reality is far from that. Yes, we are saved, we are believers, but the hard truth is that living in this materialistic and constantly changing world, so much of church life has become routine, almost habit, and the power and presence of God has become something to talk about rather than be experienced.  

I have written this before but may I reiterate, perhaps in an abbreviated form, a vision of church I have used before in previous series, a vision that is simply what is portrayed in the New Testament of ‘church’: a church that is “alive with the presence and power and revelation and activity of God by His Spirit, where God is bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of the life of the church, and the surrounding world is impacted and changed”. That is the God side of it, if I may put it that way; the other side is our part, to catch this vision, yearn for it, pray and pray and pray for it, and to be open to whatever the Spirit might say or do. For many of us, I believe, to believe this, if we dare be honest, is as radical a transformation as that which Saul went through on the road to Damascus.

Review the Change: Paul in Jerusalem, totally set in his ideas, opposed to anything other than the Judaism he knew, indeed hostile to the new ideas of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2). He sets out to strengthen his ideas by arresting those in Damascus who hold those ideas, and on the way, on a dusty road, coming down out of the mountains, his life is changed when the Son of God challenges all he knew. His set ideas, his set goals, his set vision, are all set aside, and it is a new day. This, dear man or woman of God, is the transformation that I believe God is wanting to bring to His children, His church, who have for so long accepted a second best, powerless version of Christianity, of Church. Am I feeling He wants us to change all we are doing? Only in so far as it hinders the coming in power and revelation of His Spirit. I am not there but I am praying. I think it is a day of slow and gradually progressive transformation – until He comes in power. If you have any questions, pray. Please pray.

54. A Time to Regain our Identity

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 8 – Counter Attack

54. A Time to Regain Our Identity

Mt 16:18  I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

1 Pet 2:9,10  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  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.

I wonder? I have wondered if the average church member ‘sees’ themselves in any way different from anyone else? Very early on in this series I considered a number of ways the Christian – and subsequently the Church – is different from their non-believing neighbors. So yes, being a ‘believer’ is perhaps the starting place, but is that all you see?

Why? Now you may be thinking, why is he taking us back over this ground if we have covered it so thoroughly in the past studies? Well, it is simply because when I meet with other believers, that is the sense, and only that – that we are ‘believers’ – that ever seems to get communicated, and because I believe that is so, I think it is one of the reasons that Christians are so often backward in coming forward, or so deferential when it comes to standing up and declaring how needy the world is and how wonderful the answer that we have is. Mostly I detect we are on the defense.

A Positive Faith: One of our failures of recent decades is that of not communicating the positive aspects of Christianity – which are only found in Christianity – which can help this sick and ailing world. Of course part of that has been our ongoing failure to coherently and graciously communicate why the ways of the present world of the West are failing. It seems it is only the occasional columnist of one of the big ‘broadsheet’ newspapers who shouts, “This is not working!”

The appearance – and forgive me if I am wrong – is that in the UK where there is a ‘state church’, the Church of England, it is too tied in to the establishment to be regularly prophetic and thus it fails to prepare itself and its leading bishops to be voices of hope and change in a dark world. In the USA, although there is no state church, church and politics appear entwined so often but this seems to have resulted in specific limited battles being fought – the abortion battle being the most obvious but there have been others – but without conveying, “Hey this Christian thing is the best thing going!” and so there has been a failure to collectively convey the positive nature of the Christian faith that should be life changing, and if given a chance, also community-changing and nation-changing.

My Identity: So if someone asks you who you are, do you reply, “I am a believer in Jesus Christ,” or “I am a Christian,” because as excellent as those testimonies are, they only take us a short way along the path of identifying who we are. A shorthand answer along this path is, “Well, the Bible says I am a child of Almighty God, the Creator of all things” and that opens up a whole new area of discussion. But perhaps the more important issue is not so much what I have to declare as what I feel about myself. Knowing who I am, enables me to speak or act as I do.

For example, a number of times, either in this series or other series, I have reminded us that a) Jesus is seated at his Father’s right hand in heaven, ruling in the midst of his enemies (Eph 1:20) and then, b) that we are told that we are seated with him in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:6). Now this is quite remarkable if we believe it (understatement of the year!) because it means we are linked to Almighty God and because of that there is a sense where we should see ourselves as ‘above’ the world, having an overview of it that provides a more accurate view than anyone else, which means learning with Christ how to live with that.

Part of a Strategy: But this also reminds us of a verse we have considered many times in the past: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.   For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”   (1 Cor 15:24,25) Now this requires us to realize and recognize how Christ is ruling in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1,2, Heb 1:13, 10:13, Mt 22:44) – even though the world seems to be doing its own thing – but also for us to realize that we are part of his ruling, we are with him in working to bring down these enemies (which include such things as unbelief, unrighteousness, ungodliness, anger, bitterness, hostility, wars, fighting, etc. etc. as well as the more obvious evils, such as slavery, still as prevalent today as in the past). We have a privileged position, privileged power and a privileged calling within the strategy of Christ in his calling to bring in the kingdom of God.

Inferior or Special?  So let’s be honest, how do we really feel about ourselves before the onlooking world? Have we let Satan demean us, do we feel inferior?  Now if this was a church meeting and I was one of those preachers who hype up the congregation, asking those things in an ever louder voice, we might expect the temptation might be the shout back, “No, we’re superior!” but that is not Christlike, it is not what the apostle Paul taught, or any of the other apostles. The word we are looking for is ‘special’.

I have a friend who dislikes us saying to anyone, “you are special,” because, he says, you can’t say to everyone, “You are special.”  Yes you can. First of all we can say it to us as a group of people in the world. At Mount Sinai, God said to Moses to say to the people, if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (Ex 19:5) Don’t tell me that “treasured possession” doesn’t mean special! Perhaps it was with this in mind that the apostle Peter wrote to the church (see 1 Pet 1:1,2) those words at the top of this study: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  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 Pet 2:9,10) Here I have highlighted words that say we are special.

Uniqueness: So dare we say, “I am special to God,” or “We as a local church are special to God,” so that marks us out from the rest of the world?  We are special because we have responded to Him and we have been adopted into His family so that we can say we are children of God, even sons and daughters of God. We are special because we have open access to heaven, a voice to God and an ear to hear from God and the ability to receive all the resources of God.

If that doesn’t make us feel good, perhaps we need to pray and ask the Lord to open our eyes to see the reality of these things, rather like the apostle Paul prayed, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,  and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:18,19)  All this comes only by revelation. We need today the fresh revelation of who we are, the wonder of who we are, the wonder of what we are, the wonder of our destiny, and when we get that afresh, perhaps we will stand up in the midst of the world and cry fearlessly with the apostle Paul,  “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes,” (Rom 1:16) and then go on and demonstrate that power – which leads us on to the next studies about going into battle. Stick with me.

30. The Arrival of ‘Revelation’

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 30. The Arrival of ‘Revelation’

1 Cor 14:3 (Msg) when you proclaim his truth in everyday speech, you’re letting others in on the truth so that they can grow and be strong and experience his presence with you.

(NIV) the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

Different Responses: Moving into these practical outworkings of this picture of us being seated with Christ in the heavenly places to reign with him in bringing in the kingdom of God on earth, will almost certainly mean that a number will be feeling uncomfortable and even defensive because it transforms our concept of ‘church’ from a place where we go every Sunday and join in some rituals, sing some songs and listen to some teaching somehow connected to the Bible, to a living body that is an expression of the Son of God who actively speaks and moves in this world today. If you see Christ as anything less than this, I have to very gently suggest to you that you have an inadequate understanding of who Jesus Christ is and what Christianity is all about.

God on our case: In yesterday’s study we went from principles to practicalities and I suggested a very simple faith model example that allows Jesus to move in and through His body when they gather together. Because it is such a simple picture and yet a challenging one, perhaps we need to briefly look again at its significance. Back in Study no.26, ‘The Caring Church’, we observed two crucial things: the fact that as humans we still have needs to be met and, second, God is love and love delights to help, if I can put it as mundanely as that!

Start with the Bible: In the Evangelical wing of the church we have emphasised salvation through faith in Christ, the need to make a commitment, and the value of Bible teaching, and I would be the first to shout a loud ‘Amen!’ to all those three things, but then we stopped there. Indeed, some defensively then took on that ungodly and unbiblical stance that God is no longer the communicating God that we see throughout the Bible and everything we needed to hear was there in the finalised canon of Scripture. Yes, we do need to hear everything that we have in the final canon of Scripture, and I think you would agree that I am one of the foremost who value it so much I meditate on it every single morning, but as much as I do value it, I have to tell you that the life pivoting moments of my life have been when God has spoken directly to me. Yes, sometimes it has been when something in His word stood out so directly that it was clearly Him speaking to me, but there have been a number of other times when His word has come directly to me – and changed me!

Is it God? How do you know it is Him?  First, it is in line with His written word. Second, it brings a sense of peace, of goodness and even worship. Third, it cuts across your existing train of thought in a way your natural mind would not have done. Now I am sure these three examples from long back, that I am going to give, are somewhere in the myriads of studies I have written but they have not appeared for a long time so bear repeating.

Conversation 1: When my daughter, our first-born, was just a couple of months old (forty years ago but it seems like yesterday it is so vivid still) she was in a crib in our room and as a new dad I crept into our bedroom one day and looked down at her. It was then a ‘conversation’ ensued (and I was a sufficiently young Christian as to just take it for what it seemed) when into my thinking came, and it came just like this:

“Son, what are you feeling for your daughter?”

“Oh Lord, I love her,” I thought back.

“What does she do?”  That was a strange question. I paused and thought.

“Well, she cries a lot, she wakes us in the night, she’s always wanting feeding and she messes her nappies (diapers) and keeps on needing to be changed.”

“And you love her?

“Oh, yes Lord!”


Without a blink, “Because she’s mine!”

“And that, son, is why I love you, because you’re mine.”

End of conversation but I was never the same again.

Conversation number two (and there were others but this one stands out) came when I was preparing for a ministry trip to Malaysia. Now I had been several times before under someone else’s leadership, and each time, by way of preparation, we had prayed and fasted for ten days before we went.  This time was my first time to lead a small team and although I didn’t impose those on the others who were young people, I had decided to do the usual ten days fast.  The only problem was that ‘this voice’ had said, “Son, I do not want you to fast,” but I had rejected it as having come from the enemy, but the Lord is very gracious. There is nothing romantic about fasting, they are times of self-discipline, but I had previously got through the first three days without a problem. This time on the first morning, just a few hours from when there had not been breakfast or the customary cup of tea or coffee, I was literally rolling around the floor in agony and cried out to the Lord for His grace to cope. Back came the voice in my mind, quite clearly, “Son, I told you not to fast. Get up now and eat and I will bless your trip.” Chastened but still in agony, I got up and ate. I was fine. What is more the Lord blessed that trip and the subsequent one I did, doubly! I am not sure if I heard it, but I knew it: I didn’t need to try to twist the Lord’s arm to bless these ministry trips; He wanted to bless and use us more than I did!

Conversation number 3. I was reading a book and came to a bit where the author was writing about American TV evangelists who made big money, fail off the rails and so on, and I found myself thinking, “Lord, how can you use such people?” Now it was just a thought with, to my understanding, no significance or direction, but instantly I ‘heard’ back, and it came from beyond me, “The same reason I use you, son.” I sat bolt upright. Where did that come from? That didn’t sound good! But before I had time to think any more came the following: “Son, I use you, not because you are right but because you are available.”  Again, I was never the same again.

When you hear it and learn to know it and know where it comes from, there is nothing so precious as the Father speaking directly to you.  He knows me. He is here. He loves me. Yes, all this His written word tells me, but the ‘now-Presence’ is life changing in a way nothing else is. When the voice comes with ‘The Presence’ nothing is ever the same again.  I remember another time, many years ago, when a group of us had been praying and fasting for the day, and The Presence had been very real. When we broke up and I returned to my home, after a little while I realised something strange: I was tip-toeing everywhere around my apartment; The Presence was still there. I have taken up my space but there is more to say, so I’ll continue it tomorrow.

1. Introduction to Hebrews

Meditations in Hebrews 1: 1. Introduction to Hebrews

Heb 1:1-4  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, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

A little while ago I started writing a series of short meditations here in Hebrews. I write ‘short meditations’ when I feel under pressure and don’t want to spend quite so long each morning reflecting in depth. The ‘short meds’ are also, I realise, easier to read and so some prefer them to wading through a much longer study in God’s word. So, I started doing this series on Hebrews and got about half a dozen verses through and thought, “This is wrong, this area of Scripture is so full of truth this doesn’t do justice to it, this ‘short’ approach,” so I stopped. The point I would wish to make is that I believe Hebrews is  one of the ‘mining areas’ where you find you are stumbling over gem after gem in every paragraph (Ephesians is also like that). It cannot, indeed it must not be rushed!

But there is a danger in approaching passages like this, passages that are so full of specific truths and it is that as we focus in on one little phrase and then a next little phrase, we can so easily miss the big intent of the writer. For instance, as I quickly peruse these four verses above, I can see there are at least ten gems there to be put under the microscope.

Several years ago, our local jeweller introduced me to diamonds and told me there was a whole range of colours for diamonds and showed me a small spectrum of ten diamonds, I think it was, in a small display box and said, “Tell me what you see.” I peered at these diamonds for a minute or two. My instant respond was, “They are all the same,” but as I studied these stones that appeared the same I came to realise the range was from lighter to darker, hardly discernible but lighter to darker, more yellow at one end. When I made this comment his assistants applauded me. “Let me tell you,” he said, “what a trained jeweller who deals in diamonds has to do. They have to take a test whereby 360 stones are poured out on a table ad you have to order them in colour hues. The last time I did it, I got four wrong, which is considered quite good.”

If a jeweller takes that amount of trouble learning about diamonds, can we not take equal time in discerning the truths of God’s word?  So be warned, we are going to put each one of those gems above under the microscope and ask the Holy Spirit to teach us and enlighten us, to challenge us and feed us. Now over the years I have built up a testimony and it is this: every time I do a study and pray and ask for the Lord’s help, I come away at the end going, “Wow, that was amazing!”  Every time. Now your problem if you read these notes is that you are getting them second hand and if I am honest I have to say I write for my benefit first and last. If, somehow, you can be blessed by them being here, then I am glad, but  the best way is to do it yourself and let God feed you directly. So, read these notes by all means, and if you get blessed by them, I am pleased – but there is a better way.

OK, back to these verses. They are history laden with revelation. If we have read them many times before we may take them for granted but the level of revelation here is immense. They are staggering. In no other world religion will you find such a compressed package of revelation that says so much and makes such staggering claims. If you ever wonder what makes Christianity unique among the world religions, these four verses will give you the answer several times over; in fact I count eight things here about Jesus Christ that mark him out from any other person in all of history. That is how powerful these verses are.

Hebrews, I find, is a bit scary, if that is the right word. It is very Jewish and was clearly written to early Jewish Christian believers and it is packed with Old Testament information. Indeed, in the following remaining verses of chapter 1 there are seven quotations from the Old Testament. In the whole book there are more than 80! I once heard someone say, “Oh, we Christians don’t need the Old Testament.” Well ‘need’ might be quite an emotive word in this context but this book shows us that our understanding of our faith is greatly enhanced by our knowledge of the Old Testament.

But the clue to the thrust of chapter 1 is given away in verse 4 as the writer, speaking of Jesus, says, So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” There was clearly a cult who were focusing on angels and so in chapter 1, after the ‘Prologue’ of verses 1-4, the rest of the chapter goes on to show how Jesus is greater than angels. The rest of the book is about how he is greater than anyone or anything shown in the Old Testament. As a book it is fascinating as it does this.

The writer?  For quite some time it was thought to be Paul but there are so many differences in style so that is generally rejected.  One of the early Church Fathers, suggested Barnabas, and Martin Luther suggested Apollos but generally it is agreed we just don’t know, but that won’t detract from it. Whoever it was, was someone who had deep insight into the wonder of the person of Jesus Christ, a level of revelation that is incredible!

To conclude this first introductory note, we can do no better than suggest you read through these first four verses several times before you finish, and then you can finish by worshipping the One that this is all about, for we will get no further than these verses in the coming week:

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, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

15. Variety

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 15. Variety of Followers

Mk 1:19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets.

Two meditations ago we considered how Jesus chose such ordinary men. Here are now two more very ordinary men who get called by Jesus to follow him. These two, however, later get the nickname ‘Sons of Thunder’ because they started out being such fiery followers. That is strange because John ends up being the apostle who was most aware of God’s wonderful love and that brought about such an incredible pastoral heart in him.

These may be just some more fishermen but they are unique individuals. There are some cults of which it is said they just produce clones. That could never be said of mainstream Christianity because the Lord takes individuals and keeps them as individuals and in fact develops their uniqueness and individuality. Here is a mystery for the New Testament also speaks of the Church as the body of Christ and the emphasis is on the individual parts and yet they all work in harmony.

Chinese Christian leader, Watchman Nee, wrote a book emphasizing the difference in calling of these men, Peter who was called after fishing and who became the ‘Great Fisherman’ and then John who was called ‘preparing’ or ‘mending’ his nets and who role and writings in the New Testament seemed to focus on mending or strengthening the early Church. Peter ended up being martyred while John was the only one of the twelve apostles to die of old age. Both started from the church in Jerusalem but Peter ended up in Rome while John ended up in Ephesus before and after a period of exile on the island of Patmos.

Yes, when you become a Christian you need not have any fear that the Lord is just going to clone you and make a uniform pattern Christian out of you. There is no such thing!  Each one of us is unique and we have a unique calling and a unique experience of the Lord. Some of us the Lord will turn into apostles, others prophets and others Pastors or teachers and other just unique witnesses. He sees our character and He sees what we are capable of and uniquely draws us out to be that unique person, gifted by Him.

Lord, thank you that you do not try to make me be like anyone except your Son, Jesus. Thank you that you have made me a unique individual and you love me as an individual and you will take me and use me as an individual.

6. Good Witnesses

Meditations in Romans : 6 :  Good Witnesses?

Rom  1:8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.

In this first decade of the twenty first century there has been a full frontal attack on the Christian faith by crusading atheists.  Now the interesting thing to note is that they are woefully ignorant of the truths of the Gospel as found in the New Testament and so that is not the main object of their attack.  No, their attack has been against many forms of Christianity, or expressions of Christianity, that have been observed in the church in the past or are being seen around the world today – expressions that are far from that shown in the New Testament.  In the United Kingdom at least, whenever the media portray a representative of the church they are almost always either weak individuals or quirky-belief individuals.  Never or rarely is there a portrayal of Christians as strong, helpful members of society, people who should be given a fair hearing for the reality of their faith.  Now I know that part of the enemy’s tactics is to demean and neutralise Christians, but it does seem to me that so often we have given him plenty of ammunition to play with!

Now I am sure that the church in Rome in Paul’s day wasn’t perfect but even so, they were a church that the world knew about, and about which Paul could feel good.  This letter by Paul isn’t a corrective letter like the first one to the Corinthians.  No, it seems that this is a church with a strong faith and the news of that faith has gone round the world.  Now that is a challenge isn’t it! Yes, put aside all the negatives that come from the media, but I wonder how the world around us views our local expression of ‘church’?  Paul could talk to God in prayer about this church at Rome and speak very positively about it because of what he had heard about them.  He wasn’t embarrassed about them and he didn’t need to make excuses for them.  No, he gave thanks for what he heard about them.

So what might it be (for he doesn’t tell us) that made this church known around the world?  He says it is their ‘faith’, so what does that mean?  Well the first thing to suggest is that it doesn’t just mean their set of beliefs, because that would not get them a good reputation around the world.  No it has to mean that they are living out their lives with a faith dimension to it.  That suggests that they have been taught to live lives that distinguish them from the rest of the world.  They are people who have changed so that they are marked out so that they have been seen for what they are.  So what sort of characteristics make us people who can have a good reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world?  Let’s suggest a few things.

First, we may suggest, they are people of truth, people who are honest and trustworthy, people who are known for their integrity.  Truth is valued highly by the Lord and so this would be a mark of a good church.   Second, we may suggest, they would be people of peace and harmony, free from arguing, criticising, gossiping, judging and speaking badly of others.  In fact, to the contrary, they will be people who look for the best in one another, who speak well of one another, who encourage and build up one another. They would love and accept one another and be there for one another. They would be a caring community. They would be known for looking after the needy – the widows and orphans.  They would be law abiding, good citizens, caring for their community, both Christian and non-Christian.  They would be good workers and not lazy or careless.  They would be wise stewards of whatever wealth the Lord has allowed them to have, meeting the needs of those who did not have.

It is probable that they would be known for the supernatural dimension of their lives.  They are people who claim to hear God and live their lives in accord with what He has said to them. They see things happening as they respond to what they hear from Him.  They pray and things change. They pray for the sick and they are healed.

Now where do we get all these things from? From the New Testament of course, but as we said earlier, it is probable that they are not perfect and not all these things are patently obvious in their church life yet. Perhaps that is why Paul writes in a very practical way in the latter chapters. One of the obvious things, we have to suggest, is that these people do what they do and are known for what they do, because of God.  They are not just nice people, not just good people – they are godly people and the focus is on God.  As a result of their lives God is glorified, just as Jesus said: let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)

If they are a growing church then Solomon’s words will also be true of them: “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” (Prov 4:18) – and they are seen!  Where God is Lord, then we will also see the prayer of Jesus being fulfilled: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:20-23).  The presence of God in these people is seen by the world and they are witnesses to the Lord.  May all these things apply to us, His church today!

10. Can in be?


10. Can it be?

Lk 1:34-38 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Mary has a question. It’s like she senses that the angel doesn’t mean in the future once she is married; he seems to mean now, and now has difficulties. Now she hasn’t had any sexual relations with Joseph, now she’s not married. There is a small problem about this: surely you need a man to be involved?

Some of us who have been Christians a long time, are really too spiritual for our own good! We know the theory of all this, we’ve heard the story so many times, but it stays at a distance when it comes to applying it to our own lives. It’s so easy to read the verses above and think, “Oh, isn’t that nice, isn’t that wonderful!” The trouble is that it still stays in the realm of the impossible as far as our own lives are concerned. That would never happen to me, I’m never going to be called to accept something like this! Really?

You see Christianity is, as we’ve said previously, all about life change. Later on after Jesus had been born, after he had grown up and was now teaching people and performing miracles (and the two went together with him), he said to a leader called Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (Jn 3:7). Now as Nicodemus acknowledged that was a human impossibility, but when we come humbly to God, confessing our need of His love and forgiveness, He comes and transforms us by the power of His own Holy Spirit. What we couldn’t do, He does! As the angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God”.

But this isn’t just a life change when we are ‘born again’, it is an ongoing life change, the New Testament teaches us. For some of us, these life changes are as dramatic as the life change being put before Mary. God’s purpose for Mary was to bring His own Son into the world through her body. God’s purpose for you and me is exactly the same! Yes it is! It’s not to bring a baby out of your body, but it is to bring Jesus into the world through you. That is His ultimate purpose. We’re told that in the New Testament: “we…are being transformed into his (Jesus’) likeness” (2 Cor
3:18. See also Eph 3:16-19)

Yes, amazing isn’t it. Mary was called to become a vessel to bring the Son of God into being on the earth. Today God calls us into relationship with Him, so that we may be called ‘children of God’ (Jn 1:12,13), sons of God (Gal 3:26), being changed into Jesus’ likeness (Rom 8:29, 1 Cor 15:49). That is God’s wonderful ultimate goal for you – for you to enter into this life-long, life-changing process. Now look at Mary’s response. She may not understand how this can be but she responds, “May it be to me as you have said.”

There’s a lot more to come in this Christmas story but here is the challenge from the Lord: will you respond to Him in the same way, willing to let Him bring this staggering life change we’ve been talking about? Can it be? May it be!