31. Belief

Short Meditations in John 7:  31.  Belief

Jn 7:31  Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?”

There are times, possibly because they deserted him at the Cross, that we think that few people believed in the Jesus, but John challenges that belief. First, his disciples: “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (Jn 2:11) Then others: “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.” (2:23) Also Samaritans: “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” (4:39) Families: “the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.” (4:53) Generally: “Still, many in the crowd believed in him,” (7:31) and, “Even as he spoke, many believed in him,” (8:31) and, “And in that place many believed in Jesus,” (10:42)and, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him,” (11:45) and, “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed.” (12:42)

Isn’t that amazing! It started with the disciples, picked up many Jews who saw what he did, included Samaritans, other specific people touched by him, then the crowd, specifically the Jews, and finally even Jewish leaders!

Far from receiving rejection, John shows us that in fact all along the way there were people becoming believers. The fact that most of them did not appear to be there on that last morning before Pilate, or perhaps were overawed by the directions of the religious leaders of the Temple, including the High Priest, does not mean that people’s hearts were not being changed.

None of the Synoptic writers picked up on this for perhaps they were too busy simply putting together the basics of what had taken place in those three years. It was left to John, after decades more of pondering on exactly what went on, to pick up on this. It also fits with his overall goal stated near the end: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30,31). It is perhaps no coincidence that the word ‘believe’ occurs 84 times in John, but only 9 in Matthew, 15 in Mark and 10 in Luke.  

In verse 31 we see the start of the final phase in the chapter where questions are asked, and we see how the tension builds and the authorities are moved to act- but don’t!  But there are lots of believers!  

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27. Building People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

27. Building People

Mt 23:39  the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jn 13:34,35  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Vision Focus: We perhaps need to remind ourselves we are reflecting upon what it means to have a vision for our church, trying to catch something in more general or overall terms of what the New Testament shows is upon God’s heart and which we can work towards. Without vision, we have suggested, people die from lack of hearing the word and from lack of being fed. In the last two studies we have majored on the need to be God-centred, a spiritual people, but there is another side to this coin, people. Someone, in a conversation with me about the direction of the church, recently uttered the words, “Well people don’t matter.”  I spluttered back, “But they do. They mattered to Jesus so they must matter to us.”

The Jesus Approach: It is perhaps so familiar to us at Christmas that we perhaps forget it, but part of the Christmas story – and especially as it flows out of Isaiah’s prophecies – is ‘Immanuel – God with us’. The incarnation is all about God leaving heaven in the form of His Son and coming and living as a human being (not as an angel or some other ‘spirit-being’) to share in the experience of humanity and to reveal His love to us through that channel – as a human being. Yes, it is vital that we restore the God-focus to church but equally that we catch afresh the significance of being human beings made in the image of God who Jesus came to save.

As we read through the Gospels we see Jesus calling twelve men to travel with him for three years, to be with him, learning of him, to be like him. There were also a number of women who also traveled with him, and with whom he appears completely comfortable. But then the Gospels are filled with personal encounters, Jesus interacting with individual human beings, but when it comes to references to people groups we find he was completely at ease with the tax-collectors, prostitutes, and ‘sinners’, the riff-raff of society. Yes, he ate and drank with socialites as well and so we see him with a wide spectrum of people.

Thinking about People: The Church is about people and so perhaps we should consider, in the context of vision, what we think about that we do as people, with people. Perhaps we could consider a) how we relate on a normal daily basis with one another in church, b) how we view past hurts, c) how we go about serving together and d) how we go about reaching out to others, all good valid points for consideration as we look forward and ask, “What sort of church is it that God wants?”

Daily Encounters: The ethos of the church has to be love (and we’ll consider this in detail at a later stage). Very briefly, our starting point is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn 3:16) to which John adds in his letter, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son,” (1 Jn4:10) i.e. it starts with God’s love for us. As we experience that and are filled with the Spirit of love (for “God is love” – 1 Jn 4:8,16) we respond to Jesus command, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) We do this by loving, caring and accepting one another, learning to be encouragers, being there for one another. This is the starting vision we would want to convey, a church for whom people are important.

The Past is Important: Now I have referred to this already in a past study, but a danger that we have is to assume that once a person becomes a Christian, everything is fine and the past is sorted out. History and experience shows that this is not always so. Why? We live in a fallen world and a world that in the past century (at least here in the West) that has strayed badly from God’s norms. Thus we have many people damaged by past relationships going wrong. But it’s not just that, there are hurts from things beyond our control, inabilities to conceive, death of babies, death of children, death of loved ones prematurely through disease, all of these things cause hurts and often leave deep scars. Over the years I have had the opportunity to be in contact with ministries that minister to all of these sorts of things and I conclude, after having watched this for many years, that in any church of any size, part of their vision must be to seek healing for their hurting members, either through regularly (perhaps once a year?) bringing in an outside ministry, or training up our own people to so minister. All part of vision.

Serving Together: We have covered this in some detail in the two previous studies on servant-heartedness, so let’s abbreviate this to creating a church where individual gifts can be discerned and encouraged and developed and given space in which to operate. A big subject we will no doubt cover again before we finish.

Reaching Out Together: To misquote Jesus’ parable (Mt 13:45,46), having found a pearl of great price we will want others to find it as well. Now let’s try and remove some guilt from church. There will be those who have the gift of an evangelist (Eph 4:11, 2 Tim 4:5) and we need to encourage them, protect them and give them space and opportunity in which to operate. But we are not all evangelists. Some of us are what I call ‘people-people’, people who are natural communicators who get on well with anyone, but not everyone is like that. Introverts (and it is not a sin to be an introvert!) are not naturals like that. Yes, Jesus does call us all to be witnesses of his, and so there will come times when in conversations we need to speak out for him, but it does require sensitivity.  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Some of us are good at creating and making such opportunities, others of us will just be salt and light and then have people asking about us.

Preparation: Now if you anticipate having such a conversation, because a friend or family member asks you about your faith, about God or about church or anything spiritual, it is useful to prepare before hand what you are going to say. To save space, here I will simply suggest that part of our vision is to prepare our people for this, train and equip them to be witnesses or evangelists, and within that, design special services or special gatherings (or just meals) where not-yet-believing friends or family can be invited in to hear and consider the possibilities of faith. Unless we put it in our vision, it probably won’t happen.

And So?  So there it is: vision is presenting a picture of what we believe God has on His heart for us in such a way that we can see things to work on, goals to aim for. If it is of God’s heart and we get God’s grace to share it, we should win over the vast majority of our flock to it, to enter into a future that draws us closer to God, enables us to experience His presence, His equipping, and His empowering, and gives us exciting purpose and direction for the days ahead. The excitement is in what we could become with His enabling and linked with that will be anticipation of the church changing and us bringing changes to the world around us – for good! So I guess it is time we moved on into the real stuff that thinks of what church is about in real terms. As we go into the next Part, perhaps with an eye to where we have been in this part, I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen

(Here again at the end of this Part we present an overview of this series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

7. Appearance & Performance (2)

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 1 – Falling Short?

7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Mt 24:1 ‘Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple.

Jn 12:24 unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Recap: In the previous study I have dared tread on hallowed ground, risking offending those who hold great store in history, tradition and education and, indeed, religious formality. I only dare do this because I know where this is going and detractors of what I have been saying can only do it if they ignore or reject the teaching of the New Testament.  In that previous study, I noted that appearance, self-confidence, performance, and unbelief are primary hindrances to Biblical faith. I maintained that religious performance should simply be the channel through which the presence of God can be manifest and promised to explain that in detail in later studies in this series. In considering unbelief in the life of a local church, I touched on worship and public prayer. Now I am going on to another vital aspect of church life that is so often a demonstration of unbelief, that of pastoral care.

Tolerating Pain: Many years ago, the first book I wrote was called ‘Creating a Secure Church’ and in the first chapter I imagined a typical congregation with people listening to their pastor, but with their minds filled with the worries of everyday living. Now nothing has changed. In a local church I know fairly well, a congregation of up to 150, the following are what I suspect are fairly typical anguishes: women with non-Christian husbands, men and women who are struggling to make ends meet financially, families with worries about their children and their teenagers, people wrestling with failures and guilts from the past, people with worries about their jobs, their finances and the future, young people worrying about study and/or exams and their futures. These are people with many and varied worries and concerns, hurts and anxieties, and so I have to ask the question, what do we do about them?

Ignore the Pain? This is the first expression of unbelief in respect of pastoral issues, and I believe it is true of so many churches. Pretend it is not there or if it is there, accept that this is what we all have to suffer, living in the Fallen World.  But Pastors may be aware of it and yet feel out of their depth in dealing with the scope and breadth of such issues, so simply try to cover some of these things in a surface way in twenty-five minutes of Sunday morning preaching. Some churches have house groups but what I so often find, is that they do such spiritually sounding things as Bible Study and ‘praying for the nations’ yet fail to create an atmosphere of security whereby people are put first, people who are anguishing and struggling with burdens that almost overwhelm them. In church, if God is to be our first focus, people should be a close second, because they were with Jesus. A damaged people cannot be a community-transforming people. Our transformation should start within the church, and then when we learn to do that, we can reach out to do it in the community.

When Jesus declared the Isaiah mandate as his mandate, “to proclaim good news to the poor.… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,” (Lk 4:18) the reality is that those poor prisoners are in our congregations too, and it is only unbelief that continues to tolerate that state of affairs; Jesus wants to heal, deliver, transform and change such people with their threatening circumstances.

We can in our churches be the same as the synagogues in Jesus’ day, shown by the classic instance in Mark 1 when a demon possessed man was in the synagogue and when Jesus delivered him, the reaction was amazement by the people who considered this something new. Presumably this man existed in the synagogue on a weekly basis at least and it was only when Jesus turned up that he was delivered. I have a suspicion that many in our churches (including leaders) would be utterly shocked if our neat and orderly services were interrupted by Jesus turning up and healing and delivering people publicly.

Misguided Disciples: In the first verse of Matt 24, the first of our starter verses above, Jesus’ disciples are carried away by the grandeur of Herod’s Temple. And, of course, that was how it was always described, Herod’s Temple. Herod the Great added on to the old, smaller temple, and created this great and beautiful building. And here is the irony of those verses: the disciples were excited by the amazing building and missed the fact that God, in the form of His Son, was walking away from it.  Jesus, in his response to them, warns, “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down,” (v.2) and of course that was exactly what happened within some forty years in AD70.

Now the example of the disciples in this instance is what is at the heart of the belief system of so many people and I only mention this in this study so that we will realise that this feeling of grandeur can never be at the heart of true faith. Please understand, I am not attacking great ecclesiastical buildings, or religious institutions or other institutions that support and strengthen our societies, but I am saying they have little place in creating biblical faith. Similarly, familiar religious practice and standard service formats are in no way an expression of the life of the church revealed in the New Testament and should in no way replace a vibrant life of the Spirit in the church.

Death to self: We have, in this study, been suggesting that it is so easy to look at status and size as means of gaining confidence in who we are, or of establishing a sense of security, and that regular format services can act as a means of creating a weekly comfort zone. However, there is a teaching in the New Testament that lays an axe to the particular belief that human effort and endeavour is the key to religion. It may be summarised as the need to die to self to become a follower of Jesus. The second of our starter verses today came from the lips of Jesus: “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  He was, of course, referring to himself and his impending death but he was also laying down a principle that applies to each of us, and indeed dare we suggest it, the way we go about ‘church’.

Baptism: Baptism of believers in the New Testament period involved total immersion and the act of immersion was a picture of the spiritual reality of what would happen to Jesus and what has to happen to us. Going down into the water is symbolic of him – and us – dying, and then being raised up out of the water is symbolic of his resurrection and ours, as we are raised to a new life.

The Message version puts it, “That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!” (Rom 6:2,3) It continues with the apostle Paul’s teaching, That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father.” (v.3-5) He explained the same thing to the Colossians: “Going under the water was a burial of your old life; coming up out of it was a resurrection, God raising you from the dead as he did Christ.” (Col 2:12 Message version)

This same concept comes up again and again in the New Testament, that in coming to Christ we have to die to our old life, i.e. we have to completely let go of it, we have to reject and leave that old self-centred life, the life of human endeavor, that is so often godless and which, so often, results in things going wrong  We have already described Sin as self-centred godlessness that leads to unrighteous acts. God has designed us to live in relationship with Him but before we come to Christ, we will not have known that experience, we will have led self-centred lives, lives that are in reality, godless.

Being nice, having status, relying upon traditions, buildings, institutions, regular religious formats etc., none of these things counts for anything with God. We could say so much more here, but we will let the teaching of the following Parts speak further as it becomes applicable. These are the things that I have found had motivated and challenged me to come to this point of starting afresh to consider what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be part of the Church.

Instead of diving straight in and making suggestions about what the New Testament says about ‘church’ we need to start before that by considering what a Christian is, what has happened to them to be able to claim this title, and yet before that we need to consider what went before, their need, and what brought about the transformation that the New Testament speaks about. That is where we will go in the next Part.

(If you have simply come to this series and not followed it each day, you may wish to know where it is going, and so here at the end of each Part is an overview of the series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

28. Redeemed To (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 28. Redeemed To (1)

Eph 2:6,7    God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Moving On:  Having, for the last three studies, been focusing on the things the Lord seeks to redeem us from, we now move on to what He wants to redeem us to. You remember the picture of the Exodus? God wanted to deliver Israel out of the land of slavery, Egypt, into the Promised Land, a land of new identity, freedom and resources. The first 3 verses of Ephesians 2 were about our old life that God had delivered us from, a life of spiritual death (v.1), a life of being led by the deception of the world’s godless ways of thinking (v.2), a life that was focused on responding to personal whims, personal desires, personal emotions (v.3). Those are the things we have been considering in the last three studies.

Balancing Verses: But from verse 4 he balances out those things with the things God had made us to be and is making us to be: alive to Him (v.5), joined with Christ (v.6), recipients of His incredible blessings (v.7). From being spiritually dead, He has made us spiritually alive; from being led by the world, He has made us one with Christ to be led by him; from having to struggle to satisfy ‘self’ by getting, He has brought us into a place of wonderful provision. Now because I suspect we so often succumb to taking these things for granted and becoming so familiar with the teaching that we just don’t rejoice in it any longer, we also succumb to relying on the old ways and fail to enter into the wonder of the reality of these things. For this reason we will, in these next three studies, major on these things.

Alive? For those of us who have had a dramatic salvation experience, this is more of an observable reality. For those of us who made childhood professions of faith or professions of faith spread over a period, this often fails to be so clear. I am in the former category and I can remember to this day (even though it is now over fifty years ago) praying on my own, late in the evening, going to bed and waking up a new person. I was alive in a way I had never known before. There was much I would take time to appreciate, but I went off to visit a cousin and spent the day seeking to convert him. I bought a Bible and started reading avidly. I got involved in Bible studies and very soon was leading a number each week. I became involved with a youth evangelism team and found myself sharing my testimony. I had found Christ and was changed. Without being particularly conscious of it, it was happening. His life in me was a reality, prayer became part of my life. I knew the reality of Paul’s words, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17)

Familiarity dulls: Now let’s be honest. For those of us who have known the Lord for many years, it is quite possible (probable?) that that early feeling has abated. The trouble is that we get sucked into daily life and life of ‘church’, and regularity and familiarity take the edge off. When you have prayed every prayer you can think of, when you have read your Bible inside out, when you have heard thousands of sermons and attended thousands of ‘church services’ there does become a feeling of ‘been there, done it three times, got the tee-shirt’ and faith on a daily basis seems to become a struggle, and you know it shouldn’t. What had happened? ‘Life’ was replaced by routine; faith was replaced by ritual. Church becomes a ritual, prayer becomes a ritual, Bible reading becomes a ritual.

Think about ‘life’: ‘Life’ is something spontaneous, new, fresh every moment. Watch a new born baby. Every new move, every new experience is avidly watched by its parents. We observe it beginning to focus and watch a mobile hanging above its crib, we watch it develop so that it can roll over, then sit up, then stand and then take its first step. Excitement! We note its first word which creates competition: “Say Momma,” “No, say Dadda.” Sometimes we cause laughter trying to make it learn new words. A nephew of mine had been given a brightly coloured plastic duck and so someone said (without hope), “Say fluorescent duck.”  He didn’t, but other words soon did come as he grew and developed at his own pace. This is the thing about ‘life’, it is natural, it changes and grows and develops at its own pace, and some parents worry about the fact that their child isn’t saying or doing the same things as the new child next door, and they have to learn that their baby is unique. Each ‘life’ is unique and here’s another thing you watch as your children grow: they have ‘growth spurts’.

‘Life’ for Jesus’ disciples: I’ve written this at least twice previously in this past year, but it bears repeating. Imagine Levi the tax collector at his collection booth when Jesus walks up. “Hullo,” says Jesus. “I’m Jesus.” “Yes, I know,” comes the response from Levi, “I’ve heard about you.” “Great but I don’t want you to just hear about me, I want you to follow me.”  “But I’ve got a job here, I’m a tax collector.” “Yes, I know but I want you to come and follow me.” “Where to?” “Wherever I go. Follow me and see.” “What to do?” “Whatever I do. Follow me and see.”  “When do I have to start?” “Right now.” “For how long?” “For as long as it takes. Follow me and see.” “What will happen to me?” “Follow me and see.” That was life; it was following Jesus as he was led by the Holy Spirit.

Ah, there is the crux of life for the Christian, it is the life of the Holy Spirit, and being led by Him. Sometimes that is a conscious thing, sometimes it is a natural flow, sometimes we seek Him, wait upon Him, and sometimes He comes without warning. But Jesus said it would be like that: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (Jn 3:8) Now to come back to what we’ve said a number of times about redemption, this may apply to the initial ‘new birth’ but it also applies to the nature of the ongoing new life. We can put ourselves in the way of the Lord as we wait on Him in prayer or reading the Bible and all we can do is pray, “Holy Spirit, please come,” and then just be open to Him. Life flows, life is spontaneous, life comes from Him.

Regaining Life: How can we get back on course so that our daily and weekly experience is one of ‘life’? One of the ‘rules’ I have adopted in the last few years is ‘God first’. Now what I mean by that is when we are ‘doing’ anything we consider spiritual, we pause and seek Him and ask, “Lord, what do you want here?” That can apply if we are church leaders and worship leaders in respect of weekly services. Some of us will be part of denominations that use prayer books or other means of established, regular ritual. This is not for you; you will feel frustrated by this. But for those of us from so-called ‘free churches’, dare we put aside our routines and try this new approach? My congregation used to laugh when so often I would say, “This morning we’re going to do something different.”  But why shouldn’t each Sunday morning be different? We follow a Creator God and we do Him a disservice by using preplanned, premade repetition instead of the life He wants to bring. No wonder the people in synagogues (where ritual prevailed) were delighted and surprised when Jesus came in, brought authoritative teaching and healed and delivered people.

Let the Spirit flow: Where the Spirit is allowed to flow, He brings life. Ezekiel’s picture is so graphic and powerful (Ezek 47) that wherever the river was allowed to flow, life followed it (see v.8-10), but not in the ‘swamps (v.11). A swamp is a stagnant quagmire where there is no movement and life dies. I will refrain from saying the obvious here about much modern church life. But the call is to let the Holy Spirit come, let Him lead, let Him bring fresh life. It is all there in the New Testament.

And me? Will I remember every morning to turn to Him when I pray and be aware of His presence and not just utter words? Before I open His word, before I study, before I write, will I pause and seek Him and look to Him for His life flow in what I read? And on Sunday mornings, will I come to Him and make myself available – if not able to break loose in the structure others are responsible for – at least to bless Him in the reality of my worship, and my availability in looking to bless and encourage others before I come home?  In my daily life when I am confronted with problems, difficulties, ways of doing things, will I turn to Him for wisdom and grace to carry me through? This is what the Lord is redeeming us to, and away from arid formalism and meaningless ritual that stifles the Spirit. No where do I find this more challenging than in preaching. When I get up and speak, will I seek for and allow His life to flow in my words, bringing alive His word so that people are thrilled, lifted, challenged, encouraged, blessed and sent out full of faith? To do this every week is one of the biggest challenges of church leadership and so team ministry allows time to think, reflect and, most importantly, overcome routine and familiarity.

Reality: In truth, there is no easy ABC (despite the books!) of retaining a fresh flow because, although I can do the things above, life is a spontaneous thing and it seems the flow is more like the ebb and flow of the tide rather than the regular flow of a river. Sometimes He is very evident, other times not so – perhaps to prove the reality of it. On the good days, rejoice in the wonder of the life; on the quiet days, remain faithful and continue to wait on Him and seek Him. “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (Jas 4:8) This is not for spiritual-super-giants, this is the potential for each and every one of us, this is what He is redeeming us to.

27. Aspiring to Pray

Aspiring Meditations: 27.  Aspiring to Pray

Matt 6:6   But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matt 6:9   This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven….

Matt 14:23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.

Matt 19:13  Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.

We might think that the subject of prayer is so familiar that we really need not consider it, and yet surveys reveal that even leaders – on average – tend to only pray a few minutes each day. So what can we say that hasn’t been said before? Nothing perhaps, but let’s lay out the basics and see if they will speak to us afresh.

Matthew and Luke both have the word ‘pray’ eleven times. It is a familiar topic. In Mt 6:6 we see some interesting things. First, Jesus assumes that prayer will be part of the life of his followers for he says, When you pray.” Second, prayer is shown to be an expression of a private and intimate relationship with God, hence pray in secret. Third, prayer is a channel through which God will ‘reward’ or bless us.  Challenging! These are merely starting points.

So concerned is Jesus for his disciples that he gives them a structure of how to go about prayer in Mt 6:9 on. When we come to Mt 14:23 we see that he himself prayed on his own sometimes and it clearly wasn’t just a quick few words. We don’t know what time he went up there to pray but he was still there “When evening came,” indicating the passing of time.  Luke shows us another time when he prayed: “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” (Lk 6:12,13) Again it is clear he prayed for a long time and the second verse suggests that he had been praying to make sure he got right the choosing of the first apostles. Prayer thus took on a purposeful significance. In his teaching Jesus, perhaps backing up his own practice, “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Lk 18:1) Persistence becomes an important element in prayer sometimes.

When it comes to life post-Jesus, it seems clear that the apostles followed in Jesus’ footsteps in respect of prayer: “About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.” (Acts 10:9) Some suggest it was a standard time for Jews to pray but the fact of the matter is that this ex-fisherman now incorporated prayer into his life.  Later in Acts there is another lovely little picture involving prayer: “when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.” (Acts 21:5) As they parted from one another, the natural thing was to commit themselves and one another to the Lord in prayer. Excellent!

Now I have purposely left one of our verses above to last because I believe it is particularly significant to the church today: “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.” (Mt 19:13) Such a simple little verse and yet so profound. Parent (presumably) brought their children to Jesus for him to lay hands on them and pray over them. It was expected he would do that and although his disciples objected he did actually do it (v.15). The practice of laying hands on did not arise until the Law introduced it in Ex 29 when Aaron and his sons were instructed to place their hands on the sacrifices. Laying on of hands there was clearly to identify with the sacrifice.

Years later, however, we see laying on of hands in a different context: “Moses did as the LORD commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he that this is tgo be and commissioned him, as the LORD instructed through Moses.” (Num 27:22,23) Moses laid hands on Joshua, not only to identify with him but to impart to him the anointing for leadership, and we later read, “Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him.” (Deut 34:9) So now we see Jesus placing his hands on these children to impart a blessing. In Acts we see this same thing occurring again and again. See Acts 6:6 (praying over the new deacons), 8:17 (for the Samaritan believers to receive the HS), 9:12,17 (Ananias praying over Saul), 13:3 (sending off the new apostolic team), 19:9 (Paul prays for the Ephesian believers) and 28:8 (Paul healing a sick man). When we pray over one another, do we expect the Lord to turn up?

Now note the commonalities: it was always in the context of prayer and it was always to impart the blessing of God. I am aware that in many churches there are opportunities given for people to come forward to be prayed for but I believe I have a new sense of the heart of God that this is to be for all His people, Twice in the past six weeks (once in the UK and once in the USA) I have had opportunity to preach on faith and in both congregations I invited a dozen people to come forward who would like prayer. Then, and here is the difference and the point I believe the Lord was making, I asked leaders or prayer ministry teams to stand aside and specifically invited people who had never prayed over someone to come and pray for these people as I guided. I asked them to wait silently before the Lord’s to sense His presence and then sense what He felt about the person before them, and only then pray God’s blessing over them in whatever form they felt they could do it. It was thrilling to watch and awesome to behold.

Now I am aware of the dangers in doing this and it needs careful oversight and careful follow up but I believe the point the Lord is making is that He wants to encourage more and more of His people to pray over one another – expecting Him to turn up and bless.  I have been impacted by the picture in Mark 3:1-5 where Jesus went into a synagogue and healed a man with a shriveled hand. It is almost certain that the man was a regular, one of the men of the community who probably turned up week by week to hear the scrolls read and expounded, and to hear the prayers. Now that happened week by week but they expected nothing else, but then Jesus came in and healed the man. See the parallel: the word of God was expounded week by week but they expected nothing else.

Now Jesus comes to us and says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12) We are called to do the works of Jesus. Now I am not suggesting that all will have faith to bring healing but I am suggesting that all can have faith to wait on God and expect Him to bless (Mt 6:6 – reward!) as we pray. Yes, this is a challenge to faith and to lifestyle but more it is a challenge to become the body of Christ who does the work of Jesus, not merely the leaders. If we do not make regular opportunity, and bring regular encouragement for the people of God to step out in faith, we will be like that synagogue and there will be people continuing to come and go, week by week with needs that Jesus wants to address but that we are failing to meet. It is time to rise up to truly be the people of God and it will be revealed as we pray. Yes, let’s aspire to this!

16. Four Creatures

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 16.  Four Creatures

Mt 10:16  I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Four analogies packed into one short verse! The thing about Jesus’ teaching, whether by parable or simple analogy, was that he used illustrations that his listeners would understand; here with four well-known creatures. But before we focus on each creature, we need to check out the context which is particularly important here and will add depth of meaning to the above verse.

The chapter starts out, He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (10:1) Yes, Jesus is sending out his ‘disciples’ and making them ‘apostles’. He is turning learners into ‘sent and anointed ones’. But there is something more here: he is pushing them out of their comfort zone. So far they had been mostly observers, but now it was their turn to do the stuff. They were being sent out to convey the love of God in very practical power ministry – driving out demons and healing the sick. This is very real ‘faith stuff’ because it utterly relies upon God. No God, no deliverance. No God, no healing. Perhaps the corollary in respect of many modern churches bears thinking about?

So this is the context: they are being sent out to do what Jesus does and in this they will be confronting the enemy and the ‘world’ with the truths and power of the kingdom. But there is a problem: not everyone will gladly welcome them. There were so many schisms in the Jewish society of that day, so many political or religious groupings, that almost certainly they would encounter opposition and hostility from some of those groups, apart from general people who simply might not want to know.

Thus, Jesus first sums up the situation they face: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.”  The truth is that when the early church went out they faced a number of oppositions, and although initially some of these may have been minor in this first foray into the world, they would become greater and greater as the Gospel spread around the world, as is testified in Acts and in secular history. Jesus’ teaching as recorded by Matthew in following verses, clearly shows that he is talking about the big picture of history and not just about the coming few days.

First, there was misunderstanding. For example, with communion they were accused of cannibalism. Second, there were accusations of creating family divisions – Jesus himself warned about this reality. Third, there was defensive opposition from rulers – the Caesars often demanded divinity and when Christians failed to give them that, they persecuted them. Fourth, the ethical demands of Christianity would make unscrupulous employers or business men hostile to the demands of Christianity. Fifth, there would be other specific religious groups who would be hostile to the competitive challenges coming from Christianity. Sixth, and far more generally, Satan would no doubt stir up rejection, hostility and resentment against the Christians who brought the demands of Christianity to challenge ‘self’ in the individual.

Such people in opposition, who bring hostility that ranges from outright persecution to simple rejection, are the ‘wolves’ Jesus refers to here. Wolves, we have commented before, are ravenous creatures who desire to bring down other creatures and destroy them. Modern crusading atheists are, I believe, just like this. They want to destroy Christian faith and undermine Christian beliefs and relationships. Now all this sounds pretty negative, especially when Jesus calls his disciples – who he is sending out to confront wolves – a bunch of sheep. Again, we have noted previously that sheep are pretty inoffensive and harmless, i.e. they rarely attack and are often prey to predators. Humanly speaking, they haven’t got a chance! However, two thousand years later, those ‘sheep’ can be found in every continent of the world and even in countries that are blatantly hostile to the Gospel.

So how do these sheep cope against this sort of opposition? First because we have been given authority (and power) from on high (10:1) and the Lord is with us. Moreover, when difficult circumstances arise, He will be there and His Holy Spirit will enable us (see 10:19,20) i.e. the Lord’s presence and provision will always be there for us.

But there is also a human responsibility involved: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Satan, coming in the form of a snake in the Garden of Eden was known for his cunning. But Jesus is specific here and says be ‘shrewd’. Shrewd means be insightful, astute, wise, smart, i.e. be alert to your surroundings, understand what is going on and operate with the wisdom God gives you as you seek Him for it (Jas 1:5). When confronted by impregnable fortresses of unrighteousness in the middle of our societies (like Jericho – see Josh 6), seek the Lord for His strategy to bring it down. Read the accounts of David and his dealings with enemies and learn his key strategy – to inquire of the Lord (e.g. 2 Sam 5:22-25). Get revelation!

The reference to being “innocent as doves” conveys the picture of simple humility and absence of guile. Guile is human cleverness as distinct from the godly wisdom we have been considering. Human wisdom gets hostile and defensive but that is unrighteous and that has no place in our dealings with the world. We often quote it but Peter’s advice is applicable here: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Note first the word ‘prepared’. This suggests we would be wise to understand the basics of our faith and also be able to give a simple testimony of our experience of the Lord. But note also the way we are to reply to people who question us: “with gentleness and respect”. That’s the ‘dove’ part! Not hostile. Not belligerent. Not arrogant. Gently and respectfully. When we operate like this with the grace of God, He will always back us up and be there for us.

If you think the picture of sheep being confronted by wolves is not good news, read again the story of David versus Goliath (1 Sam 17). This giant scared the life out of Saul and all his army, but a young man arrived on the scene who knew his God and knew what the Lord had done for him and knew that this giant was abusing God and was therefore in major trouble – and he just made himself available to God for Him to use him to bring down this scary character.  Key things to remember: 1. God is with you.  2. You are His servant.  3. His intent is to deal with the enemy. 4. He will give you all you need to deal with this enemy. 5. Don’t do it in your own strength or wisdom but with His grace, His revelation and His power. Done!

2. Hands-on Disciples

Short Meditations in John 4:  2. Hands On Disciples

Jn 4:2    although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.

Having set the goal to meditate on each individual verse, when you arrive at a verse like this one you wonder whether that was a good idea.  But then you think, why did John bother to add this little apparently somewhat insignificant verse? The answer has to be, because it was the truth and as he mused and reflected and remembered back to those wonderful days, he realises that he has already made comment about Jesus baptising but what he had said could be misunderstood: After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. (Jn 3:22) This was added to by the comments of John the Baptist’s disciples coming to him and saying, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” (Jn 3:26)

Whether or not Jesus baptized the initial disciples we are not told but now as people come to Jesus they are baptised but it is the disciples of Jesus who do the actual baptising. It is perhaps a legitimate thing to ponder why that might have been so.

Perhaps, first, it may be to avoid people claiming special place because Jesus had baptised them. The apostle Paul had found this same thing when he had to declare, I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name,” (1 Cor 1:14,15) to counteract the divisive spirit that had crept in, but then seeking to be completely accurate he added, “(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)” (1 Cor 1:16)

But a second reason Jesus wasn’t doing the actual baptizing was that he wanted his disciples to be completely involved and where possible to get hands on experience. In these early days it was a simple thing to be able to immerse believers in the waters. Any disciple could do that. Later on, when they were obviously ready, he sent the twelve out in pairs telling them, “As you go, preach this message: `The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Mt 10:7,8) Clearly that was even more a hands on experience of ushering in the kingdom of God.

Clearly Jesus expects his followers to be ‘doers’: “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing,” (Jn 14:12) and  “Therefore go and make disciples ….. teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20) Jesus looks for opportunities to give all his disciples hands on experience. Is that you?