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

9. To Us????

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

9. Insider information…. To who??? To Us?????

Lk 2:10-12   the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

 Go slowly: The more and more one looks into the Christmas story the more amazing it becomes and the more challenging it also becomes. It is possible that some will look at the title of this series and say, so where are all the impossible things? I can see the thing about Mary conceiving, but what other impossible things are there? Well stop and think about this word ‘impossible’. It means ‘not able to be or to happen’. One dictionary says, ‘something that cannot be expected to happen or exist.’ If you are one of these wonderers I suspect you don’t have any friends who are atheists. Ask an atheist what they think about the Christmas story and stand by and get ready for the blast. Why do we think that? Because they see all these things happening as simply impossible. Virgin births? Rubbish? Old women having babies beyond the menopause? Rubbish!  A Roman emperor affecting the lives of ordinary people by his thoughtless edicts? Possible – but not planned by God! Wise men coming from afar? Yes, well there are always weirdos in the world! Put the whole lot together as the plan of God – you’ve got to be joking!  The point we are making, piece by piece, is that this story is incredible, every bit of it and it is the story of God stepping down into this broken world to bring healing to it.

The Angels again: We haven’t finished with the angels that we started considering yesterday. In fact we’ve hardly started, really. The angel has arrived and the glory of God shines around them. They are now all wide awake and in this world that often is so predictable I will add one more thing of which I am sure: that none of them would have guessed in a million years what was coming. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (v.10-12) End of Message. That’s it.

Perplexed response: Now stop and think about this. Imagine. A bit later they might have been saying, “Hang on, what did he say? He’s got good news for us but, hold on, not just for us, for everyone…. er…. down in Bethlehem – they call it the town of David don’t they? – a saviour has just been born, the Messiah the scribes and religious people are always going on about…. er…  a baby in a stable it’s got to be because he said he was lying in a manger. But why is he telling us? We’re not religious, so why would we be interested? A saviour? From what? We’re OK out here on the hillside; the Romans don’t bother us, and in fact our boss probably sells to them. They’ll no doubt get fed up and leave one of these years, but in the meantime, who cares, we’re all right out here in the hills. You what? No, I don’t know why he should have told us. What? No, I don’t know why it is supposed to be good news for us. I guess there is more in this than meets the eye. You what? Yes, I think you’re right, we’d better get down there and see.”

Additional Motivation: Now I think that some sort of conversation like that followed but I suspect it was slightly more animated in the light of what followed the angel’s message: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (v.13,14) Forgive me if you are, but I’m not a great fan of choral works, but I can only believe that this was likely to have been THE most spectacular of choral works. A ‘great company’, i.e. lots and lots and lots! Awesome! I don’t think there is any other such earthly visitation recorded in the Bible; this was unique. Now I and many others of us may have misinterpreted this because it doesn’t actually say they were singing, it just simply says it was an incredible praise party. Angels’ primary role is to serve and extol God. Their role here is not to distract us with lovely singing (though it might have been that) but to glorify God by their praises – and the message they convey within it.

Good news? Now the first angel started out by talking about ‘good news’ which somehow or other is linked to a baby born down there in Bethlehem. Has the angelic host added anything to that? Well they are glorifying God and they are talking about peace on earth on those on whom his favour rests. Who does that apply to? It can’t be us, we’re just outcast shepherds, God wouldn’t be bothered with us, he’s religious and we’re not. Questions. Questions that might have had them just sitting around the fire for the rest of the night, except for one thing! The whole experience. The glory of God around this one being and then (presumably) around the whole heavenly host, the message and the declarations (?song). All this amounts to one amazing experience, and then they are gone, and it is dark and silent again, and I would guess after their brightness it now seems doubly dark and after their voices it now seems doubly silent. And they stand there (do you remain sitting when an incredible Air Show takes place?) and in the dark with shadows cast by the low burning fire all you can hear are occasional words from occasional shepherds. Wow. Awesome. Amazing. Incredible. Awesome. I said that already! Oh yes, marvellous. Until eventually one ventures, “You do realise there is only one thing left to do?” And without another word they are all pelting down the hillside towards Bethlehem. “Hey, what about the sheep.” “Oh God will look after the sheep, we’ve got more important things to do.” “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (Lk 2:16)

Now I want to imagine (bear with me) a committee who have been called by God to talk through the events leading up to and surrounding the arrival of His Son on earth. People or angels if you like, I don’t think it matters. Here’s the conversation:

“Ladies and gentlemen, (clearly not angels!) God has called on us to make suggestions.

“What do we know?

“Well, He says He’s sorted out the preliminaries and so the Son will arrive in Bethlehem.

“OK, so we want a welcoming committee, yes?

“That sounds a good idea. As it’s near Jerusalem, we should probably invite Herod, the High Priest, and for that matter most of the other priests at the temple and … is there a mayor of Jerusalem or of Bethlehem?

“I’m not sure. Hold on, He’s just sent down a memo. He’s suggesting that He sends some angels down to the shepherds outside Bethlehem so they can be the welcoming committee.

(Stunned silence).

“That’s what the memo says.

“But shepherds….?


“But why? Why not all the top people? Why the lowest of the low? They’re outcasts!

“I don’t know. Hold on, another memo has just arrived. It simply says, “Because then no one will ever feel left out”. I’m not sure what that means. We’ll have to think about that.And us? Who would you have chosen to welcome the little family in the stable? If you can be really honest, I suspect shepherds would be the last ones to come to mind. It’s like saying, go around to one of the run-down areas of town and tell the teenage gangsters or druggies, and maybe a prostitute or two. I told you this is an uncomfortable story – when you really think about it. No, it wasn’t the nice and respectable synagogue goers of Bethlehem that God told and invited to go and be the first to visit the maternity ward round the back of the local pub or wine bar. It was common shepherds with nothing to commend them than that they were simple, they were poor, and they were scruffy. Isn’t it funny, God likes the simple, the poor and the scruffy. (Just see who Jesus rubbed shoulders with!) I wonder how many of them He finds in our churches? I did warn you! That’s what the story of the shepherds all about. Just in case you are feeling an outcast, I have a message from God for you: “Oh, there you are, I’ve been looking for you. Would you like to join me as I ….” On Christmas Day, enjoy Him, enjoy His company. Whatever else is going on this day, make sure you worship and celebrate him and give thanks for what he has made you. In God’s eyes you are no outcast. Accept that and rejoice in it because this is what his day is all about.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isa 9:6,7)

2. The Poor?

Transformation Meditations: 2. The Poor?

Isa 61:1 the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

We have started to look at the subject of life transformation that takes place when a person encounters God and we have started by looking at the Messiah’s mandate in Isa 61, quoted by Jesus of himself when he started his ministry.  The Messiah comes and says, this is what my Father wants me to do – to proclaim good news. When Jesus started his ministry he declared, The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15)

How frustrating; there it is again, ‘good news’. Well, perhaps we have to see Jesus’ summary of what he then went on to do: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mt 11:5) Well good news certainly for the first five in that list, but there it is yet again, this reference to ‘good news’ being proclaimed to ‘the poor’. So what is the ‘good news’ and who are ‘the poor’?

Well I am old enough to remember the excitement in the Christian world when ‘the Cross and the Switchblade’ was published, the story of a young pastor who felt called to the streets of New York. It’s a long time back so my quote may not be completely accurate, but I remember one time when he was looking on the street people as his team was preaching in the slum streets and he pondered on what they were really achieving. A girl, I believe it was, came up to him and said, in respect of the salvation she and a number of others had received as the Gospel was preached there, something like, “Pastor Dave, the streets don’t change, the poverty and drugs are still here, and we still live here, but inside we are utterly different, utterly changed.” Something like that, at least. That stayed with me. The outward circumstances may remain the same – we may still be on low incomes, in poor circumstances – but inwardly we are transformed.

It may not be monetary ‘poor’; surely the blind, the lame, the lepers and the dead of that list in Mt 11 are poor. Surely those in Isaiah’s list – the broken-hearted, captives, prisoners, those who mourn and grieve, those in despair, they are all ‘poor’. Surely the reality is that anyone who has not entered into a living relationship with Almighty God, anyone who has not received the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience (Rom 2:4), His shared glory (Rom 9:23), His wisdom and knowledge (Rom 11:33), His grace (Eph 1:7), His glorious inheritance (Eph 1:18), and his power through His Spirit (Eph 3:16).

So what is the good news for these people, for all of us, because whoever we are, if we haven’t entered all of those things, we are ‘poor’. The ‘good news’ that God announces from heaven is that, “I love you, I have sent Jesus to die for you, I want to redeem you, justify you, forgive you, adopt you and empower you, transform you.” THAT is the good news. Let’s exult in the wonder of it, praise and worship Him for it, share it, and ensure it is beyond mere words, but comes with the power of the Spirit to guarantee that complete life transformation.

11. Tell the Good News

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.11.  Tell the Good News

Isa 40:9   You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”

What have we seen in these verses of this chapter so far? First, a call to comfort Israel with the news that God has dealt with their sins (v.1,2). Second, a declaration that God is coming to them (v.3-5). Third, a recognition that we humans are prone to unfaithfulness under the pressures of life and especially when God comes with discipline or even holds back and delays (v.6-8). So what follows?

Now we find an instruction to those who believe this good news (?Isaiah) to go up to a high place where they can call out so all can hear, shout it out loudly and don’t fear what people will say:  You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.” (v.9a) God wants the good news sharing; He wants everyone to hear it.

Throughout the Bible we find God’s intent is that the people of this fallen world – nations throughout the world – know Him. He called Israel to display Him, as He will shortly say, to be “a light to the Gentiles” (42:6, 49:6), and He will make them to be those who carry His light (58:8,10, 60:1,3,19); it is a common picture in Isaiah.

Now here’s a question. If He is coming anyway (and He is!) why does He place so much importance on us hearing about it before it happens?  Is it because He wants us to prepare ourselves, and put our lives straight, before He comes? That is what seemed to have happened with the ministry of John the Baptist. Or is there some other, perhaps bigger, purpose?  This we considered in earlier studies.

The truth is that the Lord wants our hearts to be revealed before He comes. He wants to see the response of our hearts when we have heard the good news. Perhaps some will scoff at it: “Oh yes, we’ve heard that before!” Perhaps some will deny it outright: “God doesn’t care about us. He won’t come to us!” But then there will be those whose hearts leap with joy when they hear He is coming. God is concerned with truth, with the reality of our lives. Again and again His word comes to reveal our hearts.

In the four gospels, it is quite clear that again and again he spoke things that seemed like pearls before swine, truth about himself that fell on deaf ears, truth that was rebuffed or even rejected outright. But the truth is there to be seen. God sees it, you see it and I see it. We know the truth about ourselves in these sorts of situations and that lays the ground open for the Holy Spirit to come and convict and change us. The word of God reveals hearts.

So what is the word to be shouted from the rooftops? (OK, the mountain tops!) “Say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” (v.9b) The message is, God is coming, God is available to us. So often, mistaken modern Christianity focuses on people’s failures and although somewhere along the line we do need to face our failures, the first thing we find both John the Baptist and Jesus declaring in their preaching in that the kingdom of heaven has come near,” (Mt 3:6) and “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17). And how was that kingdom expressed? “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mt 11:5) Wonderful! The apostle Paul gives us a little insight: 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) i.e. the reign of Jesus began when he started his ministry two thousand years ago and will continue until he returns again. Today, now, he continues to overcome his enemies – unrighteousness, evil, sin, sickness etc. These are his enemies and he comes to overcome them.

We have already seen it before, in general terms, when God arrives in the wilderness, it is transformed. When Jesus turned up in the spiritual wilderness of Israel, wherever he went it was transformed because, as he declared using the Isaiah 61 verses, he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19, quoting Isa 61:1,2) That was good news! Now the amazing thing about Jesus’ ministry, and it has often left me wondering, was that he did not appear to do a ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ or any other such presentation and certainly didn’t do any in-depth counselling before he healed people – he just healed them. All it needed was for them to come to him, but the record shows that they didn’t necessarily become followers of him – but he still healed them, knowing this. It was that same thing we’ve already just noted, when God turns up, the wilderness is transformed.

Now we have to be careful here because assuredly God did want Israel’s heart to change and that is why Isaiah and the other prophets spoke. Yet, it is clear He brings words of comfort and assurance and, in Jesus’ case, brings amazing acts of healing etc. in order to touch and change people’s hearts. Clearly Jesus did these things to attract and move people, even though many would walk away unmoved. The Lord says and does these things for those who are often referred to as ‘the remnant’ who will believe. For you and me our calling is to seek to bless the people around us, sharing God’s love in word, practical and miraculous deed, and leave the outcome up to Him.  May it be so.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please open my eyes that I may realise more fully the wonder of what you have done for me in Christ and the wonder of what you have done already in my life.


67. The God of Peace

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  67.  The God of Peace

Heb 13:20,21   May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

There are some things that are so fundamental to our faith that I believe we often forget them and the whole issue of peace and God being a God of peace, being one of them. Now we will look at these two verses in more depth in the next study where we will consider ‘God who equips’, but for the moment we will simply focus on ‘the God of peace’ because it is so simple, so obvious and yet so fundamental to our Faith.

The God of Peace: Sometimes it comes to us so simply in scripture, for example, The God of peace be with you all.” (Rom 15:33) It was also there is the message to the shepherds by the angels heralding the coming of baby Jesus: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Lk 2:14) i.e. God’s desire for all mankind is peace for everyone and Jesus is His way of bringing peace to everyone.  The apostle Peter brought this same message to the first Gentile converts: “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:36)

Lacking Peace in the world: But this all supposes that peace is lacking from mankind – and of course it is! Now the Hebrew word that is used for peace is ‘shalom’ which does mean peace but it is bigger than that and really means ‘wholeness’, or ‘completeness’. We are made to have a relationship with God but where that is missing, we are incomplete and we lack peace. It is simply how mankind is designed. Of course it is sin that separates us from God and keeps us from being whole. It is only the teaching of the New Testament that reveals this in the world. Nowhere else is there this realization. Various other world religions recognize that there is dysfunction in us but no other declares that it is because of our Sin and that God has provided an answer through His Son.

Jesus makes peace: The apostle Paul spoke of this: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col 1:19) God is the maker of peace by reconciliation. He reconciled us to Himself by Jesus taking our punishment for our sins, and satisfying justice.

Zechariah declared it: This message was delivered right at the beginning of the Gospel story when Zechariah was filled with the Spirit and prophesied over his son, John, later to be known as ‘the Baptist’, when he declared, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Lk 1:76-79)

What an amazing word! John would go before his Lord to prepare the people to receive the salvation that God had planned for them, a real salvation that provided for forgiveness of their sins so that no longer need they feel guilty and apart from God. Previously it had been as if they were living in darkness, a place of fear and questions and doubts, but once this salvation came it would be like they were living in a new world, in the light where everything was visible, seen by God but no longer fearful of His judgment, death coming on them, because He had provided a salvation that included being a peace between them and Him.

Palm Sunday: One fascinating place where peace is referred to is when the crowds welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem at the beginning of his last week (Palm Sunday) before Passover (our Easter):“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk 19:38) The crowds welcomed Jesus as their Messiah, the conquering king who had come to save them (from the Romans they thought). Their cries signified that they recognized, for a moment at least, that Jesus had been sent by heaven to bring God’s blessing to them which meant ‘peace in heaven’. Now they may not have realized what they were saying but that was exactly what he had come to do by taking the punishment for all sin and thus bringing peace in heaven, peace in God’s heart as He could receive sinful men to Himself.

The effect of Justification: The apostle Paul spoke of this work or process of putting us right with the demands of the Law and of justice as ‘justification’ which some have paraphrased as “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned; that is the effect of the work of Jesus on the Cross, and the end outworking of that work is peace for us: “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 5:1)

The outworking of Sanctification: But it isn’t just about what happens when God puts us right with Himself through Christ and we first receive it, it is also about how God views us throughout our following lives and what He intends for us, His changing us, which theologians call ‘sanctification’: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through,” (1 Thess5:23) and His overall intent for us: “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.” (2 Thes 3:16) In every aspect of our lives, God intends that we should be at peace.

From before the world: Now our writer is going on to say what is an outworking of this peace – that God equips us to live as He wants – but in so doing he summarizes all that we have been saying in a power packed verse that we saw at the beginning: “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep….” (v.20) Note, first, He has done what He has done because as we have noted earlier in this series, the plan of salvation was decided upon by the Trinity before time-space history came into being, i.e. it was an ‘eternal covenant’  set up right back then.  Note, second, this covenant involved Jesus’ blood being shed, his life being given up, again agreed before the foundation of the world. Note, third, once he had given his life it opened the way for the Father to step in and raise up the body from the dead because it had achieved what it was sent to achieve. Note, fourth, Jesus had been sent to do what he did, and that included to act as a shepherd to collect and return to the Father, all who would hear his voice and return to him and follow him (“When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” Jn 10:4)

Conclusion: God wants your life to be founded on peace. Peace is to be the bedrock of your life. Know it, live in it and rejoice.

15. Warning Number 1

Meditations in Hebrews 2:   15. Warning Number 1  

Heb 2:1-3   We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?

Moving into chapter 2 brings us face to face with the first of a number of warnings that the writer brings to his readers. If this had been the apostle Paul, his style tended to be several chapters of doctrine which are then followed by the practical teaching and exhortations, but this writer having written our chapter 1, now pauses before he brings any more doctrine (which will be integrated into the exhortations).

Having just shown that Jesus is so much greater than angels, that raises a concern in his mind as he reflects on the Law brought by Moses and the salvation now brought by Jesus. He reveals his pastoral concern in verse 1: We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”  i.e. I know there is always this temptation to drift away (after all, it was what the Israelites had done time and time again) and so the means of stopping this possible drift is to “pay more careful attention… to what we have heard.” i.e. hold onto it, go back over it, make sure you fully take it in and understand it so it impacts you. I like the Message version on this verse: It’s crucial that we keep a firm grip on what we’ve heard so that we don’t drift off.” 

But then he gives another reason for holding firmly onto the truth that has been conveyed to us by Jesus: For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” (v.2,3) i.e. the Law was conveyed by angels and those who disobeyed were punished, so how much more serious is it when God speaks to us through His own Son?

Now we perhaps ought to pause up here and note this reference to angels. There is no mention of angels in the historical accounts within Exodus of angels but it is clear that the modern Jews believed that they had been involved. For example, Stephen declared that (Acts 7:35,38,53) as did the apostle Paul (Gal 3:19). This may be because of Moses’ final words to Israel before he left them and died (Deut 33:2). The present writer picks up on this common belief and simply uses it here as a warning not to ignore the salvation proclaimed by Jesus.

Now again it might be worth just reflecting on what Jesus did say that we might be able to call the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. His opening words in Matthew are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Mt 4:17) or as the Message puts it, “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” Matthew was the gospel writer concerned about the Jewish viewpoint and knew they were waiting for God’s kingdom. Matthew then records, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Mt 4:23)  i.e. kingdom word AND power. That IS good news!

Mark records, The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15) Mark, it is believed, was helped in his writing by the apostle Peter, who had come to see the wonder, the good news of everything to do with Jesus. Although this proclamation is followed by power activity you are left feeling how good it was, this was really very good news. Shortly Jesus delivered a demon possessed man in the local synagogue (Mk 1:23-26) and this left the watchers amazed at this brilliant teacher (v.22) who also had power (v.27).

Luke, after his early days’ passages, after the genealogy and temptation, records  Jesus in the local synagogue reading and applying to himself the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19) This is packed full of good news but unlike our wishy-washy four rules type of proclamation of the Gospel, Jesus’ Gospel goes beyond words to actually setting people free and letting them know that “This is God’s year to act!” (Message Version) or “the time has come for the Lord to show his kindness,” (Easy to Read version).

Matthew’s equivalent to this is Jesus speaking to John the Baptist’s disciples, 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)  Jesus’ Gospel is a doing Gospel.

John concurs with this view of Jesus’ Gospel: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30,31)  i.e. the signs point to the man, the Son of God.   Belief follows signs, for those who have eyes to see.

Our present writer to the Hebrews is completely in line with this as he continues, “God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (v.4) although he uses the word ‘testifies’ applying the signs, wonders and miracles, to all those things we’ve read above. But not only that, He has imparted divinely supernatural gifts of the Spirit to Jesus’ body – the single body and now the body that is his church.

I wonder if this same message should be the primary message we hear in today’s church? Instead of teaching theory, shouldn’t our leaders be teaching power-practice, for didn’t Jesus say, “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12). It is shear unbelief, I would suggest, to try and wash this verse out of the Scriptures by coming up with flim-flam that says these things have passed away. Everything we have been reading in this study points in the same direction: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb 13:8) We demean him and his message if we are content with a mere words-only Gospel. It has served us well and many of us are the proof of it but that is not an excuse not to be the church Jesus spoke about, a church that brings the good news which is both words and transforming power. Without the ‘double-package’ we might ask is that why so much of the Western world is rejecting us?

But the thrust of the start of chapter 2 is, with all this evidence of the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus, we should learn it and live it to stop us drifting away and make it real and obvious so that others will not reject it. That is the message here.

10. The Word of Truth

Meditations in Colossians: 10. The Word of Truth

Col 1:4-6   we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints– the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.

We are familiar with understanding the word ‘Gospel’ to mean Good News but here Paul also calls it “the word of truth” and it is worth pondering on the meaning of that. In prophetic circles we speak of someone receiving “a word”. We don’t mean that they have received a single word but that they have received a collection of words – from  a sentence to a whole collection of say ten paragraphs – that form a message from God. But note also that when Paul describes this word he calls it “the word”. It is not just a word which would make it just one among many but it is a single unique message from God and there is no other message like it. But more than that, it is the message of truth which implies that it is a unique message that somehow encapsulates all that is vital in and for life.

Truth? That which conforms to reality, which is exactly true and does not in any way deviate from that which is. So here, says Paul, we have this unique message from God that conveys or sums up the will of God, the reality of the plans and purposes of God. You want to know if there is a God? Ponder on the Gospel message, Could this just be the planning of human beings or has it got an origin that goes beyond us?  What sort of God is there if there is one?  Ponder on the Gospel and see a God of infinite compassion, a God of love and mercy who plans from before the beginning of time to redeem mankind that has abused its free will and got into slavery to this thing called Sin, this inescapable propensity of godless self-centredness.  You wonder if there is any escape from this self-centred godlessness that seems to lead to unrighteousness and self-destructive thinking and behaviour?  After you realise that our state is helpless and thus hopeless, we hear the Gospel and grasp for it like a drowning person.

This word tells the truth? Listen to Paul elsewhere: Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved……  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:1-4) There was the Gospel encapsulated.

It is all about Christ who the Gospels reveal is the unique Son of God who came to earth from heaven. Here he lived, growing from a baby to an adult and then at about the age of thirty started three years of the most remarkable ministry that the word has ever seen. The apostle Peter described him in his first sermon to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost, first in human terms: “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) Later he said the same thing to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38).

That is all implied in Paul’s summary and is a prerequisite to the fundamentals of why Christ came: “Christ died for our sins.” Peter spelled it out again and again: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him,” (Acts 2:23,24 to the Jews at Pentecost) and “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead….. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10,12 before the religious leaders) and “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen….. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:39,40,43 to the Gentiles)

But the outworking brought so much more. We have seen the facts (the truth) of what happened – Jesus came, revealed the Father, was crucified and rose from the dead, all, we are told, the means to bring about the forgiveness of our sins. That is what HE did but then there is OUR response and then what HE does as a response to us! Our response, to the conviction by His Holy Spirit, is to surrender to Him, believe in Jesus (an early act of faith) and receive what he then imparts – forgiveness, cleansing, adoption and the impartation of what becomes the indwelling Holy Spirit in our lives. Thus we are ‘born again’, made new, and He reveals a plan and purpose for our lives that we live out in our remaining years here on earth.  But it doesn’t stop there. We have received eternal life and the guarantee of a glorious future with Him in heaven after life on this earth. This is the package that we call the Gospel. This is what has happened to Jesus (it is true!) and this is what has happened to us (it is true!)  This is the word of truth.. Hallelujah!

3. Shining more Brightly

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  3. Shining more brightly

Prov 4:18  The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.

2 Cor 3:18  we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit

Why these verses? Because they won’t go away when I pray. So, let’s see what the Lord might want to say to us through them. The Proverbs verse speaks about the righteous and the 2 Corinthians verse speaks to Christians who are God’s righteous ones. Both of them speak about changing lives but the second one gives the reason for the change – the Holy Spirit.

The first thought that hit me when I got these two verses is that they are more about the Lord than they are about us. We know that we cannot change for the good left to ourselves and so any changes for good in our lives has to be the Lord. I know that when I came to the Lord I left behind a life of self-centred godlessness which was marred by failure. The transformation that took place when I came to Christ happened because He put His Holy Spirit within me and He was now my guiding, directing, teaching power. If I shone brighter now it was because of His Holy Spirit.

Of course Prov 4:18 says it is “the path of the righteous” that is shining ever brighter and I suddenly realise that Jesus said “I am the way” (Jn 14:6) and another word for ‘way’ is path. He is my life, his Spirit lives in me and therefore he is the one who grows brighter with the passing of each day – in and through me. Indeed, as I respond to him and allow his Spirit to lead, guide and change me, my life generally will be brighter, expressing him – but it is him. When the apostle Paul spoke of Jesus’ glory he said, But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7)  Our bodies are like jars of clay but they contain the glory of God and it is the glory that shines, not the clay.

Now if we accept these foundational thoughts – that these verses apply to us Christians and that the source of the brightness is Jesus and his Holy Spirit – there is something very basic that must flow out of this and it is so simple that it is something we take for granted, and that is that God purposes for us is to change for the better. Now I’ve just said that this is so basic that we probably take it for granted, and if we do I suggest that familiarity had bred contempt and so we don’t actually believe it for our lives. Note again what we are saying: God purposes good changes for us and in us. He loves us so much that He wants something better for us that what we are today.

Seriously, check that out. Are you completely happy with all that you are today? Are there aspects of who you are that you are not happy about? I don’t mean things like you feel you have big ears or you don’t like the colour of your hair. No, I’m referring to things like anger or lack of patience, or constant worries or jealousy, say. There could be a whole raft of issues we could choose from. Are there bits of the New Testament, say, that you skim over because they are uncomfortable? You know deep down that there are things where you don’t match to Jesus’ expectations of you in his word.

Now we have to make a simple clarification. We don’t mean things that very rarely you stumble over. We are all of us still imperfect this side of heaven and so there may be times when you are physically low and that in turn seems to sap your grace and you are not as patient, say, as you normally are. No, these are one-off rare failures; what I am talking about is a regular behaviour. You find you snap at people too often, you find you are impatient with others, you find you are constantly worrying about what might happen next week or how you might handle tomorrow. These are the sort of things which, when we feel safe and secure we can confess to being unhappy about in our lives.

Now here’s the thing: God is more concerned to help you move on from these failure repetitions than He is to punish you. He understands you and loves you and sees the ultimate cause why you are like you are (so often it is poor self-image, not realizing who we are in Christ) and why you seem to be unable to break out (so often it is because we just haven’t realised our position of freedom in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in us). He understands these things and understands that there is coming a time where you are going to be just ripe to receive His word and, hey presto!, it will be dealt with and you will be changed. Suddenly you will be shining brighter!

This is it. The good news is that he is on our side and He is working to help us change so that we will indeed be changing from one degree of glory to another. Why? Because He loves us and He knows we will enjoy life more, enjoy being ourselves more, when these things have been dealt with and we change. But it’s not a big heavy thing; it’s just part of the wonderful process that started the moment we came to Him and were born again.

One final thing. Very often the changes are slow and almost indiscernible and therefore we will not realise that this process IS being worked out in us. Don’t worry about it; just thank the Lord that these two verses DO apply to you and it is happening, because you want it to deep down, and He wants it for you because He loves you so much. Rejoice in it!

29. A Life of Purpose

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 29. A Life of Purpose

Mk 1:38,39 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

We commented in the previous meditation that Jesus had other ideas than stay around and minister some more to the people of this particular place. He’s shared the Good News here in both word and deed and he’s not going to keep on doing it, but now he’s going to move on and do it elsewhere in Galilee. He’s come, he says, to share the good news of the arrival of God’s kingdom all over the land, not in just one place.

Perhaps sometimes we get bogged down in one place or reaching out to one particular group. Recently in our local church we have been thinking about the local community and have come to the conclusion that there isn’t such a thing – there are lots of communities! In our modern world we tend towards groups, so young people tend to be one community, single parents may be another, and so on. The only reason for seeing them as different groups or communities is to recognize that they have different specific needs, and making it clear what they are sometimes makes it easier to reach them as we minister to those needs that a peculiar to that group.

Yet the truth is that overall we all have the same needs – to be loved by God, forgiven our sins and empowered to live new lives. That is true of every person, whatever colour and whatever people grouping they come from. We are all sinners needing to be reconciled to God, forgiven and cleansed and given a new direction and a new power to live lives of the kingdom of God.

You make think that my referring to different people groups and different ‘access needs’ is unnecessary, but it is exactly what Jesus and the early apostles did. For them it was a case of going to the local synagogue for that was the meeting place of the religious (hopefully, God-seeking) Jews. Hopefully there would be the most open group of Jews. But then later Jesus went to the ‘sinner groups’ the tax collectors, prostitutes etc. These were all different people groups who had a slightly different outlook on life and who would be approached in different ways. In the synagogue the approach was through the Scriptures. To the ‘sinner groups’ it was with the compassionate, caring and accepting love of God. Father, thank you that you love all of us.

12. Good News

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 12. Good News

Mk 1:14,15 Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Repentance is one of those words in the Christian vocabulary which is necessary but so often disliked. Because of that sinful nature we were all born with, none of us like to be told to change. Change is what repentance is all about. Some people describe it as making a hundred and eighty degree turnabout. It is turning from unbelief to belief, from being self-centred to God centred, from being unrighteous to righteous.

So Jesus came proclaiming good news. Again many people, if you ask them about the Christian faith, say it is a bunch of ‘you must not’ or ‘you should not’ things, yet Jesus came bringing good news and those things by most people’s standards don’t constitute ‘good news’. No, good news is news we all like.

So what was this ‘good news’? It was that the time had come, the kingdom of God was about to be revealed. Yet again that old sinful nature doesn’t like the sound of that – God’s kingdom? What about my own? What about my rule, what I think? And therein in the deception because if we were able to think about it dispassionately, we might concede that, so far, we haven’t made the best out of our lives. The truth of the Gospel is that God is far better at getting the most out of our lives than we are, and that is what He wants to do when we hand the reins over to him. That is what ‘the kingdom’ or rule of God is all about, but we struggle to believe that.

No wonder that Jesus had to cry that out: turn from your unbelief and turn to believing that God loves you and wants to bless you and make the most out of your life. Believe this good news! How the people, the religious authorities and even Jesus’ disciples struggled with this. How we still struggle with this! It is a sign of the old sinful nature that clings on, that we find it so difficult to believe these wonderful things – that God loves me and has come in the form of His Son to set me free from that old unbelieving nature and to release in me a new hope and a new wonder.

Lord, I am so sorry that I am so slow to believe the wonder of the Good News that the New Testament speaks about – that you love me whole heartedly and have plans for my life that just mean goodness and more goodness for me. I believe it! I really do!