5. Aspiring to Knowledge

Aspiring Meditations: 5.  Aspiring to Knowledge 

Isa 11:2  The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him…. the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD

2 Pet 1:5    For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge

2 Pet 3:18  grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

There is a remarkable passage in Ephesians 2:1-5 that describes what we were like before we came to Christ and in it are such words as, dead in your transgressions and sins, disobedient, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature, objects of wrath, and dead in transgressions (again!), but surprisingly it does not say we were ignorant which I would have expected.

But there is another remarkable passage in Romans 1 that addresses this: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Rom 1:18-20) Now that says that all people inherently have a knowledge of God in some measure at least but suppress it!  Solomon said of God, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:11) In other words there is something within every single human being that shouts out, “There is more to life than shear materialistic satisfying desires!”

So if the godless world has ‘knowledge’ why does the Bible seem to elevate ‘knowledge’ to something I should aspire to? And what sort of knowledge? The Gnostics of the first and second centuries AD had this ‘special knowledge’, knowledge that was imparted to or acquired by the elite in this cult. That is the reason the apostle Paul so often speaks about the ‘mystery’ of the God that has now been revealed (see Rom 11:25, 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,4,6,9, 6:19, Col 1:26,27, 2:2, 4:3). That is the point he makes, that now this mystery has been revealed and it is open to anyone to appreciate and apprehend it. It is Christ who is at the heart of the plans of the Godhead to redeem the world, plans formulated even before the Creation.

The Messiah, according to Isa 11:2 would be anointed with a “Spirit of knowledge”. Why? Because God knows all things and Jesus is part of the Trinity, certainly limited in human form for 33 years, but nevertheless by the Spirit within him, he had all knowledge available to him to be drawn on as necessary. Is it a coincidence that in John’s Gospel, the Gospel of insight and knowledge and understanding of the Son of God that John had realised over years of pondering on, reflecting on and remembering, that in this Gospel the word ‘know’ is used more than 80 times!

As John, in his latter years, remembered back to those incredible three years of walking with the Son of God, had realised he had all this knowledge in his head, knowledge of the things that had happened in those three years, but which had not been picked up in the Synoptic Gospels that concentrated on the basics of what happened. John knew there was far more than those basics, which is why his Gospel is so profound, bringing to light the knowledge of an insider who had had time to mull over and focus the things that had happened, and the things that were said by Jesus which, at the time had been so profound, e.g. all of the ‘I am’ sayings John brings to us.

And so for me in this quest to take hold of the various things that the Bible challenges me to aspire to, I face this call to increase knowledge. It is a very simple call but also a very profound call. When we first came to Christ, it is probable that our knowledge of the Bible was miniscule. I laugh when I look back, because as a young person at college – not a Christian but coming from a reasonable if not certainly respectable background – I argued with a friend of mine who was a communist. I can see Mick now in his maroon corduroy jacket and long hippy hair, arguing for the communist manifesto, and me arguing for the Christian perspective. It is no surprised  that he wiped the floor with me!

Perhaps that was the reason why, after I came to the Lord, by the end of my first year as a Christian, the Lord had me leading seven Bible Studies a week. It meant a serious learning curve, and it has carried on ever since. But do I have sufficient knowledge of the Bible and of God today? No, we can never stop being learners. Even as I write these studies I find things coming into perspective as never before. I see new things in the Bible, maybe not every day, but frequently. I heard a conference speaker the other day saying how she was finding in the secular world today she was being challenged over her faith as never before, and she realised she needed to visit again the area of apologetics (knowing why you believe what you believe and having answers to the big questions), and that has always been an area I too have felt I need to get under my belt.

But all that is knowledge that is intellectual but if, in respect of my wife, I could simply tell you lots of things about her, that would not constitute a relationship with her. She used to be a teacher and so her pupils and fellow-teachers could possibly say quite a lot about her with their superficial relationships with her, but when it comes to me, her husband, that is a completely different ball game.

So it must be with God. If we have a ‘relationship’ with Him, then it means it is far more than “knowing about” Him, it is knowing Him in experience, knowing of Him. So how does that come? It comes in prayer, in worship, in waiting on Him, yes as we study His word, and especially when we are obedient to Him and we allow His Holy Spirit to inspire us, energize us, motivate and direct us, and we ‘do the stuff’ He gives us to do. That is ‘knowing Him’ at a much more profound level.

So the challenge comes to me, first of all, will I continue to learn about Him? That will come as I spend time and effort in His word, time and effort reading what others have written about the whole experience of being a Christian, digging deeper even into theology or even apologetics. Why do this? Well for me, it is in answer to something the apostle Peter said: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet 3:15) But then the second part of the challenge, will I continue to develop my knowledge of Him, and that means waiting on Him, praying, seeking Him and being obedient to Him? I hope the answer will be yes.  And you?

4. Aspiring to Goodness

Aspiring Meditations: 4.  Aspiring to Goodness

Ex 33:19    And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you

2 Pet 1:5   make every effort to add to your faith goodness 

Gal 5:23    the fruit of the Spirit is … goodness

So a reminder: this series is about things we are to aspire to found in the Scriptures. We will now follow the list that the apostle Peter gives us and after faith which we considered yesterday, it goes on to speak of ‘goodness’, and so we have to ask, what is it, how do we aspire to it and how may we increase it in our lives?

There is a call in the Old Testament that comes up more than once: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (e.g. 1 Chron 16:34) and then we have the intriguing statement of the Lord to Moses, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you.”  (Ex 33;19) Not just some goodness but “all my” and why goodness?

We need to anchor that word ‘good’. A dictionary defines ‘good’ as “having suitable or desirable qualities; promoting health, welfare or happiness; benevolent, not troublesome” and goes on to give reams more uses of ‘good.’ ‘Good’ signifies in our thinking something that is pleasant, something positive that we are happy with.  Now the Psalms declare again and again that God is good (see Psa 25:7, 34:8, 86:5, 119; 135:3).  Very often in these verses, love and goodness are linked, in other words goodness is an expression of love; it’s how it works.

So goodness is an expression of God’s character and it is what He wants for our lives, but still, what is it? There is another intriguing voice in Nehemiah speaking of Israel’s life since they entered the Promised Land: They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness.” (Neh 9:25) This ‘goodness’ brought forth good for Israel which was experienced in so many ways in the Land, good things they found there, good things that happened to them. Goodness is about bringing forth good in this world.

If I am to say that goodness is something I aspire to, it means that my life will bring forth things that are good.  Now when we say that, we naturally ask so what is ‘good’? Well we saw the definition above and so good in this context will be things that generally people will see and agree are helpful, pleasant, worthwhile, even excellent, very positive things. A modern book on such definitions says goodness “stresses moral excellence and an underlying compassion.” That was interesting! So goodness, love and compassion are linked together. An antonym (opposite) of goodness is “wrong doing”. Even more interesting!

If I am to aspire to goodness, I am to aspire to good-doing, moral excellence, expressed through love and compassion. If I do this I will be a person with whom you can feel comfortable, secure, even more, someone who will be a blessing to you. Yes, that is the truth behind this word.

So, how does it come? Where does it come from? Well we saw above that God is good, it is a characteristic of Him. In the previous study we also noted that some of these things – and goodness is included – are fruit of the Spirit, and there we noted that walking in the Spirit, living in the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit, will naturally bring forth this characteristic. In other words if I let the Spirit fill my life more and more, then goodness will be a fruit that will appear more and more.

The other day, I heard someone speak about another person and they said, using an expression that may be unknown to some, “she hasn’t a bad bone in her body.” It means there isn’t an ounce of anything bad in her. Perhaps, in trying to anchor this word, apply this characteristic, it is helpful to observe the opposites, the things we are not to tolerate in our lives. Already we noted the antonym ‘wrong doing.” If goodness is to be a feature of my life, then there must not be an ounce of wrong-doing in me. There is to be no room for anything questionable.

Now I have to admit that at this point I feel uncomfortable because I see behaviour in some of God’s children that worries me – those who smoke, those who drink too much, those who sometimes swear or blaspheme, those who tell crude stories or laugh at crude jokes. I have to say there are comedians around who I will no longer listen to, whose humour is without doubt ‘blue’. This has no part in one who aspires to goodness.

Now there is a danger I recognize here and that is to become a culture hermit. This requires discernment for Jesus met with those whose characters were decidedly off-beat, but that didn’t mean that he had to be the same. His goodness remained static and his love and compassion for the tax-collectors and sinners of his day meant he was able to win them. Zacchaeus (Lk 19) was a classic example. Matthew (or Levi) had been a tax collector but became an apostle. Jesus held on to his goodness but in a way that was not arrogant or condescending or judgmental and so won over those who were not good.

But back to modern culture. We have to learn to be discerning. For me films that are filled with constant ‘f’ words I find seriously annoying because the word then stays in my mind and the producer of the film could get away without it. Films or books constantly portraying the sex act similarly are on my ‘Not to Watch’ and ‘Not to Read’ list. Films or videos, TV series or books that are ‘dark’ or portray the occult are likewise not for me. Don’t let’s go into the world of computer gaming, it is the biggest nightmare going and many parents are criminally (literally) and spiritually negligent in the things they let their under-age (and over-age!!) children play. I saw a headline the other day that said that the younger a child is exposed to pornography, the more likely they will grow up to be abusive of their partners or their subsequent children. Pornography in any form is a no-go area for the Christian. The word about false prophets has a much wider meaning: “By their fruits you will know them.”

I used the word ‘dark’ just now to describe some TV, some movies and some books, and so we should add, fully in line with the New Testament, that we are called to be children of light and darkness has no place in the life of one aspiring to goodness (check out 1 Jn 2:9-11, 1 Pet 2:9, Col 1:13, Eph 5:11). A simple check: are there anything you saw, watch or read, about which you would be embarrassed if it was known in your church circle? Time for action if the answer is yes.

So, to summarise, goodness is a characteristic of God, a characteristic that will be formed in me as fruit as I walk in the Spirit. It is the expression of wholesomeness, the expression of right-doing and as I aspire to it I will reject all doubtful or dubious things, things that are ‘dark’, for we are children of light. As a child of light, where I am goodness should be spreading. Let’s be known for our goodness, let’s be attractive and let’s draw people to Jesus by his grace in us in this form. Let’s not be ashamed at being different but let our goodness be seen in the grace that is obvious in our lives. Can we be Jesus to our generation?

(I will be away from Internet access for the next two weeks on and off)

3. Aspiring to More Faith

Aspiring Meditations: 3.  Aspiring to more faith

Rom 10:17 “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”

Heb 11:6  without faith it is impossible to please God,

Mt 14:31  Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Hebrews 11:6 suggests the significance of faith – it is a vital requirement to have any sort of relationship with God – and so after grace, I believe it is possibly the most important idea or concept in the New Testament as far as our relationship with the Lord goes, outside the work of Christ himself on the Cross. It is how our lives with God are worked out.

We would be remiss is we missed out the words of the writer to the Hebrews defining the nature of faith: faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) Now as good as that verse is, it doesn’t give the whole picture for it simply describes what I would call ‘passive faith’. Passive faith is all about knowing the basics of The Faith, all about God, Jesus, ourselves and what God has done for us through Jesus. That is all invisible, unseen, but as the Holy Spirit has come and convicted us to bring about our conversion, we become sure of these facts, sure about the existence of God, sure about the salvation His Son has earned for us.

But of course it doesn’t end there; that is but the beginning. If we really believe these things then they will have an impact on our lives and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, our lives will change. We will become people who are concerned about moral and spiritual standards and so, to cite the apostle Paul, we will, for example, “put off falsehood and speak truthfully.” (Eph 4:25) in other words our whole outlook on life changes and produces a completely new way of living, and our examination of these things to which the Lord wants us to aspire, are part of that. This positive change to our outlook, our attitudes and our words and our behaviour, in response to that basic body of truth we have come to believe in, are what I would call Active-Character faith, and in that sense every Christian is a person of faith.

How does this faith – both passive and active – come about?  “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) In our previous lives we were ignorant of these things and then somehow, we were told the Gospel – we heard it. Someone shared it with us, and the Holy Spirit convicted us with it and when we responded the rest followed. From then on we ‘hear’ the word when we read the Bible, when we use Bible Notes, when we listen to sermons, when we receive a word of prophecy, when we receive that quiet inner nudge by the Spirit, and indeed sometimes as we pray we may sense Him speaking to us by what we find the Spirit leading us to pray. All of these are ways we ‘hear’ the word from the Lord and as the Holy Spirit gives us the sense that that is what we are experiencing, He may also convict us, challenge us to action.

Much of the time there will be a character-response, it will be something that affects how I think, feel and need to live. So a change comes about in me and in my lifestyle as I respond to Him – that is Active-Character faith. But there is also another branch of Active Faith that I would call for convenience, Active-Service faith. It is simply responding to His prompting and almost always comes from an inner conviction, an inner nudging of the Holy Spirit and it seeks to prompt me to act in a particular way. So I may sense a nudging that says, “Go over there and encourage that person,” or as I listen to someone sharing their anxieties, or their worries about their health, say, the prompting may come, “Ask them if you may pray for them now, pray over them.”  Or it may be more generally, “Share my love with them, tell them how much I love them,” or is maybe, “This is the time for you to share your testimony.” Each of these promptings are a prompting into action, or to serve the Lord in a specific way, to bring about something He wants to happen through you, His will in this specific situation. Faith occurs when you, having made yourself available to Him, respond positively and you find something rising in you that says, ‘Yes!’ and so you act and do what the Spirit said. That was Active-Service faith.

Now I am good at doing that with Christians and my wife is good at it with non-Christians, which suggests something I have noted in life: faith expressions are different for each of us. Some of us will have great faith for giving, some will have great faith for hospitality, some will have it for showing acts of charity or mercy, some of us will have it for sharing the Gospel with others, and so on.  Now when we see these things in one another we speak of them having the gift of this or that, and the apostle Paul wrote, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” (Rom 12:6)

Now in the previous study, remember we spoke of grace as being God’s resources for us through His indwelling Holy Spirit. This particular resource is called faith and it is always a gift. God gave it to us through His Spirit, so some find it easy to evangelize, some easy to teach, some easy to be caring and compassionate and so as we step out in that gifting, we are expressing faith, what I am calling Active-Service faith.

Now we should also note that there is a gift of the Spirit called faith (see 1 Cor 12:9a). This simply means that a particular person – and I suggest this will not be happening every day – suddenly has total confidence that they can do a particular thing before them that the rest of us consider impossible. “But, no, we can do this thing!” Peter received it when Jesus urged him to step out of the boat (Mt 14:29). At that moment, he knew he could do it – and did!  For the more everyday faith when it comes to our particular gifting(s) we know we can do this thing and it will be good, because God is inspiring it, and so as we step out and do it, that is faith in action.

So can we develop faith? Can we increase it? The answer has surely got to be yes, otherwise Jesus would not have chided his disciples sometimes for their ‘little faith’, implying they could do better, and that he surely hoped for the future.  Well if faith comes from hearing, may I suggest we first need to learn to be more alert to what is going on inside our heads – because that is where we are going to ‘hear’. And having discerned that we are hearing God, determine to respond positively to Him every time we catch something. The more we do it, the more it will happen.  It is, I believe, that simple! Go for it! Let’s aspire to be people of faith – not merely having passive faith (although that is an essential start), but moving in Active-Character faith where we let His word shape our lifestyles, and then on into Active-Service faith where we do the works of God, just as Jesus said (Jn 14:12). Amen? Amen!

56. Shepherd and Sheep

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 56.  Shepherd and Sheep

Mt 26:31   Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered

And so we come to the last of these analogies and parables and it is a very appropriate one with which to finish. Time is running out; the disciples have met in the upper room and the Last Supper has finished: When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (v.30) It is then that we come to our verse above, where Jesus quotes from Zech 13:7 which was a strange verse.

It was a strange verse because it started, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty.” i.e. the shepherd that God speak of is the Good Shepherd, one close to the Father, it is this one who is going to be struck so that his flock will be scattered. Now that was strange because earlier in Zechariah it was the worthless shepherd who would be struck in disciplinary judgment but now it is the Good Shepherd, the one close to God. Whatever did that mean? Perhaps the emphasis was on the sheep being scattered because that was the fulfillment of the curses for covenant disobedience (see Deut 28:64; 29:24-25). Now maybe, it is the disciples who would be scattered temporarily, perhaps as a picture of the dispersion that would come to the Jews before the century was out.

Thus Jesus is the shepherd and his disciples, his followers, are the sheep. It is a very simple analogy and yet the more we think about it, a very poignant one. Indeed before the quote, Jesus had plainly declared, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me,” (v.31) and then showed how it is prophetic fulfillment within the plan of God by quoting from Zechariah. But he doesn’t leave it there for he adds, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee. (v.32) In other words, he is quite explicitly explaining that everything is under control, his control, and the control of His Father in heaven; his death will not be the end.

Yes, the immediate future is going to look chaotically out of control, especially when you consider all the wonderful things that this amazing Son of God had been doing for three years, completely in control in every situation, whether confronted by demoniacs or threatened by a terrible storm in the middle of the sea of Galilee. Oh yes, Jesus had been in utter control throughout that period and even when hostile religious leaders had come after him, he had shown a wisdom that undermined all of the scheming and challenging words. Whatever else, Jesus was in control.

And then comes Gethsemane and Jesus tries to prepare the disciples in a small way for what he knows is about to happen. Remember what Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost: “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.” (Acts 2:23) I find that one of the greatest verses of revelation in the New Testament. He ‘saw’ that what had taken place in those terrible hours, and then incredible hours, of what we today call Easter, was all part of God’s plan. God knew it would happen, He knew how it would come about and it was part of the plan of the Godhead to bring about the possibility of our salvation as the Son of God stood in our place and took the punishment for our sins. So the disciples falling away and fleeing in the face of soldiers arresting their master in the middle of the night, was all part of this plan and Jesus had just told them that.

The only problem is that so often we struggle to accept the will of God because we don’t understand it!!! Jesus warns them that they will all fall away BUT, “Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (v.33) Oh, how unknowing we so often are! Peter, if the Son of God says you will fall away, you will and, actually, in your case it is going to be quite spectacular for Jesus has already warned you that you will deny him and that before the early morning is out and a cockerel will have crowed three times. Oh yes, that is how specific that warning had been, but Peter in his self-confidence could not believe it.

Have you ever been given a prophetic word? How did you receive it? I watch responses. Who me, you must be joking! God gracious, surely that can’t be!  At such times, we take on the Peter-spirit. It may be for us it is low self-esteem that shrugs off a word of love. It may be hardness of heart. It may just be lack of understanding.  Mary’s response was the best recorded to this sort of thing: “May it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38)

But there are bigger issues here to be taken hold of. There is the issue of the big picture. Our difficulty is that we struggle to see the big picture, where this present history is going. Yes, we can hear sermons on Jesus, the Lamb of God, in Revelation 5 unrolling the scroll of the end times, but actually seeing how yesterday, today and tomorrow fit in, that isn’t so easy. It is especially ‘not easy’ when it appears to be going badly, when church seems mundane, things seem to be going wrong and nobody seems to have a handle on it all. Well God does!

When Jesus says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” (Heb 13:5), he means it. He could change it all like he stilled the storm with just three words: “Peace, be still!” but he wants you to have that peace in you first, the peace that comes from knowing that he IS in control and he does know what he is doing and he is there for you in the midst of it. When we come to that place, then often he gives us the faith so that we declare those three words, and it all changes. When children have constant nightmares, when someone seems to constantly have poor health, when finances seem to be a struggle despite whatever you do, we have to come to the place of knowing

  • that he is in control
  • he does know what he is doing and
  • he is there for you

because only then does faith rise up and, under his prompting, we can speak the words of authority that bring the change that is needed. Perhaps it means we have to make some personal changes, perhaps we have to step out in faith in some way, but we get connected to him when we realise the truth of these things above. He is the shepherd and we are the sheep. We may appear somewhat ‘scattered’ at the moment by the circumstances but these truths remain unchanged. As we come to the end of this particular series, hold on to them, grasp them firmly, declare them and live in the light of them. Resurrection is just round the corner! Hallelujah”

55. Communion

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 55.  Communion

Mt 26:26   While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body

Of all the analogies we have looked at in Matthew, this one is possibly the most familiar if you are a regular church-goer, for it is probable that we may hear these words at Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or whatever else we might call it, because Luke added the words, do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk 22:19) and the apostle Paul added, “whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:25,26) Thus we take this ‘sacrament’ (‘a ceremony regarded as imparting spiritual grace’) on a regular basis in most churches, for some weekly, others monthly. Possibly because the Synoptic Gospel writers had covered it adequately, John says nothing about what we refer to as Communion because it was obviously only one small part of all that went on at the Last Supper. John recounts Jesus’ amazing prayer then. (see Jn 17)

But at the heart of it there are two analogies. The first we have above, but then Jesus went on: “Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (v.27,28) So we have two sets of analogies: bread and wine, body and blood, and indeed they are both analogies.

Now we have to recognize that in practice there are different understandings of what takes place. For Catholics what takes place is “the conversion of the substance of the Eucharist elements into the body and blood at consecration, only the appearance of bread and wine still remaining.” For most Protestants, it is merely a symbolic act, an act of obedience which wins the blessing of God and therefore a sense of grace imparted

But we will focus, as in the rest of this series, in trying as simply as possible to catch what Jesus was trying to convey when he originally spoke these words to his disciples and ask, what might these ordinary men have made of these words? It is probable, as the Gospels show with so many things, the disciples were simply out of their depth in the face of such picture language and it would probably be many years before the likes of the apostle Paul helped out with understanding. Yet even in his one piece of writing on this Last Supper, it wasn’t his intention to spell it out, merely correct the Corinthians for their bad behaviour. So let’s look at the wording before us.

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” (Mt 26:26) Now for many years I thought that this was followed by the words, “which is broken for you” but actually Paul’s wording (and the Gospel writers don’t have this) is simply, “which is for you” (1 Cor 11;24) so any desire to impose a ‘theology of brokenness’ is unwarranted. So what did those words mean. In its very simplest understanding Jesus must have been saying, “As you eat this bread, imagine you are eating me, or if that is too much to cope with, imagine you are taking my very life into your life, so I become a living part of you, we being utterly united.”  i.e. this is what this whole thing is about, my coming to the earth, my living in human form; it is that ultimately we may become one, God in you.

Now there is nothing outrageous about that when you see the wider teaching of the New Testament, that we becomes ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’, vessels that contain the glory of God, humans indwelt by God, by Jesus, by his Holy Spirit. Was this a simple piece of imagery to remind us what his ultimate goal is for us?

But then the blood: “Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (v.27,28) Now the concept of the Passover covenant was probably more familiar to many of them, that to avoid the judgment of God in Egypt, a lamb had to be slain and its blood put on the doorposts of the home so that the destroying angel would see it and “pass over”. The tricky bit here is “my blood” and in that Jesus is ratifying John the Baptist’s words which the Synoptics had not picked up but John did, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29 and also 35,36). It is also the picture conveyed in the vision John received in Revelation: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.” (Rev 5:6) The analogy is simple: a lamb was previously sacrificed to save the people; that Lamb was now Jesus. By his death a new covenant is inaugurated.

The talk of body and bread being eaten, signifying a oneness, might cause the sensitive spirit to ask, how can such a thing be? The answer is, because a lamb has been slain on your behalf so that judgment is averted and all the blessing of God is released to your life. That is why we can stand secure before the Lord and in the face of all that the world brings. We are one with him and he made that possible for dying for us. Hallelujah!

54. Sheep and Goats

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 54.  Sheep and Goats

Mt 25:32,33   All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Whereas I have always had the Parable of the Talents as my favourite parable, I have always felt most uncomfortable with this analogy. It comes in three parts. Part 1 is the return of Jesus and the separating out (v.31-33) that will come at the final accounting (judgment). Part 2 is his blessing of believers (v.34-40) and Part 3 is his judgment on unbelievers (v.41-46). Within Parts 2 & 3 there is a commendation/judgment by Jesus, a questioning by the people and then an explanation by Jesus. As an analogy of the End Time, it is in the general flow of all Jesus’ teaching in that last week before his death, about his eventual return and as such brings condemnation of the guilty, hope for the faithful and a warning for all.

Part 1: The Separating Out: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” (v.31-33) Now this conforms to the picture of that judgment given in Rev 20:11-15 and as we go on we need to note, “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” (Rev 20:12) and “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev 21:8)

Now what is intriguing about those verses and the ones that now come before us, is that judgment and condemnation is NOT about belief, but about behaviour, and the natural conclusion, which is so important in this parable, is that behaviour confirms belief.  It is not what we say we believe or say who we are, (“I am a Christian”) it is the proof of that revealed by the sort of lives we lived. That is what makes these uncomfortable verses because it makes us look at what we actually DO rather than what we say.

Part 2: The Faithful: in what follows we find, “Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (v.34) The most fascinating part of that verses is the reference to this being God’s plan that originated right back at (before) the Creation. It was no last-minute strategy. He then gives the reason why they are in this group – they fed Jesus, that quenched his thirst, then gave him hospitality, they clothed him, they looked after him and visited him in prison. (v.35,36) That leaves the righteous showing surprise, asking when had they done that (v.37-39) and Jesus will reply, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (v.40) Now some suggest that this is all about how we respond to the Jews (“brothers of mine”) but I suggest that it could equally suggest how we respond to all other Christians. It is not, according to his words, how we responded to the rest of the world, but specifically how we respond to his family. That’s a challenge when we go into church next!

Part 3: The Unbelievers: This is the opposite. This is condemnation (v.41) because they failed to do all those things for Jesus (v.42,43). They too will act surprised and ask when didn’t they do that (v.44) and he replies, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (v.45). He concludes, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v.46) The ‘least of these’ is most likely to apply to his followers there with him, in the light of those identified in Part 2 above.

There are several additional points to be made. First, we need to be wise in understanding when we look at such a parable. A parable usually only makes one main point. Jesus’ main point here is an ongoing condemnation of the religious aspects of being a Jew, the failure of the Chief Priests, all the temple officials and religious groups like the Pharisees, to care for the ordinary people. Religious ritual is not what gets a person into heaven, it is becoming an expression of the Son of God by surrendering to him in repentance and receiving his salvation and his power and going on to reflect him throughout the rest of your life in a growing measure (see 2 Cor 3:18).  But obviously it doesn’t merely apply to those at that time; it applies throughout history.

Second, I would suggest that, to keep the parable simple, Jesus only uses ‘sins of omission’, things people fail to do, because those were the areas where, say, the Pharisees failed the most. No, to quote part of the Revelation verse we saw earlier, they were not, “vile, murderers, sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, idolaters and liars.” The apostle Paul, in his former life as the Pharisee, Saul, could have easily declared that none of those things applied to him, but the way he treated ‘Jesus brothers’ clearly put him in a bad place before God, even though he did not realise it in his former blindness.

Third, we should also note that this parable does not negate the rest of the New Testament teaching that salvation starts with belief, but it does confirm the other New Testament teaching, that faith is expressed through works, is what is important (see Rom 4:6 – salvation is righteousness credited not by works, but also Jas 2:14,17 bringing the balance that it is faith seen in works).

Fourth, perhaps we might summarise this as a call to the church to look to how it cares for all areas of the church – those believers around the world (or in our own neighbourhood) who are poor and don’t know how they are going to get through the next month, or those who are sick to whom we fail to bring Jesus’ healing, or those around the world who are persecuted or imprisoned for their faith. How easy it is to forget these, but the call comes, don’t!  It is a serious call from the head of the body as he reigns at his Father’s right hand. Let’s listen to him.

53. Talents

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 53.  The Talents 

Mt 25:14-15   Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

We come to what I have to confess is my favourite parable, for a slightly strange reason that I will share later. Notice the start word: “Again”. Jesus is continuing on picturing what it will be like at the End and I suppose it can be summarised as “An Accounting”. The thrust is in the punch lines at the end but to get there we have to go through what is a fairly lengthy but simple story.

Remember the context of pointing towards the end time: Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.” (v.14) That is the background scenario, in Part 1 of this parable, a property looked after by servants while the ‘master’ is away. In a sense Jesus is ‘away’ at the present time, as he reigns from heaven, seated at his Father’s right hand. He is ‘away’ and will come back at some point in the future; that is to be remembered at the heart of this parable.

However, before he goes the master entrusts each servant with a number of “talents of money”.  A talent would be the equivalent, I am told, of quite a lot of money. This is a rich master giving out generously. To one he gives five, to another two and to another just one, “each according to their ability” and then he went on his journey (v.15) The parable is about how each one used what they had and then the Master’s response when he returned.  The one who had five made five more, the one with two made two more but the one with just the one, “dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” (16-18).

Now Part 2 of the parable is of The End: After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.” (v.19) Each servant comes before the Master and accounts for what they have done with his money. (v.20) He praises the first one, “His master replied, `Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (v.21) A fulsome praise. The same response is given to the second man. (v.22,23)

Now the response of the third man is the thing that highlights this parable because I believe it portrays the response of so many Christians and needs addressing in these days. Indeed it may be one of the most significant things that limits the church today. So see his response: “Then the man who had received the one talent came. `Master,’ he said, `I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’” (v.24,25)

I will come back here in a moment, but notice the Master’s response. First of all the rebuke: “His master replied, `You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (v.26,27) IF, and it is an ‘if’, IF the servant believed what he said, then logically he ought to have done something with the money more than he did. Whether we respond to His love and generosity or we respond out of fear of the accounting, we NEED to be Doers, responders.

Second, observe the severity of his response: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (v.28-30) Note two actions and sandwiched between, a two-sided principle.

First action: According to this parable what has been entrusted to each of us in life, will be taken away at the End if we don’t use it wisely, i.e. living with a focus on the Father (v.28). Second action: the removal of that life will mean being cast away from God.  The Principles: 1. When you come to God He will give you His blessings and as you use that, He will give you more.  2. If you don’t come to Him you will have nothing and even that will be taken from you!

Now I need to clarify something. Earlier I said the last man often epitomized what appears to be the response of so many Christians today. Now this man in this parable ends up being cast away from God. Does that mean hell? No, I believe that means into a place of severe disciplining. I don’t believe people will lose their salvation because of their attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ but they will be disciplined, and that in this lifetime.

So what does having an attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ mean?  First of all, it is an attitude about God. Some people get locked up by the thought that God is a God of severe judgment who is to be feared but as one person on the Internet has noted, “Only about 60 verses in total in the Gospels might be construed as either directly or indirectly referring to hell” (1.58%) whereas “192 verses have Jesus referring to heaven, eternal life, or his coming kingdom” (5%). i.e. hardly any of the Gospels are taken up with the thought of what happens to sinners after death and at the End. The Gospels are Good News! It was good news for those who encountered Jesus and it is good news as far as far as our ultimate eternal life will be concerned.

I have previously recommended learning three sets of verses from Ezekiel in this respect and I do so again. They are: Ezek 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” and Ezek 18:31,32 “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” and Ezek 33:11 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  Our God is a God of grace and mercy!

But second, this attitude manifests itself in unbelief seen in passive Christianity that prefers to sit in the pews rather than risk stepping out in faith and maybe getting it wrong, and the ‘hard man’ mentality fears being slapped by this harsh holy God who cannot tolerate imperfection. Look again at Jesus meeting with the sinners! God loves His children stepping out in faith (and sometimes getting it not quite right!!!). He is NOT a hard man and He loves all of us, when we get it right and when we don’t. Aim to get it right, but risk His love!