31. Belief

Short Meditations in John 7:  31.  Belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Objectionable

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 2. Objectionable

1 Cor 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

Again we start our focus on the Cross, the crucifixion of Christ, through the eyes of the apostle Paul. Yesterday I suggested that we will find a distinction between the events (crucifixion) and the significance or meaning (the Cross) as we go on. For the moment we are seeing Paul’s focus on the events, the actual putting to death on a cross of Jesus Christ. Yesterday we saw him saying this was absolutely at the heart of the gospel, with the implication that without it there would be no gospel. No death, no Saviour.

But here, a little earlier in his letter, we see him making an equally strong declaration, but it is in distinction to those who come from a different perspective: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom.” (v.22) The Jews had their Old Testament (as we would call their scrolls today) and had set views or interpretations, so demanded that Jesus perform signs to show he was their Messiah conforming with their understanding, while Greeks exalted in their wisdom or intellect and wanted reason.

For both groups, crucifixion was an anathema, a loathing. The Jews saw such a death as a proof of a cursed person (Gal 3:13) – and so no way could Jesus be the expected Messiah, the anointed and blessed of God – while the Greeks saw it as pure folly to talk about a condemned criminal being executed being a means to finding meaning and purpose in life. For both the religious and the intellectual this whole idea was preposterous.

Paul almost implies, ‘I don’t care what you think, this IS God’s method of bringing salvation to the world. You Jews may stumble over this, rejecting it as crass insensitivity to suggest that a crucified man can be our saviour, and you Greeks may scratch your heads and rumble on about it being pure nonsense, but this ‘crass insensitivity’, this ‘pure nonsense’ is the way that God has decreed to be the way people can be saved, it is the only way for meaning and purpose to be truly achieved.’

Which leaves us pondering on how we, ourselves, view the crucifixion, the Cross of Christ? Are we embarrassed by it? Do we try and convince people of their needs for a relationship with God without any reference to the Cross, the crucifixion, Jesus dying for them? Until we do include it we are preaching only half a gospel, which in truth is no gospel.

So, do we include the facts of the event – Jesus’ death on a cross – and do we include the significance that we will go on to see in later studies – it was to take your sins and mine and declare us free of guilt and thus acceptable to God. That is the Gospel. Worship Him.

40. Refusal

Short Meditations in John 5:  40. Refusal

Jn 5:40   yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

When we come to short verses like this, we really do need to check the context, especially when there is a link word, ‘yet’. So, see, These are the Scriptures that testify about me yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  You study the Scriptures, he has just been saying, the very Scriptures that reveal me and my Father’s purposes, but despite that you do not really see who I am and what I have come to do, and so you don’t come to me to receive the life I bring.

This, of course, has so often been the case when religion is involved, for ‘religion’, the following of rites and rituals, has always been the enemy of faith and so there are people who go along to churches – especially liturgical churches where the ritual can create a feeling of difference and specialness – and they hear a brief sermon every Sunday but they fail to be touched by it, they fail to see their need and they fail to come to God to receive the salvation He has provided through His Son Jesus Christ. They are content with the ritual and are even offended when told they are sinners who need a Saviour – just like these Jews of Jesus’ day.

It is an amazing thing that people can actually read the Bible and yet remain untouched by it – just as Jesus says was happening here. When I first became a Christian, I went looking for a local church and found one nearby, went to the Sunday Service, heard they did a mid-week Bible Study and so went along. I was bemused at the blindness that I observed in this group; even as a young believer I could see it, and in retrospect, I believe of this group of some dozen or so people, I believe only the Minister and myself were born-again believers.

But this was exactly what Jesus was experiencing with the Jews of his day, and especially in  those who should be the last offenders – the Pharisees, the guardians of the Scriptures, the priests, the guardians of the Temple. These people you would have expected to know the presence of God in the word and in the building, and thus you would expect them to also recognise the presence of God in Jesus, but instead all he found was hostility against him.

Here was God in human form walking on the earth, walking in a country that had been prepared for over a thousand years to receive Him, but instead they were wrapped up in the laws He had given them, wrapped up in the Temple, the original one of which was designed to house Him and be a focal point  for Israel to meet with Him, but instead it had become a monument, a great and spectacular building that now housed ritual and was almost a tourist attraction. Blindness of Sin means God appears to go incognito. It should not be.

39. Scripture’s Testimony

Short Meditations in John 5:  39. Scripture’s Testimony

Jn 5:39  You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me

Having just told the Jews that the word of God is not in them, he now acknowledges that they do actually study the Scriptures, what we would call the Old Testament, and they do it because they think that that will be the means they get God’s approval and receive eternal life. Now Jesus doesn’t actually say, “Not so!” but it is, I suggest, implied. But more than that Jesus almost seems to be saying, “You study the Scriptures but here’s the funny thing – you don’t see me in them although they are about me!”

Now we’ll see where he goes with that in the next study but for now we’ll stay with idea of the scriptures testifying to Jesus. The difficulty is that he doesn’t enlarge on this and simply makes the statement without explanation and so we’re left to ponder it.

Of course in Luke we have a classic illustration: “on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue…. and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor….. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down…. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  (Lk 4:16-21) There he was saying about this classic Messianic passage in Isaiah, “That is me!”

When we look in Matthew’s Gospel we find again and again Matthew applying Scripture to things that happened in respect of Jesus. In other words the Old Testament was full of Messianic references and the Jews knew that; they were familiar with these things. It was just that they hadn’t linked them to Jesus.

Let’s see some examples.

His birth: King Herod … asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Mt 2:3-6)

His ministry area: Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum,… to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali.…Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Mt 4:13-16) etc. etc.

Oh yes, it was all there. If Matthew could see it, why could not the rest of the Jews?  The answer has to be prejudice blinded their eyes. May ours be open to see the wonder of the Messiah in the Scriptures.

47. The Wedding Banquet

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 47.  The Wedding Banquet

Mt 22:1-3   Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

In chapter 21 Jesus had told the parable of the bad tenants to remind the Jews of their past history of rejecting God’s prophets, as well as prophesying that they would reject and kill him. Then to drum home the point he used the references to the rejected capstone and when he had finished the two illustrations he declared, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (21:43)

Thus we now arrive at the Parable of the Wedding Banquet where Jesus pushes this point even further. As always, the content of the story is simple: There is a king preparing a wedding banquet for his son. (v.2). In those days, a preliminary invitation would be given and replied to, but then as the time drew near, a second invitation was given saying, “Come now, we are ready for you”, but in this case as the servants went out with the second invitation they found everyone ignoring or rejecting this ‘come now’ invitation (v.3). So the king tells more of his servants to go out and do all they can to encourage those people to come (v.4) but they ignored them, one going to work in his field, another in his business (v.5) while others seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them (v.6). The king was understandably angry at this response and sent his army to kill them and destroy their city (v.7)

But the story doesn’t end there, as bad as that was. No, instead he sends his servant to go out into the city and gather all the people they could find, both good and bad (v.8-10). Now there is a little extra scenario included for the story continues. At the celebration the king spots a man without wedding clothes and challenges him but the man had nothing to say (v.11,12) and so, “the king told the attendants, `Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.13)

Now most parables have just one main point to make but this one is unusual in that it appears to have THREE points to make:

  • First, all those invited and who rejected the invitation were killed.
  • Second, the king then simply invited others to come.
  • Third, once they came, the king expected the man to be properly dressed and when he wasn’t he inflicted the most severe punishment.

Now Jesus doesn’t spell out the interpretation of this three-part story but it seems fairly obvious, at least for the first two parts.

First of all, in the light of his previous teaching, the original invitation refers to that given to the Jews to be the people of God which had come about from the Exodus onwards. Over the centuries the Lord had sent prophets to call the people to Himself, again and again, and yet again and again they were rejected. The end conclusion is that (temporarily at least?) the Jews were rejected by God. This should not be seen as shocking because we see it in the ministry of the apostle Paul: “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:44-46) and that is how it continued.

Second, as we have just seen in those verses, the Gospel was then taken to the Gentiles. i.e. the rest of the world. Paul explained it, “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ” `I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:47,48)

The third part is not so simple. It has been suggested by commentators that it may have been the custom for the host to provide the guests with wedding garments. This would have been necessary for the guests at this banquet in particular, for they were brought in directly from the streets. The failure of the man in question to avail himself of a wedding garment was therefore an insult to the host, who had made the garments available, and thus he receives such a strong response.

A few more comments are applicable. First, note the context of the parable: a wedding banquet.  The Old Testament often speaks of the relationship of God to His people in terms of bride and bridegroom or of a marriage (see, for example, Isa 50:1, 54:1, 62:5,  Jer 2:32, 31:32) as does the New (e.g. Jn 3:29, 2 Cor 11:2, Eph 5:32, Rev 19:7). The wedding or the wedding banquet thus speak of the rejoicing in the coming together of Christ and the believer through salvation.

Second, note that the Gentiles who are invited in were ‘good or bad’. It is purely an act of grace on God’s behalf. Yes, we all come the same way – by receiving what He has already prepared for us.

Third, the wedding garments that the one man failed to put on, must speak of ‘putting on Christ’, the new self (Eph 4:24), being willing to let Christ transform you as he both imputes and imparts righteousness through the work of the Cross and the work of his Holy Spirit. The challenges in these things are obvious.

We should perhaps note the final verse in this passage: “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (v.14) which the Message version has as, “That’s what I meant when I say, “Many get invited; only a few make it.” God calls to all, but many are self-absorbed and so don’t heed the call. Some hear and think about coming but don’t want to pay the price and put on Christ’s ‘robes’ and become like him. It is another set of stories all wrapped up in this one parable that are strong warnings, especially to the Jews who maintained the rejections of their history, but also to anyone else who hears the call but can’t be bothered or is so self-absorbed they fail to respond to the most wonderful invitation in history.

25. Esther

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 25.  Esther

Esther 4:13,14   Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

A highlight verse? It certainly seems a verse with a distinctly threatening tone to it, but it is nevertheless, as we shall see, a highly significant verse on which much turns in this book. Just in case you are not familiar with Esther, we had better pick up the key things that have happened so far in the book. In some ways it is almost like a stage play with key characters.

It starts with Xerxes, the king, (1:1), son of Darius who we read about in Daniel. He rules over the mighty Persian empire, and Susa (1:2) is one of the four ‘capitals’ of the Persian kings. He is very powerful and therefore somewhat arrogant. He holds a feast for his male friends (1:3) and during the course of it calls for Vashti, his queen, to show her off to his men friends (1:11). She is affronted by this and refuses to come (1:12). He is equally affronted and after consultation she is banished from the royal court (1:19)

He therefore needs a new queen and so a search is made for beautiful young women to be brought into the royal palace. (2:1-4) In what follows, we are introduced to a Jew called Mordecai who had been caught up in Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation and exile of Israel and who still lives in Susa (2:5,6). He has a cousin who he cares for and who lives with him, called Esther (2:7). Esther is caught up in the sweep for young women and ends up in the palace winning favour and becomes queen (2:9-18 Long story, cut short!) Mordecai keeps in touch with what is going on (2:10,11,19,20).  In a small aside, there is a plot to kill the king, which somehow Mordecai hears about and the king is warned and a record is made including reference to Mordecai. (2:21-23  End of aside).

We are then introduced to another character who appears on this stage, an Agagite named Haman, whose ancestry possibly goes back to Agag, the king executed by Samuel (1 Sam 15), and who would have been an enemy of the Jews. If it was a stage production, Haman would clearly be the villain! To cut a long story short, Haman is honoured by the king making him next in honour to the king himself. All were supposed to bow before him, but Mordecai would not! (3:1,2) Haman finds out that Mordecai is a Jew and so plots to kill ALL the Jews in the kingdom (which included Israel) and sends out edicts throughout the kingdom that on a certain date all the Jews in the land are to be executed (3:5-15)

When Mordecai hears of this he prays and fasts and sits outside the palace in sackcloth and ashes. The word gets back to Esther who tries to persuade him to desist. He clearly wants her to approach the king and appeal for mercy but she explains that unless she is called in by the king it is against court protocol for her to do this. (4:1-11) It is at this point that our verses above occur: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

Look, Mordecai is saying, if all the Jews are killed, that will include you. Don’t think you will be safe just because you are queen. If you don’t act, I’m sure God will save us by some other means but you may not get saved. But then comes the highlight: “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” i.e. is it just possible that God has allowed you to be in this place so that you can be the means of our salvation? There it is! What a challenge of belief. Now we won’t follow the story through, you can read it in your own time. Suffice it to say, she plots how to approach the king and get him on her side and eventually the Jews are saved and Haman killed.

So what have we got here? Genocide planned and Satan’s plot to wipe out the Jews and thwart God’s promises to Abram to bless the world through him and through his family. If Haman succeeds, there will be no nation into which the Son of God can come and display the works, the love and the goodness of God. The whole of God’s plan of salvation for the world is under threat. That is the magnitude of this threat. And there is one little Jewish girl forcibly taken into exile, forcibly taken from her family into the royal court and forcibly given to the king. It is NOT a happy set of circumstances! But she is all that stands between the destruction of God’s people and the plan of salvation for the world. She would not have realised or known the significance of all this, but that is what this is all about.

Throughout the Bible, Satan is shown to be a liar, a deceiver and a murderer, out to thwart the plans of God (but we’ll see the reality of that when we get to Job) by using sinful mankind for his own ends. It is amazing that God should trust His plans to a single Jewish girl. (Single? What about that other young Jewish girl named Mary?) What is amazing is that God uses the weak and the vulnerable and yet in both the instances we have just referred to, they have free will and can refuse! But they don’t!  In the book of Ruth we saw a young foreign girl who gave herself over to join the plans of God (without realizing it). Now we have another young girl being challenged to see herself as a similar player in the plans of God.

Stop there! Neither Ruth nor Esther saw themselves as part of God’s plan for His people and for the salvation that would come about involving them. Isn’t that how it is with most of us? How many of us are sharply aware that we are key players, significant characters on the stage of God’s production? The world around us teaches us to be self-centred, self-concerned, seeing the world as revolving around us but the story of Esther (yes, and of Ruth) challenges us to see that there is a very much bigger picture and we are part of it. We never know the significance of our actions.

I can never forget the story of a man who had a lorry that he used to pick up young people, to take them to the church young people’s group, week in week out. One young man wasn’t particularly interested, so the story goes I believe, but went along and got saved at the church, but if the man with his lorry hadn’t persisted and been a servant for the kids, that young man wouldn’t have been saved. And that young man? Billy Graham, who went on to be God’s instrument as the greatest evangelist in history! Did that man with his lorry understand what he was doing and what would follow? Almost certainly not. We have small parts to play but they may have massive significance. They may be difficult parts to play but God’s grace and protection is always there.

20. The Tide of Acceptance (2)

Meditating on Great Themes in John:  20. The Tide of Acceptance (2)

John 3:19  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

We spoke about a ‘The Battle for Belief’, and said it is rather like the tide that goes in an out. Now that was true of the ordinary people, it seems, but it also seems that there was a constant undercurrent that flowed against the incoming tide, an undercurrent that was there in the religious people of the day, which is tragic when you think about it; they should have been the people to appreciate Jesus first, but when you accept second best and the best turns up, that is a challenge.

We noted this tide early on in the Prologue when John wrote, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (Jn 1:5) and then, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. That was John’s overall summary of what happened in the long-term and our verse at the top which comes in what we called John’s Recap reiterates that and explains it. Where people are established in sin they will reject Jesus. You may find that difficult to believe but I once spoke with someone for five hours about Jesus and at the end of it they said, “I understand all that you are saying, and I can see it, but I like this life of sin and I want to hold on to it.” And with that they got up and left. People often reject Jesus because they want to hang on to the life they have, as wrong as it may be.

The thing that upset the religious Jews the most was whenever he referred to himself in divine terms, uniting himself with God, for example, “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (Jn 8:58,59).

A little while later, two chapters on, we find the same thing: “I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (Jn 10:30-33)

But this ‘undertow’ or ‘undercurrent’ first came to light when Jesus went and cleansed the temple in chapter 2. After he had done that we find, “Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (Jn 2:18) which is a fairly natural question to ask in the light of what he had just done, but it was a seed of rejection rather than of acceptance as their future behaviour revealed. Chapters 3 and 4 are chapters of acceptance but they are to do with one man, Nicodemus and then one woman, the Samaritan, and her neighbours. When we come to chapter 5 we are back in Jerusalem and although Jesus heals a long-term invalid, the religious Jews were upset about it because it was the Sabbath, a day when no work was supposed to be done (Jn 5:9,10).

It was shortly after this we see the first of the Jews’ objection to Jesus’ references to his divinity: “Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (Jn 5:17,18)

In chapter 6 we saw the feeding of the five thousand then Jesus walking on water and then his teaching on being the bread of life. It is within this that the Jews get upset again: “At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, `I came down from heaven’?” (Jn 6:41,42) After he later speaks of them needing to eat his flesh we find, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (Jn 6:66) Now this appears rejection more from lack of understanding that anything else and this is rejection by ordinary people rather than the religious Jews of Jerusalem.

As they approach the Feast of Tabernacles John notes, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (Jn 7:5). The crowd in Jerusalem reveal the split opinions about him: “Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.” (Jn 7:12,13) but it was when he started teaching in the temple precincts that it really warms up: “Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.” At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come.” (Jn 7:28-30)

Again the opposition, although muted, is because of his claims to divinity. It continues, “On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.” (Jn 7:40-43) There is clear division and those against want to take it to the next level.

The next attack on Jesus comes from the Pharisees and we find, “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” He spoke these words while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his time had not yet come.” (Jn 8:19,20) and the hostility is because of his claims to divinity, yet again. We have already seen how this culminated in them wanting to stone him (Jn 8:58) The Jews’ refusal to believe becomes even clearer in their cross-examining the blind man healed in chapter 9. Again we have seen their desire to stone him in 10:31-33 for claiming to be God.

It is the Lazarus incident that really brings it to a climax: “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation…… So from that day on they plotted to take his life. (Jn 11:47,48,53) In the closing stages of his public ministry, John records, “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:” (Jn 12:37,38)

To summarise: In Galilee he was completely accepted; it was only when he came south to Jerusalem that Jesus received opposition  Mostly the ordinary people accepted him although they struggled at times with his teaching. The opposition came whenever he even hinted at his origins and it came from the religious authorities, and this gradually built until the tide was right out and the awful events of Good Friday came about.

12. God’s Publicity Machine

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  12. God’s Publicity Machine

Acts 2:5-12  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

I think when it comes to gems in the Bible there is always the risk that we pass them by without realising the wonder of them.  I’ve got a feeling if I asked 100 Christians to give me a verse that they might consider to be a ‘gem’, none of them would come up with these verses. They are, I suspect, by and large, verses that most of us skim over quickly. We focus on the wonder of what was happening on the Day of Pentecost and note in passing that it was verified by many Jews in the vicinity but it struck me just recently how wonderful these verses are.

The start is interesting. The onlookers are “God fearing Jews”. They have travelled from their homes all over the place to attend the feast of Pentecost, that great feast celebrating God’s provision through harvest. It was a great feast to attend if you were a Jew.

But then it says they were God-fearing Jews “from every nation under heaven”. Now the New Testament writers were not like modern researchers who would be careful in the literal way they used words. So it doesn’t mean that every single nation in the world is represented here but it certainly does mean that very many nations were represented here, able to witness this incredible event. Now whether they accepted it or not, these Jews who would return home to their particular nation would go home and tell what they had seen and heard. One way or another, this event was going to be broadcast around the world.

In a day when we are used to tens of millions being able to witness an event through the medium of television we may be a bit blasé about this, but the truth was that by sending His Holy Spirit on this Feast Day He ensured that many, many Jews would see and hear what He was doing. The terrible and remarkable events that had occurred fifty days earlier at Passover might have been forgotten by some and those from foreign lands would have heard about it only second hand as a piece of new gossip. As yet it had not had impact. But now something amazing is happening and it has happened on a day when representatives from around the world were there to see it.

There were Parthians who came from the territory from the Tigris to India, Medes from east of Mesopotamia, Elamites from north of the Persian Gulf, those from Mesopotamia, some from there in Judea, including Galilee, some from Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, all districts in Asia Minor, some from Egypt, and some from Rome. This wasn’t the entire world by any means but it was certainly over a large area of what we today might call the Middle East, and even further afield.

Now what we sometimes forget is that not only did these God-fearing Jews witness the new freedom of the disciples, praising God in the languages of all these foreign Jews, but they were also the ones who then heard Peter preaching what is the first Christian sermon, anointed by the Holy Spirit. These men are included in “those who accepted his message” and are in the “three thousand … added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)  These men would have returned home as born again believers and would certainly take that news with them.

Today, at a local level, if we want news spreading we put up advertisements or put leaflets through the door. At national level we use television advertising.  What we have just witnessed is not only the birth of the Church but also God’s means of ensuring the good news would be spread, not merely as cold information but as changed and Spirit empowered lives. We often get so caught up with Paul’s part in spreading the Gospel that we perhaps forget that long before Paul got under way and long before the apostles spread out from “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) these forerunners would have already gone ahead and would have started to spread the kingdom. This is a gem indeed!

3. Persecution

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 1:  3. Persecution

1 Thess 2:2   We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition

Again our starting point must be the historical record of what happened in Thessalonica when the apostles shared the Gospel there: But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.” (Acts 17:4-10)  At some point – and we have discussed previously that it was probably longer than three weeks after they got there – the Gospel is having such effect that the religious Jews of the city start a riot aimed at the apostles AND the local Christian community.  Jason is obviously a local who has a house and who lives there and the brunt of their anger is focused first on him. So great is the tumult that the church considers the safest thing is for Paul and Silas to be smuggled out of the city at night.

Now when we come to the letter itself, we find that a big thing is not made of it and yet persecution and opposition is mention no less than five specific times and one implied time. Let’s take them in order in the letter, first the implied one where Paul speaks of “your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:3) Knowing the historical background as we do we are not surprised when Paul speaks of endurance because you endure when the going gets tough. As we’ve noted previously, and is seen here, they are enabled to endure – to ‘hang on in there’ – by the hope that they now have in Jesus. Hope is always about the future and our hope is always threefold: a) our hope of meeting him in eternity when we die and b) our hope that he will be working out his plans and purposes for us while we are still on this planet, and that will be for good and c) our hope that his grace in the form of his holy Spirit within us will always be sufficient to carry us through whatever tomorrow holds.

Now on to the first of the specific references: “in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” (1:6) Severe suffering! The only suffering we know about is that suffered by the believing Jews from their unbelieving fellow-Jews, or the general hostility from these Jews that the new Gentile believers encountered. Anyway, despite this opposition they received the word gladly and with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. In adverse circumstances when under enemy attack, our resource is always, initially at least, the Holy Spirit within is, the Spirit of Jesus, God Himself.

Moving on through the letter Paul later says, “We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition.” (2:2) This is an interesting comment because the subject of persecution falls on Paul as much as on the Thessalonians in that he speaks of the struggles that they had had in Philippi, as well as the opposition they all received in Thessalonica.

A bit later in the letter he focuses it back on them: “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. (2:14-16) The Jews generally, even though they had been the core or foundation of the early church, had been the greatest source of opposition to the Gospel. Perhaps it was their fear that the Old Testament and the Law would be cast aside. They were the ones who opposed Paul, not the Romans and not the local peoples mostly.

In the next chapter we find, “We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know” (3:2-4) Trials and persecution were seen by Paul as natural parts of the Christian life. Obviously when the Gospel was first presented there and people turned to Christ, as part of the general teaching, Paul had warned that opposition comes when the Lord blesses. The enemy is never happy about it!

Finally, a few verses on he says, “Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.” (3:7) That again appears to reflect more on the apostles than on the church in Thessalonica. The apostolic ministry brought with it opposition, hostility and outright persecution, but now Paul hears the good things that have been continuing in Thessalonica and, he implies, that makes it all worth while. That is the truth: when God blesses, the enemy so often rises up in reaction through the unbelieving world, but nevertheless the fruit of salvation and being able to lives changed for the good, makes it all worth while. Press on, and look for the fruit!

14. Hardened

Meditations in Romans, Ch.9-11 : 14:  Hardened

Rom 11:7   What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened

Before we get to our verse above we have to see the verses that lead up to it. We concluded the previous meditation at the point where Paul had said,So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” (v.5) He had been answering his own question about whether or not God had rejected Israel (11:1), and had answered in the negative (v.1,2) by pointing out, first, that he himself was not rejected (v.1) and historically, even though Elijah had thought himself alone, the Lord had pointed out there were in fact seven thousand believers in the land, a faithful remnant. Thus he concluded it was the same today, there were a faithful remnant from Israel who were saved by grace.

Having said that, he can’t stop himself making the point yet again that if it is by grace it cannot be by works: “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (v.6) Grace implies a free gift, not something worked for. You remember previously he had spelled out that many of his countrymen could not accept the simplicity of grace and could not get away from the feeling that they had to work for God’s approval.

Indeed, there were often strong desires in people to work really hard for that approval, for righteousness as they saw it. Paul’s own testimony shows this: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers,” (Gal 1:14) and “in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Phil 3:5,6). Of his fellow countrymen a little earlier he had testified, “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (10:2) Oh yes, he previously, and they now, were all out to prove they were righteous by the way they lived.

Thus now he questions: “What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did.” (v.7) Here is that same idea: Israel sought earnestly to appear righteous but never found it. All they found was a self-centred working to perform religious rituals which did little to create a meaningful, loving relationship with God. But there were some who believed, referred to as ‘the elect’.  Just to recap what we saw in Chapter 8, ‘the elect’ refers to those who God saw from before the foundation of the world would respond positively to the message of the Cross. He knew then who, down through history would respond, and these believers are referred to as ‘the elect’. Thus even in the company of Israel there is the faithful remnant, some of the elect.

But then come those terrible words: “The others were hardened.” Again we covered this briefly when Paul referred earlier to Pharaoh and the matter of hardening (9:17)  There we suggested that there are those who have hard hearts, who resist God’s overtures and prefer the self-centred life, the godless life, and the reality is that whatever is said to them simply hardens them further. We see this was Paul’s experience when he went on his various missionary journeys. Some Jews received the word but others reacted with great hostility: “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” (Acts 14:1,2) The believers – the elect – responded and were saved, but others became harder in their rejection of the Gospel.

Paul explains this yet again by reference to Scripture: “as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear.” (v.8) Here he appears to quote Moses: “Your eyes have seen all that the LORD did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders. But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.” (Deut 29:2-4) They had seen incredible things and yet failed to understand the wonder of it. He also seems to be referring to Isaiah: “Be stunned and amazed, blind yourselves and be sightless; be drunk, but not from wine, stagger, but not from beer. The LORD has brought over you a deep sleep: He has sealed your eyes (the prophets); he has covered your heads (the seers)”. (Isa 29:9,10)

Jesus spoke of this same thing: “This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” (Mt 13:13-15) Jesus explained the blindness of his people as having come about because “this people’s heart has become calloused.”  A calloused heart is a hardened heart. How does a heart become calloused or hardened? It slowly turns away from the Lord and becomes devoted to materialistic things (idols) and self-centred living. After a while it starts making excuses for why it is right to live like this and bit by bit hardens against the truth. When the word comes, it is like it just bounces off it and cannot be received or understood. Why some people act like this and others are open to the Lord is a mystery, but at the end of it all, you end up with two groups of people – the elect and the hardened – and you find both groups among the Jews and among the Gentiles.