16. Crucial Contact

Wilderness Meditations: 16. The Place of Crucial Contact

Acts 8:26  Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

Continuing:  So now we have to pick up the second of these additional thoughts for this series and it really is a continuation of the previous one in some ways.  Remember Philip has been ousted from the comfort of Jerusalem, where he was a deacon just getting on with the job of serving the church, but now on the run from persecution and finding himself in Samaria. There, I suspect, is where he found himself very surprised as, when he dared share the news about Jesus with these ‘aliens’, they listen to him, believed him and received what he was saying. Somehow this must have boosted his faith for he starts rebuking demons and sicknesses and it all breaks loose – God is on the move in a big way! The town goes wild!

He even picks up some weirdo – Simon a sorcerer – who tags along, challenged by what he sees (v.13). The word gets back to Jerusalem and so they send Peter and John to check it out. (v.14) When they turn up, they lay hands on the new believers who are then filled with the Spirit (v.15-17). After a confrontation with Simon, “Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.” (v.25) Philip is left to just carry on the good work. End of story. Not quite.

The Kingdom always moves on: God has other ideas: “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (v.26)  If this had been me, I have a feeling I might have questioned this – “I’m doing a good work here, this is where the people are, they need me, there are more to get saved, I’ve settled into this, I’m comfortable with what I might originally have thought was a wilderness crisis situation!” Whether or not Philip did, I don’t know. Again, it if was me, I might have added – “To Gaza, down through the desert? I’m not John the Baptist, I’m just a deacon on the run from Jerusalem, that’s not my gifting!” But God knows that, God knows exactly what He can do with Philip – and with you and me!

The point is that the kingdom of God is always moving on. We may not have the eyes to see it, but do you remember what Jesus taught? “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working,” (Jn 5:17) or, as the ERV puts it, “My Father never stops working, and so I work too.” God keeps on, Jesus keeps on, the kingdom keeps advancing, even if we cannot see it, even if we allow things like pandemics to cloud our thinking.

Philip goes: So yes, Philip goes and hopefully you know the story – he encounters a high official from Africa, leads him to belief, baptizes him and leaves him to return home with a new outlook. Job done. (v.27-40) And that is the end of the story of Philip here.

Lessons? So, what does this say to us? Well I guess the first thing has to be don’t get settled in what you are doing, however good it appears. We do what God calls us to do. That raises the question, do I know that what I am doing in life is God-called? Do I have the confidence that I can be at peace in my calling, getting on with life doing the stuff He puts before me, taking the opportunities He puts before me? But maybe we should add, am I sufficiently secure in my relationship with Him to realise that there may be things He wants to change in me, circumstances He wants to bring my way that will lead me into doing things differently or doing different things?

A Changed World: Let’s be honest, a year ago we could never have guessed that this year was going to unfold as it has done. I have read various writings and prophecies that indicated changes were coming but most of us never got a whiff of the Pandemic and all its ramifications. As we have written before, uncertainty for a disciple should be the norm, never quite knowing where Jesus will lead us next. However, I don’t think most of us in the Church accept that as a day-to-day working hypothesis; the theory we work on – or used to before this year – is that life should just carry on leaving us in comfort and ease. Perhaps that is why so many were finding ‘church’ boring. But it’s a new day, we are having to learn new things, new ways of relating to others, new ways of doing church, new ways of coping in trying circumstances.

In the previous study we spoke about the need to adjust our ways of thinking and perhaps for some of us that is a scary thing. If that is so, it is probably because we have lived a form of Christianity that is at odds with what we find in the New Testament. “We live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor 5:7) We prefer to see what is before us, what is coming, but these days are challenging that.

Help! But can Philip help us? Yes, he started out on the run, but he dared open his mouth, and God took over. Wouldn’t you like it, if your neighbour, work-mate colleague, fellow-student (at a distance) responded to your belief-comment and conversation opens up and (at a social distance) you pray for them, they get saved, healed, delivered?  God not you? So God gives you something different to do, less glamourous, unnoticed by most and you end up leading some seriously significant person to the Lord. I recently came across the testimony of a leader who preached a rubbish youth message at another church one evening and felt bad about it, but some years later, he encountered one of those teens now grown up who told how he’d given his life to the Lord that day, had become a youth leader and was now regularly leading many other teens to the Lord. We never know the impact we might be having!   Don’t despise the small things God gives you to do in the wilderness, just be faithful in the way you do it, and leave the rest to Him. Who knows how you might be changing the world? Don’t think, “Wilderness! Doom! Persecution! Doom! Pandemic! Doom!  Think, God opportunity! Hallelujah!”

15. The Place of Adjustment

Wilderness Meditations: 15. The Place of Adjustment

Acts 8:5  Philip went down to a city in Samaria

But:  OK, so I said that study no.14 was the last one in this series, but one thing about the Internet is that it allows you to add further material to what you have already put there. I thought it was, until two thoughts appeared on the horizon of my mind today which called to have a place here, that seem to speak strongly into the present day. Then came another; I think the Lord wants to say something to us. So, we’ll extend the series and I will be wise enough not to say they are the last ones. I think they are, but who knows……

Knowing the Times: It was the men of Issachar, who were described as those “who  understood the times and knew what Israel should do,” (1 Chron 12:32) so perhaps we should start by looking at the times we are in. It is the Autumn / Fall of 2020, and the Pandemic has come, gone, and come again. We experienced lockdown, it was eased, and now as numbers of infections are rising again, lockdown is occurring in various towns and cities around the UK. It’s happened in England, Wales and Scotland. The future is as uncertain as ever. We have characterized this time as a wilderness, a place where we would not naturally wish to dwell, a place of unknowns, a place of limitation.

Watching Church: And it has been a place where Church has had to change. The Internet has played a bigger role in church than ever before. Someone asked me only the other day what I felt about the uncertain time ahead where scientists and the government (behind closed doors) are speculating on the number of deaths doubling in the months running up to Christmas. Concern is rising again. In the US the pandemic news has been submerged by rumblings about the Presidential election in November and more recently by the horrific fires down some of the western states. Uncertainty continues to reign in many places, it seems.

Unexpected Changes: So the first of these two additional thoughts focuses in on the accounts of Philip in Acts 8.  That chapter starts, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.“ (v.1) I see a number of my Christian friends in the States getting wound up about not being allowed to hold services indoors. That anti-authority outlook, that also ignores the science of the pandemic, has the privilege of not being in a part of the world where authority says it is illegal to be a Christian! But it was persecution that got the church moving – all except the apostles and they nearly got left behind in what God was about to do within that situation (see later when Peter and John had to go and see what God had been doing without them – v.14!). Let’s not say that God made the persecution happen, and I won’t say God made the Pandemic, but let’s simply note that He carried on working despite it and, yes, maybe within ways that the persecution / pandemic brought about. Jesus had, after all, said that that they were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8) So step one is that persecution has the church fleeing from Jerusalem into Judea and further north into Samaria.

A Wilderness Place:  Now there is nothing in the text about Samaria being a wilderness as such, but for the average Jew, the Samaritans were definitely off the grid of acceptability. I don’t have time and space to cover this in detail but simply to remind us of the surprising conversation Jesus had had with the Samaritan woman at the well (see particularly Jn 4:9). Think of whatever group of people you don’t feel comfortable with and there is your equivalent. The only reason Philip went there is the persecution in Jerusalem. He and many others had been forced out of his comfort zone. It wasn’t ‘his land’, these weren’t ‘his people’ and they didn’t believe the same things he believed and didn’t act like good Jews (even now Christians, even more different) acted.

Bang! So here he is in this ungodly place but something in him has him sharing with some of them about Jesus being the expected Messiah (v.5). He attracts a crowd and then, pow, stuff starts happening. “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.  For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed, or lame, were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” (v.6-8) We aren’t told initially what the ‘signs’ were that he performed or how it came about – that is irrelevant, and God will do it in a different way with you – but it is spelled out as the verses continue. Healing and deliverance ministry in a big way! No wonder there is great joy in the city! Now here’s something. If I was a betting person (and I’m not) I would bet that no longer does Philip feel this is a wilderness experience. Now he will be so caught up with what God is doing through him that he’s just filled with joy and, I suspect, praying, ‘More Lord!’ He no longer cares about this being a different land, an alien people!

And Us?  Can you see the parallels? The Pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zone. We have been rubbing shoulders (well at a social distance!) with people we’ve not been comfortable with before and doing things we had never thought about a year ago.  Many of us have viewed the Pandemic / Lockdown as an alien time, and so it is, but that does not make it a time when God cannot move. We need to adjust our thinking, especially if it carries on through Autumn and Winter. Persecution or Pandemic? It doesn’t matter. Give God your space and dare to cross spiritual boundaries while still adhering to the Law, and then watch out, God might be turning up!

3. The People Interactor

Meditating on Great Themes in John:   3. The People Interactor

John 1:35-38   The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

This first chapter of John comes over to me like a New Year’s Eve celebration at midnight, heralding in the New Year. First of all there is this tremendous spectacular about ‘the Word’, a coming life that brings light, who comes from heaven now in human form. Massive concepts lighting the sky. Then it goes dark again for a moment until two searchlight beams burst out to reveal the Word in flesh  but as a Lamb ready to be sacrificed. Two powerful beams. And then it goes dark again but now come a series of flash-light bulbs going off, revelations about this Word made flesh, revelations out of the mouths of humans. The search lights revealing the lamb had come from the mouth of a prophet sent by God; these flashlights going off come from the mouths of ordinary human beings, and they come as the Word starts to interact with them, and such is the interaction that they each make their brilliant contribution to the revelation.

John has just said for the second time, “Look, here’s the Lamb” and this second time we find, two of his disciples…. saw Jesus passing by….heard him… they followed Jesus..” (Jn 1:35-37) There is a hunger in these two men. They have been with John but the hunger continues so when the Lamb is pointed out, they followed him. Their following is obvious and so, “Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” (v.38a)  They rely, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” (v.38b) The Lamb is obviously also a teacher. Has John told them that or is it obvious? He gives them a simple invitation: “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” (v.39) “So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.” (v.39) It was about 4pm and so they go and spend the rest of the day with him. So far, so good.

But watch what happened: “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.” (v.40-42) We don’t know what was said in that relatively short time but somehow Andrew has been convinced that all of Johns words were true – this is the anointed one, the anticipated one, the Messiah. The light bulb flashes  and so here in this very first chapter yet another description is given of Jesus. We have seen the Word, the life, the light, the coming one, the Lamb of God and now, the Messiah. Familiarity perhaps dulls our reception of these incredible revelations.

So Simon comes with his brother to see this one and “Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter)” (v.42) Comment is often made on the name meanings, Simon meaning small stone, Peter meaning rock. This small stone is going to become a rock, something larger, more observable, reliable, steady and dependable. Jesus reveals himself as one who looks at us and sees our potential. Jesus sees and knows.

The story moves on: “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” (v.43) Jesus is obviously staying in this place for a while and so the next day he goes out looking for Philip. Now we don’t know if Philip had been the other disciple with Andrew or just another one who was around to see John the Baptist. Not only have we seen Jesus the one who calls men to follow him, but now we see him as the one who goes looking for men (and women).

Now Philip’s response is similar to Andrew’s: “Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (v.45) Another light bulb flashes. This is the prophesied one, the one Moses spoke about, the one we’ve been waiting for (another way of saying, the Messiah).

Nathaniel is skeptical about the description but comes to see for himself. “When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” (v.47) As he approaches Jesus takes the initiative with a description of Nathanael. It could be taken as bantering skepticism. Nathanael has just been skeptical about Jesus, he challenges the truth, he needs to know the truth. Jesus sees into Nathanael and immediately knows this. We might paraphrase Jesus’ words as, “Aha, here is one of God’s people for whom the truth is important!”

Nathanael answers a little defensively, “How do you know me?” (v.48a). Jesus gives an interesting reply, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (v.48b) Now we don’t know quite what that means but somehow it is, for Nathanael, like God has seen him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (v.49).  Another light bulb flashes. Whether he had been in a closed courtyard where no one could have seen him and whether he had been praying and questioning, we don’t know, but Jesus ‘word of knowledge’ speaks volumes to him!

The Word, the light bringing life, the coming one, the Messiah, the teacher, the prophesied one, and now the Son of God. Revelation after revelation! But we have been remiss for we did not pick up the earlier descriptions. In verse 14 Jesus was described as “the glory of the One and Only,” and the footnote says, “or the only begotten”. That is repeated in verse 18 and in verse 34 John the Baptist made that incredibly clear declaration, “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” So again and again John the writer is leaving us with no room to doubt what he believes. This Jesus is the eternal word, the life that brings light, the Lamb of God who saves people from their sins, the Son of God who has come to reveal his Father in heaven. Flash, bang, crash, more flashes, the light of revelation comes again and again in this first chapter. If not a firework display, surely a kaleidoscope. How wonderful!

15. Jesus who sees

Jesus in John’s Gospel : 15 : Jesus, who sees all

Jn 1:47,48     When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you”

It’s quite disconcerting when people can see right through you. Have you ever encountered anyone who seems to be able to read you mind and know exactly what you’re thinking? Supposing it was a complete stranger who started talking about what you’d been doing earlier in the day, or even yesterday, that would be scary, wouldn’t it?  Many years ago, my wife and I had a running conversation that picked up and went on over about four days, about whether we could possibly feel as God feels. We didn’t come to any conclusion, but we happened to be at a prayer meeting in our church, when suddenly in a gap between prayers, one of the ladies in the group spoke out a prophetic word in which the Lord spoke about whether we could feel as He felt and then concluded with an answer. If that wasn’t amazing enough, what was really incredible was that she (He!) literally quoted things we’d said over the course of that four day conversation. God watches and sees and listens and knows.

A classic instance of this is the Lord showing Ezekiel what was happening inside the temple many miles away from where he was (Ezek 8:3,7-18). Another instance was Elisha being given sight of what Gehazi was doing (2 Kings 5:21-27). Oh yes, God watches and sees and listens and knows!

Now our two verses today don’t do justice to the situation. As we saw yesterday, Philip found Nathaniel and told him they’d found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Now in Nathaniel’s understanding Nazareth was a nowhere place and it didn’t seem to fit in with his understanding of the Messiah. He was derogatory. Then Jesus comes and says this to him. “Here’s a very open, straight forward Jew,” is what Jesus basically says, and the implication is that he knows Nathaniel. Nathaniel is still cagy. “How do you know me?” he asks, almost challenging Jesus. The intent is more like, “You don’t know me!”  Jesus’ reply is completely disarming: I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” There was something about that which completely rocked Nathaniel for his reply is, Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (v.49)  Was it that he had just been praying in a closed garden where no one else could have seen him, that made Jesus’ words have such an effect?

Up until that moment Nathaniel had been doubtful, but now, suddenly, he has been revealed by this teacher, and thus the teacher is revealed!  This Jesus sees behind walls, and he doesn’t even have to be in the vicinity!  Yes, God watches and sees and listens and then, sometimes, just lets us know what He’s been doing, just so we appreciate who He is. And Jesus is His Son!  Does that mean that Jesus’ mind was filled with all the thoughts and pictures of everyone in the area or the world – because that is God’s capability? No, it simply means that when the Father knows it is useful for him, He gives him the insight, the revelation of a person or situation. Today, back in heaven, Jesus sees all things. Do we think we can hide things from God’s eyes?  If we do we are foolish, for He sees and knows all things, so when you talk to Him, be completely honest, for he already knows!

9. Philip

People who met Jesus : 9 :  Philip

Jn 1:43-46    The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.

Philip is one of the apostles who tends to be very much in the background, at least as far as the Synoptic Gospels are concerned. In those first three Gospels he is only mentioned once in each of them, in the list of the apostles: “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Mt 10:2-4)  The lists are virtually the same in each case and Philip comes after the main four, Peter & Andrew and James & John. Whether there is any significance in this is unclear.

It is left to John to pick up four incidents that involve Philip. Our verses today, from chapter 1 of John show Philip down in the area of the Jordan where John the Baptist is baptizing people. Perhaps because he came from the same town as Andrew and Peter, they had all come down to see John the Baptist together. As Jesus was getting ready to move north he ‘finds’ or comes across Philip and seeing something in him, calls him to follow him. He was, therefore, the first of the disciples to receive the ‘Follow me’ call. What it was in Philip that Jesus saw, that resulted in him calling Philip, we don’t know. Perhaps the incidents that John shows us about Philip will reveal it.

In this first incident, Philip immediately goes and finds (presumably a friend) Nathaniel and tells him that they have found the Messiah. Now we aren’t given any reason for this pronouncement which is very similar to that spoken previously by Andrew (v.41) but he gives more content. He appears familiar with the Law and the Prophets and he has now found out where Jesus comes from and who his (human) father is. At this point he doesn’t seem to attribute divinity to Jesus, simply that he is the long promised Messiah. Philip is a believer and a communicator, a people person who wants others to know what he knows. A good example!

For the second incident involving Philip, we have to wait until John gives us his account of the feeding of the five thousand. The Synoptic Gospels don’t identify any particular disciple but John tells us that Jesus picked on Philip to test: When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (Jn 6:5-7) John realises that Jesus had this all planned out and that he first wanted to check the level of faith in the disciples. Did he choose Philip because Philip was usually such an open hearted, faith-filled individual? If Philip understood, then the message would be beginning to get through? But Philip hasn’t understood yet that Jesus can do anything and so focuses on the impossibility of the task.

The third incident involving Philip comes in their last week together in Jerusalem:Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.” (Jn 12:20-22) So, we have some Greeks who want to meet Jesus but daren’t approach him directly. Philip is their first contact. Does this suggest that he was the most approachable or simply that he was the first of the band that they met. Linking it with the first incident, it would seem that Philip is a people-person, a bridge builder.  So much so does this seem of him, that he immediately introduces them to another of the band, Andrew, and then the two of them take them to Jesus. Philip didn’t want to take the glory of introducing new people to Jesus on his own (which he could have done) but he open heartedly shares with one of his friends and then together they do it.

The final incident is at the Last Supper:Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” (Jn 14:8,9) His comment indicates first that he has an open relationship with Jesus whereby he feels sufficiently secure to be able to utter this and, second, that he hasn’t yet come to a point of full understanding about Jesus.

Why did John choose to highlight Philip? Well of the disciples only Andrew and Philip had Greek names. Is there a suggestion here of a background that is outward looking and not inwardly Jewish? John writes for the whole world and Philip is possibly a representative of this world being included by Jesus. He was an open-hearted seeker who was drawn in by Jesus and became a close follower. He is a people person who draws his friends in and who is open to outsiders (the Greek seekers). In these ways he portrays the primary characteristics of those Jesus wants as his followers. He comes to call the whole world and looks for followers who will not have barriers up, but who will draw in whoever will come. That seems to be the message of Philip. May that be us!