17. John what?

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 17.  John what?

Mt 11:7,8  As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes?

If anyone needs the reminder, we are studying the pictures that Jesus used in his teaching ministry as seen in Matthew’s Gospel. We arrive at a point where John the Baptist’s disciples have come to question Jesus and, now having received answers, they leave. The onlooking crowd watch with interest, and Jesus takes the opportunity to challenge them as to exactly who John was.

If Jesus lived today, imagine him using a PowerPoint presentation and it is as if he clicks up on the screen a series of pictures and asks the crowd about each picture as he asks them so say who John was. After all, they had gone out into the desert to the Jordan river to see and listen to John, so he starts by asking them, “What did you go out into the desert to see?” Why did they go? What did they find when they got there?

Click. First picture: “A reed swayed by the wind?” (v.7b) Had they gone out to the Jordan to just look at the reeds on the riverside? Was John just another ‘reed’, something quite ordinary? Not really! A shaken reed is often used as a picture of someone who is unsure of themselves, a doubter? Was that John? Definitely not! So, “If not, what did you go out to see?” (v.8a)

Click. Second picture: “A man dressed in fine clothes?” (v.8b) This would have produced a laugh. Definitely not! No, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4) No, John had had a rather wild look about him. This was no rich man, but a poorly dressed man who lived off the produce of the land. Jesus prods their thinking: “No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces,” (v.8c) No, they definitely hadn’t gone out to see royalty. “Then what did you go out to see?” (v.9a)

Click. Third picture: “A prophet?” (v.9b) Well yes, I suppose so. We hadn’t had a prophet in the land for well over four hundred years, but from all we’ve been taught, yes, John fits the mould of a prophet.

Click. Fourth image. A question mark. “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (v.9c) What? More than a prophet? How can you have more than a prophet? What does more than a prophet mean?

Click. Fifth image, just the words, “A Messenger”. “This is the one about whom it is written: ” `I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (v.10) Ah yes, the last book of the scrolls, Malachi, spoke of this: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Mal 3:1) If they had regularly attended the local synagogue from childhood, they would have been taught this. But there is also this surprise link to this messenger for after he has come, “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple” Wow! The messenger precedes the Messiah! What is Jesus saying? Is he saying he’s the Messiah?

Click. Sixth image. Another question mark. Jesus is now in full teaching mode: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (v.11) Hold on, let’s take all that in.  John is greater than anyone previously born????  Why? He was just a messenger you said. But what messenger? The messenger who stands at the open doors to the room where all are gathered and proclaims in a loud voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the President of the United States.” (or “her Majesty the Queen, Queen Elizabeth the Second” or whoever the other very important dignitary it is) or in this case, “the Long-Expected Messiah”. Ah! John was greater than any other previous human being because he had the unique privilege of ushering in the ministry of the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah!

But what about, “least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”? Well, any one of us who now take the name of Christian, is a child of God, uniquely born of the Spirit of God. Even John wasn’t that! We had better follow through Jesus’ teaching. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” (v.12). Of the paraphrase versions I think the Living Bible puts it best: And from the time John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing until now, ardent multitudes have been crowding toward the Kingdom of Heaven.”  John had stirred a hunger in the lives of many, to get right with God (hence being baptized by him). As someone has well said, “the kingdom of heaven is not for the well-meaning but for the desperate.” The word ‘forceful’ above’ could be ‘urgent’, people who have come to see their need and been utterly convicted that they must do something about it – NOW!

Jesus comes to the end of his ‘slide presentation’: For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” (v.13) Yes, the Law spoke and the Prophets spoke about the coming one, the Messiah, who will, according to Malachi be proceeded by Elijah, so….

Click. Seventh image. A photo of John overprinted with one word: “Elijah”. “if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” (v.14) That’s it. You’ve been faced up with the ministry of John. Not just a reed, something ordinary, someone unsure of himself, not a rich, influential personage, not even ‘just’ a prophet, but the Lord’s Messenger, the herald of the Messiah, the ‘Elijah’, the heralding prophet that Malachi spoke about. He has come; the Messiah has come. Got the picture?

Pictures and more pictures as Jesus seeks to help us take in truth. Why do we preachers (and why have I) so long focused on rules and principles when Jesus gives us such a clear example of how to get into people’s minds?  Use pictures. When we try to convey the Gospel to others, do we use principles or do we convey it in picture terms, because that is what the Gospels are – a treasury of pictures. Aren’t they wonderful! Isn’t the Lord wonderful that He hasn’t given us a book of laws or principles but a story book, true stories, but a story book nevertheless, because He knows that most of us operate in pictures in our minds and in our imaginations. How wonderful. Thank Him for that.

26. Jeremiah (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 36.  Jeremiah (1)

Jer 1:5  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

The call of Jeremiah is very different from that of Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah had a vision of the Lord in heaven, Jeremiah has no such vision but hears directly from the Lord: The word of the LORD came to me, saying…” (v.4) and the verse above follows. Both books are mountains of prophecy but having said that, that is where their similarity ends. Yes, Isaiah does speak against the sin of the nation(s) but after the midway historical interlude, much of what follows is very encouraging. The encouraging elements of Jeremiah are much less. (Incidentally Jeremiah is said to be the longest book in the Bible with more words in it than any other.)

Jeremiah is very much more focused on the present while Isaiah has a strong present AND future overview.  Jeremiah has elements of future hope but most of what he says speaks into the present in a unique way. He is God’s primary mouthpiece at this point of history – the run up to the Exile. Ezekiel will be speaking to the chosen people soon to be exiled in Babylon, and Daniel will become God’s mouthpiece in the royal courts of Babylon, but Jeremiah is God’s man on the ground there in Jerusalem and he prophesied for forty years until Jerusalem was destroyed in 586/7 and then briefly to the fleeing rebels in Egypt (see Jer 44)

But like Isaiah, his calling is a clear highlight. For him it is the things the Lord says to him. The complete calling really includes a) the opening call and encouragement (v.4-10), then b) two visions that have significance in respect of what is to come involving him (v.11-16), and then c) some closing words of exhortation and encouragement (v.17-19). These are all significant verses for his future.

  1. The Opening Call & Encouragement (v.4-10): “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” (v.5a) You will see a footnote in your Bible that ‘knew you’ could be ‘chose you’. This is very similar to what the apostle Paul taught us: “he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Eph 1:4) Both speak of the God who has planned all things even before He brought the world into being. He looked into the future and saw Jeremiah – but He saw more than just that: “before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (v.5b) I believe it is a case of the Lord looks at us and sees what we can become, what is our potential.

It is a mystery why we are what we are. Ongoing arguments have gone on over “nature versus nurture”, how much genetic makeup and experiences being brought up, together contribute to who we are, but there is always another dimension – that of God (for v.5a suggests God acts on us even as we are being conceived – a mystery!) The Lord sees these two elements and speaks and acts into our life situations and, as much as we are open and available to Him, He works into our lives by the work of His Holy Spirit (who indwells us Christians).

So, OK, Jeremiah, God has had His sights on you for a long time and knows what He can do with you and He has chosen you to be His prophet to speak to this nation. Jeremiah splutters a bit over this, protesting that he is too young for this (see v.6) but the Lord puts this aside with a) an instruction – just do what I tell you and say what I say (v.7)  – and b) an encouragement – and I’ll be with you so you need not be afraid, and I’ll rescue you (v.8).  Talk of rescue doesn’t sound so good because it implies he will need rescuing and that is not exiting news!!! Then the Lord touches his lips (v.9) and says from now on He will give him His words and he will speak to nations and kingdoms (The fact that he says the Lord touched his lips, suggests an element of ‘vision of God’ behind all this).

  1. Two Visions (v.11-16): And so it begins. It starts with the Lord asking him what he sees – obviously visions. The first thing he sees is an almond tree and the Lord confirms he is right and says, “I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.” (v.12) The almond tree was the first to blossom and it comes early and so the Lord implies that what is coming, is coming soon and He’s watching for it. Again He asks Jeremiah what he sees and this time he sees a boiling pot tilting away from the north (v.13) The Lord explains that He is bringing an invader from the north (that will be Nebuchadnezzar) and that He is doing this because of the sins of Judah (v.14-16)
  2. Final Exhortation & Encouragement (v.17-19): Now comes the tough bit. The Lord gives him a threefold starting instruction: i) get ready, ii) stand up and speak whatever I give you and iii) don’t be afraid of them (v.17) How can that be? Because, the Lord explains, the Lord has given him great strength to withstand “the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.” (v.18) i.e. it sounds like everyone is going to be against him!!!! However, “They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.” (v.19) It’s OK, Jeremiah, WE will overcome them!

Now let’s summarise what we have seen. First, the context of God’s perspective. He knew this was coming and He knew of what Jeremiah was capable. Thus he could be a prophet! Second, the big picture: it’s all about the sin of God’s people and the fact that God is going to have to discipline them with judgment in the form of Nebuchadnezzar and exile in Babylon. That is the end play of these next forty years! Third, He knows it is going to be tough because Jeremiah is going to be rejected again and again by all and sundry! But that’s not a problem because the Lord’s grace will be sufficient for Jeremiah to do the job.

 

Now here’s an important question: If the Lord knows Jeremiah is going to be rejected and the people will refuse to repent so that eventually Jerusalem WILL be destroyed and they WILL be carried into exile, what is the point of Jeremiah’s ministry? Why is he going to have to go through forty years of rejection and even hostile persecution? The answer has to be at least twofold. First, that Israel will never be able to say that they didn’t know what was coming and why, and they would never be able to make excuses for what happened. Second, so that we, the watching world, can see the fairness and justice of God in the way He deals with this faithless and foolish people. You can never say God was unkind because of Jerusalem’s destruction and the exile of the people, because He warned and warned again and again and again through Jeremiah (and through Ezekiel) and did everything He could to get His people to repent. THAT is what this book is all about and THAT is why the calling of Jeremiah has these specific features, as the Lord seeks to prepare him for what He knows is going to happen.

 

Now there is an underlying crucial lesion behind all this. Jeremiah’s ministry was to speak out God’s word – and that was all. What the people did with it, was up to them. In one sense, looking at the long-term you might think it was a ministry of failure because he failed to turn the people, but that wasn’t his calling; it was simply to speak. He was called to obedience and faithfulness – and so are we – whatever the outcome.

2. Priest and Prophet?

Gleanings in Jeremiah : 2 :  Priest and Prophet?

Jer 1:1-3   The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the LORD came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.

In the first study we noted the overall background of the day in which Jeremiah lived, a day initially of decline and then of restoration but then lapsing into decline again. But what about Jeremiah himself?  Chapter 1 is all about Jeremiah and it is only when we get to chapter 2 that we will see the message the Lord gives to him, so for now we focus on him and what happens to him, how he responds, and what it teaches us.

He is a priest who lived in a small town a couple of miles, it is thought, north east of Jerusalem. It was clearly a town given to the priests earlier in Israel’s history:  And from the tribe of Benjamin they gave them Gibeon, Geba, Anathoth and Almon, together with their pasturelands–four towns. All the towns for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, were thirteen, together with their pasturelands.” (Josh 21:17-19). In Solomon’s day we find the following: “To Abiathar the priest the king said, “Go back to your fields in Anathoth.” (1 Kings 2:26). There is a strong link between the town and the priesthood.

Now there are three things about priests that are worth noting:

  • First, their background – it was hereditary. You were born into a priestly family and if you were a male you became a priest and served in Jerusalem in the Temple.
  • The second thing is their role: it was to bring people to God. They would have been those fully acquainted with the Law of Moses because they would need to know all the various requirements in respect of keeping the rules generally, and specifically of administering the Temple worship and sacrificial rules. It is interesting that the other major prophet running parallel to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, is also a priest (Ezek 1:3). So first and foremost, at least as far as Jeremiah would have been concerned, he was a priest because his family was a priestly family. His future, it would seem, is set. Jerusalem is his work place and will be the focus of his life. Well in that respect, it is true for it is going to feature largely in his life but his ministry is going to take him way beyond the confines and comfort and security of the priesthood.
  • Third, being a priest would mean Jeremiah had a strong support network behind him of the other priests, his family and extended family, and we so often tend to forget this of him. The priests were set apart by the Law and that no doubt made them feel different.

But if you ask people about Jeremiah they will say he is a prophet and prophets are different to priests. Whereas it is said that priests bring people to God, prophets bring God to the people. Priests focus on administering the word of God, the Law, while prophets administer the now word of God, prophecy, words coming directly from God today, for today. An interesting thing about a prophet also being a priest was that the priests were to be cared for and provided for by the community so they did not have to have some other job to earn an income (see, for example Num 18).

But the big thing that marked the prophet out is that they heard God. In the modern church in the body of Christ, we make distinction between the office of prophet (see Eph 4:11) and the more common ‘prophetic person’, the person who exercises a spiritual gift called prophecy (see 1 Cor 12:10). Even though the apostle Paul encourages us to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor 14:1) the reality is that it is God who puts such desires upon our hearts or simply imparts such a gift to us. I remember once, when I was inputting to a small church not too far away and found a leadership team of four, and three of them were struggling with the fourth. I decided to meet with this man one evening and listen to him. After about an hour of talking I said, “I know what is your problem. You are frustrated. If you talk for an hour with most Christians there is something they do not keep on saying, but I have heard you keep on saying, ‘and the Lord said to me’.”  The man had a strong prophetic gift which neither he nor the others had recognised and so he kept feeling things about their church which were in fact, guidance from God, but he didn’t recognise it and neither did they. As soon as it was brought out into the open, it could be managed and understood. Prophetic people, and certainly prophets, hear God.

It comes as no surprise to us, therefore, that as soon as we reach verse 4 of this first chapter, we read, The word of the LORD came to me.” Prophets hear God’s word and this young priest hears God!  He’s not just a priest. Indeed the content of the ‘word’ makes that doubly clear for he hears the Lord saying, “”Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (v.5) Prophetic gifting is not something that everybody has; it is imparted by the Holy Spirit  When the apostle Paul speaks about this to the Corinthians, he says it is a manifestation of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:7) and one gift is given to one person and another gift given to another person. Yes, we can eagerly desire to be used by God empowered by the Spirit, but He is the one who decides who will be what in the body.

In those words in verse 5 the Lord reveals His pre-knowledge, knowledge about it before it happens, and knowing what we will be like; He opens up areas of service for those who will exercise their free will to make themselves available to Him. As we’ll see when we continue tomorrow, we may have queries about that, but the Lord looks past them and knows what he can achieve through us. The big question is, am I available to the Lord for Him to lead me into whatever area of activity or service He may want for me?  For us as Christian believers this pre-knowledge of God still applies – to all of us – for the apostle Paul wrote, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  (Eph 2:10)   God knew us before we came to Him, and He knows what best ‘fits’ us.

Don’t be limited in your understanding of this. Yes, it can be spiritual gifts and ministries but it may be many other things. Maybe the Lord wants you to be a local or national politician to influence the affairs of the community for good. Maybe He wants you to be an author to bring goodness into the realm of literature. Maybe He wants you to be a scientist to open up further areas of discovery and blessing for the human race. Maybe it’s a social worker who will compassionately care for outcasts. Maybe it’s an office worker who will bring the light and love of God into their office. Maybe it will be to establish a company to provide goods and employment to bless the human race. The list is endless and I hesitate to stop there because you may feel, “well he hasn’t mentioned what I do.” No, and it is impossible to cover every eventuality. All we can say is, are we open to receive the Lord’s guidance, direction, anointing,  empowering and wisdom which may be for what we are doing now or for something completely different from what we are doing at present. Rest in His love and direction. Yes, He sees us, knows us and wants to lead us into what best ‘fits’ us. Hallelujah!

30. Gentle Prophet

Meditations on Jesus in John’s Gospel : 30 : Jesus, the Gentle Prophet

Jn 4:16-19      He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied.  Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.

There is the well-known instruction, Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Lk 6:31)   It’s well known because it is often quoted and also because it’s acceptable to most people.  Why is it acceptable to most people? It is acceptable to most people because they like its sentiment. We want other to treat us well and so we see that as a good standard for behaviour generally. The apostle Paul when he was teaching the Corinthian church said,everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (1 Cor 14:3). In other words, anyone who is bringing a word to individuals from God will be speaking with the aim of strengthening, encouraging and comforting. “Ah, but what about correcting and rebuking,” says my legalistic friend. “Surely the word of God is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’(2 Tim 3:16). Exactly, but watch how Jesus does it.

Jesus knows this woman as he knows every person he encounters. He knows what her state in life is. Does he chide her? Does he rebuke her?  No, he tells her to do something that provokes her to speak the truth about herself. She starts facing herself by Jesus’ seemingly innocent instruction. Once she acknowledges her basic state, Jesus ‘fills in the gaps’ and speaks detail into her life, and concludes with the disarming words, What you have just said is quite true.” He isn’t having a go at her, and so she doesn’t act defensively.  Is his main intention to convict her of her sub-standard life and bring her to repentance? Yes and no!  Ultimately he does want her to face the truth about herself because he knew that, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:32), i.e. facing the truth about ourselves is the first step towards salvation.  However, he has a greater desire, for her to realize who he really is.  When we realize who Jesus is and come to him, everything else (including our past sub-standard lives) falls into place.

What was the end result of Jesus words?  The woman went away full of the encounter and wanting others to come and meet Jesus. Without any doubt she was strengthened, encouraged and comforted. Her encounter with Jesus had not left her feeling thoroughly embarrassed, exposed or got into a corner. Oh no, to the contrary, it has had a remarkably liberating effect upon her.  And how had that happened?  She had encountered a gentle prophet!

How often do we or others feel we have to put others’ lives right? That’s not the call of the Gospel; it is to introduce them to Jesus so that he can put their lives right! How do we share the Gospel?  I know when I was a young Christian I was in ‘attacking mode’ and I know there are still many people who do that, but Jesus comes to each individual with respect, and care and concern for them. He allowed this Samaritan woman to speak about something of her situation and then he showed he knew all about it, but without condemning her. The result was that she felt good and her life was changed.  That’s how Jesus comes to each one of us. Yes he comes to confront but he does it in such a gentle way we sometimes hardly realize that’s what he is doing, until we find ourselves confessing our state to him. Can we be like him?

14. Fulfilment

Jesus in John’s Gospel : 14 : Jesus, fulfilment of prophecy

Jn 1:45 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.”

If there is one thing that comes over very clearly in the Bible it is that the coming of Jesus was no accident, no last minute idea of God, but part of a long-stated plan of the Godhead, formulated long before in heaven.  For the educated people of Jesus’ day the fact that God had spoken in the Old Testament period about a Coming One is quite clear, so let’s consider some of the prophetic verses that they knew about.

Gen 3:15  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” i.e. someone in the human race would crush the work of Satan yet be injured by him in the process.

Gen 22:18 through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed i.e. the earth will be blessed by a descendent of Abraham’s family.

Gen 49:10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his i.e. a ruler will eventually come from the tribe of Judah who will rule over the nations.

Deut 18:15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.” i.e. God will raise up a great prophet out of Israel.

2 Sam 17:12,13 When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” i.e. from David’s family will come an eternal ruler.

Psa 2:2,6,7  The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One..…I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill… You are my Son” i.e. God has an anointed one, a king, His Son who is coming.

Psa 110:1,2 The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies.” i.e. God has a ruler who will come from heaven.

Isa 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanueli.e. a coming son will be called ‘God with us’.

Isa 9:1  in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan i.e. Galilee will be a place of special blessing.

These are just a sample of what some suggest are at least three hundred prophetic references in the Old Testament to the coming Messiah. It seems almost that every time prophets got tuned into heaven something of the theme of the Coming One broke through. It was almost as if it was something constantly there in the background of the Father’s mind, so even when He was sharing with His servants other present day issues, something of the blessing He had planned for the earth through His Son broke through in His thoughts. Throughout the whole of time prior to two thousand years ago, the Father had it in His mind, something they were constantly working towards. The Son leaving heaven and coming to the earth to save mankind was THE big event in the hearts in heaven, and then two thousand years back, all of the past planning came into being. He came!

7. Message of a Prophet

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 7. The Message of a Prophet

Mk 1:7,8 And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

You wonder what people though when they listened to John the Baptist. Initially his message was one of repentance but it was repentance for a reason. The reason? There was one coming after him who was coming with power! But there was more than that; John considered this person so great that he, John, wasn’t even worthy enough to be his servant. But why would he think that? Surely John could have been a servant to a king? So this person is going to be greater than a king? What sort of person is this coming one going to be?

So what more did John say about him? He is going to baptize people in the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? Well John immersed people in water as a sign of their cleansing, so this coming one is going to immerse people in God’s Spirit? How can that be? What do we know from the past of God’s Holy Spirit?  He brooded over creation (Gen 1:2), He came on a man and filled him with creative ability to design and make materials for the Tabernacle (Ex 31:3), He enabled seventy elders to prophesy (Num 11:25), He came on Balaam and enabled him to prophesy (Num 24:2,3),  He came upon a variety of judges to empower them to lead (Jud 3:10, 6:34 etc.), He came upon Saul and enabled him to prophesy (1 Sam 10:10) and also stirred him to lead Israel (1 Sam 11:6) and came on David to lead (1 Sam 16:13).

In other words, whenever the Holy Spirit came, He brought power and change. So this coming one is not merely coming with words, he is coming with the power of God to change people! This is a new era! So far God’s people have sought to follow God’s rules (the Law) in order to be God’s people, but now it sounds like God Himself is coming in power to change His people on the inside. Is this what Jeremiah meant when he prophesied, I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD.” (Jer 31:33,34)

Lord, let your Spirit transform my life and keep on transforming it. Thank you for the wonder of what you have done already by your Spirit because of what Jesus achieved on the Cross.

6. Marks of a Prophet

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 6. The Marks of a Prophet

Mk 1:6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

Real prophets, I suspect, are fairly few and far between. Prophetic gift, I believe, abounds. You’ve only got to do a simple study in 1 Corinthians 14 to see the use and benefit of the prophetic gift in the local church, but prophets are a ministry to the wider body. John the Baptist is a prophet in the mould of the Old Testament prophets – even in appearance: “They replied, “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.” (2 Kings 1:8)

Why such rough clothing? I suspect the answer is so that you didn’t need to change your clothes often, especially if you lived in the desert and didn’t have a wardrobe with you! It may also be a sign of their austerity; these are men who don’t care much for the values of the world; their head is in heaven even if their feet are on earth.

Why the diet? Simply because that was all that was around. Locusts were a ‘clean food’, although some suggests this refers to a form of plant. That’s what he ate because there wasn’t a supermarket nearby!

The thing about prophets is that they stood out like signposts to heaven. They sometimes did freaky things. Isaiah, for instance, went round for three years, probably only in a loincloth (see Isa 20:1-4) as a sign, at the Lord’s command. Ezekiel had to publicly lay on his side for a long time as another sign (see Ezek 4:4). Virtually all of the prophets seemed to get opposition from kings and the people. They acted as a conscience for the nation and as such, especially in times of apostasy, they were unpopular. We aren’t told of anything similar in the New Testament but there were clearly prophets operating (e.g. Acts 11:27,28) who stood out more by the message they brought than for anything else. Today in many churches prophetic gift is common although prophets are fewer.

Lord, open my ear to hear what you are saying about our world today and what you want us to be doing in it. Your word reveals you as a God who communicates with His people, yet so often they did not ‘hear’ because their minds were closed to you and they had turned their backs on you. May that not be true of us in your Church today. Open our ears to hear what you wish to say to the Church and to the world today.

5. Repentance

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 5. Repentance

Mk 1:4,5 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

And so we arrive at the first historical facts of this Gospel. At a particular place in time-space history a strange prophet appears in the wilderness of Judea and starts preaching. He tells anyone who will listen that they need to repent. Talk of repentance always implies there is something wrong in our lives and we need to turn away from it. Now this is all very strange because if you were a preacher wanting to turn the hearts of your people back to God, the obvious place you would go would be to towns where there are people – for this is exactly what Jesus did when he came. But John doesn’t; he operates in the desert where people don’t reside.

Presumably he stops passing travellers and challenges them. Soon people hear there is a prophet in the wilderness and they start going out to listen to him. There is clearly a hunger in people’s hearts and people flock out to hear him. He has an uncompromising message: repent! So they do! This tells us two things: first that the nation was in spiritual decline that this needed to happen; second, that there was a hunger in people’s hearts. It had been centuries since there had been a prophet from God in the land. Over four centuries had passed since God had spoken to this people. That is a long time. Perhaps many thought that God had utterly given up on them. Where were the days of their history when God spoke and acted into the life of this nation? Is this a sign that God is coming and speaking again?

But he also baptises them. Baptism is first and foremost a sign of being washed clean. If you have truly repented then show the sign of it by being washed clean in the River Jordan.  So the crowds came, listened to him and, one by one, confessed their sins to him and were baptised by him. God is surely at work in all this for this seems just like a revival where God sovereignly moves on the hearts of people and brings them to repentance.

Lord, please have mercy on our nation. Come and speak and convict and turn the hearts of people back to yourself. Bring about a national repentance that moves people to confess and forsake their sins and turn back to you!

2. Prophets?

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 2. Prophets?

Mk 1:2 It is written in Isaiah the prophet:

I once heard of a group of people who said we didn’t need the Old Testament, but I find the Gospels and, indeed, the whole of the New Testament littered with quotes from the Old. I wonder if we just take them for granted? We shouldn’t do for they produce a unity and harmony in the Bible.

Do we take for granted (or perhaps ignore or deny) the presence of these figures in the Old Testament who are referred to in the text as prophets?  These were men who, it seems, had an open ear to God and a mouth that passed on what they heard. There are massive chunks of the Old Testament that display the writings of these men.

The prophets say to us that God is a God of communication. The writer to the Hebrews declared, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Heb 1:1,2). There it is: God spoke – again and again! Back then He spoke through prophets, but now he has spoken through His Son, Jesus. No wonder John in his Gospel describes Jesus as ‘the Word’: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:1,14). A word is a means of communication!

So we have these ‘prophets’ who spoke out during the Old Testament period and who, every now and then, made reference to a coming One. It is said that there are over 300 prophecies in the Old Testament that find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ, over 300 times that God’s heart was picked up by these listeners, these prophets, who caught something of the divine plan. It seemed like God couldn’t keep a secret! He had to let out little bits and pieces of the plan that has been formulated, the Scriptures tell us, from before the very foundation of the world.

Today we speak of ‘government leaks’ when someone lets out a bit of privileged information. God was giving it all the time to His chosen people. Jesus’ coming was no surprise to those who listened to the prophets.  Lord, give me an open ear to catch what you are saying in your word and in your world today. Help me be a listener.

23. To Jeremiah

“God turned up” Meditations: 23 :  To Jeremiah

Jer 1:4,5 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Most human beings at some time, be it ever so fleetingly, ask the question, “Who am I?” Some people go through life struggling the whole time to find out who the ‘real’ them is. We have self-awareness or self-consciousness and this seeks to put us in a framework of living and give us meaning. Some of us might start from, ‘I am a son (or daughter)’ and that may not be good news in their life context. Others might say, ‘I am a mother (or father)’ or we might go on to define ourselves by our job or career or special title. We like to know who we are.

Jeremiah was a relatively young man when God turned up. We don’t know how the Lord came and spoke to Jeremiah; he simply records, “The word of the Lord came to me.” That phrase crops up a number of times in Scripture and unfortunately no one defines it. Somehow the sense of God speaking to him came. You know you are hearing from outside you when what comes cuts right across your natural thinking. Jeremiah obviously recognises who it is speaking to him, and he queries what he is apparently hearing: Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” (v.6). He feels too young and he feels inadequate as a speaker. I have had similar ‘conversations’ with the Lord where the content of what comes is completely contrary to anything I would naturally think.

Given time to think about this, I suspect that Jeremiah would have felt strangely comforted and assured by these words. “Before I formed you in the womb.” We would normally think of being formed in the womb as a natural product of the coming together of our father and mother, of something that automatically happens after conception, natural growth, but the Lord lays claim to involvement in Jeremiah’s formation. Perhaps in the reality of eternity we will learn something that Scripture hints at – it isn’t just a ‘natural process’ but a God process.

But it goes on, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” i.e. even from before conception God knew Jeremiah, knew all about him, who he would be and what he could do. God knows our potential from the very makeup of our genes, from the very things we inherit from those who went before us, and He knows what He can do with us. It’s not only nature plus nurture; it’s nature plus nurture plus God! And God knows that possibility before it happens. When we doubt our capabilities when the Lord appears to call us to a task, remember these things; remember that He knows your makeup and your past and He knows what you are capable of with His help. Oh yes, when God calls it is with full knowledge of who we are!

Indeed He carries on, “before you were born I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Now remember that this isn’t because of Jeremiah’s natural abilities because we’ve seen already that Jeremiah doesn’t feel much about his capabilities. We saw the same thing in Moses’ calling; he too felt utterly inadequate: “Moses said to the LORD, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Ex 4:10)

The Lord had an answer for Moses and He has an answer for Jeremiah: “But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, `I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.” (v.7,8) The crucial element of this instruction is found in the words, “whatever I command you.” Put another way, He is saying you say what I will give you to say. It’s not down to you. I will provide the words. To Moses the Lord had said similar words: “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” (Ex 4:12)

Jesus similarly told his disciples not to worry about being persecuted: “do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Mt 10:19,20). In other words when we are on God’s business we are to simply trust Him to provide the words we will need. He will provide!

Thus when the Lord turns up and calls Jeremiah, we see these most important things. First, the Lord knows us completely and He knows what he can do with us, what we are capable of with His help and guidance. Second, what we are to do isn’t down to us; it is down to Him for He has plans for us and also has the grace to enable us to do what He’s called us to do. Perhaps Paul caught something of this when he wrote, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) Let’s be reassured as we step out in God’s calling on our lives. We know who we are – God’s people on a mission!