2. About Blessing

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4: 2. About Blessing

Psa 1:1-3 (ESV) Blessed is the man who(se) ….  delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

Blessing: There is a difference between blessing and blessed. The first is an action, the second is a state. We see blessing first of all in the life of Esau when he blesses Jacob, thinking he is Esau (Gen 27:27-29), a prophetic declaration that cannot be repeated because it was inspired and has its origin in heaven. Jacob later learned this as we see when he blessed Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:13-20) with a prophetic declaration that put the younger before the older. So blessing is an act of prophecy, declaring the good that heaven decrees.

Blessed: But then there is ‘blessed’ which is a state of being, a life with the goodness of God being worked out in it. For the Old Testament people of God the Law decreed a number of ‘blessings’ for obedience to God: “All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God” (Deut 28:2) – sorts of blessing – in city & in country (v.3), fruit of womb including livestock (v.4), cooking (v.5), coming and going (v.6), victory over enemies (v.7), on your work (v.8).  In the New Testament, in the Sermon on the Mount we see Jesus declaring in the kingdom of God who will be blessed: Blessed are the poor in spirit …” (Mt 5:3) those who mourn (v.4), the meek (v.5), those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (v.6), merciful (v.7), pure in heart (v.8), peacemakers (v.9), when persecuted because of righteousness (v.10) and then he declares with each one how they will be blessed: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3) …they will be comforted (v.4)…they will inherit the earth (v.5) …. they will be filled (v.6)…they will be shown mercy (v.7)…they will see God (v.8)…they will be called children of God (v.9)….for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (v.10).

It is God! So we have all these ways that the child of God can be blessed but here is the thing, all of these things are because God has acted on our behalf. That is seen particularly in the Deuteronomy verses where it is seen as specific acts of God for good for God’s people. In the New Testament, the blessings come from being the children of God, saved by the work of Jesus on the Cross (as becomes clear later in the book).  Because I think we take these things so much for granted, we need to repeat what this is all about: in the Old Testament it is a state of being that is good because God is doing something to make it good. In the New Testament, for the church, it is God doing good within the individual by the presence of His Holy Spirt to turn apparent weakness into spiritual strength, it is God changing us.

Again, I believe this is something many fail to comprehend, that this is God working for us, God doing things for us, God changing things for us. The simplest illustration of this comes in the simple words in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament: “The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favour in his eyes and became his attendant.” (Gen 39:2-4) and later, “while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there.” (Gen 39:20-22). It is probable this ‘favour’ came in the form of wisdom and insight received by Joseph from the Lord, and also the Lord speaking to first Joseph’s slave master and then his prison warder. But in each case we see specific good coming because of God acting.

Relationship: By why all these long preliminaries for considering the opening verses of Psalm 1? It is because we are so often tempted to think in mechanical terms: “If I do this, then that will happen.” However, it doesn’t work like that in the kingdom of heaven, it is all about relationship with God. The people of Israel fell into this way of thinking again and again: “As long as I perform the things the Law says, it doesn’t matter what else I do.” ”For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways…. and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? ….Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.” (Isa 58:2,3) i.e. they were appearing very spiritual but at the same time being very unrighteous. Spirituality does not cancel out unrighteousness.

Thus we should never take these opening words of Psa 1 as ‘magic’, for they are to spring out of love for God, not be used to earn the love of God. There is a danger for those of us who can say we love the word of God that we elevate it almost superstitiously while not attending to all other areas of our lives. I have watched others (and I am sure I have been the same in the past), leaders who are great men with great knowledge of the word and yet certain character flaws were very obvious. It should not be so.

Outworkings: So as long as we put these verses in the context of them being expressions of our genuine love for God, we may indeed expect the things these verses say. We may indeed expect our lives to be, “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” Our delight in His word and our meditating upon it, will be a resource that continually feeds us, enables us to grow and, at the appropriate times, bring forth fruit, while at the same time enabling us to remain bright and strong – not withering. I suspect our times of stress, strain, over-weariness, exhaustion etc. come when we do not pause up, spend time with Him, or slowly meditate and feed on His word, so our resources are being run down and not replenished. We all do it sometime!

It is all about relationship, the divine will of God for us and our response to Him. As we live out our Christian lives seeking Him, seeking His word and therefore His will revealed through it, and then live it, then we may expect that ultimate truth to be fulfilled: “In all that he does, he prospers.”  Contrary to the prosperity false teacher, prospering does not always mean financially. It can mean that but actually it is bigger than just money (as good as that may be!). To prosper means to flourish, to grow, to thrive. I love those verses at the end of Psalm 92: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 92:12-15) The word of God will help us be these sort of people, but it is the life of the Lord flowing in us that enables us to be like this.  As we delight in Him and in His word, so His life will flow in us, always to release the testimony above, and often to extend into our physical wellbeing as well. So, yes, let’s delight in His word as we delight in Him, and let’s let it have effect in our lives in all the ways we have considered earlier in this study.

36. Master, teacher, rabbi (3)

Focus on Christ Meditations: 36.  Master, teacher, rabbi (3)

Mt 5:3  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We move back into the Synoptic Gospels now in our search for what Jesus taught and to whom, and with what effect. In Matthew’s Gospel we find that Matthew has seven blocks of Jesus’ teaching, or Discourses as they are often called, as follows:

First, there is the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) comprising teaching on spiritual principles (5:1-12), Christian testimony (5:13-16), the place of the Law (5:17-20), examples in respect of murder and anger (v.21-26), adultery and lust (v.27-30), divorce (v.31,32), oaths (v.33-37), revenge (v.38-42), loving enemies (v.43-48), and then on Charity (6:1-4), Prayer (6:5-18), right values (6:19-21), inner righteousness (6:22,23), trusting in God and not possessions (6:24-34), self-assessment (7:1-5), giving and asking (7:6-12), wise discernment (7:13-23), and obedience to Jesus (7:24-28).

Second, there are his Instructions for Taking the Kingdom (Mt 10:5-42): directions what to do to bring the kingdom (v.5-10), search for a person of peace (v.11-16), learn how to handle opposition (v.17-31), and recognise there will be divisions (v.32-42).

Third, there are the Parables of the Kingdom (Mt 13:1-52) First, four in public: The Sower (v.1-23), the Wheat and the Tares (v.24-30), the Mustard Seed (v.31,32), the Leaven in the Meal (v.33). Second, in private: first an explanation of the Parable of the Weeds (v.34-43), then the parables: the Hidden Treasure (v.44), the Pearl of Great Price (v.45,46), the Fish Net (v.47-51), the Householders treasures (v.52).

Fourth, there is the Teaching on Greatness and Forgiveness (Mt 18): on Greatness in the Kingdom (v.1-14), and on Forgiveness (v.15-35).

Fifth, there are Further Parables of the Kingdom (21:28 ,- 22:14): The Two Sons (v.28-32), the Bad Tenants (35-41), the Wedding Banquet (22:1-14) [NB. Strictly this set does not conform to the criteria of the other ‘Discourses’ because it is in fact a mixture of teaching and discussion with the opposition, but I include it here because it does contain specific teaching.]

Sixth, there is his Denunciation of the Pharisees (Mt 23): General warning to the crowds (v.1-12), the Seven Woes (v.13-32), final denunciation (v.33-39) [For similar reasons some discount this as ‘a Discourse’ but nevertheless it does contain teaching within warnings. Those who would discount these last two, thus reduce the number of Discourses to five].

Seventh, there is Teaching on the End Times (Mt 24,25): Context (v.1-3), General Characteristics of the Church Age (v.4-14), Aside: the horrors about the happen (v.15-22), Warnings against false Christs (v.23-26), the real signs of the End (v.27-31), call to be alert (v.32-44), the implied parable of the contrasting servants (v.45-50), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (v.1-13), the parable of the talents (v.15-30), the Sheep and the Goats (v.31-46).

Now many of these things are scattered through Mark and Luke but they are most clearly laid out here in Matthew. In the previous study in John’s Gospel we saw how Jesus brought specific teaching into specific contexts – with individuals or groups – but here we have seen a much wider spectrum of teaching as reported in the Synoptic Gospels much earlier on.

How may we summarise these things? Well, first may I suggest you scroll back up and read again the contents of those seven sections we have emphasised above, and note the real breadth and scope of the things Jesus covered. Nowhere else in the writings of the world will you find such things laid out. Here are just some tentative suggestions about the style or nature and content of the teaching of the Christ.

First, it was aimed at the open hearted. Yesterday we observed the way Jesus often said things in an enigmatic way that seemed designed to make the listener really think about it and it was only the openhearted who would understand. Jesus explained this between telling the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13) and his subsequent explanation. (See Mt 13:10-16). In the teaching above, some of it is very specific and very obvious but once Jesus starts telling parables, it is only the openhearted follower who will catch what he is teaching.

Second, there is an ‘upside down’ nature to some of Jesus’ teaching so we see, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of God”. That runs contrary to modern popular thinking that the people who think well of themselves will be successes. It is only when we really think it though that we see that Jesus is saying, ‘Understand that it is those who recognize they are poor in spirit who will turn to God for help and enter the kingdom of heaven.’ In his instructing his disciples how to go out, there is a sense that he wants them to feel weak and rely on God if they are to succeed. Very different from so much marketing today!

Third, there is a refocusing of spiritual understanding that comes through Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount where a number of times we read, “You have heard that it was said…. but I tell you….” In other words, he was saying in each case he wanted them to go further than the Law. He wanted their hearts changed and not them simply ‘performing’ outwardly for show.

Fourth, although there is a lot about how to live as a child of the kingdom, there is also a lot about looking to the future to remember that he will be returning, and we are to be ready whenever that is. Much of Jesus’ teaching was about having a right relationship with him – for them then, for us now and for whatever is to come in the future.

In these many and various ways, I suggest that the teaching of the Messiah, backed up as we saw yesterday by miracles, was radically different from anything any other world leader or leader within a world religion has brought. It will be to the miraculous aspect of his ministry that we will turn in the next study.

Assessing Values

Readings in Luke Continued – No.22

Lk 6:33,34 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records Jesus saying, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?(Mt 5:46). Mark doesn’t record these sermon elements. When we come to Luke he expands on this reasoning. He starts out, similarly to Matthew, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them.” (v.32). We need to see what he says and why he adds to it.

We’ve noted the commonality between Matthew and Luke because that is the starting point. It is Jesus’ argument to his disciples to go further than other people with their love. Both Matthew and Luke record Jesus making this point, that if you love those who love you, you’re just doing what other people do anyway. It is then that Luke includes Jesus’ fuller emphases with these two additional examples. The starting example in both is simply loving those who love you. Now Luke adds doing good to those who do good to you and lending to those from whom you expect repayment.

Luke, we have said, was a people-person, a man who understood people and he knows that we need things explaining, we need things emphasizing, and so when it comes to this part of the sermon he includes just this bit more of Jesus’ teaching to bring emphasis. Matthew had left it with the basic teaching; Luke adds the fuller picture. Luke doesn’t want us to pass up this piece of teaching without giving it some serious thought.

Followers of Jesus, says the teaching, are not merely to be ‘nice’ people as the world consider people nice. Nice people love those who love them – that IS a step forward from the person who is loved by their parents, say, and who only responds with hostility. Nice people, Luke adds by implication, do good to people who do good to them – and that IS a step forward from the person who just takes advantage of others’ goodness towards them. Nice people, he further adds, lend their money to secure people who they know will repay them – and that IS a step forward from those money lenders who take the security first before they lend. Oh yes, all of those things are the actions of ‘nice’ people in the world, but Jesus’ followers are expected to go much further than that.

Hence when it comes to love, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.(v.27.28). In other words – love everyone, regardless of who they are! Wow! That needs grace! Well yes, that’s what these sermons are all about, reminding us that Jesus sets out God’s standards and they can only be met with His grace that is available when we have a relationship with Him.

When it comes to doing good to others, it is not merely a case of doing good to those who do good to you, it is, as Jesus said in the two verses we’ve just noted, do good to those who hate you.” It isn’t a case of just do good things to nice people; it is also do good things to those who are not nice!

Then there is giving or rather, lending – and this is where it really stretches our grace – Jesus’ teaching is even more radical: “If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (v.29,30). So lending gets pushed out of the safe waters of lend only to secure borrowers, to lend to those who may well not pay you back. In fact change your whole way of thinking and be prepared to give to others, not merely lend, so you don’t have in your mind thoughts of getting this back. Be prepared to bless those who don’t have, or those who have little and need your help. This takes us into the realm of becoming generous givers. This isn’t about just giving a few coins into a collecting box, or even contributing in the emotion of the moment to a TV charity collection. No, this is about having a charitable heart to those immediately around you who are in need – all the time.

This teaching that Luke makes us pause and think about, takes us back to the teaching that had just gone before that requires us to have an utterly radical approach to blessing others. Summed up it might be put, have an unrestricted attitude of goodness towards everyone you meet, be prepared to do good to whoever they are, and be prepared to bless them with your goods (money) if they are in need. This indeed is radical thinking and it goes completely against the self-centred thinking of the old self, and requires all the love and grace of Jesus to operate. If you have any hesitation, you have not got there yet; you are still holding back and are not yet certain of God’s unlimited peace and provision which is there for you. It is a whole new world and it IS possible with Jesus’ enabling.

Woe to the Rich

Readings in Luke Continued – No.18

Lk 6:24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.

Once upon a time most of us in the West might have read Jesus’ words recorded by Luke and think of our superiors, the landed gentry who had money, but today, most of us in the West are without doubt in the upper 10% of the world’s wealthy. Oh yes, there are still many more people who have much more than most of us have, but by the world’s standards we are still in the category of the ‘rich’. If that is so, then it makes this an uncomfortable verse that needs seriously thinking about.

We said yesterday that although there are similarities with the Sermon on the Mount, this is part of a different sermon and as such there are parts of it that are different from that sermon in Matthew 5-7. Today’s verse and those that follow it are such additional verses to the Sermon on the Mount and the question naturally arises, why should there be additional verses? We’ve already partly answered that. That it came on a different occasion to a different group of people means that it was unlikely to be exactly the same and Jesus would omit some things and add other things from those found in the Sermon on the Mount. But why would Luke include these particular things? Partly because that is what his sources told him but partly, I suggest, because of the nature of man that he was.

We have previously observed that he was a doctor and doctors are those who study people. They know people, they examine people, they listen to people, they observe people, and they understand people. In modern jargon, Luke was a ‘people person’, and then when he hears words about human and divine justice, he is interested. He takes hold of what he’s heard. He sees injustice and has feelings about it. He is a godly man of wisdom and therefore he is concerned about justice. He is also a man, we have said, who understands about the Holy Spirit and about how God moves. He brings the spirit world and the material world together. He is a physical doctor with spiritual understanding. Matthew focused on the purely spiritual applications that Jesus was bringing. Luke also hears the other side, and includes it.

When we look at these words of Jesus recorded by Luke we find that verses 20 to 22 have echoes of the Sermon on the Mount, with a truly spiritual application, but then suddenly the verses 24 to 26 consider the exact opposites and speak of apparently very materials aspects of life – but yet which have spiritual implications. Thus in verse 20 we find, Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. ” and we usually interpret that to mean ‘the spiritually poor’, those who are aware of their spiritual poverty. They are the ones who come in submission to God and receive His salvation through Jesus. But now Luke adds another dimension: “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” The first ones were blessings; these ones are woes. The first one spoke about spiritual poverty; this one speaks of material wealth. The first one promises the experience of the reign of God; this one implies you get nothing, because you have what you want.

Let’s think about that some more. When we are well off it brings us a sense of ease, of comfort, of physical well-being. We feel relaxed in our affluence. We feel all our needs are catered for. We enjoy life. That is the danger! When Jesus says “Woe to you” he is saying, “Oh how terrible, be aware of the danger.”

Moses brought a strong word of similar warning to Israel: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you–a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant–then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD , who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deut 5:10-12) He was saying the same thing; when you are affluent and settled, remember how you got here, remember who it was that gave you all this!

Behind Jesus’ warning in this sermon recorded by Luke, is the implication that if you trust in your riches and don’t trust in God you risk going into an eternity without God. Later on in his Gospel Luke goes on to record Jesus telling a parable about a man who harvested his crops and then settled back in affluence, only to die and lose it all. He warns, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.(Lk 12:22,23)

Luke is a wise doctor and knows the body needs looking after, but also that the mind and the spirit need attention. Sorting out priorities in life is crucial. It is not wrong to be rich but if those riches subvert us into thinking we can do without God, we are really on a dangerous path with wealth. To be wealthy and to be a Christian requires that we also hold fast to wisdom, the wisdom that realises that without God we are nothing. If we trust in riches and not the Lord, we are lining ourselves up for a fall and ultimately destruction.

Put the two verses together that we have referred to as we find a simple teaching: to enter God’s kingdom you need to be aware of your natural spiritual poverty, and you also need to resist the temptation that wealth brings, that says that because you have riches you don’t need a relationship with the Lord. These are foundational truths and warnings in the Christian life!

A Gathering

Readings in Luke Continued – No.17

Lk 6:17,18 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.

There can arise in us sometimes, when reading Scripture, natural frustrations at the nature of these Gospels. In one sense it would have been easier if we just had one Gospel account and then we would just have to accept it at face value. When we have three similar but slightly different accounts, the slight differences raise questions within us. Perhaps God has done it like that for a purpose, because at the point we start asking questions our hearts are revealed. Some people ask questions to challenge the truth and attempt to destroy the veracity of the accounts. Other people look to see how the accounts come together to give a fuller picture. The first group look to destroy faith; the second group seek to build faith.

The truth is that when we carefully look at the Gospel accounts, all our confidence is undermined. The person who is so self-assured and says, “That can’t be true, there is a contradiction,” is shown to be shallow and foolish. The person who brashly asserts, “There are no problems,” equally shows they are shallow and foolish.

Such considerations arise when we find Luke, who, you will remember, said he had carried out a careful investigation, stating that Jesus came down and stood on a level place. Now this raises questions for us in what goes before it or comes after it. In Luke this is followed by what some have referred to as an abridged ‘Sermon on the Mount’, except it is, in fact, a sermon on the plain! When we start thinking about this, we realise that Jesus was preaching and teaching for three years and therefore he would no doubt repeat himself many times to different groups of people in many different locations. It is suggested that Matthew had been a tax collector and tax collectors used a form of short hand which Matthew might have used to put together the much larger ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Luke’s informant recounts what they remember, which is likely to have been from another of those times when a large crowd came to him and he taught.

Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount simply starts out, Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” (Mt 5:1,2), so there it is clearly a sermon on, at the very least, a hillside. Perhaps it is for this reason that Luke makes the point in his Gospel that what he is reporting was on the flat.

The other tricky distinction here is Luke saying, “A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon,” implying these people came to Jesus after he came down the mountain after having chosen the twelve after praying. Matthew doesn’t mention this big gathering from far and wide, but Mark does in a passage prior to these events, when Jesus is teaching and healing by the Lake of Galilee. Now the unthinking sceptic jumps on this and says, “See a contradiction!” No, it’s simply that this great crowd coming to him from far and wide were there when he was teaching and healing down by the lake AND later when Jesus came down from his prayer vigil and carried on teaching and healing.

Whether these words come from a common, unknown document that both refer to, or whether one referred to the other Gospel already in existence, but applied it to a slightly different time, we’ll never know. Both Mark and Luke bring this information to us, that the crowds who now came to Jesus for teaching and especially healing, came from all over the country – and they kept on coming! What we have is just simply different emphases being put in by the two writers. For one (Mark) as he thought (with Peter’s help) about Jesus teaching by the lake, he was struck by the variety of people and from where they had obviously come. For Luke, as he listens to his sources, that point came out after they came down from the prayer vigil.

What we should be left with after these deliberations, is a growing awareness of the variety of experiences and occasions that occurred in Jesus’ ministry of which the Gospel accounts are almost just a shorthand version. It is only John, years later, who, thinking on these things, realises this when he says at the very close of his Gospel, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.(Jn 21:25).

So, one final lesson, when you come across words in one of the Gospels, which are different from the others, ask why. Think about what was happening; consider the complexity or variety of things that were happening with Jesus, day by day, week after week, for three years. This must have been the richest three years of possible human experience, if you had been a disciple. Bear in mind it was a large crowd who turned up on this occasion, and time and time again the Gospels say that Jesus healed all who came to him. Imagine you were one of the disciples with Jesus, witnessing this day by day. The shear numbers must have left your mind reeling. The shear variety of teaching, healing, praying, travelling or whatever, must have appeared as one long blur after a while. The wonder of the Gospels is that we have them and with such uniformity. There must have been so many things happening that it would have been possible for four different writers to have recorded four completely different accounts – all true! Got it? What an incredible time! What an incredible Son of God!