6. The Impossible is Possible

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 6. The Impossible is Possible

Reading 5: Luke 1:26–35;38

Luke 1:26,27  God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

Context: When we come to this fifth ‘Lesson’ the service sheet heading is seriously under-whelming: “The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary” for it is perhaps a record of what must be one of the most amazing conversations recorded in history. But before we rush into it, we must pause and realise where we are in this series of nine readings. The first four brought us to the Old Testament records that we have reiterated again and again, but now we turn to the New Testament to the brief records of the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the Son of God. The account links with what has just happened to Elizabeth who now, although in old age beyond child-bearing age and capability, is in fact expecting a baby who, they are told, will be called John (v.26a). It is the sixth month if her confinement.

Reading: An angel, designated by the name Gabriel, is sent by God with a purpose, to convey His plans for this young virgin named Mary, and she is betrothed to a man named Joseph (v.26,27). The angel greets her (v.28) and Mary wonders who she is to be so greeted (v.29).  The angel reassures her and tells her she will conceive and have a son who she is to name Jesus (v.30,31). This son will be “called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.32,33)

To this amazing revelation, Mary’s only concern is how she can conceive because she and Joseph have not come together and (implied) will not come together for some time, until they are formally married. (v.34). A righteous couple! The angel informs her that the Holy Spirit will enable this to happen and so her child will be called “the Son of God” (v.35). Mary’s response is the classic example in the whole of history of availability and openness to God: “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” (v.38)

Lessons: To look for lessons in this reading is difficult because it is a unique record of a conversation between a specific girl and an angel in a situation never to be repeated. Such lessons as there may be, must focus on our credibility, our willingness to believe the text of a passage that is rarely found on a greeting card at Christmas these days. (In one major store recently, we perused the shelf of Christmas cards and only five out of the whole display gave any reference to the Biblical record!)

To believe or not to believe: This may sound a needless comment, but the fact of the matter is that today in the West, although at Christmas people may tolerate these verses being read in the midst of nice music, the reality is that the majority of our population do not believe the passage we have just recounted. Angels? Maybe, because ‘spiritual’ people go for anything. Virgin birth? Come on! But that is what the record clearly says. If you want to cut this bit out of the records in the Gospels, where do you stop? The who of the accounts in Matthew and Luke, concerning Advent, are full of the divinely supernatural. God is. Angels are. A pregnant virgin is. Shepherds are. Wise men are.

All or nothing and if you dare say, “A load of myths” you have to say the same about the rest of the Gospels, and there you come unstuck because there are clear outside-the-Bible historical records. Remember Luke’s starting words: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:1-4) Surely he interviewed the now middle-aged Mary and found her account utterly convincing. The lesson is a challenge to investigate and to believe.

A God who Intervenes: An alternative title here might be, ‘A God who initiates’ for while mankind is ‘sleeping’ God is at work to bring His Son to earth. Few had any idea of what was going on. Maybe some Magi in the east, maybe the occasional Spirit-led believer (Simeon), but mostly life just carried on as normal, and then angels start turning up with messages from on high. To be precise, one angel, Gabriel, who comes to both Zechariah (Lk 1:19) and now Mary. The timing is precise. One writer has suggested that by the time Jesus started his ministry, thirty years later, and then died and rose again, across the Roman Empire there were at least six factors that made this the very best time for the Gospel to be spread and taken across the world. (Perhaps the next big time would be the nineteenth century when the great missionary movements got under way).

The lesson here surely has to be, never think that the world is set, your life is set, and will not change. The fact is that God does wait for appropriate times when many factors fall in line (e.g. when the movement to abolish slavery mounted up) and that includes our individual lives as much as it does big national movements. One day, we are ‘sleeping’ (a time of inactivity and low expectation)  and then suddenly God moves. Be alert for the moves of God which so often come with no apparent warning.

No impossibilities: Perhaps, again to avoid distractions and focus only on the main issue, this reading purposely leaves out, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (v..36,37) which is a shame because of that amazing declaration, “For nothing is impossible with God.” Here is Mary, a virgin and yet God is going to enable her to conceive and have a son.  When you look, there are a number of women in the Bible who were enabled by God to conceive – admittedly no other virgin, but it is something that happens more than a few times. But the bigger picture is the challenge to say, along with Jesus, “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). When our hearts are yearning in one direction, it just may be that it is the will of God you are sensing. What it now needs are others, full of faith and the Spirit, to come alongside you and pray it into being.

Available for the New: God was coming to do something completely new – His Son was coming to the earth. He shared it with Mary whose response is, “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” The simple question has to be, are you and I open to the Lord, even when we do not fully understand what He is saying? His heart has been caught by something in the Church or in the world; He knew it was coming, but it’s just that now is the time for it, so He shares it into your heart. You hear it and question it. But it prevails. Will we be His instruments in His hands to bring it into being?

This reading may have no direct instructions for us, but it certainly does raise some important challenges. Will we respond to them this Christmas?

6. The Mystery – of the broken servant

Focus on Christ Meditations: 6.  The Mystery – of the broken servant

Isa 52:13-15      See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness – so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

We pursue our quest to see Jesus Christ revealed throughout the word of God, and specifically here to consider ‘the mystery of Christ’, as we see it through the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come… to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” (1 Pet 1:10,11) In the previous study we considered the almost unbelievable words of Isa 9. Now imagine a scribe of the day before Christ, reading what we now call Isaiah 52 and 53. “The servant” of the Lord had been the subject of a number of prophecies earlier in Isaiah, again clearly referring to the Coming One.

In verse 13 of chapter 52 he reads, “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.”  OK, that seems to fit with the glory that was there in the Isa 9 prophecy. He reads on: “Just as there were many who were appalled at him– his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” (v.14) What? How can he one minute be exalted and the next moment be described as one who is so ‘disfigured’ and ‘marred’ that there were many who were appalled at him?

Verse 15 seems more confusing, so quickly run on into the next chapter to see if it makes more sense: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” (53:1) This seems to have a sense of “Who could have believed it would be like this, that God’s means of coming in power would appear in this way?”  Dead right! What are you saying Isaiah? How does this fit with your glorious words of the earlier chapter 9? We need to read on.

“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.” (v.2a) This must refer to that child again. Ok. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (v.2b) What? This doesn’t sound like a great leader, a mighty ruler like David who, when younger, had been described as “a boy, ruddy and handsome.” (1 Sam 17:42) or as the king that Solomon portrayed in his epic poem: “My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.” (Song 5:10) This one would be characterized by his ordinariness; he is not going to get a following because he looks good, like King Saul had done and been described as, “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites–a head taller than any of the others.” (1 Sam 9:2) So how is this one going to be that mighty ruler?

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (v.3) What is this all about? Despised, rejected, one we did not esteem, one whose life seems associated with sorrows and suffering? What sort of great ruler is this? Clearly not like any ‘great ruler’ the world has known previously! Read on.

“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” (v.4) Hang on! We, the onlookers, thought that what we saw was God striking him, dealing harshly with him and yet he was taking OUR weaknesses, our sorrows? How could that be? How can this servant do such a thing? Read on verses 5 to 7 and it is equally bad. This is seriously confusing, this is indeed a mystery!

And the teachers tell us that this is Jesus? Well, the apostle John wrote, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (Jn 1:10,11) That fits. When Matthew records Jesus’ healing ministry, he writes by way of commentary, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” (Mt 8:17) The apostle Peter, speaking of all that happened to Jesus summarized it, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:23,24)

But what about the mighty ruler prophecy of Isa 9? It was only as the incredible account of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was rolled out that the apostles and prophets saw the mystery, saw how apparently irreconcilable prophecies were in fact true, opposites – ruler and wreck – fulfilled in the same person: “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:8-11 – Paul writing) and “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” (Acts 5:30,31 Peter preaching) and “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb 1:3 the unknown writer)

It will be as Isaiah said it in those verses we jumped over at the end of chapter 52:  Yet many shall be amazed when they see him—yes, even far-off foreign nations and their kings; they shall stand dumbfounded, speechless in his presence. For they shall see and understand what they had not been told before. They shall see my Servant beaten and bloodied, so disfigured one would scarcely know it was a person standing there. So shall he cleanse many nations. (v.14,15 Living Bible) When the mystery is revealed to those with eyes to see, their first reaction is to stand dumbfounded that such a thing could be. Amazing! Incredible! Wonderful!  Thank you Lord!

To reflect upon: Conquering king and beaten servant. Majesty and meekness. Strength and weakness. Power and powerlessness. Honor and shame. Do we see that our faith is a combination of all these things?

11. A Question of Authority

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 11.  A Question of Authority

Mt 8:8,9  The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, `Go,’ and he goes; and that one, `Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, `Do this,’ and he does it.”

Before I start, we need to restate the overall context of Jesus’ teaching and repeat what I said in two earlier studies: what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. The difference of the ‘two kingdoms’ will now be seen in an amazing way in what now follows.

Now I realise I am stretching the boundaries of these studies because this is not a case of an analogy used by Jesus, but it is clear from what follows that he thoroughly approves it: When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (v.10) This Roman centurion understood something about Jesus beyond anything Jesus had found in his own people. To understand the parallels implied in these two simple verses, we see on one hand the centurion’s perception of Jesus and then, on the other hand, the parallel of his own experience. It is easier to take his experience first and then apply it to Jesus.

This man is a centurion, not very high up in the Roman hierarchy but sufficiently high to have learned about authority in the army. As anyone who has been trained in the army knows, authority and obedience to it is essential. When a command is given, it is imperative that it is obeyed. Authority is the right and power to command and to be obeyed. It is built in very early on in the Forces by strict discipline that requires punishment for failures to obey implicitly. In the Roman army that discipline was about as strict as you may find anywhere in history. When the one above you issued a command, you obeyed! If you didn’t then you suffered. The point was that this man knew all of this and knew that when authority existed it WOULD be obeyed.

Now perhaps we should pause a moment to remind ourselves of the context, the situation involving this man. He comes to Jesus: “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” (v.6,7) There it is. He comes to Jesus and addresses him with respect. He reveals his need and Jesus says he will meet it. It is at that point the man reveals his humility and awareness of the reality of his life: “The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” (v.8a) i.e. implied within this may be, “I am not religious and holy like you. I am a rough soldier who kills people. I have no right to demand anything of you,” but then all that is overcome by a combination of his concern for his servant and what he knows about Jesus.

The outworking of this is seen in his following words: “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed,” (v.8b) and he goes on to explain his understanding of authority. In it he is saying, “I know all about authority, and I know about you, and in the same way that when I command my men they have to obey, so when you command sickness to leave I know it will obey you and go.

Somewhere between all that he had no doubt heard about Jesus, and his personal knowledge of authority, he had put two and two together and realised that Jesus, in the spiritual world, exercised this same authority and brought about healing in the physical realm. Somehow, we might suggest, the Holy Spirit had released faith in him, in his understanding of who Jesus was, and therefore he knew that Jesus authority could bring the healing his servant needed.

The parallel here (it’s not really an analogy but a close cousin to it) is a most remarkable one that shows us in a unique way what it means to say that the Son of God has such authority. Jesus spoke about this at various times. One well known time is when the man was lowered through the roof and Jesus first forgave his sins, which upset some of the religious observers: “Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home.” (Mt 9:4-7) If Jesus declares it, it is so.

He also imparted that authority to his disciples: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (Mt 10:1) which perhaps was the grounds for John to be able to record later, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12)

After his resurrection we read, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mt 28:16-18) And because of that he was able to send the disciples out to continue doing what he had been doing: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:19,20) In the context of the incident with the centurion, note the strength of his words: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That has echoes of authority within it.

John shows us that this wasn’t a matter of following a set of rules, but learning to live under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, doing what the Father did: “Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working…. I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:17,19) It’s all about relationship, not rules or ritual. When we have that relationship, we will have that authority and we will do what Jesus did.

59. Shepherds’ Guidance

Meditations in 1 Peter : 59: Guidance for Shepherds

1 Pet 5:2-4 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Peter, we saw in the previous meditation, is speaking to elders of the local church, the local leaders. Here he now instructs them to act as shepherds. Whereas “elder” is the designation of position, being a senior member of the local church in a place of oversight, ‘shepherd’ is a clearly defined role. We all know what shepherds do – they look after sheep – and if we aren’t very clear about it, Peter explains it in quite a lot of detail which every church leader should consider.

The first thing that spiritual shepherds are to realise is that the flock belongs to God. The people of God, the local church, only exist because each one has been born again – as we saw in earlier meditations – and they are each a unique work of God. The apostle Paul, when instructing the Ephesian elders said, Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28). If you bought something with some of your own blood, it would be very precious to you. The church is precious to God and we need to remember that. This is God’s flock we are thinking about.

Next then he states the obvious in his description of this flock: “that is under your care.” If you have been called into the position of leadership we need to realise that it is first of all a position of care. Our role is to care for these people, to look after them. Again Paul warned the Ephesian elders prophetically, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:29-31) I include those verses in their entirety because they convey the awfulness of what can happen to the local church and the responsibility that local leaders have to prevent such things happening.

He then goes on to say that we do these things as we serve as ‘overseers’. Obviously an overseer sees over the whole flock and should be able to see the landscape surrounding the flock and so be on the alert to pick up any needs within the flock and ward off any attacks coming from outside the flock.

Then he touches the subject of motivation: not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be.” There should not be a sense of heavy duty about this call but a glad willingness which is a joyful response to seeing the need and sensing the call, which provokes the response, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa 6:8) Indeed, he adds, not greedy for money, but eager to serve.” This is not a job and money is not to be the motivation; this is a calling to serve God and serve the people of God. The leader of the local church is first and foremost a servant of God. Jesus taught, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Mt 20:26-28). But there is another side of this coin: the flock needs to realise that this man is God’s servant and as such is both answerable and accountable to Him, but also under His direction and protection. This is a man to be honoured.

But that doesn’t mean that the man is put on a pedestal for Peter continues to describe the way of serving: not lording it over those entrusted to you.” There is no room for pride, arrogance and any similar thing in a leader in the church, no room for throwing your weight around. This is a calling to humility in service.

Yet this something more in this ‘job description’: “being examples to the flock.” The leader is to be someone who goes ahead and who therefore sets an example in life and service for the flock to follow. Paul laid down the criteria for this example giving, in his instructions to Titus: “An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless–not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:6-9) In all those ways he is to be an example for the flock to follow.

And his reward? And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” Jesus will reward this servant in due time in the right way. This is not to say don’t pay the man, for Paul speaks strongly about this elsewhere; it just says God will honour this servant in due season. Rest in that. There are many important issues here for the local church. May we heed them!

 

54. God be Praised

Meditations in 1 Peter : 54: God be Praised

1 Pet 4:11 If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Speaking and doing. There are echoes of verse 7 here: be clear minded and self-controlled.” where we said it was about thinking and then doing. Here it is about speaking and doing. But note that this is a continuation of verse 10: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” These are the expressions of the ‘gifts’ we have.

Seen in that context the speaking that is referred to here is to be seen as a gift from God and an expression of the Lord and so if we are someone who has the privilege of being in a position in the church where we speak publicly, we should recognise the honour and the responsibility that is ours and we should recognise that if we are motivated, energized, inspired and directed by the Lord in this ministry, what we are bringing is to be seen as the very word of God. That is a very high calling! I wonder how many of us who are either preachers or teachers, see it in this way? There is an implied challenge here to be careful as to what we say, and to seek the Lord before we open our mouths. for we will be answerable to Him.

Now there is something else involved in this. Jesus said, “out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks,” (Lk 6:45) i.e. what comes out of our mouths is a reflection of what is in our hearts. If our hearts are given over to God, that will be observed when we speak. If we are still self-centred and not God-centred, that also will be revealed. We will, in other words, only speak the words of God if we are filled with God and given over to God. How we are with God will be observed in the words we speak. The preacher and teacher cannot help but reveal their spiritual state when they speak – and that is a real challenge!

But it isn’t only our words; it is also what we do, our serving. Is doing and serving the same thing? No, ‘doing’ can be self-centred or simply an expression of self. Serving is doing for the benefit of others. Serving is done as a purposeful act of the will to bless other people, something we choose to do. Now not everyone has come to the place of desiring to be a servant, even though Jesus calls us to it: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Mt 20:26) There is an implication there that followers of Jesus will want to grow, develop, get on, and to achieve great things but, says Jesus, they only can do that by becoming a servant, by having a servant attitude. Serving is an expression of maturity so, according to Peter, if you have reached the level of maturity where you desire to be a servant, “do it with the strength that God provides.” In other words, if you are going to be God’s servant, you can only do it with His strength. Working (or serving) is hard and tiring and so to be able to continue doing it, you will need God’s ongoing strength, which will mean waiting on Him for it (see Isa 40:28-31)

Now there is an outworking to all this and it has been hinted at by Peter more than a few times: so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” We do what we do so that God will be revealed and glorified. Peter started praising God in Chapter 1 for having “given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1:3) In chapter 2 he spoke of us having been called so that we “may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (2:9) He then continued, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (2:12). In chapter 3 he put it slightly differently: “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” (3:15) but the end is the same – praise to Him. And that brings us here to chapter 4 with, “so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” (v.11).

The ultimate goal? To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” When that happens, truth is being observed. Any glory is due to Him and only Him, for any power is His and so whatever we say or do is to be an expression of the life of the Spirit of Jesus within us, and that will always glorify the Father. Speaking of his own glory, Jesus said, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me,” (Jn 8:54) i.e. any glory we have comes from the Father and belongs to the Father. Near the end of the Last Supper Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.” (Jn 13:31) i.e. Jesus will be glorified through his death and resurrection and that will glorify the Father. This was made even more clear in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” (Jn 17:1)

In all of this we see that the outworking of Jesus’ life was to glorify or reveal the wonder of the Father. It is the wonder of the Father’s character that is being revealed, the wonder of His thinking and His planning and His love for mankind. Everything flows from and returns to God the Father. Jesus executed His will in a human body, and the Holy Spirit continues to do it in and through Christians today. That is where you and I come in! May He be glorified in us!

21. To Elisha’s Servant

“God turned up” Meditations: 21 :  To Elisha’s Servant

2 Kings 6:15,16   When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked. “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

Every now and then it seems in Christian circles, there is a thing about angels. In all the years I’ve known the Lord, it seems there have been phases when people get interested in angels. The usefulness of these times is that during them, testimonies appear of people who have had angelic encounters. This doesn’t happen to most of us most of the time, but every now and then the Lord does appear to send His angels to help us out. The writer to the Hebrews referred to angels as ministering spirits sent to help the saints (Heb 1:14). Much of the time most of us, though, don’t give the angelic forces much thought; in fact if the truth were told many of us possibly don’t even believe in them.

That might have been the case in respect of Elisha’s servant.  I suspect that life with Elisha was a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes you saw miracles and sometimes because of your master’s ministry you were on the run. At this particular time Elisha had been helping the king of Israel with revelation as to how to avoid the Aramean invaders: The man of God sent word to the king of Israel: “Beware of passing that place, because the Arameans are going down there.” (2 Kings 6:9)

Word of this eventually got back to the king of Aram: “This enraged the king of Aram. He summoned his officers and demanded of them, “Will you not tell me which of us is on the side of the king of Israel?” “None of us, my lord the king,” said one of his officers, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.” (v.11,12) so he sent word out to get Elisha: “Go, find out where he is,” the king ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.” Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city.” (v.13,14)

Which brings us to the place of crisis for Elisha’s servant: “When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked.” (v.15) The servant gets up, goes out of the city and sees the Aramean army camped all around the city. They are in trouble!

It is at that point that Elisha makes this statement that should become embedded on our hearts: “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them,” (v.16) at which point I guess the servant looked around in puzzlement. So Elisha prays. “And Elisha prayed, “O LORD, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (v.17) If this isn’t an angelic host, I don’t know what is! Now what is intriguing about this is that God’s ‘turning up’ in this case is simply Him coming and enabling the servant to see the unseen world. The Lord’s troops were already there; it just needed the servant to be able to see them. So the Lord turns up and gives the servant the supernatural ability to see the spirit world!

Now of course you might be tempted to think, so OK, why are all these angelic forces there? Well, we are going to have to draw a conclusion from what follows: As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, “Strike these people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked.” (v.18) One has to conclude that the Lord uses the angelic host to blind the soldiers in the Aramean army. You can read the rest of the story yourself.

So the question must arise, what relevance might this have to our lives today in the twenty-first century? Exactly the same as in Elisha’s day. The apostle Paul speaks about these things to the church at Ephesus: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12) Do you think this is just airy-fairy language that has no relevance to us? If you think that you have never let the Lord open your eyes to the reality of this world that is material AND spiritual. I wonder how many times we stagger and struggle in ignorance against unseen opposition that has a spiritual dimension? I wonder how many times we feel alone and are unaware of the Lord’s angels with us? We live in a very ‘material’ world, very much aware of possessions and things and it is very easy to forget what the Bible teaches us. Maybe we need to ask the Lord to turn up for us and bring us the revelation of what is really going on in the world around us – on material AND spiritual levels.

2. In the Plan

Meditations in Romans : 2 :  Living in the Plan

Rom  1:1,2 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God– the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures

I sometimes wonder how many of us really have a sense of being part of God’s great master-plan.  I get the impression, as I listen to people, that few of us genuinely have a sense of being part of something bigger, of having a real sense of destiny.  Yes, we do in church services perhaps, when God is clearly speaking, but in the day to day humdrum of life, the pressures of twenty-first century living seem to squash that sense.  Maybe we need Paul to remind us about this.

Perhaps that was what marked out Paul from the rest of us, for a reading of Acts reveals a man utterly dedicated to the big plan and purpose of God. But what about here; what about in these first two verses of Romans, before we read into the depths of this book?  We pondered on him being a servant yesterday.  As we move on we see him telling us, his readers, that he has a calling.

We talk about missionaries having a calling. We sometimes talk about nurses, doctors or teachers having a ‘calling’. It’s a vocation, we say, a calling, otherwise we probably wouldn’t do it. Paul’s ‘calling’ was to be an apostle. Now depending on where we come from in the church, we may have different feelings about apostles, but for the sake of these verses we need only focus on Paul.  To the Corinthians he asked, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1) For him at that time, the criteria for being an apostle was that you had met or known the Lord and were able to testify to him, and that the fruit of your ministry proved what you were – there were churches in existence because of you!

When you have a calling you are set apart TO something – to be a missionary etc. – but you are also set apart FROM other things.  If you are set apart TO one thing, it means you are set apart FROM a lot of others things, the things others are called to.  It is in fact a separating off to something and a leaving other things behind.  Elisha is a good example in the Old Testament of this happening: “Elijah went from there and found Elisha …. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. … He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate.” (1 Kings 19:19-21).  Elijah did this as a result of an instruction from the Lord and Elisha recognised this as a calling which meant that he would leave his present occupation and go and follow Elijah to do whatever God gave them to do.

Thus we find Paul telling us that he has been set apart for the gospel of God.” His role as a servant of Jesus was, in fact, to serve Jesus as an apostle and go and take the Good News about him, produce converts, and form them into visible expressions of the Church.  But of course this wasn’t some latter day emergency fall-back plan of the Lord’s because all else had failed with Israel. No, this was an outworking of His plan that He had spoken about, “through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures”, i.e. throughout the Old Testament.

In fact we can go further.  A number of times in the Bible we find references to God’s plan that had been brought into being even before He has created the world.  The apostle Peter, referring to Jesus wrote, “God chose him for this purpose long before the world began.” (1 Pet 1:20).  Paul himself wrote to the church at Ephesus, “Long ago, even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ.” (Eph 1:4) and to Timothy he wrote, “that was his plan long before the world began—to show his love and kindness to us through Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 1:9).  Thus God planned for each of us to find salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ, even before sin came into the world.

Yet, it goes even further.  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).  Our being ‘born again’ (Jn 3:3) is a work of God (see also Jn 1:12,13) and we have been brought into Sonship because of the work of Christ on the Cross and been empowered by God’s Spirit to be new beings who are to express the love and goodness of God through our lives.   How He does this is unique to each one of us for He has gifted us with grace uniquely (Rom 12:6). He has given us the gifts, talents and abilities that we have, and we use them as we live out these lives expressing His love and goodness.

This is the ‘calling’ that each Christian has. Some He calls to be leaders, some not. Some He calls to very clear and distinct ministries, others not,  but whoever we are, we ARE part of His master plan and He has a specific part for us to play which becomes gradually revealed to us as we let Him teach us through His word and guide and empower us by His Spirit.  With Paul, we are in God’s plan. We may not have realised it or we may have forgotten it, but we are!   Live in it and enjoy it!

1. Humble Origins

Today we start a new series that will take us through Romans 1 & 2

Meditations in Romans : 1 :  Humble Origins but Divine Origins

Rom  1:1,2 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God– the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures

Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. For some of us who have been Christians a long time, ‘Romans’ is a familiar book, an important book in the canon of Scripture, and we know it well. I wrote verse by verse studies in Romans over ten year ago. It is a familiar book, but to avoid taking any of it for granted, I’d like to approach it completely fresh, as if I knew nothing about it, nothing about its background, as if someone had just handed it to me with no explanation. What would I find?

I would first observe that it seems to come in the form of a letter, from a person called Paul. A little bit later I see that he writes to people in Rome but that is not immediately obvious. To start with he is more desirous of saying things about himself. He doesn’t say where he is writing from (we believe Corinth) and he doesn’t date his letter (we believe it to be somewhere about AD57). But he immediately identifies himself with another historical figure – Christ Jesus, or Messiah Jesus: a servant of Christ Jesus.”

It’s an interesting way of describing Jesus because it’s like putting his role or title first, and we don’t usually do that with Jesus; we usually just call him Jesus Christ. It’s as if Paul wants to emphasise Jesus’ role or activity. When he came he came as the Christ (the Roman term) or Messiah (the Jewish term), the one sent by God to fulfil a task on behalf of the Godhead. It is as if Paul has Jesus’ servant role in mind when he uses this form of address about Jesus. Yes, he was God’s Son, but he came to earth to perform a task on behalf of heaven.

Now Paul puts his own role first in this letter. Paul identifies himself as one related to this historical figure, Jesus but his relationship is simply that of a servant or slave (the word used can mean either). When someone introduces themselves to us as, “I’m the PA to Sir. James….” this person is gaining their status by their role and their role is as a representative of Sir. James. But when Paul attaches himself to Jesus, it is in no grand way; he simply describes himself as Jesus’ servant: a servant of Christ Jesus.” A servant of a servant?

The immediate sense that we have, therefore, is that Paul (whoever he is, and we’d have to look elsewhere, especially in Acts, to see who he is and what his background is) is writing because he is Jesus’ servant and that he has something from Jesus to share. That’s the only reason a servant might be writing to us, to convey something from their master, certainly if that is how he starts out his letter, drawing his role to our attention. But there’s more to this. He doesn’t come as an ambassador, which might sound somewhat high flying; he comes as a servant, a more lowly figure. Now when you think about this, this adds greater weight to the letter, because the individual is not coming with his message but that of his master.

The strength of the letter comes because of the master, the originator of it, the one who has inspired it. So, if we were able to strip away all that we’ve previously heard or read about this letter, we’d be left with an immediate impression that here we have a letter written by this lowly servant on behalf of, and perhaps at the direction of, his master, Jesus (whose title suggests another servant).

Now of course Paul himself in another letter declared that All Scripture is God-breathed,” (2 Tim 3:16) or God-inspired, and so, looking back and realising that this letter is now acclaimed as part of the Scriptures, we may assume that it is inspired by God, that God put it on Paul’s heart to write and inspired what he wrote. The point I think I am making, is that we often forget that these writings have their origins in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ. Our belief, as Christians, is that Paul didn’t just have some bright idea and then wrote, but that asa servant’ of Jesus, he knew Jesus’ heart and responded to it and thus responded at that point in time.

John the Baptist, who we read of early in the Gospels, clearly came as a messenger from God with a God-given message. Now we have Paul, who doesn’t come with such blatant and obvious origins, but nevertheless comes as a divine messenger to us. He comes as a servant of the servant Son of God. Any status that he has comes from that role, as one who works for and serves Jesus. What he brings to us surely has its origins in the heart and mind of his master.

How easy it is to pick up a Bible and let it drop open and just read the words and then put it down – unmoved! Especially this is true when we have been tainted by the unbelief of liberal unbelieving theologians who have sought to take away any of the supernatural element from the holy Scriptures. For many people, these words on the page of the book or letter called Romans, could just be words that stay on the page – until we start reading and thinking about what is infront of us.

This is a man writing who claims to be a menial servant of the Messiah, the sent One of God. He writes because he IS a servant and writes to convey something of his master’s heart and his master is THE unique Son of God, Jesus Christ, who left all the glory of heaven and came and served his Father in the environment of earth before returning to heaven.  Yes, all right, that description is staggeringly more than we would know if this was the first time we had ever picked up the Bible – but it is the truth conveyed by the New Testament and if it the truth, then we should reverently hold this letter from Paul, wondering what he might be wanting to convey from his master. This simply says, come reverently to this letter, realise afresh the wonder of what we have here and take time to read it and reflect upon it, and then marvel.

1. Servants

Meditations in James: 1 :  Welcome to Servant heartedness

Jas 1:1   James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ

Leaders in the church of the first century seem to be so different from so many leaders in the church of the twenty first century. In big churches in the United States, leaders seem not far removed from a CEO of a big company. Some have big cars, big houses and big minders. Even in smaller churches, church leaders often seem to be ‘big people’ who command awe and respect. Now I may be wrong, but when I read some of Paul’s writings, his second letter to the Corinthians for example, although there are times when he speaks strongly, when he writes to them he spends much time appealing to them on the basis of his weakness. James starts us of in his letter referring to himself as a servant. Now this is remarkable because commentators and scholars tend to think that he was probably one of the brothers of Jesus: Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” (Mt 13:55). Now if he was a worldly person he would drop this little fact for us, just to quietly remind us of his closeness to the Messiah. I mean, a member of that special family! What tales he could have told of Jesus’ early years, probably the closest in age to Jesus, coming at the head of that list we’ve just quoted. But no, there is nothing of that. He tells us virtually nothing of himself. Even if the assumption that he was one of Jesus’ brothers is wrong, he is clearly a leader who is well known, but still he doesn’t put on airs. He simply sees himself as a servant, and that is the only designation he wants to go by.

Yet when he refers to himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a confidence implied within that.  A lot of people wouldn’t have the confidence to call themselves a servant of God; they might feel it sounds too pious, but James knows who he is and who has called him and who he serves. Some people might feel that it would be too presumptuous to call themselves that and might feel that God might hold them to account for saying such things, but James knows who he is. If he is the brother of Jesus, the designation he gives himself is all the more amazing, the servant of… the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no familiarity about this designation. He could have said, I am a servant of my brother Jesus, but he doesn’t! He elevates Jesus for he has come to see him as he truly is – the Lord. It hadn’t always been like that. Once he hadn’t even believed Jesus was who he said he was (see Jn 7:3-5). Now he understands, now he realizes Jesus is the One who has the right to call on James as his servant. There is a humility that comes out in James in this, that not only doesn’t draw attention to his pedigree, but also bows the knee both to God and to Jesus.

Servants are those who serve another and don’t draw attention to themselves. Jesus called his disciples to be servants: whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:26-28) To have a servant heart was to be the starting place of a disciple, yet as they developed their relationship with him, Jesus was able to say to them, You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (Jn 15:14,15). A servant doesn’t tend to know what is in his master’s mind, yet as Jesus shared his heart with his closest disciples he changed their designation from ‘servants’ to ‘friends’. Why, we might ask, doesn’t James call himself a friend of Jesus then, why a servant? Well the Greek word that James uses for ‘servant’ is doulos which means a bond-servant or slave, one who willingly submits themselves to their master. It is as if James says, yes, I know what our position is today, we are God’s children or friends of Jesus, and in my case he is my brother, but I want it to be known that I submit to him, he is my Lord and I don’t want to make any presumptions; I just want to be available to him, as his slave if need be.

How many of us come to God with this sort of self-imposed humility I wonder? Such humility only comes when there is a true awareness of just who Jesus is and just who we are. When we realise that he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev 19:16) and that left to ourselves we are but helpless sinners, this gives us no room to boast and no room to feel great about ourselves. It only creates gratefulness and thankfulness and a desire to bow before our liege-Lord, as the servants of old did in feudal times, acknowledging their allegiance (do you see the similarity in words?). This is what James is doing as he describes himself like this; he is declaring his allegiance to Jesus as his Lord. It is almost as if he feels that he can only come as God’s representative to His church, if he comes in this manner. He can only speak the things he is going to speak to God’s people, if he comes with his heart bowed before his Lord. What a good attitude for any leader!

14. The Centurion

People who met Jesus : 14 :  The Centurion

Mt 8:5-7 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

One of the things that comes out, when we start looking at the people who came to Jesus, is that quickly we realise that they are people in need. Here we find the Centurion came “asking for help.” The reality is that we all need the Lord’s help but sometimes it needs a crisis for us to realise it.  Most of the time we seem to be able to cope in our day to day living and in our folly we ignore the Lord and just get by in our own strength. The leper in the previous meditation was very obviously in constant need of help; that was the nature of his illness – he was stuck with it. We may be wrong but it seems in the case of the Centurion it is a problem that has just occurred. We assume there has been an accident and it has left the Centurion’s servant paralyzed and in great pain. He would never have had this servant if he had had this affliction for a long time. No, it is more likely that it is something that has only recently happened.

Yes, physical afflictions can be illnesses (which may or may not be long-term) and they can be injuries that occur as a result of an accident. In the later case they may similarly be something that will heal up quickly, or possibly remain a long-term affliction. Whichever they are, we want to be rid of them. When we are not ill or not afflicted, we can sound very spiritual about such things, but when we are on the receiving end of such things, we just want to be rid of them. We show that by taking medicines or by going to a doctor or even by asking for prayer. In each case we want to be rid of this thing. Such things spoil or mar our lives and it is natural to want to be rid of them. What is incredible about Jesus’ ministry is that whenever people came to him to be healed – he healed them! Now that may sound obvious but it isn’t. Many of us today don’t believe he still heals and yet the New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb 13:8) Why do we see so little healing? Perhaps, before we can see more healing, we need to see more of the characteristics of this Centurion appearing in the church.

The story seems to start out simply enough, as our verses above indicate but the wonder of the story is yet to come: “The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, `Go,’ and he goes; and that one, `Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, `Do this,’ and he does it.” (v.8,9) There is within this, first of all, a remarkable humility: “I do not deserve…” This Centurion is a Roman, part of the conquering forces in the land. He could have held a very superior attitude, but he doesn’t!

But not only is there a remarkable humility in this man, there is also a remarkable strength of belief and understanding. This man has heard about Jesus, but hearing isn’t enough. This man believes what he has heard. When he has heard that Jesus has the power to heal people, he believes it. But there is more to it than that. He understands that Jesus is motivated by compassion and that compassion means that when anyone comes in need, he will meet that need (but of course we have to come). Thus he explains to Jesus that his servant is in ‘terrible suffering.’ That will be enough to motivate Jesus – and it does – and that triggers off even greater faith in this man. Jesus has expressed his willingness and so now all that is needed is for it to be done.

It is at this point that the depth of faith and understanding of this man is revealed. He has understood that Jesus doesn’t have to go through any ritual or performance or particular actions, he doesn’t need to come to the house. Oh no, he knows that Jesus has the power and authority simply to speak a word and it will be done. This man already understood more than most of us understand today.

That this is remarkable is evidenced by Jesus’ response: “When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (v.10) This is a not very subtle commendation of this man, and a challenge to the rest of the community of God’s people! Jesus then simply speaks the word and the healing takes place: “Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.” (v.13)

There are clearly levels of belief (and unbelief) revealed in Scripture. In terms of unbelief, Paul was to one day write to the Corinthians, “anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 11:29,30) i.e. sin in the church can bring illness and even death. That is a terrible extreme we really want to avoid. When it comes to faith we will see in these studies, differing levels of faith, the height of faith, perhaps, being seen in this Centurion. To recap: he heard about Jesus, he believed Jesus could heal, he believed Jesus wanted to heal because of his compassion, and he believed Jesus has the power and authority to heal simply by speaking a word.

Notice in conclusion that there is no penance required, no weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over repentance; it is all very much more straight-forward. The very act of coming to Jesus indicates a person willing to submit themselves to him. When we come to him, we recognise that he may require us to put issues right in our lives, but we are willing for that. James laid it out as follows: “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (Jas 5:13-16) Those verses deserve some serious consideration and they are extremely challenging. Why not work through them slowly and allow the Lord to speak to you through them. In trouble – you pray. In sickness – call others to pray. If there is sin, confess it and open the way for healing. Wow! Challenging stuff!