Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

(62) He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight – Acts 1:9

November 26, 2013

Jesus continued to appear to his disciples for forty days after the resurrection and he used this time to get three messages across to them.

First he explained how his life, death and resurrection were a fulfilment of what was written about him “in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). The disciples had grown up with expectations of a warrior Messiah who would throw off Roman rule and establish the nation of Israel as a strong independent nation as in the time of King David. They had resisted Jesus’ talk of needing to suffer and die – most directly when Peter told Jesus that “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22) – and were unable to accept his teaching about going to the cross. Now he “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45) and explained how the Messiah needed to suffer, die and rise from the dead in order to bring in the new covenant of forgiveness for sins in response to people’s repentance.

Secondly Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses. They had lived alongside him for three years, heard his teaching and seen his miracles. The saw him crucified and buried and now, most importantly, they witnessed his resurrection. The religious leaders knew that the tomb was empty and paid the soldiers who had guarded the tomb to tell people that his disciples had stolen the body while they were asleep – hardly a story that reflected well on their own ability as guards – and this story was widely circulated. But the disciples saw Jesus alive as he appeared to them over the forty days and their testimony was important.

Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to over five hundred people at one time and makes the point that many of them were still alive when he was writing. Indeed, all of the New Testament was written during the lifetime of those who had witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. Their contemporaries were unable to challenge the accuracy of their accounts because of the volume of eye witnesses who were still alive. The number who saw Jesus also discredits the idea that people were hallucinating. Individuals can sometimes see things that they want to see, but the disciples were not expecting to see Jesus again and were surprised when they did. Jesus had to overcome their reluctance to believe by eating some fish to prove that he wasn’t a ghost.

Perhaps the most compelling confirmation of the truth of the resurrection was that history tells us that many of the eleven apostles, plus many others, were martyred for their belief in the resurrection. If they had stolen the body and hidden it then surely at least one would have cracked under the threat of death and admitted that the resurrection was a fabricated story? When Peter and John were arrested for “teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2) and brought before the Sanhedrin (the council that had tried Jesus) they were told not to speak about it but Peter and John replied “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

As witnesses Jesus commanded them to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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” (Matthew 28:19-20). This ‘Great Commission’ was accompanied by a promise that Jesus would be with them always.

The third message that Jesus gave the disciples was that he would send the Holy Spirit to empower them. John the Baptist had said that Jesus would “baptise them in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16) and Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until they experienced this. He was then “taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). Two angels appeared to tell them that Jesus had now been taken up into heaven and his resurrection appearances came to an end. The work that Jesus came to earth to do as a man was complete. But this was not the end of the story.

(61) Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! – Luke 24:5-6

November 25, 2013

Jesus was crucified on the day before the Sabbath and the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to ensure that those being crucified were removed from their crosses before it began. He sent his soldiers to break their legs which hastened death as they could no longer push themselves up to breathe. The two criminals who were crucified with Jesus suffered this fate but the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead and pierced his side with a spear just to be sure.

Joseph of Arimathea, one of the religious leaders who had secretly followed Jesus, went to the Roman Governor, Pilate, and asked him if he could take Jesus’ body away for burial and Pilate granted his request. Joseph took the body and hastily placed it in his own tomb as the Sabbath was starting.

The chief priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus had claimed that he would rise from the dead so they posted a guard of soldiers to prevent Jesus’ disciples from removing the body and claiming that he was alive. But although they were worried about Jesus rising from the dead it seems that this was not on the minds of his closest followers.

Two of the women who had followed Jesus, Mary Magdalene and another Mary, wanted to pay their respects to Jesus by preparing the body for burial properly. No work was done on the Sabbath so it wasn’t until the dawn of Sunday that they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. When they arrived they were puzzled because, “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus” (Luke 24:2-3). Then two angels appeared to them to ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6). Still baffled they went to the disciples to tell them what had happened.

Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb weeping and encountered a man she thought must be the gardener. When he asked her why she was weeping she asked him if he knew where the body had been taken. It was only when he said her name that she recognised that it was Jesus. Later it took the disciples some time to recognise him too, although once they did, they were completely convinced as to who he was.

Jesus had a one to one meeting with Peter, although we know nothing about what was said. Peter had boldly sworn that he would never abandon or deny knowing Jesus but when questioned by onlookers during Jesus’ trial he denied ever knowing him. As Jesus left the trial Luke records that “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61) and the knowledge of what he had done left Peter devastated. With Jesus dead he felt that he had no opportunity to ever make it right. Now Jesus had risen from the dead he had to face him again. Their meeting must have been an emotional encounter but we know that Jesus forgave him and Peter played a leading role in the early church.

Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples, but on the first occasion Thomas was absent and he refused to believe the others until he saw the marks of the nails and the spear mark in his side. When Jesus reappeared he told him to put his finger in the marks but Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Doubting Thomas believed.

Luke records Jesus’ meeting with Cleopas and his companion, a couple who are not mentioned elsewhere in the gospels. They were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a journey of about seven miles, when they were joined by a man they didn’t recognise. They told him all about the events of the previous few days and the man responded by explaining from the Old Testament how the Messiah had to suffer. They invited him to stay with them but it was only when they sat down to eat together that “their eyes were opened and they recognised him” (Luke 24:31). Rushing back to Jerusalem they found the disciples who confirmed, “It is true! The Lord has risen” (Luke 24:34).

Jesus’ death made it possible for us to be right with God, but his resurrection makes it possible for us to have a living relationship with him as well as giving us assurance of life beyond death.

(60) They crucified him, along with the criminals – Luke 23:33

November 22, 2013

After he was arrested, Jesus suffered three brutal beatings before he was crucified. He was beaten by the Jews, mocked and beaten by Herod’s soldiers and then flogged by the Romans, a punishment so brutal that it often left the victim dead. They then put a crown of thorns on his head and struck and mocked him. Jesus would have been very weakened by the pain and the loss of blood even before he was crucified. He was forced to carry his cross to the site of his execution but, presumably because of his weakness, the Romans had to conscript another man to carry it in his place.

Luke very simply records that, “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals” (Luke 23:33). The full meaning of this would have been well known to those living in the Roman world as crucifixion was commonly used by the Romans to punish criminals. It was a barbaric and cruel punishment which inflicted severe pain over a long period. The word ‘excruciating’, that we use for the worst pain today, comes from the same root as the word for crucifixion, meaning to be fixed to a cross. The criminal had nails driven through their wrist into a cross bar that was then hoisted up and attached to an upright beam which their ankles were then nailed to. The victims were crucified naked to add to their humiliation. The combination of the loss of blood and the difficulty in breathing – as the victim had to push themselves up on their nailed feet to be able to take in air properly – resulted in a slow, lingering death, which could take up to a number of days.

It was common to put a notice up indicating the man’s crime and Pilate put a sign over Jesus which read “Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The chief priests objected to this, saying that Jesus only claimed to be the king of the Jews, but Pilate irritably dismissed their complaint.

As the soldiers were nailing him to the cross beam Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), a remarkable expression of compassion for his executioners.

The gospel writers record a number of things that Jesus said on the cross. John tells us that Jesus’ mother Mary was there watching her son suffer and that Jesus asked him to take care of her. Luke tells us of a conversation with one of the two criminals who were crucified with him. One mocked Jesus but the other recognised that Jesus had done no wrong and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Matthew tells us that there was complete darkness for three hours as Jesus hung on the cross. God, the source of light, hid his face from his Son because, as Paul put it, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) and he could not look on sin. As he endured this separation from his Father, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) quoting David’s words from Psalm 22. After this he cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30) as he realised that his earthly work was complete and then “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” as he “breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).

Jesus’ death was accompanied by various signs. In the temple the curtain that hid the holiest place from the view of everyone except the high priest – and he entered only once a year – was torn in two from top to bottom symbolising that Jesus’ perfect sacrifice had now made it possible for all to enter into God’s presence (see Hebrews 10:19-20). There was also an earthquake which broke open some tombs and a number of people came back to life and went into Jerusalem. Those watching were in awe and the centurion, who had overseen many executions, saw that Jesus was different and said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).

(59) Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God – Matthew 26:63

November 21, 2013

The events leading up to Jesus’ death are carefully documented by all four gospel writers. Jesus was in Jerusalem with thousands of others to celebrate the Passover, the meal that remembered the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. The chief priests and other religious leaders were keen to put him to death to avoid any disturbance to the status quo. Jesus was publically teaching in the temple courts each day and, ironically, the difficulty in arresting him was not finding him but ensuring that they found him away from the crowds that were hanging on his every word. For this they needed an insider, someone close to Jesus who could lead them to him at a time when he was away from the masses.

The first three gospels list the twelve disciples or apostles that Jesus chose to be with him during his time on earth. They heard most of his teaching and saw the most of his healings and went on to form the core of the church that spread the good news about Jesus. However, there was one notable exception. The twelfth on every list was Judas who Matthew and Mark refer to as “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him” (Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:19) and Luke calls “a traitor” (Luke 6:16). Despite all he had seen of Jesus, somehow Judas became disillusioned with Jesus and went to the chief priests to offer to betray him to them.

Jesus and the twelve celebrated the Passover together in an upper room in Jerusalem. This meal contained many symbols from the time of the Exodus: the lamb that was killed, its blood shed so that God passed over the house and didn’t punish its sin, and shared bread and wine. Jesus invested this, his last supper, with new meaning. He shared the bread and wine saying, “This is my body given for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:19,20). This meal became the Christian equivalent of Passover, reminding Jesus’ disciples of his sacrifice as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Christians regularly share bread and wine today, following Jesus’ command to eat and drink “in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24,25). Paul calls it “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20) while today it is also called communion, breaking of bread, or the Eucharist from the Greek word for thanksgiving.

After the meal, Jesus and his disciples went out to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus wrestled in prayer, aware that he was facing a painful death in order to allow men and women to be reconciled with God. As he finished praying Judas arrived, leading the temple guard to Jesus in the garden. They arrested him and took him to the high priest’s house.

Jesus had a number of ‘hearings’, all of which were rigged and unjust. The high priest tried but failed to find false evidence to justify putting Jesus to death. Eventually in frustration he asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one?” to which Jesus answered, “I am” (Mark 14:61,62). This blasphemy in the eyes of the high priest required the death penalty but only the Romans could carry out such a sentence so they took Jesus to the Roman governor, Pilate.

Despite the charges of the chief priests, Pilate was unable to find fault with Jesus and, hearing that he was from Galilee, was pleased to have an excuse to send him to Herod, the man who had killed John the Baptist. Herod was hoping that Jesus would perform a miracle for him but Jesus said nothing to him and so Herod sent him back to Pilate.

Pilate was baffled by Jesus’ claim to be the King of the Jews and frightened to hear that he had claimed to be the Son of God and so told the chief priests that he would release him but they stirred up the crowd into a frenzy shouting for him to be crucified. After a message from his wife warning him to have nothing to do with Jesus, Pilate took water and publically washed his hands to symbolise that he was innocent of Jesus’ blood (see Matthew 27:19, 24) before handing him over to be crucified.

(58) See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey – Matthew 21:5

November 20, 2013

With the city of Jerusalem buzzing with the news of him raising Lazarus from the dead and the religious leaders planning to kill him, Jesus keeps his head down until the week before the Passover. Between them, the gospel writers devote a third of their writing to Jesus’ last week on earth as it is the dramatic climax to his work on earth.

On the Sunday before the Passover, Jesus approaches Jerusalem. He sends two of his disciples to find a donkey in a village and he then rides into the city to a rapturous reception. Crowds flock into the street and cut down branches to line the road ahead of him. In doing this, Jesus is clearly fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9 quoted in Matthew 21:5).

By fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy Jesus was raising the people’s expectations. Immediately after prophesying that he will come gently riding a donkey Zechariah says that the king  “will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). For the Jewish people who had lived under repressive Roman rule for almost a century this raised their expectations that Jesus would be the one who would finally give them independence. No wonder the people cried out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9 quoting from Psalm 118:26).

Jesus went straight to the temple where he threw out the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice. He called them thieves as they were not only operating in a place that was for prayer but were also exploiting the poor. The people thronged around him and he healed them as the children cried out in praise to him. The chief priests were horrified but Jesus quoted from a Psalm to explain their actions and by accepting their praise he confirmed that he was in no doubt that he was God himself.

Jesus spent the next few days teaching and healing in the temple. The religious authorities were afraid to arrest him because of the reaction of the crowd – any riot would have been quickly and brutally suppressed by the Romans – but they sent various delegations to trick him with questions.

One group asked him where his authority came from but he turned the tables on them by asking whose authority John the Baptist operated under. They realised that if they said it was God’s then he would ask them why they didn’t believe in him, but if they said it was by man’s authority then the crowd would turn on them. They feebly said that they didn’t know so Jesus said that he wouldn’t answer their question – which had the same answer – either.

Another group asked if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. It would be unpopular with the crowd just to say yes and it would bring the wrath of Rome if he said no. So, he took a coin and asked them whose picture was on it. When they replied that it was Caesar’s he said the famous line, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Jesus upheld the legitimate responsibilities of the civil authorities, whilst making it clear that God had the ultimate authority.

After Jesus dealt with a few tricky religious questions he asked a group of Pharisees how the Messiah could be the Son of David and yet David called him Lord. How could a man call one of his descendants God? The Pharisees had no answer for this, so demonstrating the limitations of their knowledge. Jesus then launched into a public attack on the behaviour of the scribes and Pharisees. He exposed their pride, their hypocrisy and their distortion of the law, making a big deal out of minor matters whilst neglecting mercy and faithfulness. In another vivid picture he accused them of carefully removing a gnat that had fallen into their drink and then swallowing a camel that they had overlooked (see Matthew 23:23-24).

Jesus was at the height of his popularity with the crowds but now had a wide range of enemies who were determined to remove him from the national stage.

(57) It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish – John 11:50

November 19, 2013

Jesus’ miracles caused the biggest headache for the Pharisees and other religious leaders. John records the story of a man who was blind from birth. Jesus was passing by when his disciples asked him whether his blindness was a result of his own sin or, given that he was born blind, his parents’ sin. Jesus told them that it was not the result of either’s sin but that “the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

Jesus made the grand statement that, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5) – and promptly followed it by spitting on the ground! He then made some mud, put it on the man’s eyes and told him to go and wash in a nearby pool. The man did this and came back seeing.

Understandably this created a stir among his friends and neighbours who took him to the Pharisees to investigate how this happened. They were divided as some said that because the healing happened on the Sabbath Jesus could not be from God while others wondered how someone not from God could perform such miracles.

They questioned his parents, who confirmed that he was their son who had been born blind but refused to be drawn into a discussion about Jesus. The Pharisees then question the man more harshly. His testimony is simple: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25). He gets increasingly irritated at their questioning and boldly mocks their lack of understanding. This infuriates them so much that they throw him out. Jesus finds him and accepts the man’s worship while commenting that those who are spiritually blind will, like this man, see. Meanwhile those like the Pharisees who claim to see, will become blind.

The miracle that finally caused the religious leaders to plan Jesus’ death is the most dramatic. When Jesus visited Jerusalem he often stayed at the house of Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Jesus receives the news that Lazarus is ill but delays going to see him until he has died. By the time he arrives at his house he has already been in the tomb for four days and he finds Martha and Mary mourning with their friends.

Both sisters meet him and demonstrate their faith in Jesus by saying that if he had been there he would have healed Lazarus and avoided his death. Jesus is moved by the mourning and weeps with them. But when he came to the cave where Lazarus was buried he shocks everyone by telling them to take away the stone that sealed the entrance. Martha protests but allows the tomb to be opened whereupon Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. To everyone’s amazement he appears, bound in grave clothes but alive.

This event caused many to believe in him, but others went to tell the Pharisees. They gathered with the chief priests and decided that Jesus had to be stopped. If he continues, his popularity will cause such trouble that the Romans will crack down hard, so threatening the position of the religious establishment. Caiaphas, the high priest, summed it up by saying, “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50).

The Pharisees had wanted Jesus out of the way for some time but now they started serious planning to put him to death. Jesus had to be removed and, as they saw how people flocked to see Lazarus, they planned to kill him too. The scene was set for Jesus’ last week on earth.

(56) I am the bread of life – John 6:35

November 18, 2013

All four gospels record the occasion when Jesus fed five thousand men plus women and children with five loaves and two fishes. Having thanked God for this small packed lunch he got his disciples to distribute it among the crowd until all were fed and there were twelve baskets left over. The people were reminded of the miraculous provision of food in the desert when the children of Israel left Egypt and they eagerly followed Jesus in the hope of another free lunch.

Jesus told them to focus on “food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27) meaning to believe in him and follow his teaching. To illustrate his point he said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). In the same way as we need to eat to nourish our physical bodies so we need to regularly feed on his words to build up our spiritual life. Whereas our physical bodies will die, our spiritual life is everlasting and so we are to focus on things with eternal significance.

This is the first of seven “I am” statements in John’s gospel where Jesus gives us pictures to illustrate who he is. “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11) reminds us of David’s words in Psalm 23 where he says “The Lord is my shepherd” and describes the care that a good shepherd gives to his flock. “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12 and 9:5), sums up his mission to bring light to all who are in darkness. “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) indicate Jesus’ uniqueness in being the way to God and to giving us eternal life.

The use of the expression “I am” was very significant. When God revealed himself to Moses he said that his name was “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), which was shortened to “I am”, so for Jesus to say “I am the light of the world” seemed breathtakingly arrogant to those who heard him as the use of ‘I am’ hinted at blasphemy – claiming to be God.

Jesus went further than this in an exchange with the Jewish leaders. They believed that they were fine because Abraham was their father, meaning that they were inheritors of the promise God gave to him. But Jesus told them that they were children of the devil because of their hostility towards him. The conversation became increasingly tetchy and Jesus said that, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day” (John 8:56). The Jews were baffled by this claim to have seen Abraham but when Jesus clarified what he meant by saying, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58) they became angry. This was a clear claim to be God and the Jews tried to stone him for blasphemy at this point.

CS Lewis famously summed up the options as to who Jesus was by saying that “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse” (CS Lewis in Mere Christianity).

The option that Jesus was merely a good man is not tenable from what we know of what he said. These passages in John’s gospel clearly show that Jesus himself claimed to be God, something that a truly good man would not do. Many of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time thought he was a lunatic or a liar, but others saw his goodness and accepted his claim to be the Lord, God himself.

As for us, CS Lewis laid out our options very clearly: “You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

(55) God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life – John 3:16

November 15, 2013

The first three gospels have a fair bit of overlap in the events they describe but the fourth one, John, which was written some years later, contains mostly unique material. John records no parables and only a few miracles, most of which are not in the other gospels, but includes distinct teaching and conversations. He sets out his purpose in writing at the end of his gospel where he states that he selected his material from all the material that was available to him, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

John opens his gospel with an eternal perspective on Jesus. Echoing the opening of the Hebrew Old Testament and using the Greek word ‘logos’ – meaning ‘the Word’ or concept in Greek culture – for Jesus, he writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3). He makes no reference to the details of Jesus’ birth but simply states that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This man that John had lived alongside for three years was the eternal Son of God, God himself come to earth.

John records a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee called Nicodemus who was more open to what Jesus had to say than most of the others. He came to Jesus by night, presumably in order to keep the meeting secret, and starts by making a statement that has an implied question. He states that they – presumably a number of the Pharisees – knew that Jesus came from God because of the miracles he was doing, and he is wondering how they can reconcile this with their concerns about his teaching.

Jesus didn’t engage with the conversation about himself but told Nicodemus that he needed to be “born again” (John 3:3) as, without that, a man cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus does not understand the expression “born again” but Jesus tells him that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Today people use the term ‘born again Christian’ to refer to Christians who are more enthusiastic about their faith than ‘normal Christians’ but it is clear from what Jesus said that no one can become a Christian without being born again of the Spirit.

Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus that he will be “lifted up” (John 3:14) – a reference to the crucifixion – in order that people may be able to believe in him and have eternal life. He states the good news for the world in one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Jesus goes on to say that his mission is not to condemn people but to save those who choose to believe in him. John records some teaching from John the Baptist which helps us to understand the choice we each face. He said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (John 3:36).

We do not start from a neutral position from which we choose eternal life or to perish but, due to our sinful nature, we start out as enemies of God as he is implacably opposed to sin. If we choose not to believe in God’s Son, who was sent to be ‘lifted up’ and take the punishment that was due to us, then we will remain in that state with God’s wrath – or anger – directed at us. The love of God is displayed in him sending Jesus to die for us so that, through believing in him, we can have eternal life, not only life that will never end but also life of an infinitely greater quality due to our relationship to God. It is only when we fully realise the position that we start out in that we can fully appreciate the depth of God’s love in saving us from it.

(54) While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him – Luke 15:20

November 14, 2013

As we saw in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used pictures and illustrations to help people relate to and remember his teaching. The first three gospels include around forty parables that Jesus told – stories from everyday life with a hidden meaning.

Jesus told the people about a farmer who went out to sow seed in his field. This would have been a common sight in the countryside and Jesus may have pointed to a farmer scattering seed from his basket in a nearby field. Some of the seed would fall on the hard path where the birds ate it, some would fall on rocky ground where it was unable to establish strong roots so it withered in the hot sun, some fell among weeds which choked its growth, while some fell on good soil where it grew up to produce thirty to a hundred times as much grain (see Mark 4:1-8).

The disciples asked Jesus to explain this parable and Jesus responded by telling them that he used parables for two reasons. He quoted Isaiah who also faced people who did not accept his message and said that some people may hear but would never understand. For those who refused to engage with Jesus or seek the truth in his teaching they would see no more than stories. But for those who took time to think about them, God would reveal the hidden truth.

Jesus then told them that the parable was all about the seed, which is God’s word, and the different soils, which represent how receptive people are to it. The path where the birds ate the seed represents Satan taking away the word before it takes root, the rocky ground is people who don’t persevere when times get tough, the patch of weeds are where other things crowd out the message, while the good ground represents those who hear his word and accept it. This is a challenge to all of us to ensure that we continually give room to God’s words to take root in our lives and bear fruit in terms of positive attitudes and behaviours.

Another time Jesus was speaking to a crowd of “tax collectors and sinners” – those who were looked down on by society – and “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” (Luke 15:1-2) who were grumbling that Jesus kept such bad company. He told them a story of a man with two sons, a dutiful older one and a wilful younger one who asked his father for his inheritance. This is appalling behaviour as he is basically saying, “I wish you were dead.” What is even more shocking is that the father grants his request and so the son goes off to a far country where he “squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13).

Once his money runs out and he is reduced to feeding pigs he decides to return home and plead for a job as one of his father’s hired servants. But when he gets home, his father “saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Before the son can ask for a job as a servant the father throws a party for his lost son. This story perfectly illustrates God’s grace, the favour that he shows to us when we do not deserve it in any way at all. Despite our wilful and reckless disregard for him, God is willing to welcome us home when we turn to him.

The “tax collectors and sinners” would have received this story with a mixture of astonishment and joy that God would be prepared to welcome people like them but “the Pharisees and teachers of the law” were horrified at the father’s behaviour. Jesus has a message for them as he describes the older son’s reaction. He refuses to join the party for his brother and so the father goes out to plead with him to come in, pointing out that he has had all the advantages of being with the father for years. The father’s love for him too is unquestionable.

The story ends with us not knowing how things turn out for either son. Will the older one come in and celebrate? Will the younger brother now be a good son to his father? The ending is left hanging so that we can consider whether we are like the older or the younger son and how we will react to the incredible love of our heavenly father.

(53) Do to others what you would have them do to you – Matthew 7:12

November 13, 2013

Matthew devotes three chapters of his gospel to a block of Jesus’ teaching known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ as he delivered it on a mountainside. The teaching it contains is some of the greatest the world has ever heard.

Jesus started with a series of statements about who was ‘blessed’, meaning deeply happy and ultimately fulfilled. They appear contradictory at first sight. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3,5), he is talking about the attitudes that we need to have in order to live lives that are truly fulfilled in the long run. Being ‘poor in spirit’ means to know how flawed we are and how incapable of making ourselves right. It is only then that we can develop a right relationship with God. It is the meek, not the proud, who will inherit the earth because God opposes the proud and gives to those who are humble.

Jesus goes on to give a range of teaching on how to deal with anger and lust, on divorce, on straight talking, on how to deal with those who oppose us and about giving to the poor. The old law allowed for retribution against those who harmed us by taking, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38 – KJV) but Jesus radically told his disciples to ‘turn the other cheek.’ This is not about being a doormat and letting people walk all over us but about confronting the person who has wronged you by facing them up to their actions. In Proverbs it talks about giving your enemy food and drink as the action of doing good to those who have done evil to you is like heaping burning coals on his head (see Proverbs 25:21-22).

Jesus goes on to tell them to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). The model for this topsy-turvy behaviour is God himself who continues to love all men, including those who make themselves his enemy, by causing “his sun to rise on the evil and the good” (Matthew 5:45). As Jesus says in Luke’s record of this teaching, “he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).

Jesus’ teaching includes giving his disciples a model prayer which we know as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. This was not intended to be said as a mindless chant but gives us a framework for prayer starting with a focus on “Our Father in heaven” and his will being done on earth (and, by implication, in us) before moving on to our need for “our daily bread” and for forgiveness, and ending with a plea to be kept from temptation (see Matthew 6:9-13). It is good to pray through its phrases and expand them as we make them relevant to our daily life.

Jesus uses some vivid pictures which make his teaching memorable. The most striking of these is related to judging others. He likens our tendency to see faults in others while being blind to our own to a man who tries to get a speck of sawdust out of his brother’s eye while he has a plank in his own eye. It is a cartoon-like picture that cannot fail to lodge in our memory (see Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus sums up his teaching about how we treat others with the famous statement that we should do to others what we would have them do to us. He says that this sums up the Law and the Prophets, meaning the whole of the Old Testament (see Matthew 7:12).

Jesus finishes with a picture of two men building houses. One digs foundations and builds on the rock while the other wants quick results so he just builds on the sand. Both houses look the same until the rain and the floods come and the second house is washed away leaving the first standing (see Matthew 7:24-27). The wise builder is a picture of one who hears Jesus’ words and puts them into practice while the foolish builder is like the one who hears and doesn’t. The Sermon on the Mount is full of great teaching but its value comes from working to apply it in our own lives day by day.