Archives for January 2018

The Word of God, from the beginning the True Light

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 31
John 1:1-14

Introducing His gospel, John tells us how the Word who was with God before Creation, later chose to become a human being to show us God’s grace and also glory.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

  • “In the beginning” as in the Bible’s opening verse.
  • The Word, logos, is a phrase that expresses what God is like – creating, revealing, saving. All of this is in the person who is described as “the Word”. All of this is in another form of God’s self-revelation that we call the word, or the Bible.
  • In Jewish thinking the word of God was the principle by which all things are governed by God, and the law of God He gave them to be their guiding life principle.

For further study: Psalm 33:6, Psalm 119:89, Psalm 147:15,18, Deut 32:47

2 He was with God in the beginning.

  • Meaning before Creation.

3 Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.

  • We may not readily see Jesus as a creator. This tells us that He was –  note the “He was” –from the beginning God’s agent in creating everything that exists: “The world was made through Him, v.10.

4 In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

  • This is the life which the Word is seen as imparting at Creation – John makes this a very significant word, using it 36 times in his gospel, twice as much as any other book. The light that comes from this life, is first, the very essence of our being made in the image of God. There is also a second aspect of light as the general revelation of God – God can be recognised by anyone in His works, His providence and in the way nature ‘speaks’, Psalm 19:1-12 – a revelation which came into clearer focus with the coming of Jesus in human form.

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

  • “Overcome” could equally be translated understood: the darkness has not understood it. Probably a combination of both meanings is intended. At Creation, the light prevailed. At the coming of the Word in the person of Jesus, the light prevailed, and the darkness didn’t understand it. Choosing the Way of Jesus, such as love and grace, in the face of darkness is an effective strategy because the darkness does not understand it.

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John.

7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through Him all might believe.

  • “Believe” is another important word for John; his purpose was to draw hearers or readers to belief in Jesus, and he uses the Greek word for believe about 100 times.

8 He Himself was not the light; He came only as a witness to the light.

  • John had an interim role, to create awareness of the light and show people its source.
  • The gospel writer John makes the distinction that John the Baptist, despite his impact at the time, came as a lamp, John 5:35, but “not the light”.

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognise Him.

  • See verse 5 above in the “understood” dimension.
  • The relationship of the Messiah Jesus, the Son of God, to the world is an emphasis of John’s writing. He uses the word for “world” over 100 times in his gospel and letters; by contrast, Paul, who was sent to the Gentile world, uses that word only 47 times in all his writings.

11 He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.

  • Or “to that which was His own [the Jewish nation and heritage], but [the people who were] His own people [around Him].

12 Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God…

  • “Receive Him… believe in His name…”:  two ways of describing turning and welcoming Jesus, trusting Jesus and submitting to Him.
  • John’s gospel explains that the believer becomes God’s child, but only Jesus is God’s son. Paul describes believers as sons – specifically God’s sons by adoption.
  • Children of God, who have in a sense themselves “adopted God” as a Father through giving their lives to Jesus have, in the words of one commentator, “been given a new openness to, and relationship with, God that was not theirs [from] their natural birth.” What was fuzzy and hard to grasp in the natural, becomes clear as a direct result of the new spiritual birth.

13 …children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

  • A new and necessary spiritual birth which John explains more in John 3:3-8.

14 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.

  • Without ceasing to be God, Jesus let go of His divine nature to take on flesh – incarnation – one of the most amazing assertions ever to be put in so few words.

For further study and reflection: Philippians 2:5-8

  • “Only” in English understates the sense of monogenes, “one of a kind, unique” in the sense of being a Son who has all the attributes of the Father, who is exactly the same.
Application

John used the most straightforward vocabulary in the NT in writing the lead in, and in many ways summary of, his gospel account.

John’s gospel is more theological and less narrative than the other three. The prologue shows this intention: the rest of the gospel develops the theme here of how the eternal “Word” of God, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Son of God, with God in the beginning before the Creation “took flesh” to minister among men so that all who turned to Him and believed in Him could be saved.

More literally, he pitched His tent among us. Think like Jews who saw God’s presence as being located in the tabernacle. Now He has moved to camp out with us.

The words we read here are simple – life, light, witness, glory – but grow in the gospel into awesome, transforming truths.

John demonstrates that God’s most profound truths are also very accessible – such that intellect and logic are often barriers at first. As Matthew later wrote, Matt. 18:3 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

For reflection and discussion

3. What is your understanding and experience, expressed simply, to start to recognise the true light of Jesus (verses 9-10) and to receive Him and be born of God (verses 12-13),  and come into a new identity as a child of God (v.12)?

4. Do you have a story of this kind of encounter with Jesus that you could share very briefly – what you might tell someone at a bus stop – with another person?

Declaring praise to God for His providential care

TUESDAY, JANUARY 30
Psalm 104:26-37

Praise to God for His provision and His purpose

26 There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which You formed to frolic there.

  • Leviathan is a mighty creature, like a sea monster, who can overwhelm man but is no match for God. Monster or not, the sea creatures are all created by God – reflecting the fifth day of creation, Genesis 1:21 “…God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems…”
  • “Frolic there”: made to play in the sea, New Living Translation. The psalmist says that this feared creature is nothing but the Lord’s pet (NLTSB).

For further study, see Job 3:8, Job 41:1, Psalm 74:14, Isaiah 27:1

27 All creatures look to You to give them their food at the proper time.

28 When You give it to them, they gather it up; when You open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.

  • All of creation depends on God’s providential care. This providence is not remote from us and we should never take it for granted. Our prayerful, worshipful relationship with God calls down what He has already prepared.

29 When You hide your face, they are terrified; when You take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.

  • This seems to recall Job 1:21 “…The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

30 When You send your Spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the ground.

  • “Send Your Spirit” (v.30) or “breath” v.29). The word ruach can be translated either way, as in these two verses. God’s breath, or Spirit, is what brings life and renewal to every living thing, including humankind.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in His works –

  • Introduces a section with words of declaration – in other words, speaking truth in faith to the heavenlies – and blessing. “Let” and “may” are usually words which invoke, or call down, God’s good intentions which is what we do as we exercise our choice to bless. Of course God wants His glory to endure, and to be able to rejoice in His works, and the psalmist’s declaration is agreeing with Him. As we say it or sing it, we are agreeing with the Lord and His purpose, which is much more than a nice thing to do. It is spiritually powerful in establishing our partnership with God’s purpose, and against other evil purposes.

32 He who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

33 I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.

34 May my meditation be pleasing to Him, as I rejoice in the Lord.

  • In the context of the preceding verses, that meditation must surely be to reflect on God’s providence, His sovereign purpose for each of us that overarches the ups and downs of everyday life, and which will in His timing be fulfilled. This is not a passive response to His providence; God works with the natural order of things and also intentionally with us, as covenant partners, to bring about His government, which is why we pray, preach the Gospel and act on what He shows us!

35 But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.

  • This prayer (or more accurately, declaration of faith) expresses a common plea by Christians, that the curse of the earth be reversed and wicked people no longer have the upper hand in affairs around us. This will be fulfilled fully, in a way we see only partially, at the end time and the return of the Messiah Rev. 20:11-15, Rev. 22:3

Praise the Lord, my soul. Praise the Lord.

  • Meanwhile the power to bring beneficial change comes from praise of God who is good, and whose intentions are always the best, in whom there is no shadow of turning, who is faithful and not fickle – whatever our perceptions might be at any one time. When we feel powerless, praise to God whose character and kingdom purpose sits over and above our trials and difficulties is the attitude the devil fears most of all.

Application

Everything holds together in God – He breathes, and His breath, or Spirit, gives life.

However, the world we live in is caught up in two cycles, gaining life and losing life.

Our praise of God and particularly our declarations of who He is as Creator and His goodness, kindness, greatness and faithfulness, turn what is wilting into what is renewing and growing. That is our purpose.

For reflection and discussion

2. Are we more inclined to point out how everything is going wrong, or how God is over all the affairs of our world, “renewing the face of the ground”? Which is more like agreeing with Him?

Choosing to hear the voice of wisdom

We are using the C of E lectionary readings, which differ from the Revised Common Lectionary passages this week.

Proverbs 8:1 and 22-31
Psalm 104:26-37
John 1:1-14
Colossians 1:15-20

MONDAY, JANUARY 29
Proverbs 8:1 and 22-31

Wisdom is described like a personality, and as the first of God’s works, involved in Creation.

1 Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?

  • Wisdom and reading on, from 9:13 Folly, are both given personalities and speeches. Both offer a similar initial appeal to the “simple” or undiscerning – but with very different outcomes.
  • The next 20 verses set out why wisdom is good (or better), being trustworthy, true, hating pride and arrogance and leading in awe of the Lord. The next part of the discourse is like a hymn of praise setting out the long history of the Lord’s wisdom.

22 “The Lord brought me forth as the first of His works, before His deeds of old;

23 I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

  • Wisdom is described in the same terms as the Word of God: present from the beginning and therefore eternal.

24 When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water…

  • These verses are sometimes taken to be a description of Christ; better, to take them to show wisdom’s role in creation, alongside Christ as the divine Word (John 1:1-5).
  • Wisdom is not a person, but it comes from a person, namely God Himself, and does not exist outside of God. The highest expression of wisdom is Jesus Christ, Col. 1:15-17, 2:3 and this wisdom is an expression of His character and nature.

25 …before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth,

26 before He made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth.

  • When God set about creating the world, Wisdom – His wisdom – was already operating.
  • Verses 24-26 reflect the account of the Creation:
    v.23 and day one, the earth;
    v24 and day two, water; and
    vv.25-26, day three, the land.

For further study, compare these verses with the Creation account, Prov. 8:23-26, Genesis 1:1-13.

27 I was there when He set the heavens in place, when He marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

28 when He established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,

29 when He gave the sea its boundary…

  • “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb?” See Job 28:8-9.

…so the waters would not overstep His command, and when He marked out the foundations of the earth.

30 Then I was constantly at His side.

  • Where is this argument going? In v.27 above “I was there…” and v.30 “constantly at His side”, so reading ahead to v.33 (not shown) “listen to my instruction…” “…for those who find me (wisdom), find life and receive favour…”
  • If Wisdom and the Word of God are not exactly the same, here it is shown that there is a close affinity. We could hear the Lord saying, “those who find Me, find life…”

I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in His presence,

31 rejoicing in His whole world and delighting in mankind.

Application

It sounds at first as if ‘wisdom’ is a poetic name for the Lord, but it turns out that wisdom has been formed and fashioned, playing its part in Creation and in every aspect of God’s purpose subsequently.

Knowledge is one thing; how to use that knowledge is where wisdom comes in (which is also helpful in understanding the spiritual gifts, word of knowledge and word of wisdom, 1 Cor. 12:8).

This is a description of the outflow of the heart of God, particurlarly the part that knows how the world was created and therefore how everything works.

It is also (by context) a description of how we are constantly presented with choices, with encouragement to choose God’s way rather than the alternative.

How do we receive God’s wisdom? By having the humility to know we need it – and to ask for the Holy Spirit to give us His wisdom, with the intention of receiving and using it, rather than reverting to our own ideas, James 1:5-8.

For reflection or discussion

For further study: read on into Proverbs 9, beyond 9:13.

  1.  Wisdom and folly can seem all too similar – and man’s wisdom can all too quickly turn out to be no wisdom at all. How do we recognise and choose God’s wisdom?

Catching God’s heart through teaching of spiritual authority

FRIDAY, JANUARY 26
The emerging message

Reviewing again the four readings for Sunday, January 28:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
One day, God says, He will raise up another prophet who will speak truths from the heart – His heart.

Psalm 111
The Lord’s precepts are not just trustworthy, but His heart is constancy and covenant – “for ever and ever”.

Mark 1: 21-28
Jesus taught from the heart rather than from the mind, and impure spirits recognised the authority of the heart of the Father in Him.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mere knowledge can be arrogant and putting down of others, while the love that is at the heart of life in Jesus builds people up.

The heart of God changes our hearts

Moses was someone who had a very close walk with God. Not so close that he didn’t make mistakes and not so protected that he didn’t make God angry on occasion. But close enough to learn, and listen, and to be able to speak to the Israelites out of the heart of God which had captured his heart.

Jesus was, on one level, another prophet or spokeman for God, whose character and call had similarities to Moses. This was what Moses saw in the Spirit and spoke about. Of course, Jesus Christ was more than that – He was the only and unique Son of God, involved in the original creation, part of the godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so close in relationship that they are not three gods but joined as One, although presenting three points of access for us. Whether we come to the immense and all-encompassing love of the Father’s heart, or encounter the love of Jesus as One who has lived our life and overcome, or received the loving encouragement of the Holy Spirit’s leading and prompting and empowering – our heart is transformed once we catch God’s heart.

That heart connection is what He desires from us in praise and in more intimate worship. As we draw close, we find that God has a very different character value from our human way of being. We blow hot and cold, quickly ‘move on’ and forget, and make promises which are situational. They might be quite sincere at the time but as situations and relationships change, the heart of the promise or intention… kind of fades. And we think that is normal.

With God, His heart and promise never changes or faces. He sees situations with us change and our relationship with Him draws close and veers off wider again, however His intention, His covenant undertaking to love us, does not change at all. And He says, that is His ‘normal’!

Jesus came into the world as the Son of God but born or man, to live a human life but also a perfect life, and as one in whom was no sin, to pray the complete price for all our revellion and selfishness and independence. Along the way, He “taught as One with authority” and everything spiritual, whether dark or light, knew that. Why? Because what Jesus said came from the heart, and it wasn’t just any old heart – His heart was also the heart of the Father. He gave up His divine identity to live on earth as one of us, but He was also doing that living as one fully and perfectly filled with the Holy Spirit – so no wonder His heart was so closely connected to the Father’s heart. However perfectly or, more likely, imperfectly filled with the Spirit we think we are, Jesus modelled a relationship and way of being that we can grow into. And we, too, can speak and serve with the authority that comes from the Father’s heart by the same connection, the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

The outworking of this comes in the witness we give to others who may not be at our place of faith. They may be some way off, spiritually – but they see us and watch us, how we are and how we handle life. They recognise something of the life of God in us, and that is a hallmark, a holiness or setting apart. They watch to see how our interactions with the unholy and unseparated ways of the world play out. Are we so separated and strict that they feel judged, or religiously obligated to be the same? Or are we so good at being accommodating to people of different values, that we are not actually very different or godly? Paul goes to what is in our hearts – is it a pride in knowing who we are in Jesus, so we can do what we want without fear of God’s judgment? Or is it the love that is in Jesus, that gets alongside others wherever they are on the journey, with His encouragement and understanding even though we personally have had an encounter with Him that has changed our hearts?

Revelation of God’s heart puts knowledge in its place

THURSDAY, JANUARY 25
1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mere knowledge can be arrogant and putting down of others, while the love that is at the heart of life in Jesus builds people up.

1  Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.

  • More literally, “about things offered to idols”. But v.4 is specific about brosis, food.
  • “We all possess knowledge” was most likely a Corinthian saying in a city known for its arrogance. Paul is saying that parading knowledge is heading towards pride. Christians, on the other hand, should be known for their love – and forebearance to those who have doubts, as explained in vv. 7-13.

2  Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.

  • Wisdom as a Christian is realising the limits on what we know and perceive, and the gap between this and God’s omniscience.

3  But whoever loves God is known by God.

  • The person who puts their love for God above love for recognition by what they know, is demonstrating a close walk with God.

4  So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”

  • In pagan sacrifice only a part of an animal was used – leaving plenty that could be eaten.

5  For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),

6  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

  • “There is but one God…” Deut 6:4, expanded by Paul into “one Lord, Jesus Christ” through whom all things were created. Paul calls attention to the role of God’s Son at creation, and also as the mediator of our salvation John 1:3, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2 .

7  But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.

7  Newly converted former pagans have been used to sacrificing and eating in the local temples and need the support of the good values of others, to grow in their new beliefs and lifestyle.

8  But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

9  Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

10  For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?

  • More specific than v.1 and v.4, this is about eating in a banqueting hall attached to a pagan temple – and so being seen in a religious setting and by inference,  possibly participating in that religion. Christians may have been invited to meals in a banqueting hall attached to a temple with members of their trade guild. Paul says that would be difficult for a new believer or someone exploring faith to understand a more mature Christian apparently compromising their faith in this way.

11  So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

  • Paul goes on to say elsewhere that Corinthian believers should not eat in pagan temples – but even if they had that right, knowing that it could not harm them as those in Christ, it would be arrogant to demonstrate it. He is saying “Don’t go there” out of concern for the spiritual well-being of others.

12  When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

  • It’s not helpful – and if they are harmed by your practice, then that is an offence against Christ.

13  Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

  • Paul says, if it came to it, he would rather not eat meat rather than be the cause of someone else having a wobble in their faith.

Application

The key truth here is that the Christian life is about love and concern for others. Someone who parades their knowledge of the gospel, without showing concern for others, is giving out a mixed message.

What is the equivalent of eating meat sacrificed to idols in our day? An earlier generation of Christians were strict about limiting or forbidding drinking alcohol, the cinema and dances; present-day  Christians are more likely to uphold moderation while feeling free to engage in things seen as social interactions, rather than idolatrous failings.

Present-day idolatry is more likely to be seen in career choices and the sporting and media world – the unhealthy exalting of celebrities, stars and sporting heroes, or uncritical involvement in areas of business or politics whose values or actions conflict with those of the gospel.

We should always be ready to examine ourselves in the light of the Bible’s teaching – and to be aware of the sensitivities of others trying to reconcile the world they know and live in, with the

Discussion starter

What is more of a barrier to those looking from the outside in, at the church and Christian faith: strict attitudes intended to safeguard holiness, or an easy accommodation with the ways of the world which devalues holiness? (You may want to think about scenes in BBC Two A Vicar’s Life  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09m8kbf)

C of E alternative epistle reading – Revelation 12: 1-5a

1  A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.

2  She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

3  Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.

4  Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.

5a  She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.”

Two different responses to teaching from the heart of God

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 24
Mark 1: 21-28

Jesus taught from the heart rather than from the mind, and impure spirits recognised the authority of the heart of the Father in Him.

21  They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.

  • The synagogue gathering (and later, building) came out of the exile years and the Jews’ practice of meeting together for prayer and study of the Torah. By the first century they were widespread, also having spread to the Greek-speaking world as we know from Paul’s missionary enterprises.
  • Capernaum was where Peter’s home was and was an early base for Jesus and His disciples. It was not unusual for a visiting teacher – Rabbi – to speak by invitation, essentially to teach the Scriptures.

22  The people were amazed at His teaching, because He taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

  • The usual form was to quote precedents and the rulings of previous authoritative teachers, a bit like a barrister in court today. Jesus amazed them by citing no-one; instead He taught with directness and authority, i.e. the spiritual authority that comes from the Holy Spirit. There’s a difference today we can recognise, between dry teaching and the spiritual dynamic (and sometimes upset) that comes when the Holy Spirit is invited and we hear God more directly. However, the latter is not always comfortable. Jesus later warned, Matt. 10:34, that His words might not keep everyone happy, but would bring out different responses.

23  Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out,

  • “Impure spirit” or unclean spirit or demon are interchangeable terms in the gospels and letters. 

24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”

  • Reports of demonisation are not now uncommon. There is now greater awareness than a generation or two ago, helped by the greater connection of the first and third worlds and better understanding of the spiritual dimensions.
  • Jesus came to destroy the power of the Evil one, 1 John 3:8, so it is not surprising that this demon (or demons – often present in groups) manifested in the way recorded.

25   “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!”

  • Jesus basically tells the demon spirit to shut up, and then to come out. Demons are all about control, and will talk and talk and argue to try to hold on to control. The response is not to be reasonable, as you would to a person, but to exercise spiritual authority, and command obedience, because this is a demon. There is no value in conversation with a spirit committed to lying and controlling. “Be quiet” and “Come out” are commands we can and should use in the name of Jesus when such a situation presents.

26  The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27  The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey Him.”

  • Each gospel has a particular readership in mind and moves quickly to show who Jesus is, to that readership. Mark includes this story early, for a reason. The way Jesus taught, as the One who is the Word teaching the word, and exercising authority over demon spirits, demonstrates to readers or hearers who Jesus is. This is not learning a religion – it is about encounter and relationship with the Living God.

28  News about Him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

Application

This synagogue was clearly not known for being vibrant and lifegiving. Jesus came to the front and the teaching came alive – people knew they were hearing from God, not man.

Many of our churches have the same need. Ministry carries on week by week but the Spirit of Jesus is not invited and so there is a lack of lifegiving encounter, or lifechanging presence. It is also true that worshippers, who may have made a personal commitment to make Jesus their Lord, also commonly carry baggage from past life which the Enemy can inhabit and use destructively.

We need to pray for a new hunger for the teaching that comes with spiritual authority as the teaching that Jesus would give.

At the same time, we all need the courage to face what can be a bumpy road. A ministry that never challenges anyone is a man-centred ministry. Jesus’ preaching did not bring harmony until it had first brought out what needed to be exposed. He later warned that this would result in division and strife, Matt. 10:34. The strife and insecurities and unresolved issues often lie dormant  in the minds of those in the congregation, but it can surface suddenly and with clarity, as in the outburst from the demonised man.

Discussion starters

When we find ourselves in a spiritual conversation, do we assert our opinions, or find confidence in the kind of authority that Jesus drew on? What does that look like, for us?

God’s word is His intention – then, now and for ever

TUESDAY, JANUARY 23
Psalm 111

The Lord’s precepts are not just trustworthy, but His heart is constancy and covenant – “for ever and ever”.

This psalm goes with Psalm 112, written by the same author (probably following the exile) and with the same acrostic structure following the Jewish alphabet on each half-line; so we can say they are intended to be read together.

1   Praise the Lord.
I will extol the Lord with all my heart
in the council of the upright and in the assembly.

  • The “council of the upright” is probably a more select group than the assembly and of proven godliness – similarly the “upright” of Ps. 112:2 and 4.
  • “With all my heart” a phrase associated with other psalms and in this context – perhaps what Jesus was alluding to when He gave the Great Commandment beginning “Love the Lord your God with all your heart”, Matt. 22:36-37.
  • Relating to God, heart to heart, is central to the theme this week

2  Great are the works of the Lord;
they are pondered by all who delight in them.

3  Glorious and majestic are His deeds,
and His righteousness endures forever.

4  He has caused His wonders to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and compassionate.

5  He provides food for those who fear him;
He remembers His covenant forever.

  • “His righteousness endures forever…His wonders to be remembered… He remembers His covenant forever.” Three of about six expressions of the enduring, unchanging, unfailing quality of God’s decrees (see also note to verses 8-10).
  • God’s people serve a God who remembers; on our side, an important part of worship is our remembering publicly what He has done.

For further study: Psalm 42:6, 45:17, 71:16-18, Exodus 17:14, Joshua 4:7.

  • Testimony linked to the Good News (pondered by all who delight in them, v.2, His wonders… remembered v.4) is spiritually powerful. Good News is not a phrase used in the psalms, yet the psalms speak of declaring it: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad” it says in Psalm 126. Therefore, according to Psalm 107, “Let the Redeemed of the Lord say so!” Psalm 126:3, Psalm 107:2

6  He has shown His people the power of His works,
giving them the lands of other nations.

  • “Shown His people…”: God reveals His purposes to His people Psalm 19:1-4, showing Himself to be worthy of complete trust (v.7 below)
  • Part of the promises of the enduring covenant concern “lands of other nations” given to His people, politically controversial or not!

For further study: Psalm 78:55, Genesis 12:7, 15:18

7  The works of His hands are faithful and just;
all His precepts are trustworthy.

  • “All His precepts are trustworthy…”: the theme about the particular authority and anointing on the Lord’s word emerges here.

8  They are established for ever and ever,
enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.

9  He provided redemption for his people;
He ordained his covenant forever
holy and awesome is His name.

10  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow His precepts have good understanding.
To Him belongs eternal praise.

  • “…Established for ever and ever… ordained His covenant for ever… To Him belongs eternal praise.” Three more expressions of how God’s covenant is praiseworthy – and permanent.
  • The much-repeated, classic definition in the wisdom literature: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. True wisdom is living in the light of God’s nature and character. Willing submission to His ways is the key to seeing the Lord’s strategy.

For further study: Job 28:28, Psalm 112:1, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10.

Application

We have little personal experience of decrees that are enduring, in a world where the values are transient and situational – ‘if it fits, it applies – until the time that it doesn’t’. We are casual; God by complete contrast is constant and faithful to His decree. More recently there has been controversy over people taking more notice of social media ‘fake news’ than journalism which is properly researched, backed up and balanced; and the way assertions, even wild assertions, repeated often enough and loudly enough, are given credibility.

By contrast, God speaks in a way which is utterly true and totally trustworthy. He often refers back to what He has said before, and reminds us of promises which are still standing. His intentions, expressed in His Word, remain His intentions, and they go on and on. He may say more about them, or put them into a new context, but unlike a politician’s tweet, they have foundation and real substance.

God wants to receive our praise not as routine but from the heart, and He also wants us to catch His heart, which is about His constancy and love which is eternal, and never fickle.

Discussion starter

What promises has God made long ago which might help us reach people for Him more confidently?

Speaking from the heart of God

Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, January 28 (Epiphany 4)

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
Mark 1: 21-28
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
C of E alternative epistle reading Rev. 12: 1-5a

MONDAY, JANUARY 22
Deuteronomy 18:15-20

One day, God says, He will raise up another prophet who will speak truths from the heart – His heart.

15  The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.

  • “Like me” –  Moses clearly speaking of the ultimate prophet who was to come. The timeline is similar to someone in early Saxon times speaking of something happening in our time.

16  For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire any more, or we will die.”

17  The Lord said to me: “What they say is good.

18  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.

  • Philip alluded to this verse in calling Nathanael over to Jesus, John 1:45
  • Both the OT and the NT view this passage as referring to the coming Messiah who would (with similarities to Moses) proclaim revelation from God and offer extraordinary leadership to His people.

For further study: There are a number of parallels between Moses and Jesus: being spared as a baby, Exod. 2, Matt. 2:13-23; Jesus renouncing a royal court, Phil. 2:5-8, Heb. 11:24-27; remarkable compassion for their people, Numbers 27:17, Matt. 9:36 and making intercession for their people, Deut 9:18, Heb. 7:25; speaking to God face to face, Exod 34:29-30, 2 Cor. 3:7. Both were involved in mediating a covenant, Deut 29:1, Heb. 8:6-7.

19  I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.

20  But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

  • A prophet, at one level, is what we call a preacher – someone who seeks to speak publicly on behalf of God, speaking God’s truth. OT prophecy was often delivered with a “foretelling” emphasis while NT prophecy, a particularly spiritual gift and ministry,  is more about “forthtelling”. Anyone can claim to speak for God; however in the OT such presumption was to be tested, and if necessary punished.
  • There is a test in view here – will people follow the prophet, or be careful to follow only the Lord and his true prophets? See Deut 13:1-5, Jer. 28:15-17.
  • Compare with v. 18 which refers to a very particular prophet, and this verse which heralds a series of prophetic voices. Both were fulfilled as we know.

Application

The Lord is always speaking to His people. Whether His people are hearing, or even disposed to hear (v.16) is another matter, which is why the Lord has raised up those who will speak and get people’s attention, on His behalf.

It is a serious matter to dismiss what the Lord is saying. Similarly, it is a serious matter to put the Lord’s name to something He is not saying, or to seek to speak authoritatively using an alternative and ungodly source of reference.

The ultimate truth speaker is Jesus, especially in his earthly role where He showed what God was like, alongside God’s self-revelation of Himself in his recorded and enduring word.

Discussion starter

What principles guide us in discerning whether what someone is speaking, is truth from God, or their own presumption – or a mixture?

Our God seeks greater partnership with us

Genesis 14:17-20

Melchizedek, acting as a priest,  brings out bread and wine and blesses Abram, who in turn gives him a tenth of everything.

Psalm 128

Blessing comes from a deep desire to walk closely with the Lord as a partner in life.

John 2:1-11

The first miracle of Jesus, turning water to wine at the wedding in Cana, Galilee relied on the willing participation of others.

Revelation 19:6-10

The sound of heaven: the cry of an immense gathering praising God for the ultimate partnership, the wedding on the Lamb of God and His prepared and presentable Bride, the Church.

The message that emerges – God’s provision but also partnership

Partnership with God, provision of land for Abram

Abram, or Abraham as he became, was a man who heard from God and had a close walk with God. He lived his life in partnership with God, trusting God to be ahead of whatever situation he faced; when he and Lot needed to diverge, to give their livestock and herdsmen more room, he gave Lot first choice and trusted God for his own provision. Lot’s own choice took him to Sodom and Gomorrah where he encountered problems.

Abraham simply trusted God who brought him to Mamre, near Hebron, a better place altogether.

In the short passage for this week, we see how Abraham initiated two life principles which we do well to emulate. When he experienced success and victory, he gave God the glory for that. He also honoured God by giving Him the first part of everything. This practice, giving back to God the tithe (or tenth) endures as part of Christian worship today and is seen as God’s provision for His church based on our faith and trust. Abraham’s trust of God and willingness to give God the first part didn’t leave him impoverished. His faith made him the wealthiest man of his time as well the founder of a nation. As we give God the glory due to Him, and honour Him with the first part of all that He gives us, He trusts us with more.

Partnership with God in a close walk, Psalm 128

Psalm 128:1 sets out the blessings of the kind of close walk that Abraham practised and defines the “fear the Lord” phrase for us: “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to Him.” These blessings cover every area of life: family, health, work and provision in a prosperity that is rooted in the “blessing from Zion”, the sense of keeping the focus on the Lord in the place of worship.

In Judaism, there is the concept of earning salvation, and of sanctions (sacrifices) for sin, both known and assumed. Christianity turns this on its head at the Cross. Guilt and shame and struck out. So is merit and entitlement. Grace, the undeserved favour of God, is what we find for us at the Cross, where the price was paid. However, our response to this is surely to revere God, want to walk with God and follow His ways. Perhaps the best way to understand this is the transformation that takes place when we give ourselves to Jesus, and the greater facility to be like Jesus that comes from our willingness to be continually filled again with His Spirit, and experience His love. At this point, we will be motivated and guided to walk a close walk – who would not want to walk closely to such love – and to do what is right in God’s sight – releasing His blessings into our lives.

Partnership in the miracle of provision, John 2

It was shameful, not just an embarrassment, for a wedding host to run out of the only drink available, after preparing for a week-long event. For Jesus, ministering to shame and every other emotional need is as important as other dimensions of healing, deliverance and salvation.

The miracle of water turned into fine wine at the wedding celebration teaches us how faith works in our willing participation in what then becomes a miracle. Here the servants went about an unnecessary task, filling the jars with water, and then they served out what they knew was water when it went in – as they did so, the water became wine. Later, in the feeding of the five thousand gathered on the hill, it was as the bread and fish was shared out, not by Jesus, but by the disciples, that the multiplication took place. The servants at Cana didn’t have much choice – they were doing what the Master told them. What about us, as the Master tells us something? For us this is usually a prompt from the Holy Spirit. We have a choice to hear and act on what we have sensed or glimpsed or caught uncertainly,  or to do nothing. As we move out tentatively in our little bit of faith, so God moves in with blessing.

Partnership with God’s eternal purpose: Jesus’ return for His bride, the Church

The “wedding of the Lamb” and “His bride… made… ready” can seem a remote and future concept to us – hardly at the top of today’s priorities. However, heaven’s purpose and practice is intentional and ongoing. Everything is directed towards this end, when Jesus will return in glory and take hold of His church.

John’s vison of the wedding of Christ and His bride, the Church

Revelation 19: 6-10

Thursday, January 18

The sound of heaven: the cry of an immense gathering praising God and saying “Hallelujah, for the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!”

6-8   Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.

Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and His bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

  • 6-8  “The Lord Almighty reigns” – looking forward to Christ’s return and undisputed lordship of all.
  • The worship of thousands in a big top at New Wine or Soul Survivor, or many more thousands in a football stadium, can be a thunderous roar. These are little local expressions beside what John is seeing as he looks into heaven.
  • The picture of a wedding between the Lord and His people as the bride is found elsewhere in Scripture, OT and NT.

For further study see Isaiah 54:5-7; Hosea 2:19; Matthew 22:2-14; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph 5:25.

9  Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

  • This event looks forward to Christ’s return and His reign established without rival or opposition, 1 Cor. 15:24.

10  At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But He said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.”

  • “Don’t do that!” literally “Refrain! (hora me), an abrupt rebuke. A visible encounter with an angel is nothing if not arresting – but in the Christian walk there is no scope for the worship of anybody or anything but God. Not an institution, not a high-ranking position, not a person of significant anointing – and not an angel, one of the heavenly company, who themselves are servants (douloi) of  God worshipping the godhead and bearing testimony to Jesus. There are differences but that is a shared priority.
  • “The testimony of Jesus” could be (1) the testimony He committed to His servants, His revelation of God, the “mind of Christ”. Or (2) it could mean the testimony we bear to who Jesus is. Either way, or combining both meanings as is often found in Scripture, the true spirit of prophecy always bears witness to Jesus. The meaning of prophecy on the most general level is our public proclamation. So true preaching must be Jesus-centred, bearing witness to Him.
Application

The “wedding of the Lamb” and “His bride… made… ready” can seem a remote and future concept to us – hardly at the top of today’s priorities. However, heaven’s purpose and practice is intentional and ongoing. Everything is directed towards this end, when Jesus will return in glory and take hold of His church.

If our desire for stability and maintaining the familiar routine is what occupies our agenda, how does that hasten or inhibit what God has purposed to do? Worse, could it position us as an obstruction to His divine purpose?

At times when we consider our desire for God’s presence, favour, blessings, or even  dare we say, revival, joining in the praise to the Lamb of God and declaring wholeheartedly that “the the Lord Almighty reigns” both positions us to receive, and also gets our focus back on heaven’s preparations and the need for our own change into “clean linen” preparation.

Discussion starter

4.  If we knew that Jesus’ return to claim His bride was imminent, really imminent, how would that impact our expression of excitement and praise in gathering and worshipping together?