Archives for Jan 2018

Jesus turns water into wine

John 2: 1-11

Wednesday, January 17

The first miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, Galilee

1-3  On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee.

  • “Third day” – following the calling of Philip and Nathanael, John 1:43.
  • Perhaps the ruined Khirbet Qana, about nine miles north of Nazareth

1-3  Jesus’ mother was there,  and Jesus and His disciples had also been invited to the wedding.

  • It was probably the wedding of a relative or family friend, as Jesus, his mother, Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, Nathanael and John were all attending.

1-3  When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to Him, “They have no more wine.”

  • This was wine, not grape juice, and people, then as now, might have too much to drink (v.10). Wine in the ancient world was commonly diluted with two or three parts of water.
  • Running out was embarrassing for the host and groom – and especially so in a culture which emphasised honour and shame. The celebration could go on for a whole week. Often everyone from the village would be invited, and careful preparations were expected.

4   “Woman, why do you involve Me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

  • This is abrupt, but not rude as it comes across in English. The literal phrase was “what does this have to do with us” and this was a common Jewish idiom, Judges 11:12, 2 Samuel 16:10, not unlike our like our “this is not down to me”. Mary had to make a bigger shift than most parents to recognise Jesus for the Messiah He was, not just her son.

His mission must follow God’s timing, not anyone else’s. “My hour has not yet come” always refers to Jesus dying and being exalted e.g. John 7:30 and several other mentions in this gospel. There might also be some symbolism in His answer – the wedding calling to mind the “wedding of the Lamb” at the end of the age, Rev. 19:7 (fourth reading) and foretold in the wedding parables of Matthew 22 and 25.

For further study: Matt. 22:1-14 and 25:1-13, a wedding celebration with wine in abundance, Isaiah 25:6, Jer. 31:12, Hosea 14:7.

5  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”

6  Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

  • The milk churns seen in the country until the 1970s were 10 gallons capacity – so these jars, made of stone, not earthenware, were huge.
  • The ceremonial washing mentioned by John draws a contrast between the old order of Jewish law and religious custom, with Jesus Himself and, looking forward, the complete cleansing in His shedding of blood and death on the Cross.
  • Further on in the story, Jesus went on to Jerusalem for the Passover and cleansed the temple there, John 2:13-16.

7  Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

8-10   Then He told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realise where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

  • A characteristic of this new apostolic age which Jesus brings in,  is better and “best” as here.

11  What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which He revealed His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.

  • It was the first of eight miracles, or signs, that John is recording, that demonstrate and confirm who Jesus is – “through which He revealed His glory” – and through which others believed in Him. Each of the signs emphasises the exceptional extent of the miracle – wine of the highest quality, the official’s son healed at a great distance, a paralysed man healed after 38 years, 12 baskets of food left over, recovery from lifelong blindness, raising Lazarus after four days in the tomb, exceptionally large and diverse catch. Another emphasis seen in all the signs is that they are people-centred. They were not simply demonstrations of God’s power but demonstrations of His love and care.

For further study:

(Water into wine – John 2:1-11)

Healing of official’s son – John 4:46-54

Healing of paralytic at Bethesda – John 5:1-15

Jesus walks on water – John 6:5-14

Healing man blind from birth – John 9:1-7

Lazarus raised from dead – John 11:1-45

Miraculous haul of fish – John 21:1-14

Application

This first recorded action of Jesus has a spiritual intention, to raise awareness of God’s goodness and to renew faith. The wedding party running out of wine was symbolic of firrrst century Judaism having become spiritually dry. Wine, and plenty of wine (but not drunkenness) was seen in the O.T. as a sign of God’s blessing and of joy, Psalm 104:5, Prov. 3:10.

There is also a practical intention. 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.

It is not God’s intention that we carry shame with us. It is His intention that we look to Him for every need and expect Him to have ways of meeting needs that we haven’t considered possible.

Another important strand of this story is about our willing participation in what becomes a miracle. Here the servants filled the jars with water and then served it out – as they did so, the water became wine. The servants didn’t have much choice – they were doing what the Master told them. What about us, as the Master tells us something, a prompt from the Holy Spirit? We have a choice to hear and act, or not. As we move out in our little bit of faith, so God moves in with blessing.

Discussion starter

3.  How much does God’s intervention in a situation depend on us, in the sense of our exercising faith in some way?  Have you ever been prompted to say or do something which took some courage and faith, and seen God do something – as if He was waiting for that first move?

Fear of losing the close walk with the Lord

Psalm 128

Tuesday, January 16

The blessings of a close walk with the Lord.

1  Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him.

  • “Who walk in obedience to Him” or literally, “who walk in His ways”. The parallel expression is a helpful definition of a phrase “fear the Lord” that can be difficult for us.
  • This psalm may have been the truth that Jesus later developed in his parable of two builders, Matt. 7:24-27.

2  You will eat the fruit of your labour; blessings and prosperity will be yours.

  • Four blessings are defined: provisions, prosperity, partner and progeny.

3  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.

  • Vines for wine and olives for oil were the staples of existence.
  • In Hebrew thought, family and community are closely aligned. So a blessing on the family, or families, means the whole community knowing God’s blessing.

4 Yes, this will be the blessing for the man who fears the Lord.

  • Put simply, this psalm is declaring that the continuing blessing of God will be on those who fear Him, wherever they are, Psalm 133, from His dwelling in Zion.

5  May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.

  • The idea is that experiencing blessing comes from sojourning in Zion – being rooted in the place of the Lord’s dwelling, with attention on Him and His ways, even if dwelling some distance away from Jerusalem.
  • The Lord was seen to be enthroned in Zion, Psalm 9:11, Psalm 20:2, Psalm 135:21. The prosperity of Jerusalem meant secure relationship with God and (as a consequence) secure national existence.

6  May you live to see your children’s children – a peace be on Israel.

Application

Judaism put a lot of emphasis on the connection between obedience and God’s blessing.

Without a personal Saviour to turn to and trust, obedience becomes the element, rather than one of the elements. Unfortunately, Christianity has often over-emphasised fear of God as in fear of punishment and legalistic obedience and religiosity in ways that deny the grace that is central to the gospel.

An aspect of fear of the Lord, is the fear of lapsing into independence from the Lord. Sin, at its most essential, is independence. The “fear of the Lord” which is “walking in obedience to Him” is the oppositie of that tendency to independence.

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. He will still at times surprise us by blessing against all expectation (or merit) just because He loves us. And because He loves those who do not yet know Him, and likes to surprise them that way.

Discussion starter

2.  How does the idea of being rooted in Zion – “may the Lord bless you from Zion” – translate into life in the Spirit and in Christ Jesus? Think of the separation we sometimes make between spiritual life in church and the world of work, family, leisure time, travelling etc.

Abram institutes the tithe

Scriptures this week leading up to Sunday, January 21

Genesis 14:17-20
Melchizedek brings out bread and wine and blesses Abram, who in turn treats him as a priest of God the Most High and gives him a tenth of everything.

Psalm 128
Blessing comes from a deep desire to walk closely with the Lord.

John 2:1-11
The first miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, Galilee.

Revelation 19:6-10
The sound of heaven: the cry of an immense gathering praising God and saying “Hallelujah, for the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!”

Genesis 14: 17-20

 Monday, January 15


Melchizedek brings out bread and wine and blesses Abram, who in turn treats him as a priest of God the Most High and gives him a tenth of everything

17  After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley)...

  • The back story here is that Abram and his nephew Lot, after friction with their herds and flocks and  stockmen, decided to separate, Lot having first choice and taking the well-watered plain of Jordan towards Zoar, and Abram content to head east to Mamre, near Hebron. However a battle between the wicked kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (their names portray their character) with three others, and an alliance of four kings from Babylon and Mesopotamia led by the Elamite Kedorlaomer in the Valley of Siddim, under the present Dead Sea, results in Lot’s family and flocks being seized. Abram goes into battle to rescue his nephew with a surprisingly small but strategic force, and gets Lot, his women, servants and stock back. Our story begins with a meeting near present-day Jerusalem, between Abram and two very different key players.

18-20  Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying…

  • Salem is a known abbreviation of Jerusalem, Ps 76:2. Melchizedek means ‘king of righteousness’ but he is also a priest of God Most High – El Elyon – and he blesses Abram in a priestly way. Abram defers to him as his spiritual superior and affirms that the victory belongs to God.
  • The simple explanation of the bread and wine are for entertaining the battle-weary Abram with refreshment – we should not hurry to read a NT meaning into this, over 1,000 years beforehand (but see Application, below).
  • Melchizedek, acting in the role of a priest more than a king, blesses Abram and ascribes the victory Abram has won, to God Most High.

…“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

  • Abram is more concerned to honour God by giving the first part back – in this he institutes the principle of the tithe. The passage continues with him refusing the spoils of war from the king of Sodom. He is not going to take control of Canaan by might, or accept an offer that might have strings attached. Abram’s response, warm and deferential to Melchizedek, cool and objective toward the pagan king, is remarkable in terms of the customs of the time. Abram makes a determination not to seize spoils and power, but to take the route of faith, to honour God and wait on Him to give Him the land as He promised.

Application

Who was Melchizedek? He never appears again, and unusually there are no references to his ancestry, but he is revered in Scripture. Subsequent revelation sees him as a type, or foreshadowing appearance, of Christ whose priesthood cannot end – a priesthood of the order of Melchizedek

For further study: see Ps 110:4, Hebrews 7:17, 21.

Genesis begins with an account of humankind’s God-given authority over the earth and portrays violence as a perversion of this.

Abram, or Abraham as he became, was remarkable as a man who heard from God, trusted God in extreme circumstances – and waited on God. Waited and waited…

Abraham initiates here two life principles of divine providence.

  • He gave God the glory for ‘his’ success and victory.
  • He also instituted the practice of honouring God with the first part of everything, the tithe, the voluntary and willing practice of which endures as part of Christian worship today and is seen as God’s provision for His church.

As we know, Abraham was not impoverished by his act of faith. He went on to be the wealthiest man of his time as well the founder of a nation. A third principle we can draw from this, is that as we give to God, He trusts us with more.

Discussion starter

1.  How will you consider giving God the first part of everything He gives you? Does this only apply to monetary income?

Encounters with God which show His intimate knowledge of us

The emerging message: the headlines

Friday, January 12

1 Samuel 3:1-20

The young Samuel has his first encounter with God at night, hearing his voice in the Temple.

Psalm 139:1-10

God knows our true heart attitudes, and we can’t hide from Him. At the same time, we cannot be hidden from His saving help and mercy.

John 1:43-51

The first fishermen-disciples find Nathanael who has an encounter with Jesus, who perceives exactly what he is thinking with prophetic insight.

Revelation 5:1-10

In John’s lengthy encounter with heaven he witnesses a deed of ownership of the earth so top-security that only One has the right to hold and open it.

The emerging message

Friday, January 12

The Lord knows what is in our hearts, and seeks those who are open and true to Him.

The theme that emerges this week is about encounters with the Lord, and how the Lord knows us intimately. Two of these are about being trusted with a revelation of divine purpose, difficult to process and communicate, like the young apprentice priest Samuel in the Temple hearing a warning call for unrighteous Israel and its unrighteous priest, Eli, or the elderly apostle John seeing a mind-blowing vision of the majesty and authority of Christ being given legal charge over the world, and being the one to  record it for posterity. The other two are more gentle pictures of how God knows exactly what is in our hearts and sees what He will help us become, as well as how we are now.

The grown up and mature prophet Samuel said of the youngster David, when God was first singling him out for service:

People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart,” 1 Samuel 16:7.

Samuel, David, Nathanael Bartholomew and the apostle John were all special, godly and renowned people.

But does that mean that God knew them better, or took more of an interest in them? All were pretty ordinary at the time of their first encounter – a foster child, a youngest and somewhat despised son of a big family, a bookish Jew from an obscure up-country village, an apprentice fisherman. God is no respecter of persons – no lover of human pride, position or presentation. He looks for the qualities He find inside, in the heart – true or false, self-determining or submitted. We can’t choose the standing in society of our family, our educational opportunities, or to be born with influence and connections. We can choose to love God, know His love, love others with His love, and love His ways. We can choose to learn from Him and grow in Him. The qualities we see in the four whose encounters are described, are qualities we can aspire to All were wholehearted disciples – Samuel a literal apprentice, David a lifelong worshipper and close follower of God, turning mistakes into opportunities to learn painful lessons and grow from them; Nathanael was a named disciple of Jesus, as was his young friend John whose reflection and writing has given us a gospel account and invaluable New Testament teaching about the developing doctrine and practice of the early Church.

Four people who heard God and to whom God revealed Himself again and again in different ways at different times, as we know from the rest of Scripture. The common factor is their willingness and submission to His purpose, whether they understood it at the time or not; and a quality of transparency, able to be very honest with God about how they were. They were anointed, revered, had distinction and greatness – yet none is seen in Scripture as putting themselves forward or being self-promoting.

We can hear God, walk with Him, learn from Him and have memorable encounters with Him – exactly the same principles apply to us.

Only the Lion of Judah is worthy to open the deed-scroll

Revelation 5:1-10

Thursday, January 11

In John’s lengthy encounter with heaven he witnesses a deed of ownership of the earth so top-security that only One has the right to hold and open it.

1  Then I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.  2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?”  3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.

  • What is described would have been recognised as a contract or deed in the first century. The legal details were written on the inside, and on the outside was a summary of the document. Hebrew title deeds required a minimum of three witnesses and three seals. Romans sealed their will seven times. This is a vision of the title deed to the earth!

4  I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.  5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

  • The language and imagery in Revelation is charged with symbolism.
  • The Root of David, a messianic title that recalls Isaiah 11:1-10
  • The Lion of Judah, one of the earliest titles of the Messiah, which looks back to the tribe of Judah in Genesis 49:8-12. It speaks of his strength and fierce qualities, glimpsed during the gospel period of Jesus’ first time on earth, seen more strongly here.
  • By contrast, The Lamb is a little pet lamb, bearing scars, which symbolises Jesus’ servant nature and sacrifical role, however not powerless – horns always symbolise power.

6  Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

  • Seven horns symbolises not just power, but complete power. The seven spirits of God, 4:5 the seven lamps of fire burning before the throne.

7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. 8 And when He had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.

  • Harps were used for praise, but also as accompaniment for prophecy. Here they symbolise the prophetic validity of all the prophets that had spoken out, which was about to be fulfilled.
  • Incense was used in the OT twice-daily temple worship ritual where priests burned incense before the inner veil so that the smoke would carry into the Holy of Holies, symbolising the people’s prayers rising to Him.
  • “The prayers of God’s people” – specifically, every prayer that the redeemed have ever prayed about final redemption.

9-10 And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because You were slain,

and with Your blood
You purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language
and people and nation.

You have made them to be a kingdom,
and priests to serve our God
and they will reign on the earth.”

  • A new song is symbolic of praise for deliverance or redemption – here anticipating the glorious redemption that is about to begin.
  • Only Christ, having been put to death sacrificially on behalf of sinners, is worthy to take the deed-scroll.

• For further study 1 Cor. 6:20, 1 Cor. 7:23, 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Peter 1:18

All spiritually birthed believers share a dual role: to represent the order and just rule of God on the earth – His kingdom domain – and to both represent not-yet Christians to God in prayer, and to represent truth about the goodness and mercy of God to them. All share the kingdom rule, and all share the priestly role. The Jewish priesthood came to an end at the time of Jesus’ full and final sacrifice and the N.T. knows of no separate order of priesthood but rather the equippers of the saints who are called apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, Eph. 4:11-13. Those sent on an apostolic mission to establish a new work may combine these roles, but generally those who lead churches major in one or two and work with others, sometimes under a traditional title such as vicar or pastor.

Application

This arresting glimpse into the praise of heaven and its order, which is outside time, is a awesome reminder of the majesty and authority of Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords, a fearsome figure to the wicked, and the ultimate advocate for all those who have suffered injustice at their hands. At the same time it is a reminder that the affairs of earth and the affairs of heaven are not separate or disconnected. The body of believers on earth have responsibility together to prayerfully assert the kingdom of God. We also stand before almighty, holy God to intercede on behalf of those who do not yet know Him, whose sins are still being counted against them, and who are not yet seeing the spiritual dimension of their lives and taking responsibility for it.

Discussion starter

We are told that the golden bowls contain the prayers of God’s people. Having read this passage, what kinds of prayers do you want to offer to fill these golden bowls and be brought before the Lamb?

Jesus ‘looks on the heart’ of Nathanael and calls him

John 1:43-51

Wednesday, January 10

The first fishermen-disciples find Nathanael and he has an encounter with Jesus, who perceives exactly what he is thinking with prophetic insight.

43  The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

  • The first two disciples, Andrew (named) and John (not named, but probable) joined Jesus on the testimony of John the Baptist. Peter came because of his brother Andrew. Greek-named Philip, from the fishing village of Bethsaida and probably a fisherman, was chosen by Jesus Himself. Later, when Greeks in Jerusalem sought Jesus, it was Philip they approached, John 12:20-22. Jesus’ message spanned both cultures.

44-45   Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

  • His reference to “the one Moses wrote about in the Law” is an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:18 where the Lord says to Moses, ‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.’
  • Joseph was not the natural father of Jesus, but he was his legal father.

46  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

  • Nathanael, probably the personal name of Bartholomew, is later referred to in John 21:1-3 as Nathanael of Cana when seven of the disciples were together and went fishing, but caught nothing. The account of Nathanael’s call in John is immediately followed by the story of the first miracle in Cana, John 2:1-11. There are about three locations where Cana might have been, 1-3 hours walk to the north of Nazareth. Perhaps Cana was bigger and looked down on Nazareth – or Nazareth just had a poor reputation, not helped by having a Roman detachment stationed there. To be a ‘Nazarene’ was a way of saying ‘despised’; Galilee as a whole was looked down on and it was said no prophet could come from there, John 7:52, although Jonah came from Gath-hepher, a little north of Nazareth. God is no respecter of persons – or locations, Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11.

47  When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

  • “No deceit” – literally, in whom there is no guile, dolos. The father of Israelites, Jacob, used dolos to take his brother’s blessing dishonestly, Gen. 27:35. Jesus goes on to relate Jacob’s experience at Bethel, John 1:51. Perhaps Nathanael had been sitting and reading about Jacob’s experience, Genesis 28:1-17 and Jesus perceived this supernaturally by a word of knowledge.

48  “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

  • Jesus means He had a prophetic insight about Nathanael-Bartholomew joining Him. It was a sign to him (v.50).
  • “Under the fig tree” was an expression meaning someone who studied the Law (or Scriptures).

49  Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the king of Israel.”

  • His earlier cynicism about anyone significant coming out such a small place as Nazareth (which is not mentioned in the O.T.) are overcome by Jesus’ word of knowledge and insight into his integrity.

50  Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

Application

Central to the passage is the story of Nathanael’s call. He was a well-read young man, perhaps a little too confident in his good values, who saw, initially, a tradesman carpenter-builder, from a neighbouring village which people looked down on because its main claim to fame was having a Roman detachment stationed there. Jesus shared a word of knowledge in which he had “seen” Nathanael and his character. This was transformational: The sceptical Nathanael now changes to address Jesus as “Rabbi” or Master and recognises Him as Messiah.

In the flesh we carry all sorts of prejudices about class and status and appearance which we are inclined to apply before we have sought the Holy Spirit’s insight. We don’t always receive such a dramatic word of knowledge, but as we know God looks on the heart; with the leading of the Holy Spirit we can see beyond the immediate presentation of a person or situation. Jesus was asking His Father who He was calling, and Nathanael was also open to what God would show Him, we can surmise. It is an object lesson for us.

Discussion starter

When in your experience has initial prejudice been shown up by God, or its counterpart, initial favouritism, shown to have been misplaced?

God knows us inside out

Psalm 139:1-10

Tuesday, December 9

God knows our true heart attitudes, and we can’t hide from Him. At the same time, we cannot be hidden from His saving help and mercy.

1  You have searched me, Lord, and You know me.

  • The key phrase of this psalm is “You know” and the key concept is the human heart, although that word is not used. This is praise to God who knows us intimately and knows our heart attitudes – something that David understood, although at the time relationships with God were more typically mediated through the priesthood.
  • The “searched me” or “searched me out” phrase is related to winnowing. This is adoration of God who knows us better than we know ourselves, in an active and engaged way.
  • “You know me” has more depth as in the sense of complete divine discernment. In the final verses of the psalm (Ps. 139:23-24) knowing is also making judgments, but as a fair-minded, if rigorous, judge.

2  You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar.

3  You discern my going out and my lying down; You are familiar with all my ways.

4  Before a word is on my tongue, You, Lord, know it completely.

  • This gently confronts our tendency to ‘pray a news bulletin’ to God, or at least, to rely on the persuasion of our many words. It is encouragement to enter into a different kind of prayer encounter which lays down the need to explain and persuade, for listening and hearing God’s word for the situation.

5  You hem me in behind and before, and You lay your hand upon me.

  • The psalmist recognises that God is everywhere and sees everything – omnipresent and omniscient in theological language. Not being able to escape scrutiny is not good news for someone with a furtive attitude or lifestyle, but not being able to escape God’s notice and mercy is surely good news for someone set on living openly being known and corrected lovingly by God?

6  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

  • Which is an awesome prospect, but also an unsettling one – am I ready for this?

7   Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?

  • “Your presence” is literally “Your face”  and the first thought of a less-than-holy human who encounters “God’s face” is to hide, as it was in the Garden in Genesis.

8  If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.

  • Heaven and Sheol are opposites; so are the wings of the dawn, farthest east and far side, far west, of the Mediterranean (v.9)
  • This language, perhaps even this expression, is picked up by Amos in Amos 9:2 to describe a fugitive from justice. There is the sense here of a flight from such awesome love, such all-seeing and perfect justice.

9  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10 even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.

  • Here thoughts of fleeing give way to being picked up and held close by God’s love in all its depth and breadth.

Application

Only Job was similarly forthright about God knowing him. The human tendency is to live behind a mask which we present to others, and not want people to know us too well, too soon, because they might find something which causes them to reject us. But God will never reject us, and He already knows everything there is to know. He wants to lead us into freedom from the fear of rejection, to be transparent and with Him and with others, with nothing to prove. That is the journey into maturity.

Difficult times and situations are part of the spiritual battlefield of life. Sometimes they are self-inflicted, but verse 7 reminds us we can never be far from God’s presence. If we head into a dark valley, even if it is of our own making, God’s goodness and mercy follow us, as David wrote in the well-known Psalm 23, verse 6, which supports the assertion of v.10 “…even there your hand will guide me, your strength will support me.

Discussion starter

What initial thoughts does being hemmed in by God (verse 5) conjure up?

Samuel’s encounter with God

1 Samuel 3:1-20      Monday, January 8

The young Samuel has his first encounter with God at night, hearing his voice in the Temple

1  The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

  • The time of the Judges was a time of spiritual drought (Amos 8:11-12) and the young apprentice Samuel, perhaps 12 years old, had not experienced people hearing from God. The word of the Lord was ‘rare’ – Hebrew yāqār, ‘highly valued’ – indicating that there were memories of greater blessing.
  • For further study: during the whole period of the judges, (2 Chron. 15:3 may refer to this time) we are only told of two prophets, Judges 4:4 (Deborah) and 6:8 (unnamed), and five revelations, including two to Gideon, Judges 2:1-3, 6:11-26, 7:2-11, 10:11-14, 13:3-21.

2-3  One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
4 Then the Lord called Samuel…
2-3  “Not yet gone out” implies that it was burning low – perhaps shortly before dawn. It had to be kept burning all night.

  • Owing to Eli’s failing eyesight, Samuel’s place of duty was in the Temple where the seven-branched lampstand would burn all night until morning.

…Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

5  And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
6  Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

  • This may indicate that Eli himself was not attuned to the Lord’s voice at this time of low spirituality in Israel.

7   Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
8  A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy.
9  So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if He calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10    The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

  • “The Lord came and stood there” – this is a vision, as well as an audible voice. It was an unmistakable, unforgettable call and Samuel’s response sets the pattern of his life, as a priest who grew into a prophet, such that God’s word captivated him so much that Samuel’s words became as God’s word to the nation (1 Samuel 4:1).

11  And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.

  • “Ears… tingle”: an expression used of a particularly severe judgment.

12-14  At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family – from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’ ”

  • Eli, as the head of the household, had responsibility for his sons’ insubordination. This points to the seriousness of insubordination or mocking behaviour in a spiritual situation, and also a distinction between committing sin unwittingly, and high-handed rebellious sin. For the guilt to rest on Eli’s family without any possibility of sacrificial remedy was a harsh sentence – a curse on the family line. He was aware of this through having already received a prophetic warning, 1 Sam. 2:25, 31. When people today struggle with life, the pattern may possibly point to an ancestral failing which is being visited down through subsequent generations who are unaware of the spiritual reason. We have a better remedy through the Cross of Jesus!

15-16  Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, My son.”
Samuel answered, “Here I am.”
17-18  “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything He told you.” So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let Him do what is good in His eyes.”

  • Eli accepts the situation and humbly acknowledges the Lord’s sovereignty in it.

19-20  The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and He let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord.

  • “Dan to Beesheba” – our equivalent expression would be John O’Groats to Lands End.

Samuel has had an early lesson in hearing a word, and handling a word which is hard to deliver, but also knowing the Lord’s enabling in this. With Israel facing many enemies, Samuel’s uncompromising obedience in hearing from God and speaking out was going to be vital.

Application
This is a story of two extremes, Samuel’s obedience and readiness to meet with God and at the same time, receive a word from God which would be difficult to share – as they sometimes are.

One might expect God to bring His word to Eli, the experienced priest and the one in charge. But was Eli in a place to receive? We are told in the opening words of the passage that words from the Lord were rare at that time; the time of the judges lasted about three centuries.

Why were words rare? The immediate reason is in the corrupt and abusive behaviour of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas in which Eli was compliant. God will not be mocked; wanton, rebellious sin causes His withdrawal and worse. Many churches struggle on wondering why the favour and presence of God seems distant, oblivious to the effects of power struggles and harsh treatment of individuals and resisting moves of God that are part of the history.
Eli’s and his sons died abruptly and family line ceased with Abiathar’s dismissal by Solomon two or three generations later.

• For further study, 1 Samuel 2:30-35, 1 Kings 2:26-27. King Saul’s high-handed actions had a similar effect. God bypassed the hierarchical order and found true faith He could use in the apprentice Samuel, and young leader David; both grew as humble leaders, dependent on God and were renowned accordingly.

Discussion starter
How ready are you to hear the Lord in an unexpected way, or showing you an unexpected direction? Probably not an audible voice, but the Lord has many ways of getting our attention and confirming what we sense we are hearing (discuss).

Good News given to us – for others

The emerging message – Friday, January 5 (Epiphany)

The headlines

Isaiah 60:1-6
“Arise, your light has come…” The light of God’s glory has risen, and it is prophesied that all nations, meaning Gentiles, will come to this light. Meanwhile the nation of Israel is coming home, truly.

Psalm 72
All kings, from the ends of the earth, will defer to the coming king who combines true greatness with a heart to rescue the poor and redeem them from oppression. The godly flourish during his reign, from shore to shore.

Matthew 2:1-12
Distinguished visitors from afar recognise the significance of the birth of Jesus and come to worship Him. Gentiles coming to the Jewish Messiah show that he is their Messiah, too.

Ephesians 3:1-12
God’s plan, which astonished the culture of the time, is revealed by the Holy Spirit: Gentiles and Jews are part of the same church body, with equal share. This united church has spiritual authority and is marked by believers who have confidence in their new identity in Christ Jesus, and confidence coming before holy, almighty God.

 

How do we respond? We look beyond our walls and our ‘tribe’ with light and love.

This united church has spiritual authority and is marked by believers who show confidence in their new identity in Christ Jesus and before holy, almighty God. There will always be the human tendency, born of pride, to keep separate. But the Holy Spirit’s work is always to unify, from a heavenly perspective. Jews, Gentiles, Christians or not, denominational barriers, state church or independent – the Holy Spirit gives us a heavenly, rather than worldly perspective, if we allow Him to.

Who is Jesus and what is this Good News? Who is it for?

This is the mystery that was being revealed to those early believers who knew Paul. They struggled with it. But the Holy Spirit gave them a sense of heavenly perspective — the greater vision of what God was about.

This what had been shown to Abraham in those earliest times, composed as prophetic song by David a thousand years earlier, foretold by Isaiah and others more than 800 years before and grasped by Mary, then acted out in a remarkable way by distinguished Gentile visitors. The early church, mainly Jewish to begin with, had to come to a completely new understanding of what they were about.

And so for us — every generation has to get this revelation afresh.

This Good News has been given to us, but not for us alone. It is given, not for people like us, but for us to share with people who are not like us.

That is our task as church — to be confident in the inevitable spiritual battle for souls and for God’s rest and peace, and to be as generous as the Lord Himself in relating to those on the fringe of faith or outside it.

Where does this generosity come from? We are, as the renowned Archbishop Temple said, the only organisation on earth that exists for those who don’t belong to it. We are people on a mission – the mission that springs out of the mystery Paul writes about. It’s a mission that only makes sense as we become empowered by the Spirit of Mission.

Paul writes: “God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by His Spirit He has revealed it to His holy apostles and prophets.” Paul wrote it, but God spoke it to Paul’s heart. This is Scripture —as meaningful for us as the prophecies about the Messiah were for the Jews and Wise Men of Jesus’ time.

This is what we see God doing, and so our call is to be willing to join Him in it.

Who are the ‘Greeks’ and ‘Gentiles’ of our world — the not-yet believers around us? Where is God working outside the church walls?

When we begin to address this honestly and join God in what He is doing, our church attendances and finances and very future will begin to look very different. The kingdom of God will be evident among us. As we seek to mirror something of God’s generosity of spirit, there will be a release. We trust God and give away what we have – and He finds us faithful and gives more.

For reflection and discussion – all the questions

1.  Where do we see the Lord’s light resting, and what response is the Holy Spirit leading us to make?

2.  If this is God’s pattern of leadership, and if this is a picture of Jesus’ kingdom rule, why does the church sometimes struggle financially?

3.  Good science is good – but are you tempted to seek explanations from within our knowledge and experience, and fit the narrative accordingly? Why do we need to try to do this?

4.  God’s plan and God’s purpose are mentioned half a dozen times in this short passage. How are you beginning to see God’s plan in your life, your church, your community?

5.  What are good ways of focusing our attention on God’s plan and purpose and encouraging one another in it?

Readings this week for Sunday, January 7, (Epiphany):
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72
Matthew 2:1-12
Ephesians 3:1-12

The mystery made plain: the Good News unites

 

Ephesians 3:1-12 Thursday, Jan 4

God’s eternal purpose has always been to reconcile all people to Himself – a mystery gradually unfolded by Word and Spirit

1-2  When I think of all this, I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the benefit of you Gentiles…  assuming, by the way, that you know God gave me the special responsibility of extending his grace to you Gentiles.

  • 2 In another version: “assuming that you have heard”. Paul had spent three years in Ephesus, so many knew this. But we forget that the N.T. church continually drew in new people and was extending its reach to villages around; there would be many new hearers for Paul’s letter.

3-5  As I briefly wrote earlier, God Himself revealed His mysterious plan to me. As you read what I have written, you will understand my insight into this plan regarding Christ. God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by his Spirit He has revealed it to His holy apostles and prophets.

  • 3 “Mysterious plan” – a plan that becomes more clear. Paul wrote much about mystery and revelation. The Bible represents God’s progressive revelation of His purposes. We can see this unfolding through the precepts of the Law at first and the more developed, interpretative understanding of the prophets e.g. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, Hosea 6:6  God’s people being a light to people who were not like them was something they had heard, but was a mystery to people drilled in being holy and racially separate. The Spirit-directed mind of the Spirit-filled person begins to see things of God that the carnal, self-directed mind cannot comprehend, 1 Cor. 2:1-16  And God raises up people with a recognised gift as those sent to be groundbreakers, or commissioned as preachers and exhorters – to help others see and share in God’s purposes.

6-7  And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus. By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News.

  • Paul was a ‘sent’ person, or envoy of the kingdom of God, the basic meanings of the ‘apostolos’ word. Now he explains that to understand God’s purpose in uniting Jews and Gentiles, men and women, bond-servants and free as being of equal value, equally loved in God’s sight, was formerly a mystery beyond grasping. Before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to Jesus’ contemporaries and hearers, much would only fall into place following Pentecost.

8-9  Though I am the least deserving of all God’s people, He graciously gave me the privilege of telling the Gentiles about the endless treasures available to them in Christ. I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning.

  • This is not false humility. Paul is being forthright about his earlier track record which hardly qualified him for his present privilege and responsibility.

10-11  God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display His wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was His eternal plan, which He carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.

  • Every time believers come together as church a statement is made to the heavenlies. That is why unity is so vital. The real prayer warfare is our worship and our relationships. On top of that, declarations and prayers are mightily powerful to push back those fallen angels who seek exercise evil authority – and in ways we do not understand, enable the response and overcoming of righteous angels submitted to heaven. What plays out on earth and what is happening unseen in the heavenlies are more closely connected than we realise.

12  Because of Christ and our faith in Him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence.

Application

In the Old Testament, they knew that anyone who saw God would die from such a holy confrontation. So to come into the presence of God was hardly different – but on the basis of what Jesus has done for us in dealing with our guilt and rebellion, and who we are in Him, with an unearned righteousness imputed to us, we have confidence to both talk to God and are exhorted to draw near to him, mindful of what Jesus has done for us. “Come close to God, and God will come close to you” in James 4:6-10 is inextricably linked with “humble yourselves before God”. Application This is about the mystery of God’s eternal plan. What God has always purposed, from the beginning of time, has always been ahead of where people were, in their understanding. As the salvation history unfolded over the centuries, the plan became more clear. Abraham saw it at one level. David, writing prophetic psalms, saw something in the Spirit. The prophets over the centures had glimpses of God’s purpose. Jesus came to demonstrate and to explain the kingdom of God. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church and the experience of the Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered life became the norm for the early church, everyone could grow in revelation of God plan and purpose. There will always be temptation to substitute our own plan and purpose; as we begin to see God at work it’s dangerously easy to think we’re something we are not. That’s why it is important to stay humble before God as we grow as seekers of His revelation.

For reflection and discussion

  1. God’s plan and God’s purpose are mentioned half a dozen times in this short passage. How are you beginning to see God’s plan in your life, your church, your community?
  2. What are good ways of focusing our attention on God’s plan and purpose and encouraging one another in it?