Archives for March 2018

The emerging message – “He has gone ahead”

FRIDAY, MARCH 30
The emerging message

RECAP

Isaiah 25:6-9

Isaiah’s prophecy of death being swallowed up for ever. People of the Lord of a future generation will say, “We trusted in Him and He saved us”.

Mark 16:1-8

Mark recounts how the sudden realisation that the resurrection of Jesus was a reality was a shock, not least to the three women disciples who discovered of the miracle of the open, empty tomb.

Acts 10:34-43

A turning point as Peter enters Cornelius’ house and tells the Gentile audience that God does not show favouritism to His own nation of history but receives those of any race or culture who turn to Him: the Good News is for Gentile equally with Jew.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Paul’s mission has reached the Greek city of Corinth and he reminds the church he founded there that Jesus, crucified and buried as dead, is very much alive as hundreds could testify.

“He has gone ahead”

Between seven and eight centuries before Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, Isaiah prophesied of a Messiah to come – a light in the gloom, a shoot from the stump of Jesse, a wonderful counsellor and prince of peace,  born of a virgin, a healer,  and light to the nations of the world. He would be One who would restore sight to the blind and set captives free – and on Mount Zion death would be swallowed up for ever, its power broken. Who could believe such an immense vision?

When the Messiah, Jesus, did start His ministry, Jews who had studied these and three dozen others which point to the Messiah to come were unable to recognise Him, even though he fulfilled the genealogy and all the criteria that had been prophesied. God had gone ahead while people who professed to know his ways struggled to catch up.

When Jesus had been nailed to the Cross to die amid earth tremors and eclipse of the sun and mocking onlookers, His men followers fled and the women watched from a distance. He had died; they were in the shock of bereavement. Visiting the  tomb cut in the rock given by Joseph of Arimathea with aloes and spices, as we would put flowers on the grave, the three women found the massive stone closure rolled back, an empty tomb – and an angelic messenger who said, “He has risen, and gone ahead… to Galilee.” The shock of bereavement became a stunned incredulity, a joy they would feel once numbed emotions began to recover.

Peter, with fighting his natural reserve as a Jew, accepted an invitation to visit a Roman officer’s house and talk to them about Jesus. Something had fallen into place for him, a revelation which shocked him to the core – God’s favour through Jesus was for Jews and Gentiles equally. God had gone ahead and once again done a new thing (Isaiah 43:19)

In more recent church history we can see how God has often ‘gone ahead” and done a new thing, to the consternation of those rooted in how it had been before.

Our ‘Jews’ and ‘Greeks’ look different. There are various ‘people groups’ or tribes within the Christian church. We call them denominations, or sub-groups within denominations. Take evangelicals, for example, who have so faithfully defended the priority of Scripture and the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus against modernist liberalism. Yet some have been uncomfortable (or worse) alongside those who found in that same personal relationship and same Bible a spiritual empowering and spiritual gifts for service and mission that God seems to be re-emphasising today. Pentecostals formed churches (for distinction they called them ‘assemblies’) in the early years of the last century found a freedom to worship and evangelise with great freedom and expressive joy. One of the very first was started by a Hereford outfitter during the First World War years. Fifty years later, believers in the C of E and other more formal churches began to be impacted by the same new awareness of the Person of the Holy Spirit and His empowering – and some old-time Pentecostals reacted by separating even more, suspicious of this new ‘departure’.

The problem is that human nature does show partiality and likes to protect its own – and God confronts this. We may have opportunity to pray with someone who professes no faith at all – and God is inclined to do something completely unexpected (and, we think, underserved), to shock them with His love and grace.

The house of Cornelius, for us, is discerning the kingdom of God over and above our little prejudices. It is also leaving our comfort zones and favourite seats in church or chapel, to willingly enter the territory of people who are absolutely NOT like us – and show them Jesus.

The gospel has crossed the sea to Greek Macedonia

THURSDAY, MARCH 29
1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Paul reminds the large Greek culture church He founded of the essentials of the gospel He himself received – Jesus who died for their sins is very much alive

1  Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.

“Preached to you” – more accurately “made known”, gnorizo which sounds like our word ‘know’. The word is a gentle rebuke and reminder of the head to heart to action process. Judas Iscariot certainly knew the gospel but apparently had not received it and certainly did not take his stand on it. Paul implies not all in the Corinth church had taken the gospel to heart in a life-changing way.

2  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

“You are saved” – The Greek construction means “continuing to be saved”. Receiving the gospel starts with a heart decision (v.1) but salvation is a rich word for the way God’s goodness and mercy follows us (Psalm 23) in the twists and turns of life: it is also ongoing.

3  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…

This is a very early summary of the core truth that the early church preached – the kerygma, or proclamation, of the truth of the Gospel. He makes three fundamental assertions:

1. Paul is saying that he is not giving his position or sharing his ideas – he is passing on what he himself received.

2. He points out that it aligns with what the Scriptures have said. We can’t be sure of what exact passages he had in mind but Isaiah 53:5-6 and Psalm 16:8-11 are two probables.

3. There were many eyewitnesses to His death, burial and – importantly – resurrection. The Scriptures told of it. People, not just the apostles but a wider group were telling of it.

“Christ died for our sins” is saying that Christ was sinless – only a sinless person could die for another’s sins.

…that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

Paul is taking pains to put to rest doubts that existed in people’s minds. No one seriously questioned that Jesus died. The fact of the Resurrection is central to Christian belief.  Other religions venerate the life and works of a former person, now dead; Christianity in essence is not such a religion, but a relationship with God through the resurrected and living Christ Jesus.

“He was raised” is in agreement with Psalm 16:10 (which is quoted by Peter in Acts 2:25-32, his “this is that which was spoken” Pentecost Outpouring sermon. “On the third day” is a Jewish way of reckoning days. Three days could include part of Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday. Paul also could be reflecting Jesus’ words, Matt. 12:40 that relate three days in the tomb to  Jonah’s three days inside the fish, Jonah 1:17.

…and that He appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

Paul puts great emphasis on the Resurrection as a vital part of  “the gospel I made known…” (v.1), “this gospel” (v.2), “what we preach… what you believed (v.11). There is the Good News of who Jesus is, the Good News of forgiveness by His blood on the Cross, but vitally the Good News of new life now, not just eternally, as those whose lives are in Christ Jesus, resurrected and real to us.

“To the Twelve” – a generic rather than numeric term. There is no mention of the women, and Judas was absent, possibly Thomas also.

The appearance to Peter, also referred to in Luke 24:34 and Mark 16:7. To the one in most disgrace, most grace was given.

6  After that, He appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

This appearance was probably in Galilee, Matt. 28:10, 16-20.

7  Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles,

8  and last of all He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

The word means ‘miscarriage’. Paul, who was not good looking, 2 Cor. 10:10, may have been vilified by those opposed to his presentation of free grace with the taunt that he was one who was not so much born again, as miscarried.

9  For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

10  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

Paul is aware of the high calling given to him as an apostle and at the same time his sense of unworthiness as formerly one of the hated religious ‘hit squad’ and a persecutor.

He worked – literally, laboured to the point of exhaustion – harder than anyone because he was so strongly aware of the grace of God and the love of God shown to him, the most unlikely candidate.

11   Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

The apostles are one in the message they proclaim and especially its strong evidence and emphasis on the Resurrection.

Application

This passage is Paul’s summary of the central core of the Christian proclamation – which strongly emphasises the reality of the resurrection of Christ.

Is the way we present the Christian message today in line with what we read here? In particular, how much emphasis do we give to living in the awareness of Christ’s resurrection?

It is an interesting reflection on our present-day Christian practice, our church liturgy, our preaching and discipling, to hold up these verses as a snapshot of what the early church preached.

For reflection or as a discussion starter

Are we upholding and proclaiming the same message as the Early Church as we read here, or have we subtly toned-down or changed the emphasis of our message?

The turning point: the Good News is for Gentile equally with Jew

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 28
Acts 10:34-43

Peter, invited to the Roman officer’s household, proclaims controversially that God does not show favouritism to His own nation of history, but receives those of any race or culture who turn to Him.

34  Then Peter began to speak: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism…

“Peter began to speak” – literally ‘Opening his mouth, Peter said…’ which is a solemn opening phrase, preparing the reader for a statement of the greatest importance: that everyone who believes in Jesus receives the same forgiveness.

“Does not show favouritism” – God shows no partiality and is no respecter of persons (Amplified).

35  …but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.

Unremarkable to us, to such a separated culture “accepts from every nation” represented a huge milestone in the way the Gospel was understood and shared. Centuries of deep-seated racial prejudice were swept aside by Peter’s revelation from God.

36  You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

“You know” is perhaps more the sense of “you know of…”, implying that there is more.

Cornelius and his household would not have been familiar with Jesus’ earlier life and ministry as the Jewish audiences that Peter had spoken to up until now. This is only a brief summary of his teaching and message; it follows a similar format to Mark’s gospel.

Verse 36 cites two Old Testament texts, Psalm 107:20, ‘He sent forth his word and healed them’, and Isaiah 52:7, ‘the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace’. The starting point is that God’s promise in the OT to bring peace to His people is fulfilled in Jesus.

37  You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached…

38  …how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him.

Unlike Paul’s summary we read in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, Peter offers a more complete story, much like the format of Mark’s Gospel:

  1. The announcement of Jesus by John the Baptist
  2. Jesus’ anointing with the Spirit at His baptism
  3. His ministry of healing and deliverance in Galilee
  4. The journey through Judea to Jerusalem
  5. His arrest and crucifixion
  6. Resurrection on the third day
  7. Appearances subsequently
  8. An allusion to the Great Commission, and
  9. Jesus appointed by God as judge of all.

 

39  “We are witnesses of everything He did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed Him by hanging Him on a cross,

40  but God raised Him from the dead on the third day and caused Him to be seen.

The death of Jesus at the hands of the Jews is mentioned in passing – not so relevant for a Gentile audience – but the resurrection and resurrection appearances are given prominence. The subject of Peter’s message is very much alive!

41  He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.

42  He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

“Preach to the people” – at this point, the Jewish people. Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter and instruction “Feed My sheep”, John 21:17 did not seem to extend the scope. The Great Commission as expressed in Mark 16:15 “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation” and Matthew 28:19 “Go and make disciples of all nations” would have been difficult for the disciples to grasp at that time. With greater revelation and understanding after the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost, and with Peter’s vision, Acts 10:9-16 and this experience of a further outpouring of the Spirit among Gentiles at Cornelius’ house, Acts 10:44-46, Peter and the other disciples could see the bigger, broader purpose of God.

43  All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name .”

“Everyone who believes in Him” could be ‘everyone in Israel who believes’ but Peter has already declared, v.34, his new understanding that God is no respecter of persons e.g. Jewish privilege

This ‘bigger picture’ had been prophesied – principally by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel.

For further study read Isaiah 33:24; Isaiah 53:4–6, 11; Jeremiah 31:34; Daniel 9:24.

Application

The account of Peter’s proclamation to the assembled Roman officer’s household begins in the King James Version with  words of gravity that are hard to improve on: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.”

Eugene’s Peterson’s free-flowing contemporary rendering (The Message) captures the excitement as well as the impact of this discovery: “Peter fairly exploded with his good news: ‘It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favourites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from – if you want God and are ready to do as He says, the door is open’.”

It was a huge challenge to the mainly-Jewish disciples of the new community called Followers of the Way. They felt secure in who they were as God’s chosen people. If God was now choosing others, where did that leave them?

God moves – He is always doing a new thing, it seems, and if we are not ready for this and adaptable, we are left playing catch up.

For reflection or as a discussion starter

While there is merit in us guarding and maintaining a good tradition in the way we gather and worship, how could we be more open to others who have no tradition but a desire to experience Jesus?

The sudden, shocking realisation that the Resurrection of Jesus was a reality

TUESDAY, MARCH 27
Mark 16:1-8

Three women disciples are those entrusted by God with the discovery of the miracle of the open, empty tomb

In a strongly male-dominated society, the only eyewitnesses to Jesus death, burial and then empty tomb are the “least” of the disciples, the women.

1  When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

The Sabbath ended, shops could reopen for the evening. The women will complete the burial rites left incomplete at the hasty interment earlier.

2  Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb…

“Very early on the first day of the week” – all four gospels state this rather than the “third day”, 1 Cor. 15:3-4. This doesn’t seem to tally exactly with Jesus’ predictions. The reason may be to present the Resurrection as something new.

Mary Magdalene saw where Jesus was laid, so she knew where to go, Mark 15:47.

3  …and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

Tombs like this were constructed with a sloping groove for the heavy circular stone closure, which was designed to stay closed. It would have to be lifted out or rolled back up the incline. Mark keeps to the bare essential facts, while Matthew mentions the earthquake and angelic visitation, Matt. 28:2.

4  But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

5  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

They reacted as you and I would react to an unexpected, unexplained sight – and unexpected person.

 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.

There had to be a word from God to explain the inexplicable – the empty tomb. The angelic messenger was God’s provision for this need.

7  But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.’ ”

Peter is specifically included because he was, at this point, an outsider through having denied Jesus, Mark 14:66-72

8  Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Afraid, astonished, confused: not able to believe the angel at first. But when they did, they talked about it – a lot, Matt 28:8, Luke 24:9.

Application

Sometimes God just needs people who will look and listen and learn, and then be the ones who communicate what He has revealed to others. From a society of extreme male domination, we have learned, rather slowly, to recognise the God-given roles of men and women and the power of its partnership. This is brought out in this account of the most jaw-dropping of all miracles and those chosen to be the first witnesses of it.

Another lesson is the way an angelic messenger appears to give essential interpretation and direction. Some things are conceptually and emotionally beyond our grasp. God knows this and graciously provides. So we are reminded to be open to the interactions of angels – heavenly spiritual messengers – in our lives, usually unseen, but we can be aware of their presence. We think that our five senses provide the sum total of reality, but the spirit world and the heavenly dimension is being played out in parallel with everything we see and experience. The sixth sense, our spiritual awareness and connected by prayerful engagement, is just as real even if it is just outside our field of vision.

For reflection or as a discussion starter

If God was about to reveal something extraordinary and hard to believe, could He find in you a willing and reliable witness?

How much does the fear of people’s unbelieving and perhaps scornful reaction put us off telling what we know to be true?

How God goes ahead of us

Readings this week, leading up to Easter Sunday, April 1

Isaiah 25:6-9 – The prophecy of death swallowed up in victory on Mount Zion

Mark 16:1-8 – The women’s shock at finding the tomb empty

Acts 10:34-43 – Jewish Peter enters Roman officer Cornelius’ house

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 – Paul reminds the Greek church in Corinth of their core beliefs

MONDAY, MARCH 26
Isaiah 25:6-9

Isaiah’s prophecy: death swallowed up for ever

They will say, “We trusted in Him and He saved us”.

6  On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.

“On this mountain” – Mount Zion. This connects back to Isaiah 24:23: “The moon will be dismayed, the sun ashamed; for the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before its elders — with great glory.”

The prophet has already foretold a time when Gentile nations will come to Mount Zion for worship, Isaiah 2:1-4.

7  On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations;

The allusion is to death; it could also encompass the blindness of spiritual death among the Gentile nations – which is set to be reversed.

8  He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.

Paul in setting out the doctrine of resurrection quotes the first part of verse 8 (but not literally) at 1 Cor. 15:54. “…the saying that has been written is true: death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Christ by His death destroyed the power of death; He took away the sting of the first death, and prevented the second (everlasting death) for those who would turn to Him.

This victory also spells – positionally – the end of the disgrace God’s people commonly experience in a world of conflicting values.

9  In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and He saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

“Saved” is yasha and the noun form is yeshua (as in Jesus’ name in Hebrew). The saving is God’s work; our part of the partnership is trusting and rejoicing.

Application

Here Isaiah sees in the Spirit a time when disgrace and death will no longer rule and God will delight in honouring all kinds of people.

God’s intention for those created in His image has always been life and peace – shalom in all its rich meaning. The Garden of Eden is an enduring picture of such an environment, where everything that man needed for life and health and companionship – everything that was life-giving – was freely provided. Man was created with freewill but also with a close relationship with God to guide choices in that freewill. The one thing that wasn’t on offer was independence from God. As we know, appropriating the one thing God did not want us to have, allowed in every source of pain, fear and death. And these influences rule our lives more than we like to admit.

What Isaiah saw in the Spirit was a different order of things. Instead of the inevitable slide of all things to rot and corruption and death, he saw the shroud of death torn, the vision for good choices restored and the power of death submerged by an unstoppable tide of God’s generosity. This is God’s kingdom in the Lord Jesus Christ, which we can experience in Him as a foretaste of the full realisation of His kingdom rule on His return. We still have the freewill to choose – either to satisfy our desire for independence, or to break its hold by choosing dependence on God who is so good and so loving and so worthy of our trust in Him.

For reflection or as a discussion starter

How much influence does fear, and the ultimate fear of death itself, have in our thought lives? How does Jesus, who said “I am the Way”, lead us to take authority over this influence?

Jesus made Himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant – but without losing His divine origins as part of the Trinity

THURSDAY, MARCH 22
Philippians 2:5-11

Paul challenges Christians reading the letter with the standard of humility and obedience shown by Christ

These verses contain a lot of Christology in a few words – however, the main thrust is the unity and selflessness which is the result of humility of heart.

5  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

This verse is the key to what follows in this poetic passage.

Literally “keep thinking this [attitude] among you, which [attitude] was also in Christ Jesus.”

“With one another” or among you. The meaning is more than an exhortation to everyone to be personally virtuous – or ‘nice’. It means “be Christlike in your church fellowship” – continuing to explain what this looks like. The community of salvation created by the Holy Spirit of Jesus, God incarnate, must confront the pride and strife that is always trying to enter in. As believers, we may not be able to replicate the exact ministry that Jesus exercised, but as followers of His Way, we are called to represent His values of sacrificial love and humility which the Cross demonstrated so unmistakably.

6  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage…

“Being in very nature God” – Christ as the second member of the Trinity was, literally, “in the same form as God”, meaning that He shared the image and the glory of God.

He did not regard his existing in a manner of “equality with God a thing to be grasped (NASB, ESV, RSV etc)” or held onto (harpagmos).

Following Lightfoot, an established view is that before becoming incarnate as man, the Son possessed equality with the Father; He resolved not to cling to it.

Another view on this passage is that He had no need to (actively) grasp to attain divine equality because He already possessed it as the eternal Son of God.

7  …rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

“Made Himself nothing” – literally “emptied Himself” (ESV, NASB) “stripped Himself” (Amplified), “gave up His divine privileges” (NLT).

This is best understood as the pre-incarnate Christ letting go of His glory and the omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence of God that make Him so distinctly ‘other’. This limitation was necessary for Him to share our human limitations, albeit more perfectly filled with the Holy Spirit than we can achieve. He gave up the particular privileges of His heavenly existence to be born as man, but did not in any way renounce His deity or identification as part of the Trinity. Having the “form of God”, v.6, could not be given up but “the nature of a servant” could be taken up.

“Likeness” stresses similarity but also allows for differences. Paul is saying that although Christ became a genuine man, in some respects He was not like any other man.

8  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Verses 6, 7 and 8 are all part of the same sentence and should be understood together – and in the context of Scripture passages that reveal Jesus as using his divine powers and displaying his glory upon occasions such as miracles and the Transfiguration, but always under the direction of the Father and the Spirit

For further study see Luke 4:14; John 5:19, 8:28, 14:10

9  Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name…

The Father’s response to His Son’s extraordinary obedience and humility is to name Him Lord of lords. This underlines a biblical principle which is widely emphasised. The whole passage is about the prerequisite of being in humble submission to God, for His partnership and glory to be realised.

For further study, see Matthew 18:4, 23:12; Luke 14:11, 18:14; Also 2 Corinthians 11:7; Phil. 4:12.

10  …that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11  and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There is a connection here to what Daniel saw in the Spirit, Daniel 7:13–14.

This poetic teaching, or perhaps praise song of the Early Church, concludes with a universal acknowledgment of Jesus’ lordship by those living and departed saints, and also the onlooking satanic host and lost humanity in hell in the words of Isaiah 45:23 (cf. Romans 14:11; Rev 5:13).

Application

This teaching is about the power of obedience and humility offered to God for Him to transform. We see Jesus as the supreme example; He who stooped so low is now lifted up, He who made Himself of no rank is promoted to the glorious rank of equality with God. It was a dignity which was His by right but He renounced His entitlement. “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place.”

We are so ingrained with the sense of merit and self-sufficiency, this comes as a difficult lesson. But as the contemporary saying goes, “Less is more”. Less of our egos and opinions so that God can use us without us stealing the glory.

As long as we are human, that will remain a challenge.

For reflection, or as a discussion starter

What area of ego or closely-guarded opinion do you need to let go, like Jesus let go of His divine status? How will you work on it?

The song that pilgrims in festal procession sang came to life in a new way at Jesus’ entry into the city

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 21
Psalm 118:1-2 and 19-29

The person whose name had the meaning “You have become my salvation” was to become the “stone that the builders rejected”  in the words of this processional.

This is a song of national deliverance i.e. victory over the Canaanites or victory over enemies following the exile, at the dedication of the second temple or the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, Ezra 6:16, Nehemiah 12:37-43. Psalms 113 to 118 became a set of songs used at annual festivals to celebrate national deliverance after the exile, and as this was the last song of the set, it may have been what Jesus and the disciples sang after the Last Supper, Matt 26:30.

1  Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.

2  Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.”

The Lord is good, and His mercy endures – the covenant affirmation and the conventional call to worship.

19  Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.

20  This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.

The “gates of the righteous… through which the righteous may enter” could be the way in for the festal procession of the righteous, with the gates of the temple inner court symbolically guarding the presence of the Lord from any who are unrighteous. See Psalm 24.

21  I will give You thanks, for You answered me; You have become my salvation.

“Salvation” – the procession entering Jerusalem and the Temple, seen as the dwelling place of God, to celebrate the deliverance of God’s people, time after time, by God’s gracious action. We would say this verse with joy and sincerity in the different understanding of finding salvation with God through receiving the Son of God as a personal Saviour and Lord.

22  The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…

The chief stone in the whole building, by which the several parts of the building are upheld and firmly united together; thus Christ united Jews and Gentiles together (John Wesley). Isaiah says elsewhere that the Israelites had forsaken the God’s cornerstone for their own refuge in a lie, Isaiah 28:15. The NT leaves us in no doubt that the cornerstone of v.22 foreshadows Jesus, Matt. 21:42, Acts 4:11, Rom. 9:32, Eph. 2:20, 1 Pet. 2:6ff.

23  …the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

24  The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.

The crucifixion of Jesus was like throwing out the main building block; the resurrection of Jesus was his vindication, a focus of “marvellous” rejoicing for the Early Church and Christians subsequently for whom these words have been prophetic and a source of worship.

25  Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success!

26  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord, we bless you.

What Jesus had earlier implied by quoting these words, Matt. 21:42, the crowd at the Entry to Jerusalem saw for themselves. The crowd’s  ‘Hosanna’ (hôšîʿ ânnāʾ, ‘Save, pray!’) of v.25 is related to “my salvation of v.21) and followed by their shout “Blessed is He who comes …” which continues the quotation from this psalm.

27  The Lord is God, and He has made His light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.

This verse tells us that the psalm is written for a festal procession, most likely more than a Sabbath. The three big annual pilgrim feasts were Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. There is the sense from these verses of call and answer: one procession, already inside the gates, was greeting another that was arriving.

28  You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you.

The processional ends with declarations that “The Lord is God” – the only God – and “You are my God” and the affirmation that the Lord is good and enduringly merciful.

29  Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.

The crowd who took part in these processions year after year could not have imagined that there would be a time when the symbolism would break out into reality, Hebrews 10:1, the horns of the altar would become the arms of the Cross, and the festival would become the full and final sacrifice of “Christ our Passover” 1 Cor 5:7.

Application

This processional song was often sung at the major festivals when people would come into the city from the area around with a common desire to honour God for His goodness – and in remembering the past times of deliverance for the nation.

How good are we at recounting what God has done for us? The situations that turned around, the answered prayers, the unexpected signs of God’s favour?

We may call them coincidences but in the heavenly order, nothing is a coincidence. In the spiritul battles of life, praise is our most powerful weapon, and praise with testimony puts a sharp edge on that weapon.

For reflection, or as a discussion starter

What recent instance of God’s goodness in answered prayer in His provision or in another aspect of salvation, could you speak out to give brief testimony to His goodness?

Confidence in God’s unfailing love at a time of desperation

TUESDAY, MARCH 2O
Psalm 31:9-18

David knew God’s faithfulness when he was under attack – prophetic of Jesus’ time of torment also

Context note: The first eight verses of the psalm (a psalm of David) express confidence in God and praise for His deliverance “You have set my feet in a spacious place”. But it doesn’t feel like that. Now the support completely expected under the covenant seems delayed; help is needed now.

9  Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.

The psalmist knows that under the covenant he can expect the Lord to act on his behalf, but the situation is increasingly desperate. He cannot wait. He cries out for the mercy of the Lord.

10  My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.

This is a description of someone drained emotionally and physically, which is the effect of the ’emotional murder’ of hatred.

11  Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbours and an object of dread to my closest friends – those who see me on the street flee from me.

12 I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery.

The victim of the hatred and slander experiences rejection and contempt, even from former friends, v.11, and hopelessness, v.12, is joined by terror.

13 For I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side!” They conspire against me and plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.”

In this dire situation, the psalmist moves – with the agility of a swordsman – from defending his feelings to offensive faith. He turns the tables on his oppressors (which may be human or spiritual) with prayer declarations.

15 My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.

He pledges trust and gives God the sovereignty and the outcome: “My times are in Your hands”.  Only then does he petition God to give him favour, to save him and vindicate him.

16 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in Your unfailing love.

Seeking God’s blessing in the familiar words of Numbers 6:25. The appeal to God to save in His unfailing love is an appeal to Him to act in accordance with the covenant.

17 Let me not be put to shame, Lord, for I have cried out to you; but let the wicked be put to shame and be silent in the realm of the dead.

18 Let their lying lips be silenced, for with pride and contempt they speak arrogantly against the righteous.

The outcome David wants more than any other is for an end to what is most damaging: the slander.

Application

The threats, and even murderous threats, of enemies are not unfamiliar to us. Perhaps the hardest  part of such an ordeal is the mental stress – and fear. The enemy is always active trying to put anxious thoughts and to turn our focus from faith to fear. He often uses malicious gossip and slander – getting vulnerable people to do his work for him.

The psalmist, David in this case, expresses this well. However, set alongside the  “terror on every side” experience is the statement “I trust in You, Lord… my times are in your hands”.

We may not be able to avoid fear – it is a human emotion and some kinds of fear are necessary, and even healthy. The lesson here is that whatever fears and anxieties the enemy is trying to bind us with, we can come through to a place in that fear and anxiety where we declare, over and against it, “I trust in You, Lord… My times are in your hands.”

Whatever we face, Jesus has faced it already – and won through.

For reflection, or as a discussion starter

Could you draw a statement of faith from the second half of this psalm? What would be your basis for speaking it out in faith, and confidently?

The Lord of lords who appears like a servant

Readings this week, leading up to Palm Sunday, March 25

MONDAY – Isaiah 50:4-9

TUESDAY – Psalm 31:9-16, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

WEDNESDAY – Mark 11:1-11

THURSDAY – Philippians 2:5-11

MONDAY, MARCH 19
Isaiah 50:5-9a

A picture of a true disciple’s false accusation, punishment – and assurance of the Lord’s vindication

Context and application note: This is called the third Servant Song of Isaiah, following Isaiah 42:1-9 (first) and 49:4, 7 (second). The first hearers might have seen Isaiah as the servant, or a purified Israel as the servant; with the advantage of hindsight it seems clear to us that this looks forward to Christ. John Wesley in his Notes said  of the phrase  “given me”  that “this and the following passages may be in some sort understood of the prophet Isaiah, but they are far more evidently and eminently verified in Christ, and indeed seem to be meant directly of Him.”

4  The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.

“Well-instructed tongue” – the tongue of one being taught, or a disciple’s tongue

“Word that sustains” – the Hebrew translated “sustains” is a rare word, probably the equivalent of our sense of a timely word or a word in season, and emphasising the Servant’s prophetic role in hearing and speaking. As with any understanding of being a disciple, hearing from the Lord and responding to Him comes before speaking.

5  The Sovereign Lord has opened My ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away.

“Opened my ears” – a sign of obedience. As we would say, the servant is “open” to hearing about the test of obedience that the Lord is presenting. Israel has been rebellious; by contrast the Servant is attentive – and resolute about what follows.

6  I offered My back to those who beat Me, My cheeks to those who pulled out My beard; I did not hide My face from mocking and spitting.

“Who beat me” – beatings were for fools, or criminals Proverbs 10:13, 19:29, 26:3, Matt 27:26, John 19:1.

“Pulled out my beard” – a way of showing contempt, 2 Samuel 10:4-5, Neh. 13:25.

“Mocking and spitting” – associated with the insult and disgrace of hatred, Job 30:10, Deut 25:9, Job 17:6, Mt 27:30.

7  Because the Sovereign Lord helps Me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set My face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

“Set my face like flint” – as Luke 9:51, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (NIV), ” steadfastly and determinedly set His face…” (Amplified).

8  He who vindicates Me is near. Who then will bring charges against Me? Let us face each other! Who is My accuser? Let him confront Me!

This is the language of a courtroom, where the devil performs his role as accuser and the Sovereign Lord gives judgment. The sanctity of the heavenly legal process, which of course is completely fair, must be upheld.

Whatever the nature of the Servant’s call (v.5) and its cost in suffering (v.6) and resoluteness (v.7), these must fulfil the legal requirements. In v.8 “near” is a parallel word to gōʾēl, the Redeemer or Next-of-Kin of Ruth 2:20, 3:12. See also Lev. 21:2–3, 25:25, Num. 27:11.

“He who vindicates” – As this is fulfilled in the Messiah, it is also good news in the lives of those whose lives are hidden in Him. As Christ was sinless, He is able to nullify the charges brought against His own who have put their trust in Him, Romans 8:31-34.

9  It is the Sovereign Lord who helps Me. Who will condemn Me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.

“Condemn” means proven guilty. The Servant is confident of a favourable judgment. The vindication, in Jesus’ trials, did not spare Him the unjust punishment, even though the charges did not stick (see further study references). In the same way we experience injustice at the hands of men, but the verdict of heaven is a resounding ‘not guilty’ and freedom from any shame. There is also destruction for those involved in the wrongful action.

Jesus challenged His enemies: “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?”, John 8:46.

“The moths” – what John Wesley called ‘the secret curse’ of destruction of false accusers, reiterated in Isaiah 51:8.

For further study, see Matthew 27:3–4, 19, 24; Mark 15:3; Luke 23:4, 10, 14–15, 41; John 8:46; John 19:6 and the ultimate vindication, 1 Timothy 3:16.

Application

This is a picture of utter devotion and obedience in the face of harsh treatment and false accusation. There is a courtroom scene where accusations are made, defence made and the Lord’s judgment will be pronounced after the legalities are thrashed out.

Earlier readers would have seen this as applying to Isaiah himself – Israel had a poor record of heeding God’s messages and honouring God’s messengers.

How does this sit with us? Life is frequently unfair and a particular difficulty Christians have is being singled out for harsh treatment, often at the hands of religious people. Bad things do happen to people who are by no means bad or deserving of it. The extreme case was the mock trial and then execution of Jesus. This passage reminds us that eventually false accusers self-destruct and vindication by the Lord is assured – but people of malicious intent still have free will to cause a lot of hurt through their slander.

It took faith for the first disciples to hold on to God’s greater plan and it took them time to see God’s purpose in it all, even though they had been taught and reminded by Jesus Himself. It takes faith for us to hold on to God’s goodness and promises when everything appears to be under the devil’s domination, knowing that  “because the Sovereign Lord helps Me, I will not be disgraced – who will condemn me?” Faith that is not stretched and tested is not mature faith.

For reflection, or as a discussion starter

When everything is going wrong and spiritual oppression is causing confusion, does God speak and how do we best position ourselves to hear Him?

New covenant, new way

RECAP

Jeremiah 31:31-34   Jeremiah foresees a different kind of covenant entirely, a covenant of heart rather than statute.

Psalm 51:1-13  Selfishness and independence is inherited from mankind’s fallenness, but the mercy of God’s unfailing love and His Holy Spirit can create a new heart.

John 12:20-33  As the ‘prince of this world’ hears the announcement of his judgment, Jesus foretells that His death will draw all kinds of people to Him.

Hebrews 5:5-10  The new covenant is explained to Jewish Christians in terms of the new, enduring and entirely different level of priesthood now held by Christ Jesus.

FRIDAY, MARCH 16
New covenant, new way

The transition from obeying to partnering

Our Father God wants His children to know Him personally, to share in His values – such as drawing everyone to Himself – and to partner with Him in bringing transformation to this world.

That wasn’t always how it worked. In the desert, then in the Promised Land, with the influence of prophets, priests and kings, a people that would obey and stick to Moses’ Sinai covenant was what brought His favour. That is, when they did obey – when the ‘marriage’ was working. But more and more, the relationship began to fail.

Just as expectations in the partnership of marriage have changed, as the roles and relationships of men and women have changed, the whole basis for relating to God went through a ‘sea change’. Everything changed in Jesus. The Messiah was the True Light who fulfilled the Law – a huge change. His giving of the Holy Spirit, empowering and bringing revelation, inspiring the gospels and other NT teaching was an even more profound change. The Old Covenant was about doing what was right, doing good works and doing ‘good religion’. The New Covenant, which Jeremiah foresaw, was about being those redeemed by Jesus as the unique High Priest, with hearts changed by the Holy Spirit, resulting in good works and partnership in the mission of God.

In the workplace, it is common to start a new role with an induction to learn the new ways things are done. Have we fully caught on to the new way God is working – or still trying to do things the old way, to His consternation?