Bringing it together – the emerging message

FRIDAY, APRIL 6
Tests of true believers

RECAP

Exodus 14:10-30, 15:20-21 – The test of faith for the impossible

Psalm 133 – The test of togetherness

John 20:19-31 – The test of believing without seeing

1 John 1:1-2:2 – The test of those who are walking in relationship with God

How ordinary Christians’ faith changed the course of history

The first passage, Monday, April 2 – Exodus 14:10ff, told how Moses and his large and at times opinionated and difficult group faced a test of faith in a situation that looked hopeless – although God had spoken previously, and given them a clear promise of passage to the Promised Land to hold on to.

The lesson about the power of unity (Ps. 133) also bears on this story; so does Thomas’s lesson, after he declared “Unless I see…” He followed the old adage that seeing is believing, but faith turns that on its head to say that believing, is seeing.

A generation or two ago the future of this country was in the praying hands of ordinary but true, believing Christians – the ones who were too young or too old to be called up for war service. And we can assume that the majority were women.

Like the Israelites at the Red Sea there was a pursuing army and a strategic stretch of water. This is about the two dramatic and otherwise inexplicable reversals that took place in 1940 following a national call to prayer.

May 1940 was a desperate time; the entire retreating British Army was trapped at Dunkirk. King George VI (who, like Moses, found public speaking difficult) called the nation to turn back to God in a spirit of repentance, and plead for Divine help.

On the day appointed by the King, which was Sunday May 26, the country responded. Millions of people flocked into churches. A memorable photograph of the time shows a long queue outside Westminster Abbey; church bells were rung and others filled churches across the UK, and also in the Commonwealth nations.

There were two immediate results: a violent storm arose over northern France, grounding the Luftwaffe which had been attacking the troops on the beaches. And then a flat calm, a calm that had not been seen for a generation, descended on the Channel,  allowing hundreds of tiny pleasure boats to cross and enter the shallows to allow men to board. Rather than the anticipated 20-30,000 hoped for, 335,000 were rescued.

Another National Day of Prayer was called on Sunday, September 8, 1940, while the Battle of Britain was being fought out in the skies. RAF fighter command was close to being wiped out and its airfields destroyed; preparations for the invasion could be seen, looking across the channel from the Dover cliffs. Inexplicably the Luftwaffe suddenly switched tactics to bombing London, giving time for fighter squadrons to re-group and re-equip, and the invasion plans were finally abandoned.

True believers, acting together, can bring godly change, to the wonder of politicians.

 

Tests of a true believer: Walking in the light, dealing with sin

THURSDAY, APRIL 5
1 John 1:1-2:2

If we walk in the light, we have fellowship. If we are transparent about our failings, our relationships with God and others prosper

1  That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

“…From the beginning, which we have heard…” – This is an apostolic manifesto, laying down some authoritative markers for what follows. The purpose of John’s letters is to address some serious difficulties in the young churches (see page on GNOSTICISM). Unspiritual teachers were going off-track with their own philosophies, for example saying that Jesus only ‘seemed’ to be man.

2  The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

“The life”, “the eternal life” – Jesus is our pathway to eternal life and the source of spiritual life. Accepting Jesus as personal Saviour and Lord is how we become born again into a new start, a new spiritual life which is evident to all.

3  We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

We knew Him personally, and we know the Life of God through fellowship with Him, John is saying. Those claims cannot be made by false teachers.

4  We write this to make our joy complete.

“Our joy” – could also be ‘your joy’. There’s the joy of hope, the joy of faith and salvation, and the joy of love. John is writing to better establish the readers in their hope and faith. Those spiritual foundations, well made, will lead to the joy of fellowship. If the fellowship isn’t all it should be, it is a symptom of the foundations of hope and faith not being all they should be. As a result, the joy in the fellowship and the apostle’s joy will be lacking.

5  This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him, there is no darkness at all.

“This is the message” – John was writing to churches in which there were cliques following Gnostic ideas and others who were quite mixed up about who Christ is, and what it actually means to be His. Then, as now, there could be a kind of religious Christianity which followed the form without the relationship and Lordship of Christ in personal Christianity.

In particular, John’s letter addresses false teachers of a Gnostic ‘christianity’ which held that:

  • Moral behaviour doesn’t affect one’s relationship with God
  • Immoral conduct doesn’t constitute sin for those that know God
  • The knowledge of God removes the possibility of sin in a ‘believer’

“God is light” – describes God as being above what is material – therefore He is impossible to define – but in a similar way to light, having a quality of truth and transparency and the ability to reveal what is hidden, which communicates with and impacts others.

For further study: The Logos (the Word, Jesus) is the light (to phos), but God is light (phos) without ‘the’. Similarly God is Spirit, God is love, God is consuming fire. Read 1 John 4:8 and 16, John 4:24, Hebrews 12:29.

6  If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.

John introduces three tests of authentic Jesus-centred Christianity which confront a lack of personal engagement common today in many church attendees, where we may claim fellowship with God without recognising the need to first go to the Cross of Christ for cleansing and forgiveness, and to then live differently in a consistently holy life.

7  But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

The first hallmark of the true believer is fellowship with one another, followed by cleansing of sin in the blood of Jesus. If we love one another without condition – because we all share the same Saviour and Lord – we will be quick to recognise where our selfishness or independence has caused hurt to others and we will have the capacity to take responsibility and say ‘sorry’. At that point, we are already starting to take that sin to the Cross in repentance, and receive forgiveness. The relationship awareness is what starts a natural progression.

8  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

9  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

The second hallmark of someone who has received Jesus into their heart, is a readiness and willingness to acknowledge sin for what it is. Those who know the Redeemer have no reticence in confessing what they need to be redeemed from!

2:1  My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.

2  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

The third hallmark of one committed to Jesus is a confidence in Him as the advocate and also sacrifice for our sins. Not knowing whether we are forgiven, and feeling the need to earn our way into eternal life, makes for an apologetic and reticent kind of faith – if faith it is. The confidence of knowing our Advocate, who has a remedy for our failings, makes for a completely different stance in Christian life, worship and mission.

Application

The enemy of our souls, Satan, may have been seen off by Jesus in the desert confrontation, and may have been soundly defeated by Jesus dying and shedding sacrificial blood as a sinless man on the Cross. However, like a vagrant who has been given a court anti-social behaviour order, he finds ways to come back and cause every kind of hardship, oppression and difficulty – until we confront him with the court order and put him out again.

Leaving sickness and death on one side, the less visible ways the devil operates are by deception, confusion and fear.

Deception is insidious, because (by definition!) no one thinks they are being deceived. So is confusion, because the bearings and points of reference have become obscured. And many of us have lived with fear and anxiety so long it seems normal. If you have no assurance of a life in God that endures, as was the case for the gnostics addressed in this letter, then you try to create your own in superstitious and religious practices. The motivation is not love of God, but fear of abandonment.

The answer, John explains, is to know without doubt that God is light, absolute and pure. Then we walk in that light of truth and revelation, walking with others on the same journey, and making that light and love the foundation of our relationships when things go wrong, as from time to time they inevitably will. That involves keeping short accounts with God and with others about our sins – taking them to the cross, taking hold of the cleansing of the blood of Christ.

Against that the enemy has no strategy.

For reflection and discussion

Where am I walking on the boundary of darkness and light, and not being quite real about beliefs and attitudes which are not right with God? Who is standing with me, and will help me as one who also needs the help of others?

Tests of a true believer: Thomas declares Jesus “My Lord and my God”

Thomas believes. Credit: ids.org

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 4
John 20:19-31

Receive the Holy Spirit: the disciples are commissioned and sent. An encounter with Jesus which is a spiritual foretaste of the Pentecost experience to come

19  On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

“With the doors locked” – as known associates of one perceived to be a dangerous agitator, the risk of arrest by the temple police was a real one. They were probably discussing how they could leave Jerusalem unnoticed by the authorities until Jesus’ specific instruction to them to stay, Acts 1:4.

This was the third appearance of Jesus; He had appeared to Peter, mentioned only briefly, Luke 24:34, 1 Cor 15:5; and to Cleopas and another disciple (Mary, wife of Cleopas?).

“Peace be with you!” – the conventional Jewish greeting but also an affirmation of the disciples, who doubtless felt ashamed at not standing with their Lord at His time of need.

20  After He said this, He showed them His hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

He appeared in a physical body even though His spirit was in heaven.

21  Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

They were expecting reproach for their failure; instead, they find themselves being commissioned and sent by Him on mission, comparable with Jesus’ being sent from the Father.

22  And with that, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

As breathing life into the dry bones of Ezekiel 37:9. There are various interpretations of this, which needs to be understood alongside Acts 2:1-4. It does appear to have been an impartation, although their reticence didn’t change – they were still behind locked doors a week later, John 20:26. However, this “receiving” of the Holy Spirit made them more receptive to their being “filled” with the Holy Spirit that was to follow at Pentecost, and then filled again later, Acts 4:31.

23  If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

God alone forgives sin and we have no capacity in that regard apart from Him. However, our proclamation of the Gospel – particularly the truth of who Jesus is and what He has done for all who turn to Him – is a challenge to the hearer to respond and receive forgiveness, or not respond and remain unforgiven.

This seems like a separate strand but it is part of the same statement as “Receive the Holy Spirit…” of v.22. The Holy Spirit is no spiritual ornamentation but the solid and necessary enabling of a confident proclamation within a more general empowering for mission. He moves us from self-centred to ‘other-centred’. The Holy Spirit is our boldness and clarity in making Christ known; He is also the conviction of either righteousness or unrighteousness that comes on those who hear, John 16:7-8.

For further study, read Matthew 16:19; Acts 2:38

24  Now Thomas, also known as Didymus [or the twin], one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.

25  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas is the reassurance for everyone who is, like him, a ‘late adopter’; taking time to come to his position of belief, and then showing himself unshakable. Earlier he has shown himself to have a dogged loyalty, John 11:16, while being outspoken and honest about his doubts, John 14:5.

26  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28  Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

At initial reading, it seems that Thomas was more unbelieving than the other disciples, but they also had difficulty believing Mary Magdalene when she said she had seen the Lord. Thomas’ “I will not believe…” of v.25 (the Greek is more emphatic, like our phrase ‘I will absolutely not…’) and Jesus’ grace shown to him also deals with the suggestion that the stories of the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection were the wishful imagination of His disciples.

29  Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Thomas’s response is presented as the high point in this gospel – Jesus is the risen Lord, victorious is over sin, sorrow, death – and doubt. Thomas’s confession of personal faith – my Lord, my God – is the final confession of faith in this gospel – underlining the truth of what Jesus said, but also the recognition of who Jesus is.

Thomas saw the risen Jesus in His resurrection body and it was a real and visible encounter. But Jesus reminds him that faith is about coming to ‘see’ in a different way. The writer to the Hebrews it this way: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1, emphasis added).

30  Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John wrote the accounts of eight particular miraculous signs (and recalls others, not recorded) to point to who Jesus was.

Application

The purpose of John in writing his gospel was not just to record what Jesus said and did, but to show who Jesus was, and is – Son of God, Messiah, Lord of life and death. That is summarised in Thomas’ recognition and acceptance of the person of Jesus as God, and as Lord of his life.

John’s gospel is showing us that knowing what Jesus said and did is not the same as knowing Him. Many of us spend years in church and even reading the Bible for ourselves and adding to our knowledge of God. That is not the point.

Peter, arraigned before the high priest and Sanhedrin after a night in prison following the healing of the man at the temple’s Beautiful Gate, stood up and spoke in the power of the  Holy Spirit (see note 2 to v.23) and declared: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved,” Acts 4:12. The way of salvation is the way of knowing Jesus – the Bible is clear on that.

Like Thomas, we have to come through doubt to know who Jesus is in our lives by faith, and confess Him as “my Lord and my God”.

For reflection and discussion

The disciples were commissioned and promoted, from anxious followers to become confident proclaimers of a message that would enable others to receive God’s forgiveness. How ready are you for this call?

Tests of true believers: unity

Snow-capped Mount Hermon from Galilee

TUESDAY, APRIL 3
Psalm 133

Dwell together in unity… for there the Lord has promised His blessing. There is an anointing of God that comes on our togetherness in Him

A song of ascents. Of David.

The 15 Songs of Ascents (Psalm 120-Psalm 134) were sung by journeying pilgrims on their way ‘up’ to Jerusalem, fulfilling their obligations to attend the three annual festivals (Deut. 16:16). The psalms celebrated various characteristics of God, earlier psalms from the perspective of an outlying area e.g.  “I lift up my eyes to the hills…”, Psalm 121:1 and later “Lift up your hands to the holy place…” Psalm 134:2.

1  How good and pleasant it is

when God’s people live together in unity!

The pilgrimage is one of shared values, not an individual act.

2  It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.

The consecration of Aaron, representing priests in general, with “precious” or special fragrant oil, was an impartation and also a sign of being set apart for service. The picture is of people coming together in a unity of God’s values and purpose, creating a spiritual dynamic and demonstrating a sign of commitment to God’s purpose, to those observing.

3  It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.

For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

Mount Hermon in the north-east of Israel is often snow-capped, with dense dew from the moist air there. Zion, by contrast, is arid and often lacks dew. The imagery is of the rich dew of Hermon falling on the dry and dusty slopes of Zion.

“The Lord bestows His blessing” – a recurring theme in the ascent psalms. Pilgrims journeyed to worship at the place seen as the place where God particularly ‘dwelt’ or as we would say, presenced Himself. Today, many thousands travel to New Wine or Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor to find a particular sense of the presence of God in a large and enthusiastic gathering there – perhaps not so very different.

Application

Individualism was not a part of Jewish culture in the way it is in ours – but it is still a trait of human nature. We could say it is “of the flesh”. It is not a good road to head down, because of where it leads. A good definition of sin is that it is independence from God, which is the foundational reason for why we get into rebellion and fall short in many ways, do things we shouldn’t do and leave undone things we should have attended to, etc. Independence from God is where it all gets off track, and unity with others who are seeking God is where it all comes right again.

In a world which distrusts institutions and dislikes the fuss and formality of organised religion, the witness for Jesus Christ has to shed a lot of baggage to be effective. Where people representing different strands of church history and different emphasis come together in friendship and mission, the world notices – and listens.

To show Jesus to an unbelieving world requires us to be one in His kingdom purpose, and hold our personal and church-congregation emphases lightly enough to put down at will.

For reflection and discussion

Where do we as Christians “live together in unity”? And where do we, in our attitudes and judgments, put up barriers to that unity?

Tests of true believers: The test of faith for the impossible

Readings this week

Exodus 14:10-30, 15:20-21 – The test of faith

Psalm 133 – The Test of togetherness

John 20:19-31 – The test of believing without seeing

1 John 1:1-2:2 – The test of walking in relationship with God

Exodus Route and Nuweiba crossing as researched by Ron Wyatt http://www.6000years.org/frame.php?page=red_sea_crossing

MONDAY, APRIL 2

Exodus 14:10-30, 15:20-21

The Israelites are challenged to believe God’s promise at the Red Sea crossing

10  As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord.

The Egyptians had quickly lost the anxiety of the plagues and the loss of their first-born.

11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?

They had cried out to the Lord (v.10) but quickly switched to Moses, a more accessible target for their all-too-human (and humanly wrong) reaction. There is some biting sarcasm here, because Egypt at that time was obsessed with graves and had large areas of burial grounds.

12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

“Say to you” – to say and to ‘think in the heart’ can be the same in Hebrew. This is the accusation made earlier in Exodus 5:21.

13  Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  14  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

“Deliverance” – literally ‘salvation’ but this is more in the sense of them being delivered from the threat. There is little distinction in Hebrew between salvation, deliverance and healing.

Moses gives three patient instructions in the turmoil: (1) do not be afraid, (2) stand and expect the Lord’s deliverance, and (3) be still i.e. stop all action.

15  Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.

Reminding Moses of the enduring promise to take them out of Egypt and give them the land of Canaan – the petition is already granted. His responsibility in faith is to keep everyone moving into the promise, expecting a way through.

16  Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.

“Divide” – cleave, form a valley: As happened in the description of v.21-22 “…the water divided… with a wall… on their right… and left.”

17  I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen.

18  The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”

19  Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them,

20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.

The angel of God and the evidence of the presence of God, the pillar of cloud moved from ahead of the refugees to behind them and produced darkness with the opposite effect on the pursuing army, to the light and reassuring presence for the Israelites.

Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side, and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.

21  Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided,

22  and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

The strong wind is a natural element, but the effect of the wind to bank up the water as a heap and create dry ground for the crossing, can only be explained by a miraculous event.

23  The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea.

The exact location is debated, but recent scholarship and archaeological discovery has pointed to the tip of the Gulf of Suez, where divers have photographed unusual coral-encrusted shapes of wheel and spokes, providing evidence for the ”jammed wheels’ of v.25.

24  During the last watch of the night, the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.

The ‘look’ of Yahweh appears to have been more of a blinding flash which caused the charioteers to run into each other. The wording of Psalm 77:16–20 suggests a thunderstorm, or a frightening occurrence resembling a thunderstorm.

The last watch of the night, 2am-6am, is the traditional time to mount an attack when visibility and morale are at their lowest.

25  He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”

Chariots with open unprotected wheels would be prone to lock if they touched. Rather than wheel around the Israelites, they were confined to the same narrow channel between the walls of water.

26  Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.”

27  Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea.

The action by Moses was necessary to show that the return of the water was an act of God, not just a freak of extraordinary weather.

28  The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.

“Not one of them survived” is qualified by “that had followed the Israelites into the sea” – those that went into the gap, perished in the gap when Moses called down the return of the water.

20  But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

30  That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.

There is a Twentieth Century Fox finality about this scene which made this miracle at the Red Sea the enduring symbol of Israel’s salvation, recounted in verse and song by one generation to another.

20  Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing.

Miriam (the same name as Mary in the NT) was probably a praise leader of the women and is described as a prophetess, an unusual word also applied to Deborah, Judges 4:4. She claimed to bring God’s word just as Moses had, Numbers 12:2. Although she is Moses’ sister, she is described as Aaron’s sister, perhaps making a point about lesser rank.

21  Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Application

This was a huge and miraculous deliverance in every aspect. God is loving and God is strong – and God is faithful when His people turn to Him in repentance and prayer. There is also a note of desperation here, but Moses is hearing God in it all. What is God saying in a situation? We need to persist and hear. “Faith comes by hearing”, and then we know how to pray – and act.

For reflection and discussion

What helps us to hear God in the emotional clamour of a crisis situation? See verses 11-15 for what not to do, and what God looks for.

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?