God’s ways are higher

Jesus demonstrates God’s higher purpose: incarnate Word of God, dying as the full and final sacrifice, and then resurrected and elevated as everlasting Great High Priest of the order of Melchizedek

TLW42

Revised Common Lectionary readings for October 21

Job 38:1-7 — God’s perspective is far higher than Job’s opinions

Isaiah 53:4-12 — God’s eternal purpose is higher than man can conceive

Mark 10:35-45 — The kingdom of God is a higher order than human status

Hebrews 5:1-10 — Jesus has gained special qualification to represent us to God

Also: Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

FIRST OLD TESTAMENT READING

Job 38:1-7 — God’s perspective is far higher than Job’s opinions

Yahweh announces His presence and cross-examines Job

1  Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

The the Lord spoke” – Following Elihu’s speech, Job 32:6-37:24, the Lord – Yahweh – spoke, first mention since the prologue, Job 1:8; 2:3. Significant because God’s covenant name is also His character and His promise, Exodus 34:14-15. “Out of the storm” – God announcing His presence in a covenantal gesture. 

2  “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?

Job has been complaining from his human perspective, showing up his inadequate knowledge of who God is. 

Brace yourself like a man; I will question you,   and you shall answer Me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?   Tell Me, if you understand.

“I will question you… where were you…” – questions to which Job must confess ignorance. God says nothing about Job’s suffering but neither does He agree with the counsellors or condemn him.

“Tell Me” – whether rhetorical or demanding a response from Job, he is unable to answer.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!   Who stretched a measuring line across it?

6-7  On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

Hearing from the Lord here, Job 38:1-40:2 and subsequently, Job 40:6-41:34, bring Job to a better understanding of God’s goodness and wisdom, while leaving his earlier questions hanging.

IN PRACTICE We have opinions, and we like to express them, and we know that we are right… the problem always being the limited perspective on which we base those opinions. Job, who was entitled to try to work out what was happening to him and defend himself from his friends’ well-meaning but flawed attempts to blame him for his downfall, hears from God that He has a higher purpose for His creation including mankind. Who is Job to argue? We take from this two lessons of everyday life,
(1) to hold our opinions lightly because God is likely to show how flawed they are, and
(2) to always try to see God’s higher purpose in the struggles we find ourselves in.

QUESTION Have you held an opinion which you sensed God was challenging, and then discovered it was unfounded?

SECOND OLD TESTAMENT READING

Isaiah 53:4-12 — God’s eternal purpose is higher than man can conceive

The disfigured, suffering servant, a picture of Christ that Isaiah saw

4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted.

“Surely he…” – the servant, introduced in Isaiah 52:13 is so disfigured to be almost unrecognisable; people were appalled at the sight.

“We considered him punished by God” – people would conclude he had been struck down by God for his own supposed sins. But there is something far greater going on here, Matt. 8:14-17. He was beaten and hurt, for us to become whole.

5 But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.

“Punishment that brought us peace” – brought us shalom, a huge word, far more than freedom from anxiety. Healing of spirit, the emotional/thinking life of the soul, and physical healing are all part of this divine exchange. This much quoted as the heart of the gospel, salvation and entry into the life of God’s kingdom, which cannot be earned or achieved, just received through the Servant.

For further study, see Psalm 22:16; Zech. 12:10; Romans 4:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24-25.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

“Each of us… turned to our own way” – repentance is the exact opposite, a turn from our own way, to God’s way. The point is that every person has sinned, Romans 3:9, 23, and deserves God’s righteous wrath. However the servant has taken the consequences of that sin and borne the righteous wrath warranted by that sin.

“Laid on Him the iniquity” – recalls the high priest on the Day of Atonement laying hands on the scapegoat and symbolically putting the sins of the people on it.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth.

By oppression and judgment He was taken away. Yet who of His generation protested? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of My people He was punished.

“By oppression and judgment” – In Jesus’ ‘kangaroo court trial’ no one spoke up on His behalf, and neither did He defend Himself.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.

“A grave with the wicked and…rich” – Jesus’cave tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a rich and righteous man. Isaiah associates the rich with the wicked, because such wealth was often gained by oppression or dishonesty.

10  Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the Lord makes His life an offering for sin,  He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand.

“The  Lord’s will to crush him” – at first sight an incomprehensible cruelty but “His life [made] an offering for sin” expresses the Lord’s equally hard-to-grasp sacrificial love for a world that has lost its way. The result is literally billions of spiritual sons and daughters.

11  After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied; by His knowledge My righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will give Him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because He poured out His life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

“Numbered with the transgressors” – or rebellious ones, identifying with them (with us) and making intercession that they might again become servants of the king.

IN PRACTICE The enormity of what God has done for us, having His own Son take the punishment and pay the price in our place, leaves us with gratitude that words are inadequate to express. But what about the knocks of life and the attacks on health and finances and well-being we all face? This punishment that has brought us heavenly shalom is a practical remedy for ourselves and for others. When the truth of this sinks in, it changes the way we pray, from passively asking God to help us, to an active stance of being able to declare in a spirit of praise how He HAS helped us.

QUESTION Praising God for His goodness and deliverance out of a difficult situation is challenging. What difficulty are you bringing before God, where you can change your prayer in the light of this?

GOSPEL READING

Mark 10:35-45 — The kingdom of God is a higher order than human status

The lesson about who Jesus is and the path to greatness by serving that He sets out

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”

“James and John” – the two other members of Jesus’ inner circle (following on from Peter’s outburst, Mark 8:32-33) show that they still haven’t grasped His essential teaching about who He is and His impending death, and what greatness and leadership in the kingdom of God means.                                              

36 “What do you want Me to do for you?” He asked.

37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“In Your glory” – the part they had understood is that Jesus was the Messiah; “sit at Your right…” – they associated it, wrongly, with rank and status.

38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?”

“You don’t know” – they didn’t understand about sharing in Jesus suffering, and the servant nature of leadership in His kingdom. 

39-40 “We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, but to sit at My right or left is not for Me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

“Not for Me to grant” – Jesus would not usurp His Father’s authority.

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.

“Indignant” – they wanted prestige and power for themselves. Jesus now spells out a different understanding of what the leadership of God’s kingdom entails.

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.

43-44 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

“Not so with you” – the values of the kingdom of God turn the values of the world upside down.

45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

“To serve, and… give His life” – a climax and one of the most important passages in Mark, emphasising how Jesus’ death as a suffering servant is central to the values of His kingdom.

IN PRACTICE The Letter to the Ephesians teaches that all Christians, in their new nature, are positionally ‘seated’ together with Christ, who is Himself seated at the right hand of God the Father with authority over everything. For us this is no less than a place of sharing His spiritual authority in the battle against evil. So there is a sense that we do get what James and John asked for, but not in the way that they imagined. However, the values of the kingdom of God clash with the values of the world, and put serving above status. The point is that, knowing Jesus, personally and intimately, brings a  different kind of authority, spiritual authority, which is how Jesus uses us to bring His light and presence into our sin-darkened world.

QUESTION What for you is the hardest part of the “Not so for you” (verse 43)?

EPISTLE READING

Hebrews 5:1-10 — Jesus has gained special qualification to represent us to God

Jesus, having suffered and borne our sins, is called into a high priestly role of a unique order 

The background text to this is Psalm 110:4 in which is God’s stated intention that His Son is to be a priest for ever in the order of Melchizedek. The author expands on this, comparing the priesthood of Aaron’s descendants (vv. 1-4) and that of Jesus, the ultimate high priest (vv. 5-10).

Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

“From among the people” – the high priest had to be able to relate to people and their lives, in order to represent them before God.

2-3 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since He himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.

“Weakness… his own sins” – the high priest, subject to human sinfulness, sacrifices first for his own sins, Lev. 16:6,11. By contrast Christ, sinless, Hebrews 4:15; 7:27, exercises a unique high priesthood of a quite different order and extent.

4 And no one takes this honour on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.

“Called by God” – the Aaronic high priest must not be self-appointed but have a recognised call to the office. In Jesus’ lifetime the high-priestly office – and the power and control that went with it – belonged to the family who had bought the privilege.

In the same way, Christ did not take on Himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to Him, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.”

“You are My Son” – or “Today I reveal You as My Son”, quoted from Psalm 2:7. A turning point in the comparison. 

For further study: read Psalm 2:7-9, Romans 1:4.

And He says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

“Priest… in the order of Melchizedek” – quoted from Psalm 110:4. This is the first of 10 times this verse is quoted in Hebrews, Ps.110:4,6,10; 6:20; 7:3,11,15,17,21,24,28.

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverent submission.

“Heard… because of his reverent submission” – Jesus did not shrink from the indescribable agony of bearing mankind’s sins in a suffering of spirit, soul and body. He asked that the ‘cup of suffering’ might be taken from Him, but He still went through with it in full obedience to His Father.

“Save Him from death” – by resurrection.

8-10 Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered and, once made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

“Learned obedience… once made perfect” – or ‘complete, qualified’ from teleios original meaning ‘having reached its end’. Christ was without sin, but proved His humanity in the cost of obedience, walking the path of human experience all the way to death on the Cross, in complete submission to the Father’s will. This finally qualified Christ to represent us by His unique and ultimate high priesthood.

IN PRACTICE This passage exposes the fallacy of any religious system which we “take on ourselves”, v.4. It’s easier to grasp but the only effective and peace-bringing way is through personal relationship with Jesus. He is the only person who, having lived our life with its trials and temptations – without sin – can represent us before the Father. This highest of high priests, who has conquered death, and broken the grip of everything which contends with God’s design and purpose for our lives, is the one who takes up our supplication (asking) prayer – and then reminds us that, sharing His exalted place, we should move from asking, to declaring in faith, what He has done. With the backing of Jesus the great high priest, we can pray with authority – His authority.

QUESTION What in church or Christian life are we inclined to put our faith in, rather than relying on Jesus to represent us?

PRAYER Father God, as I come to You in Jesus I am overwhelmed, not just by Your greatness and higher purpose, but by your goodness and generosity beyond anything I could deserve. Help me to hold on to this great truth, for myself and but also to share with others who need a touch from You.

TLW42e October 14 – Booklet

Booklet to print  4pp A4

Catching God’s heart to change ours

Jesus gently challenges the rich young ruler, to tease out where his security and his heart really is, Mark 10:17.

TLW41: Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, October 14

Theme: How much have we caught God’s heart, and He ours?

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 — Job’s heart is tested under oppression. A righteous man is blamed by his counsellors, but still holds out for God’s justice.

Mark 10:17-31 — Jesus tests the heart of a wealthy follower. Mark’s story of the rich young man who had ticked the boxes for observance, but overlooked the priority of love.

Hebrews 4:12-16 — The word of God judges our heart’s attitudes. Everything in us is accountable to God but Jesus, our great high priest, has lived in our world and meets us as One who understands

Also: Psalm 22:1-15

OLD TESTAMENT READING

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 — Job’s heart is tested under oppression

A righteous man is blamed by his counsellors, but still holds out for God’s justice

Eliphaz, in the previous speech, has treated Job as a sinner, in the darkness of sin and for whom he has a remedy. Zophar, the the speech before that, went further in aligning Job’s grave difficulties with his rebellion before God. There is some truth in both positions, but Job does not accept either of them: he humbly asserts that they do not apply. Job is an interesting exception to the general assumption, that everyone’s need can be met by preaching the gospel.

1-3 Then Job replied: “Even today my complaint is bitter; His hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.

3 If only I knew where to find Him; if only I could go to His dwelling!

“If only I knew where…” – Job, true to his name (‘iyyob, Where is the heavenly Father?), is trying to find God from his sense of abandonment. Eliphaz had instructed Job “Return to the Almighty” but Job (vv. 8-9 below) cannot find God to encounter Him anywhere.

4 I would state my case before Him and fill my mouth with arguments.

5 I would find out what He would answer me, and consider what He would say to me.

6 Would He vigorously oppose me? No, He would not press charges against me.

“Would He… oppose Me?” – Job’s change of heart, expecting to find justice, Psalm 97:2 having worked through his earlier fear that God would be too powerful for him to be heard, Job 9:14-20, 33-34.

7 There the upright can establish their innocence before Him, and there I would be delivered forever from my judge.

“I would be delivered” – Job is confident, as a God-fearing worshipper, of a fair hearing, leading to acquittal. The gospel is here in this passage, which looks forward to the justification to be found, not in the tally of our good deeds, but through the relationship we have with Jesus Christ alone, Romans 4:25-5:1; 8:1.

8 “But if I go to the east, He is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find Him.

9 When He is at work in the north, I do not see Him; when He turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of Him.

= = = = = =

16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.

17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.

“Made my heart faint” – Job’s affliction was physical (sores and wasting) but also what we categorise as mental illness. The devil’s oppression is a combined attack on (human) spirit, (thinking, feeling) soul — and (physical) body. “Thick darkness” – Job was fearful and anxious, feeling like he was groping in darkness, familiar to anyone battling depression.

IN PRACTICE  Despite physical illness and mental torture, Job’s heart is proving to be true. Far from blaming God for his misfortune, the devil’s scheme, He is trusting God for his deliverance. He feels sure that if he could have that conversation, that hearing, that He would find that God was for him. God is for us. It will always be the devil’s strategy to sow thoughts in our minds that God is for others, but not us; that we have done (or not done) something that exposes us to judgment and keeps us out of favour. This is the folly of the religious mind. The spiritual person, who knows God personally through Jesus, will know that it is our heart, and the relationship with God that guards our heart, that gives us assurance – and ultimately deliverance.

QUESTION  Why would God allow such a good person as Job to go through this trial of sickness and a feeling of “thick darkness”? How does Job’s faith, even while questioning, help us?

GOSPEL READING

Mark 10:17-31 — Jesus tests the heart of a wealthy follower

Mark’s version of the story of the rich young man who had ticked the boxes for observance, but overlooked the priority of love

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to Him and fell on his knees before Him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“A man ran up” – previously in Mark’s story Jesus encountered small children who had no standing and were completely dependent. By contrast this was a young man, probably a member of a council or court, Luke 18:18, Matt. 19:20, commandment-keeping and rich. Jews of that time would consider him (wrongly!) to have a great standing with God and therefore claim to salvation.

“What must I do” – the question of a religious, but not spiritual, person. He showed respect to Jesus (“fell on his knees”) but simply didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching of how the kingdom of God is entered, Mark 10:13-16.

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good – except God alone.

19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.’”

“Why do you call Me good” – Jesus is not denying His goodness, but making the man think about his question and focus on God. Will he recognise the goodness of God incarnated in Jesus? Will he recognise that only God Himself is intrinsically good?

“You know the commandments” – Jesus mentions the six that address wrong actions and attitudes to others including “fraud” for covetousness.

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

“All these I have kept” – this doesn’t read well to us. But the man is sincere. For him, the law is about conforming to the doing, the externals (like the six commandments Jesus quoted). Jesus makes him think: what is missing? The requirement to have a good heart, to love God and, by extension, have God’s love for others, Mark 12:29-30; Exodus 20:3; Deut. 6:5. Entering the kingdom of God is always a step of repentance, Mark 1:5; 6:12.

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”

“Sell everything… give to the poor” – not a general command, but addressing the stronghold of self-sufficiency that was holding this man back from salvation.

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24-25 The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

“Camel…through the eye of a needle” – the largest animal and the smallest opening. The idea of a laden pack animal shedding its baggage to be led through a narrow postern gate is a great illustration that may (or may not) have been in Jesus’ mind.

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

“Amazed…Who then can be…” – Jesus has overturned the generally accepted idea that riches are a sign of favour from God.  

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

“Who then… with man this is impossible” — this man, they would have thought, was an outstanding  candidate. Jesus explains that there is nothing we can achieve of ourselves to gain salvation. It comes only by relationship with God and receiving His gift.

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29-30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.

31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

“Left… for me… will receive…” — followers of Jesus share a family generosity that transcends social and geographical borders. In this context, the hospitality if a hundred homes and families sharing the same values.

“First… last and… last first” — the kingdom order up-ends the accepted order of wealth, privilege and the merit of having kept the externals. The kingdom is experienced by disciples with no other claim than looking to Jesus and accepting the challenges of His humble way.

IN PRACTICE  This favourite story, also told by Matthew and Luke,  goes right to the heart of our walk with God. Here was a man who had done all the right things that the law said were to be done, but how he felt about God was still a bridge to be crossed. Throughout history, man has put the first commandment – to love God with all our heart – on a shelf while working at all the others. The intention was to be so captivated by God and broken by His love, that everything else follows as a consequence. The rich young man had a theology of ‘doing’ – we might call it religiosity – but who had his heart? 

QUESTION  Jesus asks us the same question from time to time: where is our heart? Can we do no other but to follow Him wholeheartedly, or is our human desire for self-sufficiency holding us?

EPISTLE READING

Hebrews 4:12-16 — The word of God judges our heart’s attitudes

Everything in us is accountable to God but Jesus, our great high priest, has lived in our world and meets us as One who understands

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

“The word of God penetrates” – a warning to those living a sham that faithless disobedience will be exposed by the living power of the word of God which acts like an all-seeing eye.

“Soul and spirit” – the human spirit together with the thinking, feeling, wilful soul. Taken together to mean the whole inner person.

13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.

“Everything… laid bare” – The word of God (v.12) is speaking and acting as the judgment of God Himself. All our thoughts and intentions are exposed, and accountable to the living, written Word, John 6:63, 68, Acts 7:38 as to the living God who is the author.

14-15 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,  Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.

“Great high priest” – for Jewish Christians, coming out of the Old Covenant priest and sacrifice tradition, knowing Jesus as the Great High Priest of the complete, final sacrifice was an important faith connection.

16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

“Confident… that we… receive mercy and grace” — because this high priest has the unique qualification of having been tested through suffering and death for us, Hebrews 2:9-10.

IN PRACTICE  The ‘quiet time’ of starting the day with God and the Bible, letting Him speak through His word, has deep roots in Christian tradition. Fashions change in discipleship, as everything else, but in a busy and confusing world, the need for this discipline seems to gain renewed emphasis. The ‘down side‘, if there can be a disadvantage to learning to hear God speak to us, is that His word is truth. It is that sharp penetrating sword that exposes our heart. It is, very helpfully, a lamp to our feet and our path but also a bright light over the mirror that shows all our blemishes – the part we don’t much like. However, God, in His love, is not so much about showing up what is in our heart, as revealing to us what in our heart we still need to let Him purify. He is in the business of redeeming and recreating and regenerating, and in Jesus a ‘new heart for old’ is  His ongoing promise.

QUESTION  The devil will always find ways to try to prevent you having a quiet time in the word. How resolved are you not to be put off meeting with God in this way?

TLW41/October 14 to print in A5 booklet form

Heaven’s justice exposes man’s way

Leon Bonnat’s classic depiction of Job – the name means ‘Where is the heavenly Father?’ –crying out to God in his severe and unfair affliction. Job is the epitome of all that is unfair, unjust – and of Satanic origin.

Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, October 7

Satan is allowed to oppress righteous Job to try to get him to blame God

Theme: Heaven’s fairness confronts man’s pride and control

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 — God is over the tests of life which come to all. Satan is allowed to oppress righteous Job to try to get him to blame God.

Mark 10:2-16 — God’s justice and good is for everyone equally. Man’s sense of hierarchy, status and privilege is confronted by Jesus’ teaching on marriage and children.

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 — Jesus redeems mankind by entering our messy world. He provided purification from sins by identifying with sinful mankind, so that He could be enthroned at the place of majesty in heaven.

Also: Psalm 26

C of E only: alternative OT reading Genesis 2:18-24. At Creation, God creates woman out of man.

OLD TESTAMENT READING

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 — God is over the tests of life which come to all

1 In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.

“Job… was blameless and upright” – his name is a Greek/English way of saying the Hebrew ‘iyyob meaning ‘Where is the heavenly Father?’ This sets the scene for the testing of Job in the story. He is depicted as having a consistent spiritual life (but not sinless), faithful before God and of spotless character – in contrast to the assumptions of his three friends. This is the tension explored in the whole book.

2:1 On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before Him.

2 And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

“On another day” – a second glimpse of angels of the heavenly court with Satan elbowing in, an unwelcome presence. The scene of Job’s second test is like the first, Job 1:6-12. In the first test Satan was bound from harming Job’s person and in this second Job’s person is vulnerable but his actual life is protected, verse 6 below.

3 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited Me against him to ruin him without any reason.”

“You incited me” – God cannot be stirred up to act against His will. “Have you considered my servant Job” is an indication that God allowed what happened to Job as part of His purpose. God doesn’t send afflictions but may allow difficulties which test our trust of Him, hence “Lead us not into temptation” linked to “the evil one” in Jesus’ model prayer for disciples, Matt. 6:13.

“Without any reason” – translates the same Hebrew word used for Satan insinuating that Job did not serve God “for nothing”, Job 1:9. The Lord throws “for nothing” back at the Accuser.

4-5 “Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out Your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse You to your face.”

“Skin for skin” – as we would say, quid pro quo. Job maintained his integrity in a test that cost him his skin and the “skin” of his animals. Satan, always the accuser, alleges that Job is only concerned for himself.

6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”

7-8 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

“Painful sores” – the terms used for the ‘plague of boils’ in Egypt, Exodus 9:9-11. Also used for ‘painful boils’, Deuteronomy 28:35, which was set out as a specific covenant curse for the disobedient. This would all the evidence Job’s friends needed to tell him that he was being punished for sinning – a severe test of faith.

9 His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

“Are you still…” – Job’s wife sarcastically echoes God’s words in Job’s hardest trial so far, and uses a figure of speech to narrowly escape blasphemy. She mistakes Job’s dogged faith for religious obstinacy.

10 He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

“Shall we accept good… and not trouble” – Job’s controlled retort cancels his wife’s dangerous near-agreement with Satan and makes the central point of the Book of Job, that spiritual maturity recognises that God is sovereign over our lives whether in good times or adversity, and is able to trust Him while not understanding why bad things happen.

IN PRACTICE Job’s miserable experience meets us where we are, in struggling to understand why bad things happen to good people. Job is presented to us as man of integrity, who honoured God and took trouble to avoid evil. So why is he singled out for affliction? Those who mistakenly (or even subconsciously believe) that God is a fickle creator can stop and reflect right here. We can see that some who are not deserving prosper, while people we know who are unselfish and upright before God face trials, in way which defies all human reason. Job and his friends struggled with this! The lesson is that we have an enemy, perhaps particularly targeting those who have a close walk with God. However, God’s purposes are higher, using affliction to test, prove and grow our faith and demonstrate that ultimately He has sovereignty over our lives and circumstances.

QUESTION  How would you explain this lesson to a struggling or health-challenged friend, bring out the need for faith and trust in God in the face of human logic?

GOSPEL READING

Mark 10:2-16 God’s justice and good is for everyone equally

In the kingdom of God, husbands, wives and children are esteemed together

2 Some Pharisees came and tested Him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Tested Him by asking” – test sometimes translated ‘tempt’, meaning ‘try to catch out’. John the Baptist had been beheaded for teaching that Herod Antipas’ divorce and remarriage was unlawful. With Jesus in Herod’s territory, the Pharisees thought they could indict him before the ruler for agreeing with John the Baptist.

“A man to divorce his wife” – the only possibility under Jewish law, however in Jesus’ time there was much discussion about how to interpret the grounds which allowed divorce. Many Pharisees were advocating that men could initiate a kind of ‘no fault‘ divorce.

3 “What did Moses command you?” He replied.
4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“Moses command… Moses permitted” – the Pharisees came back with Deut. 24:1-4 which was not a command but an acknowledgement that marriages fail; it gave some protection for the woman’s rights. Like many of their interpretations of the Law, this had become conveniently twisted over time; divorce permitted in Deut. 24:1 for ‘something indecent’ had been changed from ‘something’ to ‘anything’.

5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.

6-9 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

What God has joined” – Jesus uses Scripture to move the argument from man’s interpretation of the rules, back to God’s intentions at creation and before sin had entered; marriage is between man and woman, and is divinely established, Gen. 1:27, 2:24, Exodus 20:14

10-12 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

The disciples asked Jesus about this” – they were taken aback by Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Law. As He said elsewhere, He expected a higher moral righteousness than merely keeping within Israel’s civil law, Matthew 5:20.

13-16 People were bringing little children to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And He took the children in His arms, placed His hands on them and blessed them.

“He was indignant” – a strong word, He was angry. People, probably parents, were bringing children for a blessing (the practice of laying on hands to bless was ancient). Challenging the pecking-order mentality of Judaism, in which children were not honoured and largely excluded, Jesus makes the point that the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) must be received, and cannot be earned by merit. A child comes and simply receives a gift without asserting rights – in the same way, people must receive God’s kingdom as a gift, by coming to Jesus and receiving Him. See Matt. 5:3.

IN PRACTICE Like the Jews of Jesus’ time, we want to make our own rules about marriage and divorce to accommodate shifts in culture, although this is strongly resisted in some parts of the world e.g. Africa. He entered a world that was male-dominated with a strong sense of privilege and rank and ‘small people’, typified by the small people who were children, being dismissed as of little account. His intervention, today as then, is to call us back to God’s creation intention. The kingdom of heaven’s order is about heaven’s equal-handed fairness without privilege or discrimination.

QUESTION What is our sense of entitlement to Jesus’ kingdom order, and how might He tease out if we have really received it?

EPISTLE READING

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 – Jesus entered our messy world to redeem mankind

The divine prophet, priest and very radiance of God became human, and endured man’s sin and oppression to sit at the right hand of God.

1-2 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom also He made the universe.

3-4 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So He became as much superior to the angels as the name He has inherited is superior to theirs.

“In the past, God spoke” – through the many instances and styles of His prophets, and then by the One who was a new category of revelation, not just a prophetic voice but His Son.

“By His Son who…” – seven praise definitions follow: (1) heir of creation; (2) creator or co-creator of the universe; (3) the radiance of God’s glory; (4) the exact expression of God’s nature; (5) the Word of God Himself, the only prophet who is also God; (6) the priest of God, who purifies from sin; (7) the majestic king enthroned at the right hand of the Father.

“Superior to the angels” – first-century Jews were fascinated by angels and held them in high esteem as those who minister before the throne of God and who revealed the Mosaic law at Sinai, Hebrews 2:2. Synagogue-tradition Jews were inclined to denigrate Jesus divine status and view Him as a mere angel. Jesus, whose name and therefore essence is Son, is not to be equated even with angels.

5 It is not to angels that He has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him?

7-8a “You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honour and put everything under their feet.”

8b-9 In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.

“Someone has testified” – the author shows how Psalm 8:4-6 is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus needed to become incarnate as man – and for that time, lower than the angels – so that the “son of man”, the Messiah, could be the truest representative of mankind, Daniel 7:13. The role intended for mankind at creation came to fulfillment in Jesus Christ sharing our humanity.

10-11 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what He suffered. Both the One who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.

12 He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.”

“Perfect through what He suffered” – not questioning Jesus’ sinlessness, but showing Jesus to have been qualified for His unique role “through what He suffered”, obeying perfectly, dying as the perfect sacrifice for sins on our behalf. The Amplified Bible adds to “perfect” “should bring to maturity the human experience necessary to be perfectly equipped for His office as High Priest”.
“I will declare Your name… in the assembly…” – from Psalm 22:22, showing that Jesus Christ is present in the gathered church.

IN PRACTICE Who is Jesus? The introduction to the letter written to Jewish Christians in particular, starts with a well-crafted single sentence that sets out Jesus’ identity as the prophet, priest and king who is also God. Yet He was also incarnated as a regular man whose unique role as redeemer of mankind was completed in His suffering and death. That puts Him in a logic-defying situation of being identified with and experiencing with us every abuse and injustice that part of this world’s package, and also being sovereign Lord – the Lord of heaven’s better, higher, more just way – over every aspect of our lives. He transforms us as part of His redeeming purpose, reminding us that in Him we have a family relationship – those being made holy are closely related to the One who is holy.

QUESTION The definitions of who Jesus is are arresting, and to be called His brother or sister is almost beyond our grasp – but how does this help us in life?

PRAYER  Lord Jesus, help me to have a deeper revelation of who You are, and who I am through the transformation and new nature I gain in You. Help me, therefore, to live above my humanness and be a force for Your truth, justice and absence of discrimination. Amen.

True Greatness

“We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves; and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.” – Thomas Merton

Proverbs 31:10-31 – Greatness comes through character and diligence

Mark 9:30-37 – Greatness comes through being able to defer

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8 – Greatness comes through embracing humility

Also in this Sunday’s readings: Psalm 1

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SUMMARY  The theme of the week is True Greatness

Proverbs 31:10-31: Greatness comes through character and diligence, as exemplified by Proverbs’ depiction of the “wife of noble character” whose skill, diligence and business acumen are all examples of the wisdom that comes from “the fear of the Lord”, meaning a willingness to submit everything to Him.

Mark 9:30-37: As the disciples argue about their individual status, Jesus teaches the Suffering Servant’s way of greatness through being able to defer.

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8: The teaching of the Early Church emphasised conquering pride, envy and personal ambition and embrace godly submission and humility, the true greatness.

MESSAGE OF THE WEEK  The fear of the Lord, submission and conquering pride sound like calls to a rigorous, monastic-style obedience – but the reality is that knowing God personally through Jesus releases and enables. The Life of the Spirit is empowering: it brings a freedom from ambition and status, enabling us to WANT to put God and others first.

Also in this Sunday’s readings: Psalm 1

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Alternative OT reading (C of E option) Jeremiah 11:18-20

OLD TESTAMENT READING

Proverbs 31:10-31 | Greatness comes through character and diligence

Book of Proverbs wisdom illustration about character and respect

Last week’s reading, at the beginning of the Book of Proverbs was about wisdom personified and wisdom’s voice – as it happens, a woman’s voice. Here at the end of Proverbs, we meet the wife of noble character. This wife, who is marked out by her fear the Lord, v.30, is also like the personification of wisdom. This chapter was not written by Solomon but King Lemuel, Prov. 30:1, not an Israelite king but a foreigner who had come to know the Lord.

10-12 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.

 “Noble character” – moral and spiritual, but also very able. Elsewhere the term is used for the military exploits of men. Her husband can trust her because she is godly.

13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.

“Wool and linen” – wool spun from the fleece, linen woven from flax fibres. A linen garment sold for half a month’s wage and a woollen garment for four times that.

14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.

15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.

“Like the merchant ships” – she is enterprising: remarkable in a male-dominated culture and “provides… portions” – also considerate, the opposite of Proverbs’ sluggard, Proverbs 6:9-10, 26:14, not one to have servants attend her in bed.

16-19 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.

“Considers a field… sees that her trading is profitable” – showing independent judgment and financial wisdom, not the norm for women of that time. “Her lamp does not go out” – not working through the night but a sign of a well-run house where the lamp was kept burning all night as a sign of life.

“Sets about her work” – establishing a vineyard planting and press in stony ground was an arduous undertaking. By contrast, drawing wool thread from the distaff stick on to the spinning wheel was skilled work undertaken by women.

20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.

21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.

“Clothed in scarlet” – implies dyed wool and good quality. She makes good clothes for her household and at the same time shows generosity to the less-well off, a characteristic of wise people.

For further study: generosity is characteristic of wisdom as emphasised in Proverbs, Prov. 11:24-26; 21:13; 22:9,16,22-23; 28:27.

22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.

23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.

24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.

25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.

This woman’s hard work and good judgment brings security and respect to the household and also her husband, who is valued as a decision-maker “at the city gate”.

26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.

28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:

29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

31 Honour her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

“A woman who fears the Lord” – the poem, an A-Z of wisdom, builds to its conclusion that the reward of wisdom, personified as the woman of wisdom, is about where that wisdom is rooted: in the fear of the Lord, a simple but profound statement, Prov. 1:7, 9:10, 15:33. Being willing to listen to and defer to the Lord is perhaps a more feminine trait, as in this depiction, which wise men do well to acquire.

IN PRACTICE  In a hard-nosed world which prizes knowledge and puts a high value on information, something called wisdom looks like a ‘soft skill’. Perhaps in a different way, it is – set in largely male-centric stories and events, the word for wisdom is feminine. Proverbs begins and ends with wisdom, which it explains in terms of personality and character – a God-fearing, submitted, spiritual woman. It is more than having skills, it is having the character and sense of direction to know what to do with them. This is what brings that elusive quality we call success.

QUESTION  Out of the many attributes of this ‘woman of wisdom’, which particularly speak to you? Should you ask God for wisdom or just rely on Him to provide it?

GOSPEL READING

Mark 9:30-37 | Greatness comes through being able to defer

The disciples are caught in an argument about status

30-32 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because He was teaching His disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after three days He will rise.” But they did not understand what He meant and were afraid to ask Him about it. ”

“He was teaching His disciples” — they still couldn’t accept His teaching about His death and how it formed part of God’s plan. The resurrection of an individual was a new concept to them – they expected the resurrection of mankind at the final judgment foretold in Daniel 12:2. Luke’s explanation is that “it was concealed from them so that they could not grasp it”, Luke 9:45.

33-34  They came to Capernaum. When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

“Capernaum… in the house” – probably the one belonging to Peter and Andrew, Mark 1:29.

“But they kept quiet” – they expected disapproval of the argument. It would surface again, Mark 10:35-37. Because they had not yet understood Jesus’ destiny, they didn’t grasp the implication for themselves.

35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

“Sitting down” – as we would stand up, assuming the role of a teacher. Jewish rabbis taught sitting down.

“Want to be first…last… servant” – (here and below) Rank and status were important in Jewish society at this time. Jesus confronted those assumptions by teaching that in God’s kingdom true greatness comes through being the servant, not the master. Finally He demonstrated this conclusively in His death as the Suffering Servant.

36-37 He took a little child whom He placed among them. Taking the child in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the one who sent Me.”

“Whoever welcomes one of these” – Children had no status and were not romantically considered pure and innocent – just weak and inferior. Welcoming a child was putting yourself last in line, in a dramatically unexpected way.

IN PRACTICE  The disciples belonged to a stratified Jewish society – aristocratic and common, rich and poor, politically powerful and oppressed. Status and hierarchy was discussed a lot in their culture. For us (depending on what newspaper you read) there is quite a lot of emphasis on ‘being a celebrity’. But all of this flies in the face of God’s kingdom order, which turns man’s order upside down, twists it around and shakes it for good measure. Jesus was a servant, a suffering servant to the cause of providing a salvation path for mankind at the cost of His life and reputation. His life on earth made Him the greatest human being who has ever lived. True greatness, in His terms, has nothing to do with our imagined ideas of status, but is achieved by conquering human pride and self-sufficiency, and learning to embrace dependence on God and gain a true servant spirit.

QUESTION  Think of someone you know who is different because you can see Jesus in them? Why is that? What part of status and position would be costly for you to say ‘no’ to?

EPISTLE READING

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a | True greatness comes from humility, not pride

Teaching about dealing with ambition and embracing godly dependence

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

“Humility” – literally ‘meekness’, prautes. ‘Gentleness’ in Gal. 5:23. Greeks considered it a weakness but Jesus made it a fundamental virtue, Matt. 5:5, 11:29. It is not passive or timid but an attitude of trusting God and therefore having no need to self-promote.

“Humility that comes from wisdom” – true wisdom, like true greatness, has nothing to prove.. James writes to Spirit-filled believers in the churches about “deeds done in the humility of the consequential fruitfulness of faith in their day by day experience of God.

14-16 But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

“Selfish ambition… disorder” – worldly teaching based on man-centred values  is unspiritual; more seriously, it invites the conflict and division that is the hallmark of the devil, James 4:1-3 below.

17-18 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

“Peace-loving… considerate” – the list parallels the character qualities of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23  with more than a nod towards the Royal Law James has already mentioned, James 2:8.

“Desires that battle within” – the life produced by the Spirit and characterised by the peace-loving and fruitful unity He brings, contrasted dramatically with the bitter church conflicts and character assassination that result from rivalry and desire to control.

4:1-3 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

7-8 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

“Resist the devil” – the opportunities given to the devil by unholy attitudes have been set out forcefully. Similarly the remedy – recognising the rule and reign of God in willing submission to His values. This ‘repent and resist’ teaching is paralleled by Peter, 1 Peter 5:8-9, in His letter written at a different time, giving weight to the gravity of this teaching.

For further study: the ‘wearing holy attitudes’ teaching in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Eph. 6:10-18.

IN PRACTICE  This week’s teaching follows a familiar pattern. The principles are set out in the Old Testament passage, but at this point, it’s more theoretical than practical. In the Gospel passage, Jesus brings the principles alive in His own life and teaches the values to the disciples. It still needs to be earthed in everyday spiritual life. The epistle is written to believers in the churches who are learning to live in their new life and new identity, as those who are new creations “in Christ Jesus” and who have the Spirit of Christ Jesus in them. They are empowered, they are guided, they have the original Scriptures and the new records of Jesus’ teaching BUT they have to make it work in their lives and their relationships, with all the tensions of a community. They have new life, but as we all find, the test is whether we can avoid being pulled back into what the Bible calls the flesh, or selfish nature. In this case, it’s rivalry, envy and desire to control and, like the weeds in your garden, it’s ready to spring up in every church fellowship to be a vehicle for the conflict and the disunity the devil wants to sow. That’s his strategy to disable the advance of the kingdom of God. We have a better a strategy to disable the devil, and that is the active choice to repent of pride, embrace again utter dependence on God and recognise that whatever we have of worth, is only from Him.

QUESTION  What do you feel entitled to control? Where do you have the need to be in charge? Where is the lordship of Jesus – over or under those perceptions?

PRAYER  Lord, looking into Your eyes is looking into life itself. Help and empower us to be people of the New Life – and life-givers to others who in their pain may need us to exercise our faith on their behalf. I pray this in and through Jesus. Amen.

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C of E alternative OT reading

Jeremiah 11:18-20 NIV

The plot against Jeremiah revealed

18 Because the Lord revealed their plot to me, I knew it, for at that time He showed me what they were doing. 

“Their plot” – people in Jeremiah’s home town of Anathoth. He was a priest from a town of priestly families just north of Jerusalem, Jeremiah 1:1.

19 I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realise that they had plotted against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.”

“Destroy the tree” – they wanted Jeremiah and his memory blotted out. They hated him because of his words against the ruling order at a time when God’s judgment was building, which resulted in Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians and deportation of most of the people.

20 But You, Lord Almighty, who judge righteously and test the heart and mind, let me see Your vengeance on them, for to You I have committed my cause.

“Your vengeance” – not personal vengeance. Jeremiah is simply calling for God to judge the actions of his oppressors fairly and handing over any personal desire for retribution to Him.

Listening to the Lord and speaking for Him

Image credit: St George’s Anglican Church, Burlington, Canada

Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, September 16 (Pentecost 18)

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Listening and speaking out – our opinions or wisdom’s voice?

Mark 8:27-38 | Listening to the Lord and speaking as His disciples

James 3:1-12 | Listening to God first – does He have our tongue?

Also in this Sunday’s readings: Psalm 19

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Summary

The theme for this Sunday is about who we listen to, and what is in our hearts as we speak.

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Listening and speaking out – our opinions or wisdom’s choice?

The voice of wisdom is like a woman whose advice (in that culture) could be ignored and even mocked, revealing arrogant obstinacy. Do we respond as learners or mockers?

Mark 8:27-38 | Listening to the Lord and speaking as His disciples

Peter and the disciples were put on the spot about who people thought Jesus was and who they said He was, but Peter’s declaration sealed their belief in Jesus as Messiah.

James 3:1-12 | Listening to God first – does He have our tongue?

This teaching from the apostle James stresses power of words for good or harm, and the importance of speech which comes from a heart submitted to God, not human opinions.

The message this week is a reminder that the words we speak are like fruit, showing whether we are a thorny briar or a sweet variety. As disciples of Christ we guard against lapsing into the old, selfish nature, but rather show the Lordship of Jesus over our speech.

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Proverbs 1:20-33 | Listening and speaking out – our opinions or wisdom’s choice?

The voice of wisdom gives sound guidance for living, for all who will hear

Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square; on top of the wall she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech:

“Wisdom calls aloud” – personified as a woman (the Hebrew word is feminine) who cries out, for all to hear in the marketplace, and at the place of business and debate, the city gate. 

22 “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?

“Simple… mockers… fools” – Proverbs addresses three sets of people who need God’s wisdom and are progressively less receptive. Those who are simple or inexperienced, pethim, are the most open to God’s truth, Prov. 1:4. Fools, kesilim, have heard God’s wisdom but are resisting it. Mockers, latsonim, oppose wisdom with ridicule and are condemned in Proverbs as those too arrogant and contentious to learn.

For further study on kesiyl, kesilim see Proverbs 17:10, 12, 16, 21, 24-25 and a related word in Prov. 17:7.

23 Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings.

“Repent… then…” – the consequence of heeding the warning is a blessing, where wisdom is like a fountain of constant refreshment and, “I will make known”, though revelation.

24-25 But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke…

“Stretch out my hand” – in appeal, like Isaiah 65:2 where God holds out His hands all day to “an obstinate people”

26-27 …I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you – when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you.

“Laugh” – not heartlessly but at the predictability of those who spurn wisdom’s guidance and find themselves in difficulty as a consequence.

28-29 “Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord.

“Call to me” – sounds like 1 Samuel 8:18, but this is probably not about prayer; wisdom is a personification, not God. The sense is that mockers and scoffers will frantically seek wisdom when they get into trouble, but ‘too little, too late’.

30-31 Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.

“Eat the fruit… be filled with the fruit” – like the NT phrase “A man reaps what he sows”, Gal. 6:7. Evil people suffer the punishment of living out the consequences of their own actions, and will find themselves consuming the fruit of calamity, fear and destruction that they meted out to others.

32-33 For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.

“Waywardness” – a play on the Hebrew word for turning which can mean positively “repent” or negatively “turn wayward”. Not heeding wisdom (being wayward) causes destruction; the remedy would have been to turn in repentance.

“Whoever listens to me” – those who listen to wisdom’s voice experience security.

IN PRACTICE  The voice of wisdom is not the same as the voice of God, but closely aligned. It is more the sense of how we live out what we hear as the voice and truth of God.

Wisdom is evident, or lacking, in all our attitudes of heart – and our heart determines what we say. Here we meet those who come across as uninstructed, or a stage worse, just stubbornly foolish and wrong-intentioned. But worst of all is the arrogant mocker, the opinionated “I know best” person who is proud that they have no need to listen and learn. This is the root of dissention, and derogatory slander, that is the devil’s strategy to impede the kingdom of God. To the extent that we allow it.

QUESTION  How proactive are you in seeking God’s wisdom to live by, day by day?

Mark 8:27-38 | Listening to the Lord and speaking as His disciples

Speaking as disciples of Jesus – who do we say He is?

Jesus and His disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way He asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

“Caesarea Philippi” – named after Herod the Great’s son Philip the Tetrarch, the recently-built town was on the slopes of Mount Hermon, a prominent landmark 25 miles to the north of Galilee.

“He asked them” – for the first time, Jesus raises the question of His identity. He must clarify the nature of the Messiah as God’s servant who will suffer and be shamed for His people, a difficult concept (Peter’s response v.32 below) against the popular idea that the Messiah would be a military deliverer like King David.

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“Some say” – the disciples list some the most popular misconceptions.

29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

“But what about you?” – more emphatic in the Greek. Jesus compels a deeper response.

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

“The Messiah” – or Christ. Both mean ‘anointed one’. A climax and the first time this is stated in Mark’s story apart from his introduction, Mark 1:1. Peter speaks out the conclusion of all the disciples.

30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about Him.

“Warned… not to tell” – the mission of Jesus as Messiah could not be understood apart from the ordeal of the Cross, which the disciples were not yet prepared for. To announce Jesus as Messiah would only reinforce the misunderstanding about the Messiah. The Jewish people, desperate to be released from Gentile Roman dominion, would try and make Jesus king by force, John 6:15 and see John 12:12-19.

31-32 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.

“Peter… began to rebuke Him” – to Peter, what Jesus was teaching was not only unthinkable but just plain wrong.  In this section, Mark 8:31-10:52 Jesus prepares the disciples for His inevitably, divinely-ordained death as they travel to Jerusalem.

“Suffer… be rejected… be killed and…rise again”. The Messiah had to suffer, as predicted, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and see Luke 24:44, and be rejected, which echoes Psalm 118:22, and die before being raised to life again, promised in Hosea 6:2. The Jews knew these scriptures but misunderstood them. Following the Suffering Servant passage, Isaiah sets out how God’s ways are higher than our ways, Isaiah 55:8-9.

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter. “Get behind Me, Satan!” He said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

“He rebuked Peter” – with a seemingly harsh word, but Jesus recognised Peter coming under the same attempted deception that He had experienced in the desert confrontation with Satan, Matthew 4:8-10.

34 Then He called the crowd to Him along with His disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.

“Take up their cross” – not a medieval-style religion of self-abasement which misses the point made in the sentences around this phrase. The disciple call is to die to the right to determine one’s own life path and success; as in being born anew, willingness to let go of the old life admits new life in Jesus – which will embrace the costs of shame and pain at times.

35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me and for the gospel will save it.

36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

“Save their life” – self-preservation is a strong human instinct. We want to hold on to what we know and we believe represents security. To lose life in the flesh is to gain the spiritual life of the soul.

37-38 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when He comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Standing up for Jesus, His values and His words, requires courage in the face of ridicule – but it’s a non-negotiable position for those who choose to walk the Way of Jesus.

IN PRACTICE  Everyone wants to be known as a fan of a popular hero. Even if we have no local affiliation, we support a particular Premier football club ‘because it is the best’. People are intrigued by, and sometimes drawn to, ‘populist politicians’. Some “do a Huw’, the highly individual pose modelled by the revered Welsh newsreader.

Jesus is more of a problem. In our church, He would be an outsider, a disrupter, someone bringing change. In our community, He doesn’t look like a figurehead as a servant of incomparable kindness. In a post-modern inclusive world, some want every spiritual insight to be a path to the truth. The question for us, as well as Peter, is who do WE say Jesus is? And that draws out from us where we really stand in relation to His Lordship of us.

QUESTION  How ready are we to stand up, be counted and speak for Jesus and His values in our sceptical world?

James 3:1-12 | Listening to God before speaking – does He have our tongue?

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

“Become teachers” – the rabbi or teacher was honoured in Jewish and by extension, Christian society, Acts 2:42, Romans 12:7, 1 Cor 12:28, while Christians generally were regarded as social outsiders, James 2:6-7. James points out that few should aspire to a role which could influence for good or harm, and which therefore carried greater penalties in accountability, Matt. 5:19, Acts 20:26-27.

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

“Fault in what they say” – the argument moves from the specific role of those called to teach, to the general responsibility we have for the words we utter, to bless and encourage or to harm. The main issue in the church, then as today, is the twin problem of dissention and slander, James 4:1, 3:9, 4:11.

3-5 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.

Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

“Bits…rudder… spark” – the three images of small things that cause big effects were common in literature of the time. The tongue’s power to influence is way out of proportion to its size in relation to the rest of the body.

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

“A world of evil” – like a little microcosm of the fallen world within us. “Set on fire by hell” – the cause of so many sins when taken over by the devil’s destructive influence. The tongue reveals the worldliness lurking in our hearts, Matt. 15:18.

7-8 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

“All kinds of animals” – probably referring to Genesis 1:26. “No human being” – emphatic: the tongue often has a life of its own and can be like a deadly snake, Psalm 58:3-6, Psalm 14:3, which cannot be tamed except by God’s power working in us.

9-12 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

“We praise…and… we curse” – words have power, either to bless (bringing life and encouragement) or to curse (bringing harm and what is life-sapping). “God’s likeness” – all hearers have the worth of being created in God’s image.

“Can both… flow from the same…” –  it is incongruous for a Christian, reborn with a transformed heart, to utter demeaning words, like a tree producing the wrong fruit or a spring that runs brackish. Only a heart being continually renewed by the Holy Spirit can produce pure and life-giving speech.

IN PRACTICE  The school playground chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is good to help children refute name-calling but a poor representation of truth. Words that curse can have an enduringly hurtful effect. Who has carried the words of a parent or authority figure for whom we were never good enough? Prayer ministry later in life often reveals such barriers, words spoken over us that have had the effect of a curse, the word meaning the opposite of a blessing. On the other hand, the encouragement of the person who believed in us at a not-very-successful time is not forgotten. Words spoken have power, and there can be spiritual power behind the emotional or suggestive power as well. What comes from a resentful heart can do harm to us as much as the target. What comes from a pure heart submitted to Jesus can bring much benefit – perhaps, with faith, even a mountain-moving miracle.

QUESTION  What words have stayed with me as an enduring encouragement? And what words do I need to lift off my heart, to be free of their restriction?

PRAYER    From Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, God, and know my heart…see if there is any offensive way in me…”  And help me to speak with the tone and truth and compassion of Jesus, whatever is going on around me, and to be quick to forgive those who, like Peter in the Gospel reading, have spoken from the selfish nature and momentarily become a voice for the enemy of our souls.

God’s love – no favouritism

Image credit: Gail Davis, www.linkedin.com/pulse/favoritism-prejudice-mercy-james-21-13-gail-davis

Theme: God loves us without favouritism, and that is His way for us

Image credit: Gail Davis, www.linkedin.com/pulse/favoritism-prejudice-mercy-james-21-13-gail-davis

Proverbs 22:1–2, 8–9, 22–23 » The principle of God’s impartial kindness

Mark 7:24-37 » Jesus in a Gentile district is impartial in His ministry

James 2:1-17 » Genuine faith treats others impartially

SUMMARY  The theme explores God’s lack of favouritism – and how we treat each other in that regard. Proverbs 22 lays down principles which the Mark 7 stories expand. Jews had little to do with non-Jews; Jesus, however, carried out a deliverance for a Syrian Gentile woman with a severely demonised child, and then performed another healing miracle in a largely Gentile Decapolis area. James’ teaching in the epistle reading challenges how impartial our response is, to someone coming to join in who is ‘not like us’ – in particular, whether we discriminate between the well-off and others. These Scriptures urge us to go beyond our human love with its social constraints and conditions, to love people with God’s impartial love.

OLD TESTAMENT

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 »The principle of treating others impartially and with God’s kindness

The Lord’s way is to treat people of His creation evenly

A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.

2 Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.

“A good name” – character is to be valued above riches, as Proverbs 3:14 and 16:16. The precepts of the Lord similarly, Psalm 19:10 and 119:72, 127.

To oppress the poor, who are made in God’s image, is to insult God himself. See Proverbs 14:31.

8–9 Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity, and the rod they wield in fury will be broken. The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.

“Reaps calamity…will be blessed” – Scripture says much about the grace of God but also that all actions have consequences such that we reap what we sow; meanness and generosity of spirit both come back to us, but in opposite ways.

For further study, see Proverbs 11:25–26; 14:21; 19:17, Hosea 8:72; Cor. 9:6–10, Galatians 6:7.

22–23 Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life.

“Do not exploit the poor” – which was common in a culture that believed riches demonstrated God’s blessing. See Proverbs 22:16, 14:31. Justice defends the needy, Isaiah 1:17.

IN PRACTICE  These verses set out God’s way which is to regard everyone without partiality – “God is no respecter of persons, meaning He does not show favouritism”, Acts 10:34, Galatians 2:6. God regards all who are His creation, even-handedly – and often chooses ‘outsiders’. Upholding this viewpoint, rather than the narrow, human perspective of our rights and entitlements to control and judge others, speaks plainly to us about how we judge others – or choose not to judge others. God’s ways are higher than our ways.

QUESTION  We all fall into the trap of favouritism and judging others! What is an area of this attitude that the Holy Spirit is revealing to you?

GOSPEL

Mark 7:24-37 » Jesus in Gentile districts is impartial in His ministry

Ministry in Tyre and then the Decapolis delivers a Greek woman’s daughter and heals a deaf and dumb man

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep His presence secret.

“Tyre” – there was a Jewish community in the mainly Greek-speaking Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon who Jesus knew, Mark 3:8.

25–26 In fact, as soon as she heard about Him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

“She begged” – the sense is of asking repeatedly. She was a Gentile, compelled by her extreme need for her daughter, to ask help from a Jewish rabbi.

27 “First let the children eat all they want,” He told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Children’s bread” – Jesus tests the woman’s faith in an exchange that was probably not as harsh-sounding as it is to us. “The children” are the Jewish people, “bread” is His message and “dogs” Gentiles. However “first” looks “the children” to Gentiles also receiving God’s grace.

28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The Passion Translation renders these verses, “Finally He said to her, ”First let my children be fed and satisfied, for it isn’t fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.“ She answered, ”How true that is, Lord. But even puppies under the family table are allowed to eat the little children’s crumbs.“ Then Jesus said to her, ”That’s a good reply!”

29 Then He told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

“Even puppies…are allowed…” – her reply to being compared to an unclean dog is humble but also persistent; the Good News may be for Jews first, Exodus 4:22, but others are included. She comes through the test demonstrating genuine faith.

30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

“She went home” – this was a deliverance where there was no contact or even proximity with the suffering person.

For further study, compare with the healing miracles in Capernaum of the centurion’s servant, Matt. 8:5–13, Luke 7:1–10 and the official’s son, John 4:46–54 where Jesus was distant from the sick person. Spiritual salvation, healing and demonic deliverance are seen as the same process of God’s grace in the Bible.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to Him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place His hand on him.

The Decapolis, east of Galilee, was another Hellenistic, mainly Gentile region, like Tyre and Sidon, where Jews had resettled following the deportations.

33–35 After He took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then He spat and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

“Put his fingers” – Jesus uses sign language to tell the deaf man what He was doing for his hearing and also speech.

“Took him aside” – Jesus did not want to make the man a spectacle.

36–37 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more He did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

“Overwhelmed with amazement” – The crowd were attracted to someone they saw in terms of signs and wonders and possible political liberation. However Jesus needed His disciples and others to understand from the miracles who He was, a Messiah, vulnerable and without political might. He also wanted them to see beyond the healing of people’s physical disabilities, to their own spiritual blindness and deafness – and need.

IN PRACTICE  Jesus’ ministry in Tyre was a ministry to Jewish settlers there – He didn’t seek out a Syrian Gentile woman with a pressing family situation and a demon or two to send packing. But He wasn’t about to dismiss her because she was not one of the ‘children’ Hhe was sent to. What a lesson for us! We may have a clear idea of who are ‘our’ sort of people – people we relate to, in our church or belonging to our denomination or whatever. And then there’s someone else who needs prayer, who needs help. Maybe they are Romany, or a DSS family with history or folk from a different culture. What stops us? Bits and pieces of discrimination and judgment clutter our thoughts but Jesus, who had a clear call and clear priorities, didn’t hold back His love. Neither should we – we go with what He gives us, without partiality.

QUESTION  God is always testing us and taking us a bit outside our comfort zone. You probably have such a story, if you think about it. What did you learn from it?

EPISTLE

James 2:1-17 » Genuine faith treats others impartially

God’s love is seen in us to the extent we love others just for who they are, not showing any favouritism.

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.

“Favouritism” – Christ lived for 30 years in an undistinguished village and ministered in Galilee and Samaria, regions despised by Israel’s leaders, a strong statement about God’s impartiality.

2–4 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

“Meeting” – literally, ‘gathering’. At this time of transition James uses both this general word, also used for synagogue, and the Greek word for ‘church’, James 5:14.

“Gold ring and fine clothes” – rings showed economic status, Luke 15:22. The early church was mixed socially with many who were not well off, Acts 4:35–37, Acts 6:1–6, 1 Cor. 1:26.

“A good seat… sit on the floor” – most in a synagogue would stand or sit cross-legged on the floor. There would be a few benches around the wall and in front, which the Pharisees considered theirs by entitlement, Mark 12:38–39.

5–7 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom He promised those who love Him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of Him to whom you belong?

“Chosen… to inherit the kingdom” – God’s choosing is a combination of His calling and our response, into the sphere of salvation and the realm of Christ’s rule, the present sense of kingdom. God’s kingdom order confronts the world’s sense of priorities, Luke 6:20–23.

“The noble name” – literally, “who slander the noble name spoken over you,” meaning the ownership of Jesus Christ which we declare at conversion and baptism.

8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right.

“Royal law” – or sovereign law i.e. one that is binding, quoted from Leviticus 19:18. Taken with the command to love God, Deut. 6:4–5 it encapsulates all the Law and Prophets as Jesus taught and Paul emphasised, Matt. 22:36–40, Romans 13:8–10.

9–10 But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.

“If you show” – more accurately, “since you show”, the form of the verb indicating it was ongoing practice. Exclusive behaviour violates God’s royal, or supreme, law of love which governs all human relationships. Favouritism was prohibited in Leviticus 19:15, three verses removed from the command James quotes.

11 For He who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

“Lawbreaker” – Jewish religious teaching had reduced the law to a long series of injunctions which were held to be of varying importance, rather than a unified way of life of loving God and therefore others. James’ point to his readers is that they could not cherry-pick and claim to live for God.

12–13 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Someone whose life does not show mercy and is judgmental, has clearly not received God’s mercy. The unredeemed will be judged for eternal hell, while those showing the evidence of God’s nature in new life – James assumes his readers are genuine believers – will be those with the assurance of receiving a different judgment, that of merciful freedom.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

“Claims to have faith” – but if not genuine saving faith is demonic, useless and dead, James 2:19,20,26. Can such ‘faith’, form without substance, save them? The implication is that it cannot. Intellectually accepting certain truths, without the step of trusting Jesus Christ as Saviour, is not the faith that justifies and saves.

15–17 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Genuine faith and having God’s Spirit active within us is a spiritual condition that cannot help but produce actions that please God. James is in no way saying that a person is saved by their good works. He has clearly stated that salvation is a gracious gift from God that cannot be earned, James 1:17–18, see also Ephesians 2:8–9. He sets out plainly the danger of a kind of religiosity which is not sincere faith and which cannot save, above vv. 14 and 17, James 2:20, 24, 26 and see Jesus teaching e.g. Matt. 3:7–8, John 8:30–31.

“What good is it?” – this picture of false faith is like the illustration of false love in 1 John 3:17.

IN PRACTICE  In a harsh and judgmental world, those who walk with Jesus and His Spirit are called to be different – and also empowered to live differently. Our call is simply to love others with God’s love. That’s more than a nice-sounding phrase. It means choosing not to apply man’s judgmental discriminations. It means accepting people as made in God’s Image. Most will be different. Many will be difficult for us. Their rejection of God may be overt. But God sent Jesus so that they could come back to Him and know Him personally. We are the impartial, non-judgmental guides He has put in place for them, serving under the royal law of love.

QUESTION  If we are called to model God’s impartiality to others, what sort of being different would be good?

PRAYER  Lord, in our humanness we judge others who are not like us and fall far short of having Your heart for them. Fill us with Your Spirit afresh to love with Your love and leave the judging to You because You are completely fair and impartial. Empower us to be reliable guides to others, showing the Way of Jesus and not our way. Amen.

Also a set reading for this Sunday, Psalm 125 – Those who trust in God are upright in heart.

Heart condition

TLW 35 – The RSL readings for September 2, 2018

The heart is deceitful above all things… Jer. 17:9

Theme: the Lord of love who changes our hearts from within

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 » A loving heart celebrated in a love poem

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 » Religious tradition can’t hide what is in our heart

James 1:17-27 » The word of God is a mirror to show us our heart

SUMMARY  The human heart is innately sinful, selfish and corrupt – until it is opened up to God’s transformation through trusting Jesus. The Old Testament reading in Song of Songs is a picture of love, and of God’s heart of passionate love. The Gospel reading in Mark 7 brings Jesus’ confrontation of the religious leaders who were picky about observing religious things while harbouring hatred, anger and other deeply sinful things in their hearts. The epistle reading in James 2 brings teaching on how God’s word acts as a kind of mirror in which we see what our hearts are really like.

OLD TESTAMENT

Also in the lectionary for this Sunday: Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9   “My heart is stirred…”

Song of Songs 2:8-13 » God’s heart of love in a love poem

The spring season of God’s love comes into flower

The Song of Songs is part of the Biblical wisdom literature, which celebrate love and wisdom as gifts of God to be received gratefully and joyfully. The title tells us it was written by Solomon and the best love song about marriage ever written. It is the story of various encounters between a young Shulammite girl, chosen for the king’s harem, and her feelings of real love and relationship. It could also be Solomon’s wistful story of an earlier marriage with an Israelite girl, before departing from monogamy and Jewish integrity in a (likely) arranged marriage with Pharoah’s daughter, 1 Kings 3:1, Deut. 7:6. Early interpreters saw this as an allegory of  God’s love for His people, or His church. Recent scholarship has seen this love poem for what it is, as it states, a work of Solomon, who reflects on the purity of simple, unfettered romance compared with the experience of every kind of need provided for in the palace. However, it also speaks illustratively of Christ’s deep love for His church.

Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.

My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice.

The girl looks out for her lover with eager anticipation; she sees him as like an agile deer, adept at surmounting obstacles. They just want to be together, despite obstacles.

10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.

11 See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.

Winter in the Middle East can be a cloudy, gloomy season of rain, but the transition to spring is rapid.

12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.

“Singing” – more likely from the context than ‘pruning’ in older versions.

13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”

All the senses are aroused in this description of the land awakening.

14 My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face, let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

Doves were associated with love; Solomon is saying that in her, he experiences love. The hidden Shulammite girl is the real dove who he wants to see and hear. The words face…voice, voice…face are in the form of a literary mirror.

IN PRACTICE  This excerpt from Solomon’s love song speaks to us about being real about love and its emotions and sensuality – all God-given. It can also be seen as a picture of God’s love for His Church – and for us. He wants to capture our hearts more than any passionate young lover can express.

QUESTION  What gets inhibits you from revelling in God’s love for you?

GOSPEL

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 »Religious tradition can’t hide what is in our heart

In this chapter the Pharisees become more outspoken in opposing Jesus, and the gap between true spirituality and man-created religious tradition becomes more evident.

1-4 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of His disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

“Teachers of the law… from Jerusalem” – a delegation of leading Pharisees who had come from the city, probably at the invitation of the Galilean Pharisees. Mark’s readers in Rome needed additional background on the ways of Judaism to understand the dispute.

“Defiled… unwashed” – this washing had nothing to do with dirty hands. Someone would pour water out of a jar onto your hands with the fingers pointing up, then again over both hands with the fingers pointing down. This created a ritual dissociation with anything ‘unclean’ the hands might have touched. There was nothing in the law of Moses about washing hands before eating, except for priests about to eat holy offerings.

5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t Your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

“Tradition of the elders” – this was a collection of laws and interpretations constructing rules of living that went beyond the Scriptures. At this point it had become a higher religious authority in Judaism than Scripture itself. Jesus was held responsible for His disciples.

6-7 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“ ‘These people honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.

They worship Me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’

Isaiah’s prophecy, here in the Greek version, perfectly describes the attitudes of the Pharisees and scribes Jesus encountered. They were ‘pretenders’, masked actors, the original meaning of hypocrites, holding a sham spirituality like many religious people today, where knowing God and His ways had been replaced by unscriptural and non-binding “merely human rules” listing various ‘oughts and musts’. They had turned living in God’s love and faithfulness and knowing Hs heart, into a religion of performing the right actions.

8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

“Commands of God…human traditions” – Jesus told them they had abandoned the Ten Commandments and Moses’ summary of Deuteronomy 6:1-6 and Deut. 11:1. God’s heart was to be on their hearts, but instead they had created an exclusive and over-complicated religious system of ‘holiness’, a misunderstanding of  Lev. 11:44, that missed the point – what we call a ‘tick box mentality’ that actually cancelled out God’s word, Mark 7:13 (omitted from the reading).

14-15 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to Me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

“Listen to Me, everyone” – Jesus makes a bold and clear statement to encourage his hearers, at the expense of infuriating the religious leaders.

21-23 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

“Outside a person… from within” – it is not living in an impure world that is defiling, but having an impure or evil heart. Sin separates from God, not unclean hands. What a person is on the inside will find expression on the outside and show them to be of true character and therefore purity – or show them up.

Post-resurrection and Pentecost, the apostles taught that spiritual rebirth and the empowered life of the Spirit enabled believers to choose to live in their new nature, above selfish ‘flesh’ motives.

IN PRACTICE  This is clear teaching by Jesus of the folly of the Pharisees’ practice of religious ‘righteousness’ (and their pride in it) while harbouring hatred and a desire to speak badly and untruthfully about Him and even try to kill him. To ‘major on the minors’ of tradition while missing the point by having resentful hearts is a lesson for us all. Turning to Jesus and acknowledging His Lordship in a personal submission, is like having a whole new heart, which the Holy Spirit continues to indwell to make us more and more Jesus-like.

QUESTION  Have you truly given your heart to Jesus? And which part of your heart might He still be asking you to hand over?

EPISTLE

James 1:17-27 » The word of God is a mirror to show us our heart

We are responsible for ridding ourselves of wrong attitudes

17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

“Father of… lights” – an ancient Jewish expression. God created the sun, moon and starts, which all move in the sky, cast moving shadows and vary in brightness. God’s light is constant, Malachi 3:6, 1 John 1:5.

18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all He created.

“First-fruits” – in the OT, an expression for the first and best of the harvest. Christians are to show God’s new creation that is to come, 2 Peter 3:10-13, as examples of the ultimate restoration of creation, Romans 8:20-22.

19-20 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

“Quick to listen (etc)” – this gives a brief outline of the whole letter which is later expanded in James 1:21-2:26 (listen), 3:1-18 (slow to speak) and 4:1-5:18 (slow to anger).

21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

“Human anger” – when things go wrong our first reaction is retaliation from the flesh. Until we let go of that first response of, literally, “man’s anger”, we can’t be directed by the Spirit to perceive God’s righteousness coming through our view of the difficulty.

“Get rid of”, literally “put off” like mucky overalls. This is commanded in more detail in Eph. 4:22, 1 Peter 2:1.

“Save you” – sin is never lifegiving but has the opposite effect, death-bringing: first spiritually, then physically.

“Humbly accept” – as those who are teachable. “The word planted in you” – an allusion to the ‘new covenant’ prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34 where God promises to ‘write His law’ on His people’s hearts.

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

“Merely listen” – the teachable spirit wants to learn and apply. Hearing and not responding is the beginning of more serious and systemic deception.

“Deceive” – or delude yourselves. It is a word used in mathematics. James is saying that those merely listening but not engaging have made a serious miscalculation.

“Do” – more literally, “prove yourselves doers of the word” (NASB). As Jesus taught, Matt. 7:24, 26; Luke 6:46, 49.

23-25 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.

“Forgets what he looks like” –  not acting on something in your reflection that needs to be straightened, is to forget to do it. Similarly with the word of God, which is a mirror showing what is askew in our soul.

26-27 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. ‘Religion’ that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

“Religious… religion” – a play on this word which contrasts ceremonial, church rituals and external trappings with genuine faith. Perhaps the third ‘religion’ should be in quotes. Religious acts are no substitute for changed values and a changed, unselfish way of life.

IN PRACTICE  Being made holy – the long word is sanctification – is truly a life-long process which starts with new birth through the word of truth. The truth that is God’s word continues to confront and bring change to our deep-seated human independence, and all the attitudes and responses that come from that. We were born in selfishness and independence from God and coming back to Him in holiness is a long journey, with a big step change we call the new birth. All the time the word and the Holy Spirit are working together to transform us from the inside, with our willingness or resistance playing a big part in that. James’ teaching here is about not destroying the good process by “merely listening,” “not doing what it says” and entertaining “human anger” – but working with God the Father to become people who find ourselves doing what He would have us doing.

QUESTION  When you hear God speak to you through the word, what helps you to put it into practice?

PRAYER  Lord, help me to purify my heart and make it Yours. I know it’s a process, but I pledge my willingness to work with You and listen when You show me what needs to change. Come, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus, and grow me to be more Jesus-like as I set out to do my part. Amen.

Living in the connection between heaven and earth

Meme image as heading which says "Heaven on earth" is a choice you must make, not a place you must find".

Church calendar readings for Sunday, August 26, in Bible order

Prepare for Sunday by reading the Bible passages beforehand – read again to reflect on Sunday’s teaching

1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43 » God presences himself in the glory cloud

John 6:56-69 » Jesus promises Himself as food for eternal life

Ephesians 6:10-20 » How we position ourselves in the spiritual battle

Theme: Living in the connection between heaven and earth

SUMMARY  The three readings all speak of how the presence and purpose of God and the heavenly host affects events in our lives – and how choices we make, and the spiritual position we take, affects the spiritual reality behind what we experience. Yahweh’s presence was visible to the Israelites in the pillar of fire and cloud, on Mount Sinai and in the desert wanderings, and then at the consecration of Solomon’s temple. Jesus taught how He was the bridge between heaven and earth in a way that had to be spiritually discerned. And Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, teaches them that the struggles against evil that we all face are spiritual battles won in the place of holiness and prayer, not human argument and political strength.

= = = = = = =

OLD TESTAMENT READING

1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43 » God presences himself in the glory cloud

The reverent placing of the ark in the temple

Then King Solomon summoned into his presence at Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families, to bring up the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Zion, the City of David.

The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim.

“Ark… to its place” – moved from David’s own shrine into the temple, probably in the 12th year of Solomon’s reign.

10-11 When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord, Yahweh,  filled His temple.

“The cloud” – The presence of the Lord appearing in a visible cloud, as at Sinai.

For further study, Exodus 24:15-18; Exodus 40:33-38; Numbers 11:24-25 and 2 Chron. 7:1-3.

22-23 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven and said:

“Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like You in heaven above or on earth below – You who keep Your covenant of love with Your servants who continue wholeheartedly in Your way.

“No God like You” – Yahweh was quite different from the impersonal, fickle deities of other nations, directing events to fulfil His covenant promises. See Exodus 15:11, Deut. 7:9,12, and Psalm 86:8-10.

“Covenant of love” – Hebrew berith chesēd, covenant faithfulness, which made Yahweh unique and different. However, there was also responsibility on the other party to “continue wholeheartedly” in His way.

24 You have kept Your promise to Your servant David my father; with your mouth You have promised and with Your hand You have fulfilled it – as it is today.

25 “Now Lord, the God of Israel, keep for Your servant David my father the promises You made to him when You said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor to sit before Me on the throne of Israel, if only your descendants are careful in all they do to walk before Me faithfully as you have done.’

“If only your descendants are careful” – a clear, unambiguous condition amplified in the “But as for you… but if you” statement of 2 Chron 7:17-22.

26 “And now, God of Israel, let Your word that You promised Your servant David my father come true.

27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built!

“How much less this temple” – Yahweh could not be contained, but the cloud of glory and physical temple led to a false belief that God’s assistance was assured however people lived, Jer. 7:4-14, Micah 3:11.

28 “Yet give attention to Your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that Your servant is praying in Your presence this day.

29 “May Your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which You said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that You will hear the prayer Your servant prays toward this place.

Verses 30 and 40-43 in the longer reading speak of God’s mission to all peoples of the earth, that they might know His name and His ways.

30 “Hear the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, Your dwelling place, and when You hear, forgive.

“Toward this place” – Israelites who could not pray in the temple directed their prayers to the temple, the place where God has promised to be present among His people, e.g. Daniel 6:10.

41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to Your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of Your name –

“Foreigner” – not  an alien living in Israel but someone who has journeyed to Jerusalem to pray to Israel’s God.

42 for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm – when they come and pray toward this temple,

43 then hear from heaven, Your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears Your Name.

“All peoples of the earth” – the wider intention of God’s mission, which we sometimes overlook in the OT, but plainly stated here.

IN PRACTICE  Solomon and the priests involved in the consecration of the new temple had never seen the glory cloud, but they knew about Moses entering the cloud on the top of Mount Sinai to receive the commandments, and the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle tent. For the people of the Old Testament era, the relationship was remote, not personal, with prophets and priests speaking for God and acting as His intermediaries. However our relationship through Jesus is to be personal, not mediated through priests. The story sets out a scenario where we can see that the affairs of heaven and of earth are not compartmentalised, but closely linked.

QUESTION  How is God’s covenant of love distinct from other world faiths?

GOSPEL

John 6:56-69 » Jesus promises Himself as food for eternal life

By receiving Him totally our lives are transformed

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in Me, and I in them.

57 Just as the living Father sent Me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me.

“Feeds on Me” – as John Wesley put it, Jesus becoming the meat and drink that feeds the soul. The Hebrew idiom ‘flesh and blood’ refers to the whole person.

58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

“Whoever feeds…live for ever” –  clearly not to be taken literally, and at this point, no sacrament has been instituted. Eternal life comes from wholeheartedly believing in Him by internalising who He is.

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?

62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where He was before!

“Ascend” – to the realm He came from, and harder to comprehend than Jesus offering Himself for them to feed on spiritually.

63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.

Jesus’ hearers, not discerning the spiritual truth behind His words, were shocked and offended. The Jews believed that study of Scripture and ‘doing works of God’ were enough for spiritual understanding. Jesus is patiently explaining to them that the Holy Spirit is needed to provide revelation that human reason cannot – refer back to John 5:39, 6:27-29.

64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him.

65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless the Father has enabled them.”

“The Father has enabled” – only those who seek on God’s terms, and not their own, will receive. Jesus knew some would choose not to believe, and would not allow themselves to be drawn by God – a fine balance between the free will choice to respond, and being drawn to a choice by the Holy Spirit. Different theological streams often give more emphasis to one or the other.

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed Him.

“Many turned back” – Jesus is not surprised that many potential disciples have turned away at this watershed point in John’s gospel..

67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68-69 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

“To whom shall we go” – the twelve disciples are beginning to get  this hard teaching, although for others it was too hard. They don’t want to transfer to another rabbi.

“Holy One of God” – God was called the Holy One of Israel, e.g. Psalm 71:22, Isaiah 43:3 and 54:5.

IN PRACTICE  Jesus reminded His hearers of the manna, God’s day by day provision from heaven for His people dwelling in a desert. Then Jesus challenged them with a steep step of logic – now God’s ‘manna’ from heaven was He Himself. He was God’s provision to them for life, and indeed eternal life and they were to feed on Him by taking Him to heart.

We live on earth in an awareness of God – and  through Jesus this becomes a real and personal relationship with Him. But we still see a gap between what happens in heaven and what happens, good or bad, in our earthly lives. This teaching of Jesus reminds us that He is the connection. To the extent our lives are lived in Him, and we are placing ourselves under His lordship, what is played out before our eyes is harnessed to the hope we have in the heavenly realm.

QUESTION  In a practical, day to day way, how would you explain what it means to you to feed on Jesus?

EPISTLE

Ephesians 6:10-20 » How we position ourselves in the spiritual battle

The real conflict behind events we experience, is won in a different way

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power.

“Be strong in the Lord” – being strong humanly is not enough. Recognise the need to summon God’s invincible power.

11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.

“Put on” – earlier in the letter Paul has written, “Put on the new self” i.e. the new attitude of who we are in Christ, born anew into true righteousness and holiness. This is countering false witness and fear in the opposite spirit of integrity.

For further study, see compare with Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10.

“The devil’s schemes” – the Bible is clear about the present reality of the devil, a personal enemy, who deploys a few predictable strategies to exploit sin, fear and guilt by using accusation and division. Knowing those strategies is a key to recognising their origin, and then standing on who we are in Christ to overcome them.

12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

“Our struggle” – it is a mistake to resist human opponents or institutions without recognising the dark spirituality that is manipulating them, and taking a spiritual stand in the authority of Jesus. Even those who know the Lord may well have remaining vulnerabilities that the different levels of spiritual opposition are able to exploit.

13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

“Full armour of God” – a picture of the ‘panoplia‘ of the soldier’s kit, but what is meant here is Yahweh’s armour and weaponry, Isaiah 11:4-5 and 59:17, made available to the believer. When evil seems to prevail, truth and righteousness are the spiritual ‘weapons of character’ that win through.

“Stand” – repeated four times in this passage for emphasis. Rather than invade the domain of evil, we are to firmly maintain the decisive victory already won by Christ, Eph. 1:20-22, 4:8, Col 2:15.

IN PRACTICE  The spiritual connection between heaven and earth is real and vital, and that is made explicit here. Struggles are real experiences — our lives are under attack, both in the fears and anxieties and negativities that assail our thoughts, and in all the practical difficulties, health issues, relationship conflicts, adverse weather and accidents. The devil and his minions are personal opponents, always working to steal our peace and cause division wherever they can gain a foothold. The world’s advice is to be strong. Money in the bank, a robust constitution, influential friends… life has taught us how to ‘tough it out’. And this is exactly what we have to ‘unlearn’. This clear lesson from Paul’s teaching is that to prevail, is to prevail spiritually. It requires us to put down our worldly ‘weapons’ in order to take up a very different set of spiritual ones, where growing holiness, integrity and trust in the face of difficulty are the very qualities feared most by our spiritual opponents.

QUESTION  What makes it difficult for us to take up spiritual weapons? What in Christian life and fellowship helps us to see the spiritual dimension?

PRAYER  We live in a cruel and difficult world but so, Lord, did You – and we put our trust in You. Help us to perceive more clearly the spiritual realities behind our lives and to constantly give You the Lordship, and praise for Your sacrificial victory. Amen.

Pride leads to a fall but humbly accepting Jesus is salvation and life

Five marks of renewed lives – Ephesians 4:25-5:2

TLW32 August 12, 2018. Theme: Pride leads to a fall but humbly accepting Jesus is salvation and life

QUICK SUMMARY  The story of Absalom’s shameful death, caught up in the mane of hair which was so much his image, is a parable of how not to do life. Absalom’s arrogance and rebellion is a picture of our sinful, independent state and where it leads. By contrast, the story of Jesus patiently explaining that the way to life is He Himself – like the bread that was shared out with no one excluded, and all able to internalise it,  – so spiritually internalising Him and what He stands for is our choice to know God personally and receive His gift of life. That brings with it a new lifestyle, the life of the Spirit, which empowers us to say ‘no’ to traits which harms us and others, and to say ‘yes’ to the opposites, which are living and Christlike. The Way of God for us to imitate is to live in an attitude of love. We can do it because we are transformed and Spirit-empowered.

Readings set in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday, August 12

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 – Absalom loses his life in self-condemnation

John 6:35, 41-51 – Jesus says He is the bread of life, our salvation

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 – Paul urges living renewed lives in transformation

 

 

 

OLD TESTAMENT

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 » Absalom loses his life in self-condemnation

Defeat in the Forest of Ephraim ends a life marred by arrogance and rebellion

5 The king commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders.

“Be gentle” – whether out of fatherly love or a sense of guilt towards Absalom is not clear.

6-8 David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great – twenty thousand men. The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.

“Forest of Ephraim” – not in Ephraim at all but an area east of the Jordan in Gilead, settled by the tribe of Ephraim. The larger army was unable to move effectively in the hazards of a forest, and fell prey to David’s experienced force.

9 Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going.

“Riding his mule” – the usual mount for the king’s sons, 2 Sam. 13:29.

“Absalom’s hair” – what he gloried in, 2 Sam. 14:25-26, became the instrument of his downfall. As in life he had exalted himself with his own monument, 2 Sam. 18:18, in death he was thrown into a pit heaped up with rocks, like stoning, and a monument of shame.

15 And ten of Joab’s armour-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him.

“Joab’s armour-bearers” – David’s senior officer and his close support had conflicting feelings about the leader of a bloody rebellion. The narrator stresses, e.g. verse 5 above, David’s order to spare Absalom, but Joab had fallen for his deception before, 2 Sam. 14:1-24, and with the king’s safety in view, acted against David’s instructions.

31 Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”

“Cushite” – “man from Ethiopia’, NLT. Joab had chosen an alternative to the priest’s son to carry the news, in case David overreacted.

32 The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”

The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”

33 The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son!”

“If only I had died” – David had lost Absalom’s love and respect, and now he had lost his son and any possible reconciliation. From the tone of David’s exclamation, it appears that he is seeing what Nathan prophesied, 2 Sam. 12:10-11, is now happening – His sin with Bathsheba, repented of and forgiven by God, still has consequences which are now playing out.

IN PRACTICE  The story of Absalom’s death, caught in a tree by the long hair he so gloried in, brings with it a reflection on his way of life. He ingratiated himself with others, gained a following over and against his father, and even built a monument to himself just outside Jerusalem. It is a story of pride that leads to a fall, of man-centred values that can never play out well; a story of self-condemnation. In our sinful state apart from God, it’s how we all start. We can recognise the desire to be something for ourselves, and the rebellious streak. This is the ‘how not to” example that brings out the new life in Jesus, and the life of the Holy Spirit that empowers us to make positive choice and live differently – not needing people’s attention to boost our egos, but able to live for Jesus and even look a little bit like Him.

QUESTION  What stands out in the story of Absalom and his death that is the lesson for you?

 

 

GOSPEL

John 6:35, 41-51 »  Jesus says He is the bread of life, our salvation

Some recognise Christ, the Messiah, and His mission to save while others struggle with believing who He is

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty.

“I am” – there are a number of statements where Jesus refers to Himself using the words “I am”, purposefully making His hearers think of the Father’s words to Moses in Exodus 3:14, and prophetically through Isaiah e.g. Isaiah 43:25. This is the first of seven such sayings recorded by John.

“The bread of life” – the crowd had said in verse 34, not getting it at all, “Always give us this bread” or ‘keep on giving us free food’. So Jesus makes it very clear He is speaking of Himself.

41-43 At this the Jews there began to grumble about Him because He said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can He now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered.

“Began to grumble about Him” – The complaint recalls the attitude in the desert which was the root of the delay in entering the Promised Land. The synagogue crowd are showing the same inflexibility of thought and expectation – and lack of faith – as their ancestors who grumbled about the provision of manna. They consider that they ‘know’ He is the son of Joseph, miracle worker and possible national leader, and refuse to see beyond, to Him being the Son of the Father.

• For further study, read Exodus 16:8, Numbers 14:27 and the recollection in Psalm 95:8-9.

44-45 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from Him comes to Me.

“No one can come… they will all” – the word ‘can’ is dunamai, which has the fuller meaning of ‘no one is able’. Jesus also quotes Isaiah 54:13 – His bigger vision is all being saved and coming to a knowledge of the truth, also the new covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34. A balanced view holds these tensions of God’s election “no one can come… unless the Father… draws them” and “they will all” in man’s free will in responding to the tug of the Holy Spirit, in tension. This is a process of grace from God to us, to which we are divinely enabled to respond as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts. Scripture emphasises in different places God’s initiative of grace, and our responsibility of responding, in the initial spiritual transformation we call salvation or becoming a Christian.

46-48 No one has seen the Father except the One who is from God; only He has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.

“No one had seen… the one who believes” – as in John’s prologue, John 1:18. If we simply accepted what we could see, that would not be faith. We are required to go out on the line of putting our trust in the goodness of someone we have not physically encountered.

49-51 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

“Ate the manna… yet they died”. Manna gave them food at that time, but Jesus, the Living Bread, confers enduring life.

“This bread is My flesh” – ‘this bread is Me’. Jesus is the true living bread who satisfies the spiritual hunger of those who believe in Him. In a more physical sense, He becomes this ‘bread’ by sacrificing His body – “My flesh” – to death on the Cross. His perplexed hearers would reflect on this and some would later understand.

IN PRACTICE  The crowd who heard Jesus give this teaching didn’t find it easy to grasp. Many of them had known Jesus for 30 years. But recently, they had seen miracles of healing and provision which pointed to a different kind of identity, His divine Messiah identity, which He was now explaining to them. Some had faith to see Jesus beyond the carpenter’s shop, while others struggled.

It’s the same with us. Every encounter with God requires two things of us: our need of God (depending)  and taking Him at His word (believing). John doesn’t use words like ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ but prefers the action word ‘believing’. Jesus, not our efforts or good deeds, is the source of empowered life now and the way to life eternal. He chooses us, reminding us that He does out of love for us, and hold out an offer. When we trust Him for that offer, everything changes.

QUESTION  How would you explain to someone else simply, what Jesus had done out of love for them, and how they might respond to that?

 

 

EPISTLE

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 » Paul urges living renewed lives in transformation

The hallmark of those who belong to the Lord, who is Love personified, is that they walk in love like Him.

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…

Each of you must” – in the context of, each of you, redeemed by Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit,  is now enabled to live like this. A list of five instances follows, each with an aspect not to do, an aspect to do positively instead, and a spiritual principle.

“Put off falsehood” – twisting of the truth comes with anger and bitterness. The emotional response of anger (like any emotional response of the moment) is not of itself sin, but anger that takes root i.e. carries over to the next day and beyond forms a resentful, bitter and often slanderous attitude that is the visible effect of unforgiveness – and that is denying the gospel.

27-28 …and do not give the devil a foothold…

“A foothold” – all sin gives the devil legal rights to oppress us and the sin of unforgiveness and unresolved conflict is perhaps the most common strategy the devil uses to gain a measure of control over our thoughts and lives. Sin is the access he looks for.

…Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

“Steal no longer but… work” – repentance can be defined as stopping something harmful, starting something positive instead, and a changed lifestyle that all can see.

29-30 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

“Only what is… building others up” – a practical guideline and the opposite of obscene language, gossip and slander which like a rotten fruit spreads and corrupts, doing so much damage to individuals and the whole community.

“Grieve the Holy Spirit” – showing the Holy Spirit to be a person and One who is sensitive to any harshness of attitude, perhaps more than we are

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

“Bitterness…anger” – resentment and malice have no place in people who have been forgiven of much -– and so morally cannot withhold from others that same grace. Failure to forgive results in the anger, clamour and malice which follow logically in the sentence.

32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

“Be kind” – be kind, chrestos, because of Christ, Christos.

“Compassionate… forgiving – the opposite of the bitter attitude. God’s forgiveness of us is the standard we apply to others: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors, Matt. 6:12.

For further study, compare with Hosea 3:1, Colossians 3:13.

Eph. 5:1-2 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

“Follow God’s example” – more literally, “Be imitators of God”. Believers have been exhorted to learn about Christ, and not to grieve the Spirit, Eph 4:20-21, 30. Now they are set the challenge of adopting and demonstrating God’s values to the world around them.

“Walk in the way of love” – a summary of the section. Christ’s demonstration of loving us was fragrant, i.e. acceptable to God; our fragrant offering is following His example in walking in love towards others.

IN PRACTICE  The new life which comes through asking Jesus to be Lord of our lives is – new. ‘The old has gone, the new has come,’ in Paul’s words elsewhere. Foul language and petty dishonesty doesn’t seem clever any more. A lot of our more selfish traits lose their hold on us. But there’s plenty of baggage we need to recognise and lay down, and Paul sets out some choices for us – what not to do, what to do positively instead and the spiritual principle involved. In the flesh, or selfish nature, we can be harsh and critical of others, with standards of behaviour that don’t align with our new spiritual identity. This ‘mixed message’ destroys our witness but more seriously, offends the Holy Spirit and causes Him to distance Himself. Someone whose very nature is love is going to be a sensitive person, and the Holy Spirit is that sensitive person. On the other hand, He is the very One who enables us to grow more Christlike and loving. There’s a part we do, but we cannot do it by ourselves – we need to work with His empowering.

QUESTION  Out of the “get rid of” things listed and the challenge to love unconditionally, like Christ, which speak to you most?

PRAYER  Father God, as we come to You in Jesus, we are so grateful for the new life You hold out to us. Jesus, You are the Bread of Life! Help us to grasp this with both hands, eagerly, and with the help of Your Spirit, to live it out for all to see what You have done. Amen.

Lifegiving gift of God, freely given

I am the Bread of Life

Image credit: http://riveroflifetheriverwalk.org

TLW31 using the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, August 5.

Theme: Lifegiving gift of God, freely given

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a – a ‘gift’ violated in immaturity

John 6:24-35 – Jesus’ gift to us of eternal lifegiving food

Ephesians 4:1-16 – Maturity grows through Christ’s gifts to His church

To read additionally: Psalm 51:1-12

SUMMARY THIS WEEK  David knew about relying on God’s provision yet He was tempted to seize what was not his in a shameful episode. Jesus multiplied food in a miracle for His listening crowd and then explained that the true eternal sustenance was He Himself. They didn’t get it. Paul, writing to Spirit-filled Christians in Ephesus, urges them to keep hold of the unity the Holy Spirit has given them and to keep on growing and seeking spiritual maturity.

OLD TESTAMENT

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a » A ‘gift’ violated in immaturity

David becomes convicted of his sin on hearing a story told to him by the court prophet, Nathan.

26-27 When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.

“Displeased the Lord” – a dramatic understatement. David had misused his royal power, 2 Sam. 5:2, 2 Sam. 7:7, and broken the 6th, 7th and 10th commandments, Exodus 20:13,14,17.

12:1-3 The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“The Lord sent Nathan” – Nathan, a court prophet, was acting as the Lord’s emissary sent with the Lord’s message. He had spoken before prophetically, 2 Sam. 7:2.

“Now a traveller came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveller who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

5-6 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

“As surely as…” – David’s exclamation is in the form of an oath.

“Four times over” – the customary restitution. David later lost four of his sons, three of whom died violently.

7-8 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.

“Gave your master’s house…” – meaning the throne and its benefits being conferred on David.

9-10 ‘Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised Me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

“You struck down…you killed…” – A figure of speech; David was responsible for Uriah falling in battle.

11-12 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ ”

“In broad daylight” – foretelling Absalom rebelling and sleeping with the royal concubines on the palace rooftop, 2 Sam. 16:22.

13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

The story continues with David’s wholehearted repentance, and being met by God’s grace in it despite the seriousness of his offences.

IN PRACTICE  From a plain reading of the story, David is in denial of his wrongdoing until nine months or more after the affair with Bathsheba and the birth of his son, when Nathan the court prophet comes to him with a story. At this point, the enormity of his sin impacts David – the adultery, deception of Uriah and his constructive murder – and blatant disregard for God’s order. David immediately repents in a wholehearted way. However, sin sets in train consequences. To do what we know not to do, is costly for us as it was for David.

QUESTION  ‘Repent’ is a word we shy away from, yet David turned to God from the most serious sin, and received grace. How ready are you to admit to God where you have been wrong?

 

GOSPEL

John 6:24-35 » The gift of Jesus, bread of life from heaven

The bread that never spoils is to believe in the One that God sent

24 Once the crowd realised that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.

“Capernaum” – Jesus had been seen to leave the scene of the miracle of the feeding of the crowd alone, and the crowd went to search for him in the most likely place.

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked Him, “Rabbi, when did You get here?”

26-27 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for Me, not because you saw the signs I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on Him God the Father has placed His seal of approval.”

They saw the sign but regarded Jesus as a miracle worker. Like the 12 disciples, Mark 6:53, they needed Jesus to teach them further, to grasp the fuller meaning.

“Food that endures to eternal life” – Jesus’ miracle with ordinary bread is a sign of who He is, uniquely authorised by the Father as His giver of spiritual, eternal ‘food’ that gives life.

28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.”

“What must we do…” – The crowd followed the merit-based Jewish religion and misses the point that eternal life is not earned, but God’s gift simply received, Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5. These two verses make a succinct statement of the gospel. The one and indispensable ‘work’ is to exercise faith and believe in Jesus Christ. See Paul’s explanation in Romans 3:20-28.

30-31 So they asked him, “What sign then will You give that we may see it and believe you? What will You do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

“What sign will You give” – there was a popular expectation that the Messiah would be known in the provision of manna again. The crowd had witnessed a single miracle with ordinary bread; Moses (in their perception) had fed a whole nation with heavenly bread for a generation.

32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.

“Bread from heaven” – far more than manna, the significance emphasised by a seven-fold repetition, here and vv. 38,41,50-51,58.

33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Jesus gently corrects them. God gave the manna in the past, but what is important is the “true bread”, life through the Son, which God is giving now.

34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty.

“Jesus declared, “I am…” – in Greek the tone is solemn and emphatic, echoing God’s words in Exodus 3:12-15.

For further study: This is the first of seven key “I am” sayings in John’s gospel, John 6:35, 8:12, 10:7,9; 10:11,14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1,5.

IN PRACTICE  The people who had received the miraculous provision of bread to eat on the remote hillside wanted more of the same. They had met Jesus, the provider, but had not yet properly met with Jesus the Son of God – and so didn’t understand the real gift of Jesus to them. The disciples weren’t getting it easily, either. It’s the same today. We are so indoctrinated with the idea of working for a reward, and of achieving preference on the basis of merit, that we baulk at the idea of simply believing and receiving. The bread, or food, that Jesus offers us, which is lifegiving in an eternal way and which never spoils or runs out, is Himself. We create all kinds of substitutes: church heritage and religious observance and good deeds add up in our minds to a completely false sense of our entitlement. This is the barrier and the reason why we find it hard to turn to Jesus as Saviour and as Lord, and to simply and humbly receive what He has done for us.

QUESTION  Everyone has struggled with this and everyone has a story… How would you explain how you received Jesus’ life-giving gift to someone exploring Christian faith?

 

EPISTLE

Ephesians 4:1-16 » Maturity grows through Christ’s gifts to His church

Spiritual maturity and unity are a priority for the church to thrive

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.

“Worthy of the calling” – The kind of life that demonstrates following Christ’s call will have hallmarks apparent to others

For further study, see 1 Thess. 2:12; Romans 12:1; Col. 1:10.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Freedom from needing to prove oneself and being free to absorb tensions and show grace to others, is part of growing in Christian maturity, vv. 13-16. It is a call to the corporate humility and forgiving love that emphasises reconciliation, Col. 3:12-13. This is attractive to people looking from the outside in. Where those claiming to be Christians are seen to be harsh, arrogant and judgmental, it sends out a mixed message, which is damaging.

3-5 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

“Make every effort” – words of urgent priority, to maintain the unity that the Holy Spirit brings. The experience of baptism of the Spirit is to be one with others in that common experience – but it must be defended from the enemy’s attempts to bring division.

“One body and one Spirit” – seven foundational facets of this spiritual unity, expressed in the form of a prayer declaration.

7-8 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When He ascended on high, He took many captives and gave gifts to His people.”

Paul loosely quotes Psalm 68:18, which itself refers to the victory song of Deborah in Judges 5:12, lit. “He took captivity captive”. Christ took captive the bondage imposed by Satan, for all who would turn to Him. The psalm refers to taking gifts; Paul changes that around. Ancient kings would *take* tribute as part of victory, but sometimes *share*  booty and show generosity in acts of clemency – the Hebrew words sound similar, hence the word play. Paul here emphasises the goodness of God in giving victory gifts, so it is fitting that He gives victory gifts to His church, in particular the gifts of specific and valuable leadership qualities.

9-10 (What does “He ascended” mean except that He also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

“He also descended” – in this passage, to earth, rather than Hades. The One who ascended and now fills the earth with His graces and presence is none other than the one who descended to become incarnate to live in humble circumstances, and then to be put to death for us.

11-12 So Christ Himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip His people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…

Christ’s gifts to the church are seen as five defined kinds of ministry working through church leadership functions of overseers, also called elders who pastor the flock, Acts 20:17,28. The point of this whole passage is encouraging spiritual maturity which will maintain unity, through these five strands in concert.

  • An apostle type of leader may be sent out to pioneer a new work;
  • a prophetic leader may be gifted in knowing and encouraging in God’s present purposes and praying them in;
  • the evangelist kind of leader is adept at communicating the Good News simply and engagingly;
  • another different gifting is the shepherd who cares for the flock, most likely also…
  • a teacher who has the gift of explaining the Bible’s stories and message simply and clearly.

These gifts are not mutually exclusive, but the picture is of a team where all the gifts are represented.

13 ...until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

“Fullness of Christ” – the full expression of what Christ is like, Eph. 1:23. People who are filled with Christ are by definition not filled with their own sense of importance, and will be builders of faith and unity, both within the congregation and (vitally in our day and age) between churches and congregations of other streams.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

“Infants” – small children are suggestible, and prone to squabbling. By contrast, maturity means growing up into Christ, knowing Him and becoming like Him. Unity is not mere tolerance, but a one-ness in Christ and His values. The Holy Spirit always works for unity (why wouldn’t He?) but it is man’s stubborn and arrogant unredeemed attitudes which create disunity.

15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

“The mature body” – Christ’s people, in all their diversity, working together, supporting each other and growing together in Him, v.16 below.

16 From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

IN PRACTICE  Turning to Jesus and receiving His gift of new life is a vital and life-changing decision. But we’re not supposed to live that time over and over. We don’t find a signpost and then camp there! As we know, the real formation of the church took place with the general bestowing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This was an empowering time when the continuing presence of Jesus became real for all of them and they grew in this new life of the Spirit. Paul writes to the believers in Ephesus, urging them to keep on growing true, humble and loving – and together. With an enemy whose tactic is to spoil and cause division in the body, unity is of paramount importance. Of course there will be tensions, but it’s too easy to divide over them – maturity demands that we have the character to absorb tensions and stay focused on Christ and stay together in Him.

QUESTION  When someone, perhaps a leader, says or does something that you find difficult, what are the two or three responses you can choose to make?

PRAYER  Father God, You are good all the time, gracious when like David we recognise our mistakes and giving beyond anything we could earn or deserve. Help me to love You by being trusting and open to simply receive from You. Amen.