Speak Your Mind

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The New Covenant for a new era

Readings in the church calendar for March 18 (Lent 5)

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51:1-13

John 12:20-33

Hebrews 5:5-10

Jeremiah foresees a covenant of heart rather than statute

MONDAY, MARCH 12
Jeremiah 31:31-34

The law, so inflexible and easily broken, will now become a spiritual motivation to live a godly and righteous life

31  “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.

31  “The days are coming” – looking ahead to the coming of the Messiah, a new era.

31  This is the only explicit reference to the New Covenant in the Old Testament.

32  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke My covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

32  The Sinai covenant, unlike the early covenants with Noah and Abraham, were conditional. It was like a marriage, with the expectation that the Israelites would be a faithful partner to God, the husband, provider and protector.

32  It was a covenant that could be broken – and they broke it continually. That the Old Covenant would one day end in failure and exile was revealed to Moses and foretold in Deuteronomy 30:4-6.

For further study, see Deuteronomy 28-30 and read Deuteronomy 30 alongside this passage.

32  “Not like the covenant I made with their ancestors…” Jeremiah is foreseeing a new age characterised by divine grace and the covenant made with Moses is too inflexible for this new relationship to come.

33  “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.

“I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.

33  As had been foretold in the time of Moses, a way of changing hearts to know and want to follow God’s ways, would be needed. Only the Holy Spirit of God received into the heart, could make this fundamental, regenerative change.

34  No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest,”declares the Lord.

“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

34  One of Jeremiah’s memorable sayings is that the heart is deceitful and beyond cure, Jer. 17:9. Only a change from a law written externally on stone tablets, to being ‘written’ internally on hearts as an internal covenant and a principle of life, Romans 8:1-4, would be effective.

The new covenant would also amount to the gift of a new heart, Ezekiel 36:25-27.

Application

The Old Covenant was a way of living expressed in charter form which would keep tribespeople, relatively ignorant of God’s ways and God’s word, on the right track with the help of the priests. When they went off the track, a system of penalties provided a way to get right with God.

All the time there was good leadership, submitted to God, and a disciplined priesthood, this worked. But the inflexible system had limitations. It did not adequately represent God’s grace and the Israelites and their expectations were evolving. The intention was that the tribes would be separated to God and guard their own values and culture from pagan (and horrible) influences around them. At the same time, they were to be a witness of the true God to those around them.

At the end of a long prophetic ministry and reflecting on the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah heard from God and saw in the Spirit an entirely new kind of covenant, a covenant of the heart and spirit rather than a covenant of precepts to be learned. This foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God, who fulfilled the law and the priesthood in becoming a sacrifice for all time by dying on a cross while remaining sinless.

What does this immediately mean for us? Unearned redemption by God’s grace in Jesus Christ changes everything – “The old has gone, the new has come”, 2 Cor. 5:17. So either we are hanging on to an outdated system, trying to live the best life we can and perform the necessary religious requirements to please God – or we take hold of the truth that God loves us, is for us, and has given us His Holy Spirit to be our guide and enabler in holy living.

Trying to do both doesn’t work. We can’t be set free from the law – it is for freedom that Christ has set us free – and still look to live by a framework. That is saying we are free but living all bound up. Jeremiah would say, make your mind up – but the New Covenant doesn’t break and is much better. And Paul would say to us, “The old has gone…”

For reflection or as a discussion starter

How much are we still constrained  by old covenant thinking? Why is that?

The human heart takes us away from God, His grace brings us back

FRIDAY, MARCH 9
The emerging message

Raising our faith viewpoints reveals the grace God had for us in every situation

These passages describe four common ‘heart conditions’ or attitudes of the heart that are not acceptable to the Lord. They are also explicit about His grace and mercy in such situations which always provides a way back to Him.

Perhaps it is not surprising the Israelites in the desert, short of food and water, should start to grumble. We are inclined to do it if the traffic is bad and this was life-threatening. But when grumbling turns to speaking against the leader, or the Lord, there were going to be bad consequences, and a plague of carpet vipers appeared.

The psalm reading highlights rebellious ways as a second heart attitude to be addressed, and talks about affliction and wasting disease that results from it.

The gospel reading includes one of the best-known verses in John 3 and the heart issue is unbelief. In a multi-cultural, diverse and tolerant society it does not sit well with us to hear that whoever does not believe, stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Then Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, paints a picture of extreme contrast between living selfishly according to the old nature, and the grace of God which saves us and gives us a new identity as those in Christ and with a passport issued in heaven.

It is apparent how God’s faithful love is prominent in all of this, as though waiting for hearts that show signs of changing, if not exactly changed. The keys are repentant prayer and belief in Christ Jesus. The lessons are how we raise our viewpoint – looking up to an image is a symbol of looking up spiritually to gain heaven’s perspective. The first recorded words of Jesus following baptism and the desert testing were the proclamation of the kingdom with the words “repent and believe”.

The selfish nature, or flesh nature, which is our inheritance from Adam, the prototype of humanness, is part of us we have to keep putting to death, because it keeps on kicking. So we should be as ready to repent as we are to take a shower, and for similar reasons. Repentance always opens the way for us to repair or deepen our relationship with God, to hear. Apart from our pride, what is there to hold us back from getting closer to God and raising our perspective to align with His?

The difference between being in transgressions and being in Christ

THURSDAY, MARCH 8
Ephesians 2:1-10

How God sees us in Christ Jesus, seated with Him in the heavenly realms

The context of this passage is God’s kingdom purpose that is being revealed (the mystery of His will) to bring everything together under Christ’s lordship, Eph. 1:9-10. This “unity of all things” happens through the surrender of will and receiving of grace, by individuals.

1  As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…

1  “Trespasses” are lapses, “sins” are shortcomings.

1  “Dead” is without authentic spiritual life, where the most vital, spirit part of the human personality is not operating. In this state we can’t of ourselves meet God’s requirements, or engineer a way of having fellowship with Him.

1  The Jews are no better off – all inherit the sinful human nature and start off in independence and disobedience.

2  in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 2  Before God’s intervention, everyone who is born is physically alive but spiritually dead and alienated from God the life-giver. There is a contrast of opposites “between being in transgressions and sins” and being “in Christ”, Eph. 2:5-7 below.
3  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 3  “All of us” – Paul, as a Jew, doesn’t exclude himself. Possessing the law is no protection from the desires and thoughts of the flesh. We all like to seek a religious framework in which we avert judgment by doing ‘good’ things – it’s the way we are wired. Once we submit to Jesus Christ as Lord as well as Saviour, a transformation takes place and we see things with new understanding, vv. 4-5 below.

3  As in the great treatise explaining salvation by Christ, Romans chapter 1 through 8, the apostle does not turn to the grace of God, verses 4-8, until he has made very clear humanity’s inherently sinful nature and desperate need of a way out. See also Colossians 1:21-22.

4  But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy… 4  “But” points to God, in His perfection, having wrath for man’s misdeeds and unholiness. Only God, in His perfection, can hold together this righteous wrath with “great love” and being “rich in mercy”. Only God can reconcile our independence and transgression, with His desire for us. The Gospel is all about reconciliation, led by God Himself.

5  …made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

6  And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…

5-6  The “As for you… but because” long sentence resolves here, a linguistic emphasis. The “blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in heavenly place” statement of the introduction to the letter, Eph. 1:3 not moves from general to three particular things God has done “in Christ” for every believer:

– From spiritually dead to new life in Christ

– Salvation, the unearned gift of God’s grace

– A citizenship of heaven, backed by heavenly authority, positionally “raised up… and seated… with [Christ]”.

The choice to accept this, remember this, live in this, is ours alone.

For further study: the ‘look higher, live higher’ exhortation is also expressed in Colossians 3:1-3.

7  …in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 7  “Might show” – endyknymai means ‘display’ or ‘demonstrate’, Amplified, or ‘point to us as examples’, NLT. The church is God’s exhibition to the world of His grace and love, and also His kingdom purpose, planned from long ago to be relevant long ahead.

8  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God –

9  not by works, so that no one can boast.

8-9  Paul emphasises greatly (as he does elsewhere) that we owe our salvation entirely to the undeserved, unearned favour of God. It is His doing; the only part mankind plays is in the words “by faith” i.e. believing, trusting and receiving what God has done in Jesus. It is this in very small part that we find such great resistance of the flesh. The human nature always looks for something that has the feeling of action and reward. The great danger of an elaborate religious framework is that it supports and even feeds this desire for ‘works’ and provides what seems to be an alternative to responding to God’s love in faith.

For further study: 1-3 “all have sinned” and suffer sin’s consequences, Romans 3:22-23. 8-10  Salvation can never be achieved through works, Rom. 3:20, 28; 4:1–5; Gal. 2:16; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5. 

10  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Christians prove their faith by the fruit of their lives in good character, nature, and in doing good – never the other way round. Paul emphasises this so much, because it is such a widely held fallacy that our good deeds give us credit on heaven. The only credit acceptable is on Jesus Christ’s account, not ours.

For further study, James 2:14-26.

Application

These few verses are some of the richest we can find, in terms of explaining the grace of God and how it works out in our lives. This is God’s initiative in reconciliation, a concept so simple and at the same time so profound, that we find it hard to grasp. And perhaps it is not possible to grasp, without allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us at a deep level, to break down the pride and resistance in us, and bring us to the point of gratefully looking up, to raise our faith to be enabled to live higher, the theme of all these Bible readings.

Of course, this mind-blowing explanation of how God has treated us, has huge implications for the way we set out to treat others.

The actions and attitudes of others deserve our wrath, just as we deserve God’s wrath.  How does He see us? His handiwork, being shaped and polished. How does He treat us? Gently, as His handiwork requires. Do we see others as God’s handiwork? And how do we treat them, when they cut in on us, or worse? Living by the truth is challenging, but the alternative is living by falsehood, and it’s a hard act to sustain.

For reflection or as a discussion starter

4  Think for a moment about your relationship with God, your stance against the schemes and deceptions of Satan, and your relationships of all kinds with other people. What practical difference does it make to be in Christ Jesus and seated with Him in the heavenly realms?

Jesus refers to the lifting up of the bronze snake in the wilderness

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 7
John 3:14-21

God’s love rests on us the moment we turn to Jesus as God’s only Son and believing, receive Him into our hearts

14  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,

15  that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.”

14  Jesus refers to Numbers 21:8-9 and sees this action by Moses as a precursor or foreshadowing of His own call to self-sacrifice.

14-15  This is the first of three “lifted up” sayings of Jesus with a double meaning. The others are John 8:28, John 12:32. Hearers would probably recognise the language that Isaiah used, Isa. 52:13.

16  For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

One of the best known and most quoted verses in the Bible, which may be Jesus’ words or John’s commentary on Jesus’ words. There is no equivalent of quotation marks in NT Greek, so we can’t be sure. But Scripture is Scripture.

“One and only Son” – also John 1:14, 1:18. The word is monogenēs which means the only one of its kind. In the Old Latin translation, monogenēs was translated unicus, the root of our word unique. The essential nature of Jesus as one and only Son, is the same nature as the Father’s

17  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 17  “For God did not send…”  John designates Jesus as ‘the Son sent by the Father’ a number of times, which is the image of the shaliach, messenger or envoy, who is like the sender and able to represent exactly the sender’s interests with the sender’s message.

For further study see John 3:34-36; John 5:19-26; John 6:40; John 8:35-36; John 14:13; John 17:1

18  Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

18  John is speaking of settled convictions, not feelings of confidence or doubt which come and go. The “how to” of coming to that settled conviction has already been explained in John 3:5-9 in which Jesus explains to the well-read Pharisee Nicodemus that to perceive the kingdom of God one must have a new start and be born again of the Holy Spirit, and so gain eternal life in the One to be “lifted up” like the bronze snake lifted up by Moses in the wilderness. As God miraculously granted physical life to the dying through the bronze snake, Numbers 21:4-9, so God miraculously gives spiritual and eternal life through Jesus. Unlike the snake, Jesus has life in Himself, John 1:4, John 5:26.

18-21  Two groups of people are starkly contrasted:

Believe in the Son Do not believe in the Son
Have eternal life Shall perish
Are not condemned Are condemned already
Love light Love darkness; hate the light
Live by the truth  Do evil

19  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

20  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

21  But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Application

In this excerpt, we come in halfway, to a conversation between Nicodemus, a well-read and thinking man and Jesus. Jesus explains to him that seeing the kingdom of God is a spiritual perception enabled by the Holy Spirit. Entering into the kingdom of God is a spiritual renewal – a spiritual birth experience. This comes through recognising who Jesus is, a raising of perspective and diminishing of self which allows the Holy Spirit to connect with the human spirit.

We so easily slip back into seeing things from a worldly perspective (where Nicodemus started). The challenge is to be ready to move position, to change perspective, to see what is illuminated by the light.

In our politically-correct world where relativism reigns and absolutes are scorned, everyone wants to uphold their own path to their own ‘truth’. That clashes head-on with this stark black and white scenario, where we either do believe in the Son and have eternal life, or we do not believe and we perish. Stark or not, that’s what the Bible says. There is no assurance in anything else – or anyone else, but Jesus.

To stand with Jesus as one of His, is to see with His perspective. To look up at Jesus on the Cross or in our mind’s eye, in the heavenlies, is to recognise the severe limits of our own perspective and gain a higher one – with eternal benefits.

For reflection or as a discussion starter

3  “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned…” What do you believe about this, and how would you explain it to an enquirer in ordinary language?

A reminder that God is a merciful and well-intentioned provider, but there are consequences for rejecting Him

TUESDAY, MARCH 6
Psalm 107:1-9, 17-22

Desert experiences come to us all; even if we have brought them on ourselves, God is merciful to respond to our cry for help.

1  Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever. 1  A call-to-worship refrain that is often repeated in Psalms. It is a simple but spiritually powerful declaration of praise for God’s character of unconditional love and goodness – and thanks for His goodness received by us in many ways.

1  God is good! This most fundamental characteristic of God’s nature is essential to praise. It is a persistent lie of the devil to plant the thought that God is harsh and unfair. The praise of God’s goodness (regardless of feelings or circumstances) breaks the hold of this faith-sapping lie.

For further study, see Psalms 106:1; 118:1,29; 136:1; Jer. 33:11.

1  “His love” – the English word is too weak and too general. Better, His “mercy and lovingkindness” (Amp), “faithful love” (NLT). The Hebrew word is hesēd which is used for God’s love in connection with His covenant – hence unconditional love. The NT equivalent word is agape.

2  Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story – those He redeemed from the hand of the foe,

3  those He gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south.

2-3  If this psalm was written by a Levite after the return from exile, “the lands” are the places of exile under the Assyrian and Babylonian dispersions.
4  Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. 4  The first of four crises in this psalm (two in this excerpt) – the wilderness wandering, vv. 4-9; bondage as prisoners, vv.10-16 (not included in this lectionary excerpt); suffering as a consequence of sin, vv. 17-22; and distress at sea, vv.23-32 (not included).

4  There is no specific reference to Numbers 21 (this week’s OT reading), but this reference to desert wandering does read like a reflection on that situation.

4  “City where they could settle” (and v.7) – literally “city of habitation” where people live in the security of a steady supply of food and water.

5  They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away. 5  A presenting problem of the wilderness experience, Exodus 15:22, 16:3.
6  Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress.

6  “Cried out to the Lord” – exactly the right response when trouble threatens. Also verses 13 and 19 (and v.28, not included).

6  Israel’s history had episodes of rebellion (focus of Psalm 106), of crying out to the Lord in distress, as here in Ps. 107, and of God’s deliverance (focus of Ps. 105).

7  He led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle. 7  “Straight way” – has the sense of level, free from obstacles. Israel’s return from exile is sometimes portrayed as a kind of second exodus, Isaiah 11:16, Isaiah 40:3.

8  Let them give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind…

8  “Unfailing love” – hesēd, see note to v.1.
9  …for He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. 9  The crisis of vv. 4-5 reversed. The original hearers would have no difficulty in seeing the allusion to God’s provision of water and food in the desert, Exodus 15:25, 16:13-35.
17  Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.  17  Statement of cause and effect, reinforcing vv. 10-16 (omitted in lectionary) which describes how harsh labour in foreign bondage broke the spirit of those who had rebelled against God’s decrees and suffered deportation.

17  “Fools” always goes together with sin in Psalms.

For further study, see Psalm 38:5, 69:5, Proverbs 1:7.

18  They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death. 18  This implies that God can allow wasting disease because of the foolishness of ‘rebellious ways”, v.17, with the intention of provoking a repentant response, v.19, leading to saving and healing, vv.19-20.
 19  Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them from their distress.

20  He sent out His word and healed them; He rescued them from the grave.

19-20 “Sent out His word” – word is personified, as in the more familiar John 1:1, 1:14. Words which are God’s words declared (spoken out) in faith have greater impact than we may imagine. See also Ezekiel 37:4.
21  Let them give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind.  21  “Unfailing love” – one word again, hesēd, as v.1 and v.8. Note that this unfailing love is God’s love and grace expressed towards rebellious fools who are, however, still covered by the covenant. God’s grace is expressed in the OT but is less explicit– it is there to be found if we look for it.
22  Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of His works with songs of joy.


Application

This song speaks of God’s goodness and love which is “unfailing” even when we have clearly failed in our attitude Him.

The key in this psalm is in the phrase “then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble” which is repeated for emphasis.

Why is this important? When we have gone away from the Lord in some way, deliberately or otherwise, we find ways to justify ourselves rather than “crying out to the Lord”. We will fail to hear or reject the “word sent out” which heals (v.20) until we make the shift.

The phrase “cried out… in their trouble” conveys an attitude of heart which, quite simply, recognises being in trouble. Just as it’s pride that gets us into trouble, the humility that recognises that we need the Lord’s help is what gets his attention. And He meets us where we are with “unfailing love”

For reflection or as a discussion starter

2  “They wandered… in desert wastelands.” We all experience ‘desert times’. Why does God allow these? How does He use these times?

“Repent and believe” is always the way to reconnect with God’s heart.

TLW10 March 11 Lent 4

Readings this week from the calendar for Sunday, March 11 (Lent 4)

Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm 107:1-9, 17-22

John 3:14-21

Ephesians 2:1-10

MONDAY, MARCH 5
Numbers 21:4-9

Venomous snakes attack the Israelites and the Lord tells Moses to fashion a copper snake image and elevate it on a pole

4  They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way;

4  “To go around Edom” – because Edom had refused to let them pass by, and threatened the Israelites with a large army, Numbers 20:14-21

4  “Impatient on the way” – there had been quarrelling (the place was therefore named Meribah) over the apparent lack of water, which caused Moses to make an unholy outburst and God to be angry, Numbers 20:2-3, 1-12

5  …they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

5  They had experienced miraculous deliverances. They seemed to have forgotten pledging dependence on the Lord, before going out to meet the king of Arad’s threat and defeating Arad in a ‘holy war’ engagement at Hormah.

5  “Miserable” food – the word is unique and probably derived from quillel, to despise. It was not a good attitude before the Lord who had provided them with manna day after day.

6  Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 6  “Venomous” – fiery (burning) serpents, Amplified Bible. Probably the carpet viper. The bites were inflamed and deaths painful.
7  The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

7  “The people said… we sinned…” – they recognised where they had gone wrong. The Lord will sometimes let a situation get worse, to bring realisation.

7  “Moses prayed” – and the answer was unusual. Are we alert for unusual answers, unexpected directions, from prayer requests?

8  The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”

9  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

8-9  “Bronze” – or copper. The archaeologist Professor Rothenberg discovered a small copper snake Egyptian temple at Timnah, near Eilat, in the same general area, a little later in date. It could have been copied from hearing the story of this deliverance. The symbolism in sacrifice draws on opposites – animals are killed so men may live; blood which pollutes when spilled can be used to sanctify; the ashes of a dead heifer cleanse from the impurity caused by proximity with death. A red snake, like the red inflammation, delivers from the snake bite.

8-9  God would spare the lives of those who were unhesitating in obeying, John 3:14-15

8-9  John Wesley noted: “The pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ.” In making sacrifice, there had to be contact e.g. laying a hand upon the animal, for it to be effective. Here the ‘contact’ is choosing to look up and gaze at the snake image, and so raise faith for God’s provision.

Application

A discontented, unbelieving or resentful heart never plays out well in the Lord’s order. It is sin!

In this event, linked to the difficulty over finding water in the previous chapter, resentment is being expressed against Moses, as the Lord’s appointed servant and leader, and against the Lord Himself.

Thankfully a lot more grace surrounds us, as those in Christ, but the principle remains clear. Keep a clean, pure heart towards the Lord. In life there is friction and we have to be quick to forgive without condition (not waiting for an apology); we do this largely for our own benefit. The other person may never know, but we have done what is right before heaven, and we are then free.

Here’s a bit more of challenge that comes out of this story. When the twists and turns of life are difficult for us – the unexpected loss of a loved one, a setback or an injustice – we call out to God and ask “Why?”  That’s the right starting point but not the right finishing point. Although God never does anything wrong, it can seem wrong to us, and that’s when resentment can creep in. So as well as forgiving others, we sometimes have to take the bold step of choosing to  ‘forgive’ God for allowing the pain.

Also in this desert scene of dissatisfaction and angering the Lord, we see why things sometimes have to go on getting worse when we are praying just the opposite. We are good at justifying ourselves, and remarkably poor at times at seeing our own faults; sometimes the struggle has to intensify until we all ‘get it’. What does the Lord want? For us all to recognise where we have headed off independently, and to turn to look at Him again. The serpent on the pole, and also the Cross.

For reflection or as a discussion starter

1  How does God get your attention when you’re not listening and going your own way?

The emerging message: Five unusual facets of Jesus’ lordship

FRIDAY, MARCH 23
The emerging message

Isaiah 50:5-9a

Isaiah speaks of a servant who listens to the Lord devotedly and takes a beating from others

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

Psalm 31:9-18

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

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

Psalm 118:1-2 and 19-29

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

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

Mark 11:1-11

Two disciples are sent to find the young donkey the Lord has provided for the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy

Jesus enters the city to shouts of acclaim from a gathering crowd who offer Him royal homage

Philippians 2:5-11

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

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

Five facets of Jesus’ lordship

The Sunday where Jesus’ triumphant entry to shouts of Hosanna! and a path of palm branches is a reminder of a royal procession unlike any we have seen.

Jesus, who we know as King of kings and Lord of lords, is revealed in a prophetic picture in Isaiah 50 as a servant, obedient to the point of being willing to take abuse, in the confidence of eventual vindication

The psalms show us another prophetic insight, the Lord held even through desperate circumstances by knowing God intimately, and His unfailing love. This for us is what film-makers would call a prequel and theologians a foreshadow of what was to come. Man’s cruelty and God’s love were juxtaposed in sharp relief in prophetic destiny, set out in Psalm 118, where rejection by man, always known by God, becomes His glory.

Next we see Jesus fulfilling a prophecy, entering the city as a king who appears as a peacemaker on an unkingly mount, a donkey.

Looking back at the Cross, Paul gives us a fifth facet by explaining how Jesus, Son of God, could let go of His divine rank to take on the nature of a servant for His time on earth – and let this become the route to true glory.

Paul doesn’t say how much more we need to let go of self and let God use us without our glory. The point is already strongly made. However, the church, facing into an unbelieving world, has not made this its manifesto. Millions will own having faith but have been hurt by a church that at times is a caricature of Jesus’ values.

The kingdom purpose of God has to be spiritually discerned

THURSDAY, MARCH 1
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Our opinions can blind us to God’s intentions if we are not prepared to let them be changed – especially by the Gospel

18  For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

19  For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;

the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

18-19  Paul is loosely quoting Isaiah 29:14 and allowing God to speak these words again to the Corinth church  which like its city, was characterised by people holding strong opinions, with some arrogance.
20  Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

20  The Athenian statesman Aristides said that on every street in Corinth one would meet a so-called wise man who had his own solutions to humanity’s problems.

20  “Philosopher of this age” refers to a kind of dispute using clever but devious logic, called sophistry, which the Greeks liked to engage in.

20  Paul uses his own brand of straightforward oratory – four rhetorical questions together with the anaphora of “where is… where is… where is…” to drive home his point to Greeks who expected this form of persuasion.

21  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 21  The preaching is not foolish, but the message of the Cross doesn’t at first make sense to people of the world – whether Jews or Greeks, in this context.
22  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom… 22  Different cultures have different starting points. The Jews’ history was miraculous deliverance (Red Sea, Jehoshaphat’s deliverance, Gideon), encounters (Abraham, Mount Sinai) and signs (e.g. through Elijah and Elisha). The Greek nation had a long background in philosophical debate and oratory. Jesus’ self-sacrifice in shameful, if sinless, death didn’t satisfy either Greek intellect or Jewish desire for God’s intervening hand.
23  …but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…  23  “Stumbling block” originally meant a tree-stump. In Scripture it meant an attitude or action that obstructs others and causes them to sin. The Jews looked for a Messiah of political power. Jesus – in their unbelieving view – had not only failed to remove the Romans, but had been put to death by Romans, the Roman way.
24  …but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 24  Those with spiritual eyes to see, recognise the true power, the power of God in Christ crucified, and the true wisdom of how God saves in Christ.
25  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 25  God’s order has the effect of turning the world’s order upside down. Paul is using irony here, a figure of speech that was much used by the Greeks.

Application

When Paul had a dream in Troas that led to his mission crossing the sea to the Greek and Roman culture of Macedonia, he needed to connect with people in different ways. The Greeks were great debaters and they looked for logical, rather than historic, support for the message they were hearing.

The story of Jesus’ sinless life and then horrific death as an innocent victim who became a sacrifice for sin for all who would believe, is a story that defies logic. It can only be grasped by faith. And the more we seek to understand it and find grounds for it in the way that philosophy demands, the more we distance ourselves from the faith that brings revelation.

Paul is meeting his new Greek converts where they are in their understanding and speaking their kind of language – to tell them, “It doesn’t work that way!”

God’s purposes are higher than our purposes and of course the heavenly perspective is like the view from an aircaft window seat compared with a walk in the valley far below.

Only prayer and an openness to the bigger picture that the Holy Spirit gives us, if we ask Him, can show us how to relate Jesus resurrected, to a world cynical and demanding of proof. Paul knew those barriers too, and he consistently relied on demonstrating and proclaiming Christ, the wisdom of God and the power of God, to overcome them.

For reflection and discussion

How difficult do we find it to stand up for what seems to others to be foolish, illogical, and just not ‘cool’? Who helps us to be credible and relevant?

God’s intentions are revealed in Jesus’ prophetic action

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 28
John 2: 13-22

Meeting God in the Temple – in the holy of holies, or in the temple courts accessible to everybody?

13  When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 13  John mentions four or five passovers.

13  This is the beginning of a section on John (up to John 4:54) which recounts Jesus’ ministry to Jerusalem, Judea, and to Samaria and Gentiles. There are two major encounters to come, one with Nicodemus who represented the Jerusalem religious elite, and a second, very different in nature, with the Samaritan woman, representing the Samaritan religion. This temple incident is like a prologue.

14  In the temple courts He found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 14  This was in the temple courts, or court of the Gentiles, the area where non-Jews were admitted to pray in the “house of prayer for all nations” Isaiah 56:7.
15  So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 15  The three synoptic (narrative) gospels record a second, later, clearing of the temple courts by Jesus at the Jewish Passover, just before the Crucifixion.
16  To those who sold doves He said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning My Father’s house into a market!”

17  His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for Your house will consume Me.”

16-17  This is a prophetic action by Jesus, a little drama depicting what will happen to the Jewish religious leaders who had allowed commerce to overtake worship and become an obstacle to people, especially the non-Jewish ‘God-fearers’, for whom this was the part of the temple courts where they could come and pray. See Psalm 69:9, quoted in part above.

18  The Jews then responded to Him, “What sign can you show us to prove Your authority to do all this?”

19  Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

18-19  Jesus implies that He will have a part in raising Himself from the dead. Elsewhere He says “I am the Resurrection and the Life”, John 11:25. All rather confusing until we step back and recognise that Jesus is in the Father, John 14:10-11, and the Father i.e. the Holy Spirit is in Him, John 10:38 – The Trinity is one, and acts as one. Lacking the insight of faith, they are simply seeing the Jesus who had emptied Himself of the divine nature to be born as man, and standing before them as the Galilean rabbi.  As is so often the challenge for us, the close up picture is not the whole picture.

For further study, other verses tell us that the Father and the Holy Spirit were involved in the Resurrection: Acts 2:24, Romans 6:4, 1 Cor. 6:14, Galatians 1:1, Ephesians 1:20, and also Romans 1:4, 8:11

20  They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

20  Or alternative translation, “this temple was built 46 years ago”. Herod the Great had constructed the temple proper, but the hieron, temple courts, were still unfinished.

20  No one understood Jesus’ reply at the time. This sheds lights on the taunts made three years later at the trial and crucifixion, Matthew 26:62, Matt. 27:40.

21  But the temple He had spoken of was His body. 21  A temple is a place where God dwells. This was a key to Israel’s worship, first around the tabernacle, and then in more permanent temples built by Solomon, then on returning from exile Zerubbabel, and finally Herod the Great. Now all that changes, because Jesus, the new temple, renders all other obsolete, by manifesting God the Father, John 1:14, 18. The final and ultimate once-for-all-time sacrifice took place in this “temple”, His body, which was “destroyed” when He was put to death, but Jesus was “raised” from the dead “in three days”.
22 After He was raised from the dead, His disciples recalled what He had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Application

The idea that God’s dwelling place was in the Jerusalem Temple was looking old-fashioned as soon as Jesus entered the courts. The church is not a building – church building or temple structure.

At the same time, the temple had been built and rebuilt, originally by Jesus’ ancestor Solomon, as a place set apart to God – a holy place – and a centre of worship. Now it was full of sheep and cattle – and bankers. So Jesus was more than entitled to say He wanted His house of prayer back.

This is a picture of how God’s clear intentions can get taken over by the purposes of man, and how God feels about that. Medieval churches in the UK, especially in the country, were commonly used as community meeting places and markets, especially if there were no other market hall. The wider use of the building is not the point.

What is at issue here is whether the church of God, as the people of God, are carrying out His mission, rooted in worship that comes from the faith that can only grow from close personal relationship – or whether they have degenerated into self-serving institutions.

The reformation, revivals and renewals of every century since the Middle Ages suggest that the Holy Spirit is always at work, shaking what can be shaken, and bringing the mission of God to the fore. The temple that Jesus entered was scarcely complete architecturally before it was demolished and much of Jerusalem with it, by which time the church was growing in Asia, Greece, Italy and beyond. If we don’t catch what God is doing now and change course to meet Him in it, we too will become a barrier of dead stones.

For reflection and discussion

Tabernacle, temple building and then Jesus Himself… where is the temple where God resides now?

How does our worship practice reflect this, or perhaps could reflect this better?

The heavenlies proclaim the Lord, but his words move us towards His intentions

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 27
Psalm 19: 1-14

God reveals Himself in the order and beauty of creation, but even more in the words that define His ways

The two main ways that God reveals Himself are contrasted in this psalm, verses 1-6 and then 7-14.

1  The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

2  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

1-2  “The heavens” can mean God’s dwelling place or, as here, the skies. Here the heavenly skies silently extol God the Creator’s majesty in what theologians term General Revelation.

3  They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

3  “No words” – by comparison, vv. 7-14 is expressed in words.

4  Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens, God has pitched a tent for the sun.

4  Ps. 104:2 The Lord… stretches out the heavens like a tent. Creation is set out like the Lord setting out a tent, Isaiah 40:22.

5  It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

6  It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.

5-6  Many ways have been put forward to explain this, with reference to the mythology of the time which ascribed particular powers to the moon and sun. In Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts the sun-god’s penetrating rays exposed every human activity. However, here the sun is subject to God, the Creator. If its heat and light affect everything, how much more does God’s word refresh and inform and guide (expanded below); there is true joy and security in that.

7  The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul;

The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.

7  Here is the change of direction from the general revelation given by creation and specifically, the skies and the sun tracking its way across each day…

8  The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

8  …Now, by comparison, God’s word brings what is far better – specific revelation which can be trusted, which is enlightening, reliable and lifegiving.

9  The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.

The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.

“The fear of the Lord” is usually the reverence of the Lord. Here “the precepts” and “the commands” become the definition of “the fear” and some versions e.g. ESV keep this within the one sentence.

10  They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;

they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.

10  The word for “pure gold” or, in some versions “finest gold” is different from the word for “gold” – it is a stronger expression in Hebrew than in English. God’s truth is of rare, remarkable sought-after value.

11 By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

12  But who can discern their own errors?Forgive my hidden faults.

13  Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.

Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.

11-12  God’s word, like 24 carat gold in its purity, reveals the truth which confronts attitudes we use to defend our bits of denial. Sharp and penetrating, it “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”, Hebrews 4:12.

12-13  The psalmist is seeking to be blameless before God and free of “great transgression” and the behaviour that goes with it. At the same time, the human tendency to have blind spots for our own failings, or “hidden sins”, is acknowledged. We are all creative when it comes to self-justification. 

14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

“Be pleasing” is correct but a bit shallow. Most other versions have ‘acceptable’ for ratzon, a word that goes with sacrifice. The psalmist has seen the glory of God in the wonder and beauty of His creation, and has been impacted by the revealing truth of divine principles in the written word. Now there is a heart response to be offered, a life to be loved as a sacrifice to God.

Application

God’s majesty, glory and creativity affect everyone, whether they acknowledge it or not; anyone who has been struck by a landscape view, or looked up with wonder at the stars and planets on a clear night has had an encounter with the One who created it, even if not a very profound one!

The ancient people of Mesopotamia saw the sun rise and traverse the sky with penetrating heat and light. To them the sun, and the moon also, were deities that observed our actions and required our penitence for our wrongdoings, known and unknown. The psalmist gives a nod to this while explaining the natural revelation of God Almighty that is in His creation and which stirs our conscience to join the heavens in declaring the glory of God.

But God has given us His word, specific revelation of who He is and how He is – and His way of truth for us. This truth is pure and free from any tarnish, like pure gold, and it acts like a mirror, showing up things in us we cannot see or have got accustomed to not seeing in denial and self-justification. At the same time, God’s principles from his word give us the security of good and righteous guidance, and bring us joy in bringing us closer to Him.

Of course, this stirs up a desire in us to respond to this. We want to live according to His purposes for us, to speak what is pleasing, from heart attitudes that reflect the heart of God Himself.

For reflection or discussion

How much do we value God’s word, and the principles for Christian living we find there? In reading and reflecting on the Bible day by day for ourselves? In holding the Bible readings and exposition through preaching central among the sacraments of Sunday worship?