The mystery made plain: the Good News unites

 

Ephesians 3:1-12 Thursday, Jan 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Application

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

For reflection and discussion

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

 

WEDNESDAY, November 22

Matthew 25:31–46

The Lordship of Jesus — His own, evidenced by Christlike behaviour.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne.

  • Verses 31–46 are description of the final judgment which Jesus had often warned about, in many parables e.g. the Ten Bridesmaids and the Three Servants earlier in Matthew 25:1–13 and 14–30, and more explicitly e.g. Matt. 24:36–51.
  • This happens when Christ returns, just before the establishment of an earthly millennial kingdom Revelation 20:4; other interpreters put it with the great white throne judgment Rev 20:11–15

32 “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

  • Palestinian sheep looked similar to goats and often both grazed together. However, they needed to be separated at night-time for the less hardy goats to be put in a warmer place.

33 “He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

  • The right hand side was the more honourable – as in “sit at my right hand”.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
35 “For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in,
36 “I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you came to visit Me.”

37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give You something to drink?

  • The righteous are surprised because Jesus says that they have ministered directly to Him, although they do not have a recollection of that. 

38 ‘When did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
39 ‘When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for Me.’

41 “Then He will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
42 ’For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink,
43 ’I was a stranger and you did not invite Me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after Me.’

  • “Depart… you who are cursed…” is the verdict for those who have not shown these kinds of acts of mercy to Christians in need. They may have claimed to belong to Christ, but the fruit of their lives and actions has shown they have never accepted Him as Lord and Saviour 1 John 3:14-15. See also Matthew 7:16 and 20.

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help You?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

  • Not a limited period of purgatory, but unending punishment – contrasted with eternal life

Application: There is going to be a final separation of ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ and we may be surprised by sheep that look like goats and vice versa. At first sight this might appear to teach that our good actions earn salvation to eternal life. That is our world view – good work gets good marks, effort is recognised with reward. But that is not the different world view of heaven, where God’s favour can never be earned, only received. What is in view here is not a tick box exercise of the good actions but a description of the outworking of a good heart that belongs to Jesus. We can’t do it ourselves. When we are truly His, we can hardly help doing what he would do.

Discussion starter: While acts of mercy are at the heart of living out the Gospel, what particular injustice or area of social need do you feel passionate about? How will you make a difference?

Thursday, November 2

True worship in the true Saviour

Matthew 24:1-14

After the exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and religious teachers in the teaching on the Seven Woes, and denouncing them as snakes poised to attack any righteous people sent by God, Jesus leaves the Temple and leaves the disciples to work out where the worship of God was centred – the Temple, as they had always known, or the Lord, as they were coming to know.

  • This reading makes better sense if we start with the end verses of the preceding chapter: Matt. 23:37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, His disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple.

  • The Temple was structurally complete but with additional development going on. It was hard for the Jewish-culture disciples, brought up with such a high view of the Temple as the dwelling place of God and centre of true worship, to see that the symbol of the building was now to give place to the Person of the Messiah. We have hindsight; they were having to see forward into change, like us trying to work out what happens after Brexit.

2 Then He asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

  • Recalls Micah’s prophecy, Micah 3:12 (Monday).

3 When He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

  • The ‘last days’ is a long time period beginning with Jesus’ birth and ending with His coming again. No one knows how long, and the Early Church lived as those understanding it to be imminent. Perhaps this is the point. Later in the chapter Matt 24:36-42 the description of the end times is given as an extended warning for us to be ready and prepared, unlike those of Noah’s time.

4 Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!” and they will lead many astray.

6 And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: 8 all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

  • Dangerous, oppressive cults and unhealthy leaders have arisen and we have become more aware of these in recent years. Similarly, we are more aware of famines and earthquakes. How much of this is because of visual, global reporting and how much is a result of more frequent incidences?

9 “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. 10 Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.

11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But anyone who endures to the end will be saved.

  • In other words, people say what they like, do what they like and behave as selfishly and harshly as they like. This is in society, but increasingly in the church also.

14 And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.

  • Against this grim picture is the grasping and proclaiming of a kingdom-of-God-centred message, some would say as never before. We see numerical decline in the UK Christian church but there are plenty of examples of very rapid growth, spiritual and numerical. These are in the UK as well as across the world. There are places we can go where there is a rising expectation of meeting with God in a life-changing way, praying prayers that are answered and seeing Him bring His good order in ways we cannot explain.

Applying it

Imitate the saints – who recognised the kingdom of God in Jesus (Matt. 24:1-14)

There is church and there is the kingdom of God.

The church is intended to uphold God’s kingdom order, to demonstrate it and to contend for it in a harsh and unjust world. However, being made up of humans, human faults often cause the agency of the kingdom of God to be less than caring and loving and truth-seeking.

Jesus, no less, had this problem with the bet religious leaders of His time, the Pharisee group who were paradoxically the group who knew and sought to live by the Scriptures more than any other. But they were proud of this, and took a superior stance to the Galilean rabbi with His unfashionable northern accent and builder’s hands. And so the enemy found them easy to turn to hatred and evil.

As you and I seek the kingdom of God – seek what God is truly doing, what His way and what His order of things is – we will find opposition. Often it comes from those quite close to us, believing many of the same things – and convinced that they are right.

Imitate the true saints throughout church history who were the humble ones, seeking to bring what God was bringing: His Word in their language, acceptance as His church whether in working clothes or fine, hope for those trapped in destructive lifestyles. Of course opposition comes to us, as it did to Jesus. The eyes of faith see above and beyond opposition, to discern God’s purpose and God’s order.

See page with the week’s posts together

Wednesday, November 1

Saints who knew God’s steadfastness

Psalm 107:1-8

The holy people of the psalmist’s era had their share of difficulty, but they knew that they could absolutely count on the steadfastness of God’s love.

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for He is gracious,
for His steadfast love endures for ever.

  • This powerful ‘soundbite of truth’ about God’s nature occurs more than 40 times, in the Books of Chronicles and Jeremiah as well as the psalms.
  • Steadfast love translates a Hebrew word roughly pronounced ‘heseed’. It combines the sense of God’s love and care with the obligation of covenant (“let the redeemed”, v2 is another statement of covenant) because we are His. Our worldview emphasises individuality. The Jewish worldview emphasised covenant, ‘being in it together’ and the protection of ‘belonging’ to God as one of His redeemed, set-apart children.

2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say this,

  • Like yesterday’s Psalm 43 reading, this is an encouragement to praise God for His goodness, whatever the circumstances may be saying to us. The situation of difficulty says one thing; we choose to say something different, which is objective truth.

those He redeemed from the hand of the enemy,
3 And gathered out of the lands
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
4 Some went astray in desert wastes
and found no path to a city to dwell in.
5 Hungry and thirsty,
their soul was fainting within them.
6 So they cried to the Lord in their trouble
and He delivered them from their distress.

  • The result of choosing and relying on God, who is entirely truthful and and merciful.

7 He set their feet on the right way
till they came to a city to dwell in.
8 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his goodness
and the wonders He does for his children.

  • The psalmist recalls those who have gone before us, who walked a difficult ‘desert path’ at times but kept their trust in God and His faithfulness to bring them through. What they learned, we can benefit from.

Applying it: Imitate the saints – who praised God in all circumstances (Psalm 107:1-8)

Faith in God is faith from knowing God, and knowing God is knowing His nature – faithful, unchanging, merciful and loving without scoring us on what we deserve.

The expression of this gives rise to this refrain we find repeated again and again in the psalms: “O give thanks to the Lord, whose hesēd – covenant love – endures for ever. True faith praises God for who He is, not just for what we may perceive as answered prayers or other blessings. When the answer appears top come slowly, is God’s nature any different? Faith knows that God is the same, just as merciful, just as attentive to us and therefore worthy of praise and adoration, however we may be feeling or whatever we may be experiencing at any one moment.

The enemy will sow thoughts in our minds of how God has abandoned us, because we are undeserving, because God is fickle and sometimes harsh, because we are powerless. All of these are lies, of course – it is how he works. Satan never speaks the truth, but he makes what he says sound like truth.  And we defeat those lies, the doubts and the enemy’s scheme by telling God that we KNOW His nature and hold fast to our covenant with Him in Jesus. Very different from a religious remedy of finding what we need to do, this is imitating the saints of the ages and joining them in choosing an attitude of faith and praise.

See page with all the week’s posts together

 

Tuesday, October 31

Separated? No, connected through worship

Psalm 43

Psalm 42 and 43 are part of the same prayer. The sense is of a priest or Levite who has been separated from the place of worship (perhaps captured, or exiled?) but is going to call on God’s light and truth to be His own ‘Temple presence’ as he will worship anyway. This psalm reminds us that the walk of faith in God always brings a spiritual battle – sometimes one that is painfully apparent. However, we are responsible for our walk: being spiritually discerning, trusting God, and being led by God’s light and truth.

1 Give judgement for me, O God,
and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.
2 For you are the God of my refuge;
why have you cast me from you,
and why go I so heavily, while the enemy oppresses me?

  • The psalmist was referring to physical, and often armed, enemies. However our spiritual enemy, Satan, does much of his work through people he is able to deceive and use for his ends. There is also the oppression of negative and fearful thoughts he puts in our minds – the battle of the mind.

3 O send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,
and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling,

  • *let them lead me… let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell (NIV rendering)

4 That I may go to the altar of God,
to the God of my joy and gladness;
and on the lyre I will give thanks to you, O God my God.

  • It is not just about the blessing of receiving light and truth from the Lord. it is also the release into praise despite circumstances which is powerful.

5 Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul,
and why are you so disquieted within me?

6 O put your trust in God;
for I will yet give him thanks,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

  • As we look back to Christian saints and heroes of the past (The Bible uses the term ‘saint’ much more widely than those officially canonised by the Roman Catholic establishment) we see over and over again this quality of praising God for His goodness in the face of challenging circumstances. True saints know the light and truth and praise Him as the source of it.

Applying it

Imitate the saints – who held on to God’s light and truth in a foreign land (Psalm 43)

The songwriter who gave us Psalm 42-43 was hearing God as one removed from the worship centre, the Temple, and made to live in a foreign land. Rejected and exiled and having no influence and no position – another kind of outsider.

But that lack of self-reliance, that dependence on God when everything else has been stripped away, that is a heart God can speak into. We can imitate that by choosing not to place reliance on position or a comfortable sense of belonging and tradition. The saints of old knew they needed God, and He met them there.

 See page with all the week’s posts