Sunday, January 7: Epiphany – The Good News is for people not like us

Readings this week for Sunday, January 7, (Epiphany):
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72
Matthew 2:1-12
Ephesians 3:1-12

Taken from the New Living Translation (NLT) 2nd edition 2004, Tyndale House Publishers

 

Isaiah 60:1-6  Monday, Jan 1

The glory of the Lord rises to shine on the Israelite nation, for all nations to be drawn to the true light

1 “Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all to see. For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you.

  • The glory of the Lord now becomes Jerusalem’s light and beacon for all.

2 Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the Lord rises and appears over you.

  • An allusion to the pillar of cloud in the wilderness, but in this instance a new experience of God’s glory, like the follow spot that moves to rest on one part of a dark theatre set.

3 All nations will come to your light; mighty kings will come to see your radiance.

  • A key verse and headline to all the readings. God is doing a new thing, and this is the early announcement. The light of God’s presence, truth and glory is on ‘Jerusalem’, the centre of worship, and this will draw other nations; people of the highest rank will be stirred to come and see.

4 “Look and see, for everyone is coming home! Your sons are coming from distant lands; your little daughters will be carried home.

  • Much the same words were used in the context of the return from exile, Isaiah 49:18,22. Here a broader ‘return from exile’ is in view.

5 Your eyes will shine, and your heart will thrill with joy, for merchants from around the world will come to you. They will bring you the wealth of many lands.

  • King Darius contributed to the rebuilding of the temple under Zerubbabel, Ezra 6:8-9. Much later, as Temple gave way to Church, Gentiles swelled the numbers.

6 Vast caravans of camels will converge on you, the camels of Midian and Ephah. The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense and will come worshipping the Lord.

  • Frankincense was the only aromatic permitted for altar incense and, like gold, was a commodity of the highest value.

Application

It’s too easy to jump straight to a parallel between verse 6 with its camels and frankincense and gold, and the adoration made to the very young Jesus by astrologer-priests from the east – but these were the gifts of tribute customarily made in that culture. Rather, the point is an impartation of light – the glory of the Lord that comes on His own to draw others. This was always the purpose of God’s chosen people: to be His own, who knew Him and knew His ways and showed them to a wider world.

This was the nature of the first covenantal promise God made to Abraham, Genesis 12:2-3 “I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others… All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” The rebuilding of the Temple, the centre of worship, fits that purpose. God is about rebuilding and restoring His present day ‘temple’ – the temple of the Holy Spirit that is you and I, for us to reflect His goodness and glory that others may be drawn to His love.

Too big a commission? We, His church, are in this together and when we, like His people of long ago, get our focus on God’s eternal plan instead of everything else, and how He needs to use us to fulfil it by showing what He is like to others, people will be drawn to His light. That’s the way it works.

For reflection and discussion

1.  Where do we see the Lord’s light resting, and what response is the Holy Spirit leading us to make?

 

Psalm 72:1-15  Tuesday, Jan 2

The rule of God is to be characterised by righteousness and justice, and rulers who uphold these values will bring prosperity for all

Psalm 72 is entitled a psalm OF Solomon — or equally it could be read as a psalm FOR Solomon. It is a prayer by David for the king, or kings, that succeed him, and was probably used at coronations. Later on, the allusions to a future Messianic king became more important, and the Early Church saw it as a prophetic writing about Jesus. Scripture often conveys God’s truth on several levels, both historic and also contemporary.

1 Give your love of justice to the king, O God, and righteousness to the king’s son.

2 Help him judge your people in the right way; let the poor always be treated fairly.

  • The plea for Solomon — or a successor of the dynasty — to be endued with God’s love of justice and value of righteousness is also a plea for the nation will prosper, according to the cause-and-effect of covenant principles. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” Proverbs 14:34 NASB

3 May the mountains yield prosperity for all, and may the hills be fruitful.

4  Help him to defend the poor, to rescue the children of the needy, and to crush their oppressors.

  • A striking feature of the king’s rule would be compassion and protection for the poor and needy. By contrast, the nation’s rulers at the time leading up to the sacking of Jerusalem, were denounced by prophets of that time as harsh and heartless shepherds: see Jeremiah’s prophecy which is also the basis of the covenant name of God “The Lord our righteousness”, Jer. 23:1-6.

5 May they fear you as long as the sun shines, as long as the moon remains in the sky. Yes, forever!

  • This is now pointing to a more enduring reign than the lifetime of one monarch.

6 May the king’s rule be refreshing like spring rain on freshly cut grass, like the showers that water the earth.

7 May all the godly flourish during his reign. May there be abundant prosperity until the moon is no more.

  • Here the blessings of good leadership are set out. Hebrew thought does not have our tendency to separate God’s favour and blessing, from the prosperity achieved by good management of resources — they are one and the same.

8 May he reign from sea to sea, and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth

  • The immediate boundaries are the Euphrates and the Mediterranean coastline, which became the limits of Solomon’s kingdom — however the focus then zooms out to take in the whole of the known world.
  • This verse is almost word for word the same as Zechariah 9:10, the context of which is messianic. So this is a messianic dimension becoming apparent.

9 Desert nomads will bow before him; his enemies will fall before him in the dust.

10 The western kings of Tarshish and other distant lands will bring him tribute. The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts.

  • Tarshish was a large Western Mediterranean settlement – think modern day Catalonia. Seba, south of Egypt, and Sheba, southern Arabia, faced each other across the Red Sea. Kings would come bringing gifts and tribute to pledge their submission. They did for Solomon; this also looks forward to the bringing of gifts for Jesus, and what this symbolised.

11 All kings will bow before him, and all nations will serve him.

  • With kings of distant lands bringing gifts, and “all kings” and “all nations” deferring, this ruler is the king of kings – a title of Jesus.

12  He will rescue the poor when they cry to him; he will help the oppressed, who have no one to defend them.

13 He feels pity for the weak and the needy, and he will rescue them.

  • A parallel is in Psalm 82:3. All Israelites shared responsibility for those who were marginalised (orphans, widows) or otherwise poor or needy. Kings, as God’s royal representatives, were said to have particular responsibility for protecting marginalised groups throughout Psalms e.g. Ps. 10:12-18, Ps. 12:5, Psalm 14:6 etc

14 He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious to him.

15  Long live the king! May the gold of Sheba be given to him. May the people always pray for him and bless him all day long.

  • The psalm ends (v.17, not shown) with a reminder of the Abrahamic covenant provision that “through your offspring ALL nations of earth will be blessed”: God’s people, and especially their king, were to represent God’s covenant beyond themselves, to the nations.  Genesis 12:2-3, Genesis 22:18.
  • This is clearly and simply summarised by Psalm 67, which is read every day in the parliamentary prayers that precede every sitting of the House of Commons.

Application

At first this psalm is a straightforward blessing on Solomon and those kings who succeed him as godly leadership for Israel. Fairly quickly it becomes apparent that its reach is longer than that, pointing to a Messianic king to come to whom other rulers far and wide defer and serve. Jesus, of course, has the title king of kings (1 Tim. 6:15, Revelation 17:14).

Such a majestic figure would hardly be expected to have much interest in ordinary people, but this king defends the poor and oppressed (v.4), rescues the needy (vv.12-13) and redeems them from oppression and violence as those whose lives are precious to him (v.14). In terms of the culture and history of the time, with slavery common and lives cheap, this is nothing short of extraordinary. The application for us? True greatness is also compassionate. Where authority finds the need to be harsh, it is neither great nor godly.

For reflection and discussion

2.  If this is God’s pattern of leadership, and if this is a picture of Jesus’ kingdom rule, why does the church sometimes struggle financially?

 

Matthew 2:1-12  Wednesday, Jan 3

The star-like light of God’s presence guides mystics from far away to come to worship the newborn king

1  Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

  • The tradition of three comes from the three gifts of tribute from the baggage train mentioned in v.11. The ‘wise men’ were not rulers but of a priestly caste from that were well versed in astrology and associated a rising star with a significant birth, and a falling star (like a comet) with a ruler’s death. It is possible that they were Jews originally from the Babylon deportation who had remained in the east, or at least those who knew Jews and had studied the Jewish Scriptures which foretold the birth of a Messiah.
  • 3  King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
  • Herod the Great, so named because of his building projects, not his character, was not a Jew but an Idumean (Edomite) appointed by the Romans to rule over the four districts of Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee in the north and Idumea in the south (in present-day Jordan). Hence his uncertainty about the foretold Messiah and the Scriptures.

5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’ ”

  • As foretold by Micah, Mic. 5:2. Bethehem in Judea, half a day’s walk from Jerusalem (although climbing to 2,000 feet) was sometimes simply called ‘Judah’ from its associations with that tribe. Also foretold by Balaam’s prophecy long before was that “a star will rise from Jacob”, Numbers 24:17.

7 Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

  • A non-Jew appointed by the Empire to rule over the Jews was an insecure position. History records this Herod as a murderer of anyone who looked like a threat, even his own wife and family. He would have been much troubled by the report of the birth of another ruler, brought by the arrival of visitors from afar who had been alerted by a ‘rising star’ light in the sky, and reinforced by his own political advisors nervously citing their own writings.

9 After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was.

  • This was close guidance on a journey of a few miles: not a distant supernova.
  • Despite theories of planets in conjunction and comets orbiting close, a ‘star’ that moves, and then rests over a specific place, is different – and supernatural. God who made a pillar of luminous cloud and fire to give guidance to the desert journey, created another kind of guiding light on this occasion.

10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

  • These were gifts of considerable value – providential in view of the 100-mile+ journey of escape to Egypt (outside Herod’s jurisdiction) that the visit prompted.
  • This was up to two years after the birth, and it was a visit to a home, not a stable. The wise men, if they came from Babylon, would have had a 40-day 800-mile journey and would have needed to bring considerable supplies, accompanied by their servants and guards.
  • How much they understood of Jesus’ divine nature, we cannot know – perhaps they were receiving more revelation than reason would suggest (and also v.12), because their actions were wholly appropriate, as well as foreshadowing the worship of Jesus by all the non-Jewish nations that was to come.

12  When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

Application

We are so aware of what can and can’t be done in our worldview that we easily forget that God is not restricted by our experience or even imagination. In this short account of 12 verses, He has caused revelation to come to men in a distant land and different religion, such that they embarked on a long and dangerous journey to bring costly gifts of devotion. He produced a visible, guiding light to bring them hundreds of miles and then take them cross country to a precise location in a remote village. Joseph, Mary and family had a timely warning that they needed to up sticks quickly and head over the border, out of harm’s way. The wise men were warned in a dream to return by a different route. This is a reminder that God does what He has purposed to do – and also tells His servants what He is doing, Amos 3:7.

For reflection and discussion

3.  Good science is good – but are you tempted to seek explanations from within our knowledge and experience, and fit the narrative accordingly? Why do we need to try to do this?

 

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 When I think of all this, I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the benefit of you Gentiles… 2 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 As I briefly wrote earlier, God Himself revealed His mysterious plan to me. 4 As you read what I have written, you will understand my insight into this plan regarding Christ. 5 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 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. 7 By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News.

  • 6-7  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 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. 9 I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning.

  • 8-9  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  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. 11 This was His eternal plan, which He carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.

  • 10-11  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.

  • 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

4.  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?

5.  What are good ways of focusing our attention on God’s plan and purpose and encouraging one another in it?

 

The emerging message  Friday, Jan 5

The headlines

Isaiah 60:1-6

“Arise, your light has come…” The light of God’s glory has risen, and it is prophesied that all nations, meaning Gentiles, will come to this light. Meanwhile, the nation of Israel is coming home, truly.

Psalm 72

All kings, from the ends of the earth, will defer to the coming king who combines true greatness with a heart to rescue the poor and redeem them from oppression. The godly flourish during his reign, from shore to shore.

Matthew 2:1-12

Distinguished visitors from afar recognise the significance of the birth of Jesus and come to worship Him. Gentiles coming to the Jewish Messiah show that he is their Messiah, too.

Ephesians 3:1-12

God’s plan, which astonished the culture of the time, is revealed by the Holy Spirit: Gentiles and Jews are part of the same church body, with equal share. This united church has spiritual authority and is marked by believers who have confidence in their new identity in Christ Jesus, and confidence coming before holy, almighty God. This united church has spiritual authority and is marked by believers who show confidence in their new identity in Christ Jesus and before holy, almighty God.

Who is Jesus and what is this Good News?

Who is it for?

This is the mystery that was being revealed to those early believers who knew Paul. They struggled with it. But the Holy Spirit gave them a sense of heavenly perspective — the greater vision of what God was about.

This what had been shown to Abraham in those earliest times, composed as prophetic song by David a thousand years earlier, foretold by Isaiah and others more than 800 years before and grasped by Mary, then acted out in a remarkable way by distinguished Gentile visitors. The early church, mainly Jewish to begin with, had to come to a completely new understanding of what they were about.

And so for us — every generation has to get this revelation afresh.

This Good News has been given to us, but not for us alone. It is given, not for people like us, but for us to share with people who are not like us.

That is our task as church — to be confident in the inevitable spiritual battle for souls and for God’s rest and peace, and to be as generous as the Lord Himself in relating to those on the fringe of faith or outside it.

Where does this generosity come from? We are, as the renowned Archbishop Temple said, the only organisation on earth that exists for those who don’t belong to it. We are people on a mission – the mission that springs out of the mystery Paul writes about. It’s a mission that only makes sense as we become empowered by the Spirit of Mission.

Paul writes: “God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by His Spirit He has revealed it to His holy apostles and prophets.” Paul wrote it, but God spoke it to Paul’s heart. This is Scripture – as meaningful for us as the prophecies about the Messiah were for the Jews and Wise Men of Jesus’ time.

This is what we see God doing, and so our call is to be willing to join Him in it.

Who are the ‘Greeks’ and ‘Gentiles’ of our world — the not-yet-believers around us? Where is God working outside the church walls?

When we begin to address this honestly and join God in what He is doing, our church attendances and finances and very future will begin to look very different. The kingdom of God will be evident among us.

 

For reflection and discussion – all the questions together

1.  Where do we see the Lord’s light resting, and what response is the Holy Spirit leading us to make?

2.  If this is God’s pattern of leadership, and if this is a picture of Jesus’ kingdom rule, why does the church sometimes struggle financially?

3.  Good science is good – but are you tempted to seek explanations from within our knowledge and experience, and fit the narrative accordingly? Why do we need to try to do this?

4.  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?

5.  What are good ways of focusing our attention on God’s plan and purpose and encouraging one another in it?