Listening to the Lord and speaking for Him

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

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

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

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

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

Also in this Sunday’s readings: Psalm 19

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Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

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

30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about Him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s plan of redemption is too great for people to grasp

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 21
Mark 8:31-38

Peter’s concern comes from the wrong kingdom

31  He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and after three days rise again. 31  Now that the disciples had heard and accepted what Peter had exclaimed: “You are the Messiah!”, Mark 8:29, Jesus gives the first of three teachings about what He would go through to fulfill God’s plan.

31  “Son of Man” is used more than 80 times in the gospels. It was a term Jesus used about Himself because it was not loaded with expectations and preconceptions. In the OT it often just means “human being” eg Psalm 8:4, Psalm 80:17 but it has the sense of a title in the way God often address Ezekiel in this way. But Jesus hearers would also have been familiar with Daniel 7:13-14 where the Son of Man at the end time brings the kingdom to the oppressed people on earth. The Son of Man sayings in Matthew, Mark and Luke generally combine suffering and death with glory at the end-time.

31  For further study: these sayings in Mark particular seem to refer to Daniel’s Son of Man, Mark 8:38, 13:26, 14:62.

32  He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke Him. 32  John Wesley’s notes, “And Peter taking hold of him – perhaps by the arms or clothes”. The Message: “But Peter grabbed him in protest”.

32  Peter understood that Jesus was the Messiah. Peter understood what Jesus meant by “suffer many things” and “be killed”, v.31. But for Him, the Messiah was about strength, not weakness. A suffering Messiah was unthinkable. He would not at that point have associated Isaiah 53, and Isa. 53:3 especially, with Messiah.

33  But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 33  A sharp rebuke – which was intended for all of them. Peter was voicing an opinion of the flesh – not the Mind of God revealed by the Holy Spirit (and the Holy Spirit had not yet been generally given). Peter loved Jesus and did not want Him to be taken – so he expressed a fear, an anxiety. The devil uses thoughts he tries to plant in our minds as one of his most common strategies – our thoughts don’t all come from us and they certainly don’t all come from the Spirit and it takes practice to sift out the ‘junk mail’. Peter was taking the rap for all the disciples making the commonest of mistakes, which we all make, especially at first.
34  Then he called the crowd to Him along with His disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. 34  “Take up their cross” or literally, shoulder their stake, which perhaps better gets across the meaning of shameful death.

34  The starting point of being a disciple of Jesus is to be able to deny self. Ego and Jesus do not occupy the same space.

34  The follow-on point is that there is a cost to following Jesus, and in a world that is very rational and merit-orientated, the values of the servant King can bring plenty of misunderstanding, ridicule – and persecution. The last burning at the stake for presumed heresy, of Edward Wightman, a Baptist in Burton on Trent, was only four centuries ago, in 1612.

35  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me and for the Gospel will save it. 35  Reneging on faith when under trial is not an option. The trials we experience in the western world today are not life and death as they were for our forebears; but our faith is on trial when we either do or do not stand up for Jesus’ values in a world of often opposing values. Do we want to remain popular or do we want to remain and abide in Jesus? Are we sensitive to criticism or secure enough in who we are to be ready for some criticism?
36-37  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

36-37  The only way we gain salvation is by losing the right to attain it ourselves. Our world is so permeated with the idea of performance and merit, it is hard for us to embrace what leads to spiritual life now, and life eternal, because it cannot be earned. Something that good that we don’t earn is difficult to trust. And earning seems more secure to us than trusting.

36-37  Jesus is saying that we try to hold on to life, to build a better life, to secure hope for a future life by doing the best we can in this life – and all of that causes us to miss the one thing that secures our souls. Giving up our rights to a self-determining life, so that Jesus can guide our determining by the truth about Him and His values, is losing ‘our’ life in exchange for His. This recognises what this passage looks forward to – Jesus exchanging His life, for us to be able to look to Him for eternal life.

38  If anyone is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when He comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”


Application

The difficulty for people of Jesus’ generation is that He didn’t look like a Messiah. Perhaps we would say He doesn’t look like a celebrity. Christ the humble suffering servant is proud humanity’s greatest stumbling block; God in Him is not seen, except with the eyes of faith.

The Anointed One, Messiah, has been linked up to ‘Son of Man’ for Peter and the disciples, but the anticipation of a conquering king so eagerly awaited by Jews who turns  out to be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:1-12 but also the One who would come again in judgment, Daniel 7:13, presented the disciples with difficulty at every level of intellectual, emotional and spiritual understanding. Mark follows this with the story of the Transfiguration, Mark 9:1-10, where those who have recognised Jesus in his lowliness as the Christ are rewarded and affirmed by being momentarily blinded by His glory.

In regarding Jesus, and for that matter in regarding anything that relates to His way, then or now, the challenge for us is seeing with faith beyond seeing what we want to see.

For reflection and discussion

God’s plan is not readily understandable, defies logic and conflicts with our worldview! So what approaches will you explore, to make the Good News of Jesus accessible to others?

Speaking from the heart of God

Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, January 28 (Epiphany 4)

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
Mark 1: 21-28
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
C of E alternative epistle reading Rev. 12: 1-5a

MONDAY, JANUARY 22
Deuteronomy 18:15-20

One day, God says, He will raise up another prophet who will speak truths from the heart – His heart.

15  The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.

  • “Like me” –  Moses clearly speaking of the ultimate prophet who was to come. The timeline is similar to someone in early Saxon times speaking of something happening in our time.

16  For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire any more, or we will die.”

17  The Lord said to me: “What they say is good.

18  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.

  • Philip alluded to this verse in calling Nathanael over to Jesus, John 1:45
  • Both the OT and the NT view this passage as referring to the coming Messiah who would (with similarities to Moses) proclaim revelation from God and offer extraordinary leadership to His people.

For further study: There are a number of parallels between Moses and Jesus: being spared as a baby, Exod. 2, Matt. 2:13-23; Jesus renouncing a royal court, Phil. 2:5-8, Heb. 11:24-27; remarkable compassion for their people, Numbers 27:17, Matt. 9:36 and making intercession for their people, Deut 9:18, Heb. 7:25; speaking to God face to face, Exod 34:29-30, 2 Cor. 3:7. Both were involved in mediating a covenant, Deut 29:1, Heb. 8:6-7.

19  I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.

20  But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

  • A prophet, at one level, is what we call a preacher – someone who seeks to speak publicly on behalf of God, speaking God’s truth. OT prophecy was often delivered with a “foretelling” emphasis while NT prophecy, a particularly spiritual gift and ministry,  is more about “forthtelling”. Anyone can claim to speak for God; however in the OT such presumption was to be tested, and if necessary punished.
  • There is a test in view here – will people follow the prophet, or be careful to follow only the Lord and his true prophets? See Deut 13:1-5, Jer. 28:15-17.
  • Compare with v. 18 which refers to a very particular prophet, and this verse which heralds a series of prophetic voices. Both were fulfilled as we know.

Application

The Lord is always speaking to His people. Whether His people are hearing, or even disposed to hear (v.16) is another matter, which is why the Lord has raised up those who will speak and get people’s attention, on His behalf.

It is a serious matter to dismiss what the Lord is saying. Similarly, it is a serious matter to put the Lord’s name to something He is not saying, or to seek to speak authoritatively using an alternative and ungodly source of reference.

The ultimate truth speaker is Jesus, especially in his earthly role where He showed what God was like, alongside God’s self-revelation of Himself in his recorded and enduring word.

Discussion starter

What principles guide us in discerning whether what someone is speaking, is truth from God, or their own presumption – or a mixture?