Sunday, 23 February 2014

Thinking About a Burial

Every Lord’s Day is a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. At the same time, it is also a reminder of the burial of Jesus. Perhaps we wonder why Paul includes the burial of Jesus in his summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Here are seven possible reasons.

The first detail about his burial is that it reveals the accuracy of biblical prophecy. Isaiah 53:9 predicted that the Messiah will be buried in a rich man’s grave. If we were reading for the first time the accounts of the death of Jesus in the Four Gospels, we would not expect them to say that he would be buried in such a place. Yet we know that Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and a ruler of the Jews, obtained permission from Pilate to take down the body of Jesus and bury it, which he did by putting it in his own tomb.

A second detail of which the burial of Jesus reminds us is the authority of God over all earthly powers. The verse from Isaiah reveals that the human authorities who arranged for and supervised the death of Jesus intended to place the dead body of Jesus where they placed the dead bodies of executed criminals. Yet their intentions were overruled and his body was placed instead in a rich man’s grave.

A third detail that we can see is that the burial of Jesus testifies to the actuality of his death. The Gospels tell us that the government, in order to prevent the disciples of Jesus stealing his body and pretending that he was alive, arranged for a seal and for a guard to be placed so that this would not occur. Government permission was only given after an accurate check was made to certify death. It was a dead body that was placed in a rich man’s grave.

Fourthly, his burial reminds us of the anomaly of his death. The rest of the verse from Isaiah reminds us that Jesus was sinless in action and in speech, and we also know that he was sinless in thought as well. Death is in the world because of sin, and it is only sinners who die. Yet here a sinless man dies and is buried. The grave had an unexpected guest when Jesus of Nazareth was placed in the rich man’s tomb. Here was a victim who was sinless, and such a person had never been in the grave before. Everyone else who had been buried had been sinful.

Fifthly, the burial of Jesus is another example of his willingness to associate himself with sinners. We know that he was numbered with the transgressors when he was baptised by John the Baptist, whose ministry was that of baptising persons who were willing to state publicly that they had repented of their sins. Jesus had no sins about which he could repent, yet he aligned himself with sinners when he was baptised. Further he was numbered with the transgressors when he was crucified at Calvary. It was criminals who were subjected to such an awful death, and in going through that experience Jesus identified himself with the worst of sinners. And here he is now being identified again with sinners as he is placed in a grave.

Sixthly, the burial of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb was testimony to the admiration given to his Son by the heavenly Father. It is almost as if God said, once Jesus had stated that he had finished his work and placed himself into the care of his Father, ‘The first matter that I need to do is take care of his body. And therefore I will arrange for it to be placed in a rich man’s grave, but not only a rich person’s tomb, because it will be a tomb in which no other body has yet been placed. Although his death was worse physically than that of most other men, and his reputation sunk lower than that of other men, and his body more marred than that of other men, I will begin the process of his journey to the highest glory by ensuring that his body is placed in a unique grave.’

Seventhly, the burial of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb is a source of challenge and of comfort for his people. Jesus shows the attitude with which we should face the last enemy: he died by placing himself into the hands of his Father, knowing that he would take care of the body. None of us knows how we will die – it may be suddenly in an accident, or through a prolonged disease, or through old age – but what we do have is a perfect example of how to approach our own demise. We can only do so by placing ourselves into the hands of God. That is the challenge.

The comfort is to know beforehand that Jesus has been in the grave before us and for us. As one of the old divines put it, ‘In his burial Jesus warmed the bed of death for his people.’ He will take care of our bodies. The rich man’s tomb is for us a sign that Jesus was on the way to glory. Similarly, when we lay a believer in the grave, it is a sign that we believe he/she is already in glory with Jesus and will yet be raised from that grave by Jesus.

So we should not be surprised that Paul regarded the burial of Jesus as one of the matters that were of chief importance as far as the gospel is concerned. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Confidence in God’s provision (Philippians 4:19)

This is one of the best known of Bible verses: ‘And my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.’ It is important to see that it belong to the list of benefits that Paul indicates belong to those who give to Christ’s cause.
In looking at the verse, it is hard to assess which is the most notable word in it. If we were to omit some of them, the promise would still be great. For example, without the word ‘my’, it is still a reminder of who is the Giver. Without the word ‘all’, it is still a reminder of our condition. Change the words ‘according to’ to ‘out of,’ it is still a reminder of the storehouse in which our blessings are contained. Yet although the promise would be great even with these changes, it would not be as rich as the promise Paul wrote.
Often the word ‘my’ makes a great deal of difference. It points here to a most wonderful relationship between believers and God, a covenant relationship in which God promises to deal with each of them in grace. Each believer has this personal and permanent bond with the great and gracious God who has forgiven him and brought him into his fellowship.
In addition to a covenant relationship, Paul states that there is a certainty about his supply. This is a reminder of both the faithfulness and the ability of God. In contrast to humans who may have the desire to help but the inability to perform, God has unmitigated determination and unlimited power to bring blessing to each of his people. Of course, it is their needs that are met. We have to be careful that we don’t regard God as continually having to supply everything we desire for a comfortable life. He has not promised a trouble-free life, but he has promised his grace will be sufficient for every situation that will come our way.
So this verse teaches that the covenant God will certainly and comprehensively help each of his children. Note that Paul does not say that they will be helped out of God’s riches. Instead our needs will be met according to God’s riches in glory. A rich man could give a £1 in the offering – he would be giving out of his riches but he would not be giving according to his wealth.
Further, Paul reminds the Philippians that the administration of the heavenly riches is in the hands of Jesus Christ. Whatever we need for our spiritual journey, Jesus will deliver it personally to our souls through the work of the heavenly Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

The Philippians had not lost although they had given sacrificially. Instead their earthly prospects were brighter, and no one on earth could describe their heavenly reward.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Going to School with Paul

In Philippians 4:10-13, Paul describes his life as an ongoing succession of different situations, each of which he regards as one of two classrooms in which he learns the way of contentment. One of the classrooms involved for him a sense of abasement, when he was humiliated before others. Perhaps some would have regarded his current imprisonment in that regard, especially as it was likely he had gone hungry often (prisoners had to provide their own food).
Believers often have to go into this classroom and many things within them will object to the treatment received. After all, abasement is a denial of human dignity, and a believer, of all people, knows that he or she is made in the image of God. Further, the imposing of abasement is sinful: such behaviour is an expression of rebellion against God, a denial of his command to love one’s neighbour as oneself. In such situations, believers sense strongly the injustice of it all. Yet they have to react to it in a Christlike way. When he was mistreated and abased, Jesus did not react with anger or fury. Instead he committed himself unto God. In the imitation of the behaviour of Jesus, Christians discover contentment in abasing circumstances.
Of course, Paul had discovered that abasing circumstances were often times of learning important realities. In these situations, he discovered afresh the sufficiency of God. To others, his situation gave the impression that he was in the grip of the iron hold of the Roman authorities; in reality, he was in the gentle grip of Jesus, the same hand that was on the tiller of the universe. In these antagonistic situations, Paul discovered that Jesus could strengthen him against all the attacks of the enemy. Jesus was in control, and working all things for his benefit.
The second classroom in which Paul learned contentment was in the classroom of abundance. Perhaps he has in mind the consequences of the gift given to him by the Philippians. Sometimes believers find themselves in a situation of material plenty, and there are dangers in this classroom that don’t exist in the other. One obvious danger is such a situation is the desire to want more, to not be satisfied with what one has. No doubt, a balance has to be maintained because there is nothing intrinsically wrong with having more possessions. Yet often the existence of more possessions increases the amount of care and worry that a person has. For example, if a burglar is on the prowl, the person who worries the most is the one who has most to lose. Worry and contentment are opposites, therefore a believer in the classroom of abundance needs to listen well to his heavenly Teacher. In times of plenty, Paul learned that gratitude to God was the appropriate response.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Gentleness of Jesus

It has often been observed that one of the few self-descriptions that Jesus gives of himself refers to his gentleness. Matthew records these well-known words in 11:28-30: ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart , and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ These words contain several thoughts that could be reflected on such as the meaning of ‘heavy-laden’ or how Christ’s burden is ‘light’. For just now, we should observe that Jesus regarded the phrase in italics as a qualification for teaching his disciples. We are used to the idea that teachers should have appropriate qualifications. In the school of Jesus, the best Teacher has written on his CV that he is gentle and humble.
One of the surprising recurrences in modern life is the way individuals obtain a position without their CVs being checked. Eventually, for one reason or another, someone discovers that the person is not qualified, with the usual outcome being that the person is fired from his or her role. We can check the CV of Jesus to see if what he says about himself is accurate. One place where we can do this is the events recorded about him in the Bible, particularly in the Gospels. In these books we find many witnesses to his character, and we can only select a few.
The first witness is Peter. He is a very important witness because he can refer to many incidents in which he observed the gentleness of Jesus. For now, he can remind us of the incident when he had been fishing all night and caught nothing (Luke 5:1-11). He felt a bit frustrated, perhaps annoyed at his failure. Then along came Jesus and used Peter's boat in order to preach from it to the crowd. After the sermon, he proceeded to instruct Peter, the experienced fisherman, about the best place to fish. Peter was not very convinced about this suggestion, but he discovered that Jesus knew best and many fish were caught. This caused Peter to run to Jesus and say, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ Very gently, Jesus said to him, ‘Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.’
The second witness is the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). She had been frogmarched into the presence of Jesus by the religious leaders who demanded that he condemn her. Instead he responded by saying that the one without sin should throw the first stone at her. To her great surprise, each of these religious leaders slunk away and she found herself alone with Jesus. He said to her very gently, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’
The third witness comes from the centurion who was in charge of the squad of men who nailed Jesus to the cross (Luke 23:32-24). He had done this task many times before, but the response of Jesus was unique. The others that he had crucified had cursed and sworn and lashed out. Jesus simply prayed, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ He gently responded to the actions of the soldiers, and later that day they were converted (Matt. 27:54).
The fourth witness is Mary Magdalene, and she can tell what she experienced on the day Jesus arose from the dead (John 20:1-18). She had determined to take care of the body of Jesus as a final gesture of love. Yet she had discovered that the tomb was empty and an angel had informed her that Jesus was risen from the dead. Although she had gone and told Peter and John that the tomb was empty, it would take more than the words of an angel to cause Mary to have hope. When Jesus drew near to her as she wept in the garden, she imagined that he was the gardener who had removed the body of Jesus. Despite her lack of faith on this important day, Jesus gently said to her, ‘Mary.’

These selected incidents confirm that Jesus was gentle when he was here on earth. Yet we can listen to another set of witnesses – his people. They have found that he has dealt gently with them. When they found themselves being rebuked by others in the days of their spiritual darkness, they discovered that Jesus could do more than rebuke. The ones that rebuked them had no power to pardon, but Jesus gently forgave them. When they made spiritual mistakes on important days like Mary, and imagined that they has spoiled it, they heard gentle Jesus calling them by name. When they questioned his dealings in providence like Peter, they heard Jesus telling them to fear not. They can testify that throughout life Jesus has been gentle with them. Life has been a school where the Teacher has displayed that his qualifications are up-to-date.