Wednesday, 30 December 2015

What has pastor James to say to us in trouble?

James is engaged in a difficult project, which is to compose a letter of encouragement for suffering believers. He knew that the way to do it was to tell them the truth, especially truth about God, which is what he does in James 1:17-18.
He reminded them that God gives gives good and perfect gifts, which he connects to their past and future experience of salvation. Before doing so, he stresses that their God is the powerful, unchangeable Creator.
What does it mean for God to be unchangeable? It means that he cannot improve in any way, because he is perfect in every way; it means that he cannot decay, because he is always perfect. It means that he is consistent, that he is loyal to his eternal commitments, that his all-wise counsels cannot be bettered by reacting to any development that humans might stumble across and cause him to adopt as new-found insights. We should spend time each day thinking about the unchanging God and his attributes, about his activities, and about his aims.
Then James mentions those past and future aspects of salvation. As far as their past was concerned, the initiative for their conversions came from God alone, whatever may have been their individual situations. It was according to his own choice, which is a reminder to us of the doctrine of election. James then reminds his readers that the Father brought them forth – this is language of birth, that they were reborn, made alive, regenerated by the work of the Spirit. The tool that God used to bring this about was ‘the word of truth’, or the gospel of grace.
So we can see why James encouraged his readers to look back in the midst of their troubles and recall the amazing good and perfect gifts that had been sent to them from above by the heavenly Father. They have received an understanding of election, regeneration and the presence of the Spirit, and the gospel and its various gifts of grace.
But we can see from the second half of verse 18 that James also wanted his readers to look forward. We see this future emphasis in his use of the word ‘firstfruits’, which was taken from the sacrificial practices in Israel in which a sample crop was offered to God in anticipation of the coming harvest.
No doubt, this reference reminded James’ readers that they should remain dedicated to God. But it also reminded them that great days were coming, that they were part of the guarantee of a better world in which the whole of creation will be restored.

So what should a pastor say to believers who are experiencing trouble? James would say, ‘Remind them of what God did for them in the past and repeat to them what he will do for them in the future.’ He might also say, ‘Ensure that God gets all the glory for giving such good and perfect gifts.’ And he might say to them, ‘Remember that your fellow Christians are signs that the glory is definitely coming!’

Sunday, 27 December 2015

What’s in a list of names? (Rom. 16:1-16)

Most Christians are familiar with the list of heroes of the faith found in Hebrews 11. There they read about commendations of several Old Testament believers. Perhaps, as they read, they wonder if there is a similar list of New Testament followers and here we have one in Romans 16.
The first detail that we can note about the list is that the members of the church in Rome were identified with certain houses. It may have been the case that these groups came from different parts of the city of Rome and members attended the one in their geographical location. We do not know how easy it would have been for all of them to meet together each Lord’s Day, so perhaps they had made this arrangement of being connected to a particular group. I suppose it is worth asking why they made this arrangement. We are not told, but I do not think the question is difficult to answer. They would have met for fellowship.
A second feature of the list is the variety of ways in which Paul describes fellow Christians. He calls several of them ‘beloved’. We can see from the frequency of its usage that Paul obviously was a man marked by brotherly love. Moreover, Paul describes several of them as working hard for the kingdom. It is evident that Paul was delighted with the work that those individuals did. In addition, Paul valued faithfulness, and we have an example of this in Andronicus and Junia, a missionary couple for about thirty years. And Paul appreciated the way that Apelles had come through a fiery trial and shown that a believer could commend Jesus in the worst of circumstances.
Those four details – beloved, hard-working, faithful and approved – should mark all those who trust in Jesus. It marked the members of the church in Rome and it can mark members of all churches wherever they are.
Paul also mentions two striking conversions. The first ismy beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia’ (v. 5). Paul took the gospel to the province of Asia when he went to Ephesus along with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18). There they met Epaenetus and he was converted. Paul saw him as a sample of more converts to come, and so it proved.
The second amazing conversion is Rufus, mentioned in verse 13. He is probably the son of Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry the cross of Jesus. I wonder what Simon thought when he was forced to carry it. And I wonder what he thought when he was converted, and when his wife was converted, and when his sons were converted!
Paul obviously met the wife of Simon and mentions that she was like a mother to him. We are not told where that was, but it is amazing how the cross brought them together. Of course, the cross brought together all the names in this chapter.
After reading this passage, two questions arise. First, do we remember those who helped us in the faith? Perhaps it would be useful to think round our congregations and note how others have helped us this year. And then we can extend it to thinking about those who helped us in the past.

Second, how do we become like Paul, so focussed on other people? I suppose the answer is that he stopped regarding himself as Number 1. He learned that primarily from Jesus and then, later, from followers of Jesus whom he met in his travels, some of whom he took time to mention in this passage of Romans.
(Lessons from a sermon preached today)

The Time Has Come

It is good to know that God is in control, a fact that Paul reminds us of when he says that Jesus was born when the fullness of time had come (Gal. 4:5). The Father knew the best time to send his Son, and his coming brought to a closure the period of the Mosaic law as far as his people were concerned. We should be glad that is the case – imagine trying to keep all the details mentioned in the ceremonial law!

So the time had come for God to send forth his Son. We may think that Paul means he sent his Son into the world. Yet I would say a better understanding of ‘sending’ is that he was sent to become a man without ceasing to be divine. The Son was sent on a mission, which was to become the Redeemer.

So the Son appeared at the right time and did so in a lowly manner by being born of a woman and born under the law. He did so in order to identify with us in our stages of life and to provide a perfect life for us to have us our justification in God’s sight.

We can see from a sacrifice that was offered shortly afterwards by Joseph and Mary – two doves – that Jesus was born into and grew up in a poor family (Luke 2:24). Yet he learned how to obey the law, which he did perfectly at all times, and how to apply it, which he did correctly at all times.

Nevertheless, he came into the world to go the cross, where he was to obtain freedom for those enslaved by the condemnation of the law. This occurred at Calvary, so we can summarise his mission by saying that the babe of Bethlehem became the curse on Calvary in order to set us free.

This all happened in the past, but the Father’s intentions continue. Because Jesus completed his mission, the ‘period of the Mosaic law’ has been replaced by ‘the period of adopting’ in which the Father adds many children to his family. That is what God is doing today, adding to his family throughout the world.

Moreover, the Father gives to each of them two presents. One is the Holy Spirit and he comes as the Helper, and the other is the status of being an heir, which means that they become wealthy in a spiritual sense. 

Unlike the presents we received earlier this week, which will eventually deteriorate, the Father’s gifts keep on providing his children with amazing blessings. This is what they will have both in the time that they have in this life and in the time that they will have in the new heavens and new earth.

(reflections on this morning’s service).