Sunday, 31 January 2016

Self-Examination

Paul was concerned about abuses of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth ((1 Cor. 11:28). Their practice was to have the Supper as part of a congregational meal or ‘love feast’ that was held in the home of a wealthy believer. It is not clear how this practice began, but it is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament. Probably it was connected to acts of kindness of rich believers towards poorer Christians, many of whom were slaves with little possessions.
The problem in Corinth was connected to what took place at this extra meal. The wealthier believers showed a lack of love for their poorer brothers and sisters by commencing the meal before they arrived. These poorer Christians could not come until their daily work was over, and by the time they arrived the meal had been eaten. Moreover, the believers who feasted ate too much food and drank too much wine; obviously such feasting rendered them unfit for focussing on the Lord in the Supper.
Paul regarded those practices as totally unacceptable. The Lord’s Supper is not the place where social divisions are highlighted, nor is it the place where physical needs are met. Instead it is a time for displaying unity among God’s people and for feeding one’s soul on Christ. Paul’s remedy for this abuse was for each individual to engage in self-examination.
 Features of self-examination
Self-examination is mandatory before the Lord’s Supper. Paul is not merely giving a sensible suggestion for a temporary situation marked by specific problems. Instead he is giving Spirit-inspired guidance to every believer in every place and age concerning their preparation for the Supper.
As we prepare for celebrating the Supper we rightly focus on the necessity of prayer for the preachers who will minister God’s Word to us. We also pray for the presence of Jesus to be known in our midst. Further we hope that there will be new professions of faith. If all these happen, we conclude that it was a good communion. But if any of us do not examine themselves, such will not have a beneficial communion even if those other blessings are present in the congregation.
Paul’s words also contain another aspect to note, which is that he did not expect self-examination to prevent a person going to the Lord’s Supper. The implication is clear: the process of self-examination will deal with any reasons why a person should not come to the Supper.
Details of self-examination
It is important to bear in mind that there are certain things we should not be looking for when we engage in self-examination. One such thing is perfection. This should be obvious, given that no-one in this life ever gets near that state. Linked to this is the tendency for some people to set impossible high standards, particularly in regard to inner devotion. They would like to pray for several hours a day, they would like to read the Bible for another several hours, they would like to engage in some form of Christian work for a further few hours, and before they know it they have a day that is forty hours long! Such a standard is not feasible. We should remove such notions from our spiritual outlook and attempt to develop a balanced spirituality. So what should we look for in self-examination?
One feature is the willingness to confess one’s sins to God. Even the shortest time of self-examination will prove that we are sinful. While it is important to discover our particular sins, our response to them is also important. We are to confess the sin to God and ask for his forgiveness and his help in dealing with it.
A second feature that self-examination should reveal is the desire to be Christ-centred. The previous point about confession of sin is one reason why a believer should be focussed on Jesus because it is through his sacrificial death that we are pardoned. We need Jesus in wide variety of ways, and these have been described as his offices of prophet, priest and king. As our prophet, he teaches us about God’s will; as our priest he represents us as our Advocate in heaven and gives us the blessings of the Spirit; and as our King he rules over us and protects us. Self-examination will reveal our ignorance, which means that we need Jesus to teach us; it will reveal our sinfulness, which means that we need Jesus to defend us and cleanse us; and it will reveal our spiritual weakness, which means that we need Jesus to defend us against the power of indwelling sin and from the devil’s attacks.
A third feature is a genuine love for all believers. As we saw earlier, the lack of practical expression of this love was one of the problems in the Christian church. Love for one another needs to be recognised because the Lord’s Supper is a corporate meal. I suppose we could ask a simple test: do we prefer to be with the people of God or with another legitimate group (a local political party, a local charity, a local fishing club, a local sports club)? There is nothing inherently wrong with membership of those other groups. But which do we prefer?
The Lord’s Supper is a family meal of the children of God. At it we meet with those for whom our Elder Brother died, in whom is indwelling the Spirit of adoption, who are destined to live in the Father’s house in heaven. We love family gatherings, whether at birthdays or Christmas or at holidays. It is unnatural for a believer not to want to be at this table.
A fourth feature is longing for heaven. Believers soon realise, once they begin the Christian journey, that this world is not their home. The presence of sin, the experience of suffering, and the frailties of life make this world unattractive and heaven attractive. They are negative ways of longing for heaven; in addition, there are positive ones such as experiences of the presence of God, the comfort of his promises, and the beauty of Jesus.
 Benefits of self-examination
Firstly, the Lord’s Supper usually gets rid of doubts that a Christian may have. The devil does his best to encourage doubts and the only way to deal with them is to face up to them. If any of us have doubts, we should go home and assess them, see if they are valid (which they will not be), and resolve to resist them. The best way to deal with the devil’s suggestions that we should not go to the Lord’s Table is to go to the Table depending on Jesus.
Secondly, the Lord’s Supper increases our assurance. Many Christians are bothered about lack of assurance. The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace for increasing assurance. Nobody ever gets assurance apart from a means of grace. Therefore, we should come to the Supper in order to have our assurance increased.
Thirdly, self examination is not a barrier to the Supper, but a door to it. This was recognised in the ancient custom of fencing the table. As we have seen, it is not concerned with perfection but with desire for Christ’s presence, with the direction of our walk, and with our dedication to the Master’s service.

Fourthly, self-examination will enable us to come to the table intelligently, gladly, and humbly. It will inform us about our need of Christ as well as our love for him. Our minds will have discovered where we are on the spiritual pathway, our hearts will rejoice that we belong to Jesus, and we will humbly give all the glory to him.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Having the Spirit

We thought tonight about having the Holy Spirit as believers. The passage we considered was Ephesians 1:13-14. He has been given to us because the Father has kept the promises he made in the Old Testament about the coming of the Spirit and Paul reminds his readers that this fulfilment is a reason for praising the Father.

The involvement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers has many aspects. One that is mentioned here is that he comes to believers because they have been united to Christ by faith when they believed in him. We know from elsewhere that they believe because the Spirit had regenerated them and that he becomes the link between them and Jesus.

Paul focuses here on the beginning and the end of the Christian life on earth. The beginning is seen in his description of the sealing of the Spirit. The Father gives the Spirit as a mark of his ownership of his people – the presence of the Spirit is the identifying mark of a genuine believer. The Spirit is a permanent mark as well as a personal one. He is given to all Christians and never leaves them, even when they sin and fail.

It is inevitable that some, if not most, of the Ephesian believers were slaves who had been branded by their owners, and perhaps rebranded when sold on. Those sealings would have been very painful events for them. The sealing they received from God was very different. In fact, there was no pain because all the pain had been borne by Jesus when on the cross. He bore the pain so that they could have the promised seal of the Spirit.

If the Spirit as the seal marks the beginning of the Christian life, then having him as the earnest or guarantee points to the end of a Christian’s life in this world – or we could say that in this way Paul points us to the fullness of life that believers will have when they receive their inheritance. The idea behind the word ‘earnest’ or ‘guarantee’ is that of a deposit that a person makes of a future payment. This is a reminder that the eternal state will be an intensely Spiritual experience.


So we can deduce two consequences of having the Spirit. First, the presence of the Spirit will enable us to understand our security in Christ – we have the Spirit as the seal that we belong to God. Second, the work of the Spirit is to make us heavenly minded – this can be deduced from the fact that he gives foretastes or samples now of what it will be like to be there.

The Lord is my Shepherd

We thought of the first clause of Psalm 23 this morning. While we do not know when David wrote it, we did remind ourselves that the idea of God as a shepherd is a common one in the Old Testament. The New Testament also stresses this reality except that it usually says that Jesus is the shepherd of his people.
Unlike other psalms, Psalm 23 is not a prayer. Instead it is a statement of David’s faith. Several people have suggested that this psalm is suitable as a personal creed to be repeated daily.
As far as David was concerned, here we see him contemplating the future. He looks ahead and thinks about possible consequences that may occur in his life, some pleasant and secure, others wearisome and frightening. Yet he knows that in all situations of life the Lord will look after him, that he will be his shepherd. In fact, he cannot imagine a situation in which the Lord will not be his shepherd.
The fact that he had such a shepherd gave great confidence to David. It was the Lord’s special name Yahweh that was the cause of this strength of trust that David had. David knew about Exodus 3 and how Yahweh had appeared to Moses and revealed that he was the eternal God who was aware of his people’s plight and who had great plans for them.
Obviously this confident outlook made a great contrast between David and others. Everyone needs someone greater than themselves to care for them. This was as true in the psalmist’s day as it is in ours. Many people depended on something or someone for care and protection. Sometimes they invented idols and imagined they could provide protection; at other times, they made treaties with surrounding nations in order to come under their protection. The contrast was that David trusted in the Lord whereas many other people trusted in something else.
When we then think that Jesus is the shepherd, we will find that contemplating him gives hope for the future because he will never leave those who trust in him. We can have confidence in him because he has already come to deliver us when he went to Calvary. And trusting in him makes a huge contrast between those who do and those who don’t, although the contrast requires our faith in Jesus to be stated.
Of course, Jesus is not only the shepherd that his people choose. He is also the shepherd that God chose (Zech. 13:7). Jesus is the Father’s choice of shepherd, n0t because he personally required one, but because he knew that we needed the best, indeed the only, Shepherd that could take care of us.

So what kind of person makes this confident assertion about the Lord being his shepherd? The answer to this question is those who are contrite, those who are humble, who confess that only the Shepherd can save them. The ones who sing this song are those who know that they need Jesus every moment of every day, and who know that he will be there whatever is happening. And they delight to say so, which is why they sing about the Lord who is their shepherd.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Gathered to his people

The phrase ‘gathered to his people’ is a frequent description of the death of God’s people. It is used of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron. It reminds us of a destination, of a community, of an active Gatherer who takes his people to himself. It gives to us a perspective about how to look at things, it is a reminder that God has a plan, and it is confirmation that death is not the end.

First, the phrase is a reminder that there is a shared destination. All those so described went to a place where people are. That is how heaven is usually depicted – it is a country (and a country is composed of inhabitants), it is a city (and a city is made up of citizens), and it is likened to a feast (and a feast is participated in by guests). The best-known description of the destination is the Father’s house (John 14:2) – and a house is full of rooms in which people dwell together.

Second, ‘gathered to his people’ is a reminder that there is a special people who share specific spiritual features and I would briefly mention four. First, they realise that they are sinners. Of course, there is a sense in which everyone is a sinner because they have broken God's law. But this people are taught by God that they are sinners, and this special teaching makes them do something about it.

So they trust in Jesus for salvation, by a simple act of faith accompanied by repentance for their sins. They hear about Jesus and what he did on the cross and they are drawn to him. Within them a love develops for Jesus and they become his glad followers. They become saved sinners.

The third mark of this special people is that they also become sojourners, travellers to a better country. They discover that this world is not their home, that they are only passing through. In their hearts, there is a longing for a better world.

How do they know they will get to a better world? They know it because they are aware that they are already the sons of God travelling towards their eternal inheritance. This inheritance they will share with Jesus. This leads us to think of the Gatherer.

Here we have one of the shepherding activities of Jesus. He is engaged in one of his tasks when he takes each of his people home. This is what he promised when he said that he would come personally for each of them. ‘I will come again and receive you unto myself.’ He gathers them into his fold.

Of course, Jesus was the shepherd who died on the cross for his sheep. He was the shepherd who led them through life. He is the shepherd who will, throughout eternity, lead them to the fountains of the water of life. And he is the shepherd who carries them across the Jordan so that they are safe in their final moments here, and who takes them into the great gathering centre. 

Many have been gathered already, and many more will yet be gathered.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

How to close a letter

Tonight we thought about the fact that Paul closes his magnificent letter to the Romans with a doxology (16:25-27), a clear reminder that we should focus on the greatness of God rather than on the abilities of the gifted Paul. The apostle himself would have desired such a response from everyone. What did he want his readers to experience from God? is a question we should ask because he does focus on several spiritual benefits in his doxology.
The answer to the question is that Paul wanted them to experience divine strength. There are different ways by which we can know God’s power, but the aspect stressed here by Paul is strength through the gospel being declared with the help of Jesus himself. Obviously he does this through his Spirit, but it is still an aspect of the prophetic ministry of Jesus. And this means that while listening to a sermon we can have confidence that we will experience the powerful effects of the gospel.
Paul also wants us to consider the wisdom of God, which is revealed in several ways through the gospel. He showed his wisdom by hiding the gospel throughout the Old Testament, so that when the gospel day arrived with the ascension of Jesus, his people could find him everywhere in the Old Testament. I hope we are discovering this amazing spiritual treasure trove. 
God also showed his wisdom by enabling the kingdom to spread out into the nations in fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham that through his Descendant the nations would be blessed. And that includes us, so we are examples of his wisdom being blest.
In addition, Paul wants us to consider the sovereignty of God. Responding to the gospel positively is an expression of submission to the wonderful fact that God has announced his Son to be Lord of all. Real faith is trust in Jesus as the One who now reigns from God’s throne, having been the crucified Saviour who bore divine judgement on the cross because of our sins.
Moreover, Paul wants us to consider the central role that Jesus will have forever as the Mediator in guaranteeing the eternal praise of the Father. As we think about him doing so, we should admire the endless capability that he will have in ensuring that the countless number of the redeemed will be equipped to participate in this service, and it is important to notice this because, as Paul says earlier, it is through Jesus that we receive strength for the here and now. So if he will never lose his strength in the future, we can be confident that we will receive such strength now through the gospel preached. And we can also remind ourselves of the celebratory nature of his future role as he and his people share in the fruits of his victory forever.

No wonder, Paul closes his letter with ‘Amen!’