Sunday, 17 December 2017

Are you a scribe who shares?

It is impossible for us to know what Jesus thought of the answer given by his disciples to the probing question he asked after his teaching about the kingdom (the question is found in Matthew 13:51). They affirmed that they had understood all that he had taught in the seven parables recorded in the chapter.

Whatever their grasp of his teaching was at that time he proceeded to illustrate for them their future role in his kingdom. He said that they would be like a wealthy man who could provide surprising and satisfying provisions for his guests when they visited his home. We can imagine a guest being surprised and delighted by the food on the table, the comfort of where they socialised, and the value of gifts that the owner would  provide. The role of the disciples would be as if the wealthy owner took money from his treasury and gave it to those who were his guests.

How were they to do so? By teaching others what they had found out about the kingdom. Their teaching would be heavenly treasure, and it would be twofold in that some of it would be old and some of it would be new. Maybe the 'old' describes what they already knew about the kingdom from what had been said in the Old Testament and the 'new' describes what would yet be included in the New Testament. Perhaps the 'new' would also include being able to see the Old Testament in ways that they could not yet understand, but which they would see after Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven.

What does this have to do with us? We have access to the same treasury - the riches described in the Bible. Pastors and preachers often find things old and new in passages that they have chosen to explain to congregations. New here does not mean no one else has never seen it, but it is new for them. And such discoveries of kingdom realities are full of spiritual encouragement for themselves and others.

Yet we can also say that seeing old and new should be the experience of all Christians as they read the Bible. There should be fresh discoveries of the wonders of the kingdom of God. This should happen because we are reading a book that is all about Jesus and his kingdom. Because that is the case, we should be reminded of old things and should discover new things to share with one another as we travel together sharing the life of the kingdom.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Pattern Prayer and Prayer for Divine Blessings

A question that arises is whether or not there are differences between what Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer and what he says later in the Sermon on the Mount about asking, seeking and knocking as expressions of prayer. Perhaps one difference is that the Lord’s Prayer guides us what to say in prayer and the later verses guide us regarding how we pray.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells his disciples to pray for five things. First, he mentions praise of God by his children, which describes an intimate interaction between them. In their praise, they are reverent because they recognise he is in heaven and they rejoice in his holiness, in the way that he is always perfect. 

Second, Jesus instructs them to pray for the growth of the kingdom of God. Such growth happens in two ways: one is through the conversions of individuals and the other is revealed in the ongoing and deepening consecration of his people.

Third, Jesus tells them to pray about the provision of daily needs. Here Jesus mentions daily food, but the request extends to all legitimate daily needs connected to life in this world.

Fourth, Jesus says that they should pray about pardon for personal sins, which is a reminder that such sin will be present throughout life. True confession will occur alongside forgiveness of others, which tells us that confession of sin should be made when appropriate to one another.

Fifth, Jesus instructs his people to pray for protection during spiritual conflict, which again indicates what his followers can expect throughout life. Satan and his forces are out to trap and defeat the people of God and one part of their duty is to ask for divine help in order to have victory. 

But how do they pray for such blessings? Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses three pictures to illustrate prayer - ask, seek, and knock. As we look at them, what ideas come to mind? Here are five suggestions. One is simplicity, a second is nearness, a third is desire, a fourth is specificity and a fifth is persistence.

The simplicity is seen in the verbs that Jesus uses – ask, seek and knock. They are taken from everyday activities that each of his listeners engaged in. We all know what it is to ask for something, to look for something, to knock at someone’s door.

The three examples also indicate nearness. If we want to ask for something, we have to be within hearing distance of the person. If we seek for something, we need to be near the space where it can be found. And if we knock at a door, it is obvious that we have to be beside it. Prayer is drawing near to God. 

The third idea is that of desire because usually the three illustrations are connected to what someone wants strongly. A child asks its parent for an item it wants, a treasure hunter seeks for an item he wants, and a door knocker wants access to the person in the room. This is a reminder that true prayer is never offered in an indifferent manner.

Fourth, the examples lead us to think of specificity. We know that normally we don’t ask vaguely, nor do we describe a person as a seeker who is merely looking at the ground, and nor do we regard someone merely standing at a door as a knocker. I suppose we could say that it is specificity that distinguishes real prayer from hypocrisy. God demands that we be specific in our prayers.

Fifth, Jesus uses the present tense when he refers to asking, seeking and knocking. He does not mean that we should only ask for something once. Instead we are to persevere with the petitions. Perseverance is the indicator of expectancy. If we give up praying for something, it may be a sign that we did not believe God could answer the petition. 

Obviously, those sets of verses are not the only teaching in the Bible on prayer. We cannot use the sets by themselves and ignore what is said elsewhere. For example, we are told that we must pray according to God’s will, which is a reference to matters that he has revealed as suitable things to pray about. And one of the psalmists says that if we regard sin in our hearts the Lord will not hear us. We can say that in order to pray we also need to be submissive to God’s will and cleansed from sin.


Sunday, 29 October 2017

Heavenly joy

I was reading a sermon this afternoon by Duncan MacGregor, a minister in St. Peter's in Dundee during the nineteenth century. He was reflecting on heaven, and it is good to think about it.

During his sermon, he mentioned the verse, 'When his glory is revealed, ye shall be glad with exceeding joy.' He then expanded: 'Exceeding joy - joy without alloy, joy which eye hath not see, nor ear heard, nor heart conceived - joy ever increasing - never-ending joy - joy which, wave on wave, will flow for ever into the hearts of the ransomed.' That is something to look forward to.

He then spoke about John Milne, a minister who had recently died, and gave this description of him: 'One who has lately gone from us, and passed within the veil - an Enoch for close walking with God, a Nathaniel for simplicity, a John for lovingness, a Barnabas for tenderness, an Epaphrus for fervent labouring in prayer (with hand uplifted like Moses' rod), and a Boanerges for unflinching boldness in rebuking sin...' That is a testimony to have from others!

He referred to Milne because he had described the exceeding joy of heaven as follows: 'They are singing in unison and they are singing universally. No hands without a harp, no lips without a song: and no harp is unstrung, no lips are silent there. Could you approach the gate, you would hear sweetest music. They are feasting, they are rejoicing. The work is done, the fight is over, their wanderings are ended, they are all at home. Not one is lost, not one is wanting. There never was joy like this. As they look back, and think what they were; look down, and think what, but for grace, they must have been; look around, and see where they are; look forward, and think what they shall for ever be - it is joy, joy, joy! Each kindles and stirs up the other. "Oh, that will be joyful, joyful, joyful, when we meet to part no more."' That is what lies ahead for believers! 

Living in the kingdom of God


What ideas do we have about the kingdom of God? Perhaps we imagine, or daydream, about a smooth domain, free from troubles, where everything flows like clockwork. Is this what the disciples of Jesus were told to expect when he instructed them about his kingdom?

Jesus did say that there would be a kingdom, indeed a growing one, that would spread throughout the world. And it probably is bigger today, as far as the earth is concerned, than it has been before. Yet it is obvious that the worldwide kingdom is not trouble free anywhere.

One way that Jesus instructed about his kingdom was through parables. His parables have been described in many ways, yet we can see that most of them contain features designed to shock. In his parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13, he mentions that he will not uproot evil from alongside the places where he plants his people. That is surprising, at first, although we can see how the devil would place his plants beside the ones that Jesus has planted. The devil does so to minimise the effects of the kingdom of God. The clear conclusion is that Jesus’ plans for his followers is that they serve him in circumstances where the enemy kingdom is at work.

How are we to serve Jesus in such places? According to the parable, it is by being patient with the presence of weeds and focussing on the Day of Judgement and what will happen then.

Why should we be patient? Two reasons, maybe. Sadly some of the wheat in the parable are not much different from the weeds, so how would his disciples know definitely whether such individuals are wheat or weeds? Disciples don't have the ability to read another person's heart. The other reason is that some of the weeds will become wheat. After all, there is no other place for future wheat to come from.

Why should we focus on the Day of Judgement? The answer to that is surely obvious. Then all will know who comprised the wheat and who remained weeds. After that, there will be a smooth Kingdom for the people of God. But before then, there is the Account. All will appear before the Judge to hear what his verdict is. I suspect that there will be some surprises, even shocks, when the great Parable-Teller speaks plainly.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

God’s rescue mission

In Luke 15, Jesus told a parable with three parts. The three parts are each concerned with something that was lost - a sheep, a coin and a son. Moreover, Jesus told the parable in order to point out the errors of the Pharisees to themselves. 

I attended a sermon this morning in which a preacher spoke on the first two - the sheep and the coin. The preacher pointed out that we should ask two questions here. First, we should ask, ‘What is Jesus saying about God?’ Second, we should ask, ‘What is Jesus saying about us?’ 

The preacher mentioned that we can depart from God in two opposite ways. One way is living badly and the other way is trying to please God by a life we imagine corresponds to his instructions. Jesus, in contrast to both of these options, mentioned that there was a third way, but we only realise it when we cease living according to the other two ways.

What do the illustrations of a shepherd and a busy woman tell us about God? First, he perseveres in looking for those who are lost. Second, he celebrates when those who are lost are found.

What do the illustrations of a lost sheep and a lost coin tell us about ourselves? First, we cannot do anything to put ourselves on the right road. Second, when we are found (or converted), we are made secure, and become a reason for celebration in heaven.

At different stages in life, I tried the two wrong ways of departing from God. Thankfully Jesus found me, and as far as the story of the shepherd is concerned I am on his shoulders, and will be there until he takes me to his destination. That is a secure place. Regarding the woman who lost the coin, I assume we are meant to think that she put it in a secure place from which it could not be lost again. So another reminder of security. 

The service this morning closed with the congregation singing Amazing Grace. It was a suitable response. 

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Praying for Divine Blessing

There are many promises in the Bible regarding receiving blessing from God. Sometimes, the promises are given in an individual way and at other times they offer blessings in a corporate manner. Usually, those blessings, while promised, are given in answer to prayer.

No doubt, we are aware of the need for prayer, but we are also aware that not all prayer is the same. How do we pray so as to get God’s blessing in a deeper way? Job, on one occasion, said that he would use arguments in his prayers in order for change to come in his circumstances. Here are some arguments we can use.

One effective argument is to say to the Father that the promised blessing we are seeking was purchased for sinners by Jesus when he died on the cross. It is a way of pleasing God when we mention to him the triumphs of Jesus at Calvary. Speaking in such a way to God reveals that we have grasped the significance of the sacrifice that Jesus made. One reason why he died was so that sinners could enjoy answered prayer.

Another argument that we can mention is that all the children of God are granted certain spiritual privileges because they belong to his family. We cry to him as the Father. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that the heavenly Father would give good things to those who ask for them. That promise is certain, but there is a condition, which is that we have to ask. It is not a wise expression of faith to speak to God merely in general terms and say to him words such as, ‘Lord, give me the blessings you promised.’ Instead, we should itemise the blessings we desire and also say to God why we want them.

A third argument we can mention to God is the glory of his own name. The Lord is glorified when sinners are converted and when converted sinners become more and more like Jesus. I suspect that the Father loves to hear requests connected to those two aspects of spiritual living. There is joy in the presence of the angels when a sinner is converted, and it is difficult to imagine that heaven does not have such joy frequently, probably continually. And he is very pleased when his people make progress spiritually and develop in Christlikeness. We may not be as Christlike as we should be, but we can tell if we are heading in that direction. Asking the Lord to save sinners and then to turn them into imitators of Jesus pleases him greatly and he delights to answer such prayers.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Where to look


Recently I read in a book that while we can only make sense of life by looking backwards we have to face it by looking forwards. I suppose the author was saying that by looking back we can see where we have come from. However, the author did not say that there was any confidence coming from looking forwards. All was uncertain in that regard.

No doubt, we can appreciate to some extent what the person meant. Yet a Christian would not share that outlook completely. After all, a Christian has another direction to look in addition to looking backwards and forwards. The Christian can also look up and express trust in the God who is leading him through life. Moreover, the God in whom he is trusting is not silent, but speaks clearly in his Word, the Bible, about the past, the present and the future.

For that author, the future was not really able to affect the present apart from taking some steps to deal with possible crises and to anticipate the effects of growing old. No doubt, that is common sense. Yet if that is all the future can give to us, then it is sad. There is not an awareness of real hope coming from that view of the future. The individual had no other world to live for, apart from the one that was going to end with death.

Today, we gather to worship God through Jesus and by the activity of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds. We do so with a strong hope about the future that affects us profoundly and enables us to anticipate it with longing and love. Through Jesus, and the triumph of his resurrection, we know that a better world is coming, and of which the presence of the Spirit in our hearts is the divine down-payment. One day, sooner than ever before, the new heavens and the new earth will be here. The longer the past gets, the better the outlook for those who live for a better world, indeed for the best possible world of glory in the presence of the Lord.

Life often means how we view the past, the present and the future. In our past, we have failures; in our present, we have weaknesses; and regarding our future, we probably have fears. Thinking only about them will diminish our faith unless we look at each through what Jesus has done, is doing and will yet do. His sacrifice on the cross means we can be forgiven our sins (not just from the past, but all of them), he is present with us by the Holy Spirit, and he is preparing a place for us to be with him for ever. So we can make sense of life by looking ahead to what is guaranteed for God’s people, both in this life and in the next, which is all connected to the presence of the Lord.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Thoughts for heavenly citizens

In Revelation 17:1–19:5, a prolonged description is given of Babylon, not the ancient city, but what it represents in Revelation, the city of fallen man as opposed to the heavenly city. How should we respond to the description because it is connected to much of what we see around us?

Babylon is condemned because she tried to take the place of God. She aimed to offer security, satisfaction, success and stability, things which only God can provide. Instead she produced danger, disappointment, failure and instability. We see that everywhere in the world. Promises that never materialise. Hopes that are dashed. Problems that are unsolved. Humans, even when functioning together, can never be God.

God tells his people in 18:4 to have nothing to do with Babylon. Since he is not describing a literal city the exit he mentions is not a physical one. Instead, it is a spiritual refusal to participate in the lifestyle advocated by the city of man. Here is a reminder that believers are to be different from those who do not serve God. 

What is our hope as we live in the city of man and watch people making war with the King? Our confidence is based on the abilities of Jesus to defeat all his opponents. Everyone who tries to defeat the kingdom of Jesus will be defeated by him. Whatever intrigue there may be between the beast, the kings and Babylon, they cannot defeat Jesus even if at times they treat his people with great cruelty.

The consolation that we can take from this description of Babylon is that the names of those it attacks are written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (17:8). We are told in chapter 5 of this book that the book of life is in the hand of the King and he is ruling to ensure that his people will be brought to glory. Because he is the King, he works all things (not just the little number things that happen to each person) together for the good of his people. Let his enemies attack, he will prosper.

Where is this all going to end? The answer to that question is with Jesus leading the praise of his people (19:5). Those who have been redeemed, whether great or small in this life, will hear the call from the Chief Musician, the Leader of the heavenly song, to participate together in a great song of praise that ascribes all the glory for their victory to God. Of course, that is not the end, but the beginning. The end of the earthly city, but not of the heavenly. Now all its citizens are together, and ahead for them is glory, with Jesus.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Knowing Jesus and his joy

The Lord’s Day is an obvious day for thinking about aspects of the experience of Jesus, our Saviour. Every detail concerning him is precious to us. There are many matters about him that we will think about today, whether in private at home or in public in church or elsewhere.

We live in a world often marked by disappointments, frustrations and sadnesses, and sometimes we are prone to think that this is the only world that there is. Yet there is another world, invisible to us, yet very real and while we cannot touch it, it can reach us. The other world is heaven, and it touches us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

In that other world Jesus is central. If we could see him we would see one who is full of joy. During his time on earth he was the man of sorrows. This does not mean that he never experienced joy. Yet he looked forward to the joy of heaven. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that was before him.

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached a sermon in which he mentioned that David the Psalmist wrote about the joy that Jesus anticipated would be his after his resurrection (Acts 2:28). This joy would be his in the presence of the Father, which means he would experience it after his ascension to heaven. What are some of the features of his joy?

There is the joy connected to his exaltation when he was anointed with the oil of gladness (Heb. 1:9). This anointing was given him by the Father as a response to the successful work completed on the cross. Given that the Father has infinite resources then the joy bestowed is boundless and endless. The joy is the presence of the Spirit in the activities of the exalted Son.

One of those activities is the function of instruction. Jesus, now exalted, is the teacher of his church and he teaches his people joyfully through the agency of the Holy Spirit who takes of the resources of Jesus and bestows them on his people. There is a sense in which the church is the largest school in the world, even if many of its pupils are enjoying higher education in heaven. It is certainly the happiest school because of the presence of the Teacher. Through the ministry of the Spirit, Jesus is present to teach his people and he delights to inform them of the plan of salvation.

Another of his functions is that of invitation. Even as Paul says in Ephesians 3, Jesus by his Spirit through his servants preaches peace throughout the world. He is the peace-bringer as well as the peacemaker on the cross. As king, he comes to sinful rebels with the offer of pardon and invites all who hear, or read, about it to come to him by faith. His invitations are often expressions of power and many throughout the world will experience it today for the first time.


Today, the Lord’s Day, we have the opportunity of knowing the Saviour’s joy as he instructs us about his grace and invites us to experience the riches connected to it.