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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The root cause.

Any student of history is aware that many major conflicts can be traced back to a single event.   So the First World War was the result of a single pistol-shot, by a man named Gavrilo Princip.  That shot fatally wounded the Arch-Duke Franz-Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, when he visited Serbia on June 28th, 1914. 

In my personal devotions, I am currently reading in Paul's letter to the early believers in Galatia. This letter is sometimes referred to as an introduction to his letter to the early Roman believers.  It's a letter that I have studied before - so much so that even my wide-margin copy of the Bible that I use for my devotions, has little space to accept additional notes!  However, as is so often the case, it is when one reads a passage for the umpteenth time, that one sees something that has never occurred to one before!

None of what I read this morning was actually "new" to me.  I didn't receive any wonderful revelation - a direct word from the Lord to me.  However, something became more real to me.  It is that the current, ongoing, conflict between Israel and the Arab nations, started with a single event - an event that took place some 4,000 years ago!  That event was the physical union of Abraham with Hagar, his wife Sarah's maid.  It was from that union that Ishmael was born.

Paul writes: "Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise." (Gal 4:21-23).   

This was the great difference between Abraham's two sons - one was born of a servant, the other of a free woman; one was born "according to the flesh" (that is, 'naturally'), the other "through promise" (supernaturally).  If we go back to Genesis 15, we see God's clear promise to Abraham - the promise of an heir.  All very well, except for the fact that, even then, both Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were well past the normal age of producing children!  The years passed; neither of them was getting any younger; and no child was born.  Eventually, Sarah suggested that Abraham father a child by her maid, Hagar - culturally quite acceptable.  However, although it may have been acceptable, it was bad advice!  Out of that union, Ishmael was born.

It was some 14 years later that the miracle took place when Sarah, now 90 years of age, conceived and gave birth to Isaac.  This, of course, was a supernatural birth!  We read, later in the Genesis account that "... Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac." And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, "Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named." (Gen 21:9-12).

That is the beginning of the enmity between the descendants of Isaac - the Children of Israel (the Jewish people); and the descendants of Ishmael - the Arab nations.  We might say that the current Israeli-Arab controversy actually started in Hagar's bedroom (or tent)!  A single act - with results that were to be far-reaching, and totally unexpected.  The feud continues - each group looking back to Abraham as their progenitor; and each claiming the land of Israel as their own.

However, the Biblical record makes it absolutely clear.  The "Promised Land" is given by Almighty God to those who are the descendants of, not only Abraham, but of Isaac and Jacob as well.  That is why so many of the disciples of Jesus - Himself a Jew! - are firm supporters of the modern State of Israel.  If we believe the Bible to be true, we can be no other.  Of course, we may not agree with every political policy followed by the Israeli government - any more than we agree with every policy of our own national governments.  But I believe that we must stand by the Jewish nation - particularly in the light of the current rise in anti-Semitism.  To that end, I encourage anyone to become part of Christians United for Israel (http://www.cufi.org.uk/).  If you are not resident in the UK, then you may prefer to join the "parent" organisation at http://www.cufi.org/

When Jacob received the blessing of the first-born (even although he did so by deceiving his father, Isaac), that blessing ended: "Cursed be every one who curses you, and blessed be every one who blesses you!" (Gen 27:29).

In Zech 2:8-12, we read "... thus said YHWH Sabaoth, after His glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye: "Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the YHWH Sabaoth has sent me. Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says YHWH. And many nations shall join themselves to YHWH in that day, and shall be My people; and I will dwell in the midst of you, and you shall know that YHWH Sabaoth has sent me to you. And YHWH will inherit Judah as His portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.

The Jewish people are still "the apple of His eye"; and those who curse them will be cursed, even as those who bless them will be blessed.  Choose blessing, not a curse!

Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

So Sunday has arrived!  The day on which the early disciples discovered an empty tomb, and a risen Lord.  Of course, there are those who have tried to explain away the resurrection of the Christ.  I deal with the major attempts in my book "Foundations of the Faith", but permit me to share a brief synopsis on this Resurrection Day.

One of the “alternative theories” that is offered is the one that claims that Jesus didn't really die! All that happened, it is suggested, is that He lost consciousness (or swooned) and then, in the cool of the tomb, He revived, made His way out, and showed Himself to the disciples as if He had risen from the dead! So, let's take a brief look at the evidence.

Think, first of all, of all of the physical torture that He had already endured. He had been awake for more than thirty–six hours (since the previous morning), and possibly closer to forty–eight when we remember that, two millennia ago, people tended to rise even before the sun. This would leave anyone physically exhausted. However, He had also been subjected to a number of ‘trials’ in which He was man–handled and abused. After all of that, He received a Roman flogging. This was certainly no picnic. He would have been stripped, at least to the waist; tied to a stake; and whipped up to thirty–nine times with a whip that had pieces of metal and bone attached to each of its many thongs.

However, more was to come. He now had to carry the crossbeam of the very cross on which He was to be crucified, all the way to Golgotha (Calvary), the place at which the death penalty was to be executed. Already, He was recognised by the Roman soldiers who escorted Him, as being so physically weak that they quickly compelled a visitor to Jerusalem, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the heavy crossbar on His behalf. Then, at Golgotha, He was tied, and nailed, to the cross which was raised to the vertical, and left hanging there in pain and agony, bruised and bleeding from the thorns that had been pressed into His skull; the lashes that He had received from the whip; the wounds made by the nails.

The final act in this drama was when the soldiers decided to “speed things up” by breaking the legs of the three victims (Jesus and the two thieves) in order that they might not find any relief by pushing their bodies upright and easing the suffocation by their own blood that was just one of the causes of death. When they came to Jesus, they were doubtless relieved to discover that He was already dead. However, as a form of insurance (because they were responsible, with their own lives, for the full execution of their gruesome task), one of them pushed his spear into Jesus' side, at an angle, that would almost certainly ensure that the heart would have been pierced.

Eventually, at the request of Joseph of Arimathea, the body was taken down. However, we have already noted that when he went to Pontius Pilate, the latter was surprised that Jesus was already dead and sent to the centurion in charge to check if this was so. The centurion, like the members of the execution squad, knew about death. None of them would have been easily fooled. They all knew that their own lives were forfeit if a prisoner escaped – even if it was by having revived from a swoon – and would, when ordered by the Procurator, have been extremely careful. Yet they allowed the body to be removed. This Man was most certainly dead!

However, let us, for the sake of argument, imagine that He had somehow fooled everyone. We must now assume that, having been wrapped up in the grave-clothes, and laid in the tomb, and the great stone rolled across the entrance to the tomb, He revived and, without any assistance managed, from the inside, and in His physically weakened state, to escape from the grave-clothes in such a way as to leave them looking undisturbed; roll the stone disc – probably some five feet (one hundred and fifty centimetres) in diameter, and six inches (fifteen centimetres) thick – up the slight incline that kept it in place; get past the guards who were on duty; find some suitable clothing; and appear to His disciples.  I would suggest that, to believe that all of that was possible requires a greater degree of ‘faith’ than to believe what the Gospel records teach!

Another suggestion is that it wasn't Jesus Who hung on the cross; that one of the disciples took His place so that He could appear as if He had risen from the dead (the usual Islamic explanation)! This requires a number of factors to come together. Jesus was not some non-entity. He was well known to the authorities. Accordingly, His ‘substitute’ would have had to be identical in build and appearance. This man would also have to be one of the disciple band. However, at this stage, the number of followers was relatively small, and most of them would have been known by others. Certainly, if there had been a ‘double’ that man would already have been marked out. Such a man would also have had to agree to take the punishment and death that was ahead. People at that time were all too aware of what crucifixion involved – let alone the previous flogging and other suffering – and it would have been an unusual man who would have volunteered to take another's place. Finally, there is the matter of the empty tomb – one aspect of the record that appears never to have been seriously questioned! Where was the body of this amazing ‘substitute’ going to be hidden while Jesus went around claiming to have risen from the dead? No, once again, the proposed ‘solution’ requires a greater leap of faith than does accepting the Biblical claim.

Yet again, there are those who suggest that the disciples stole the Body of Jesus, and then went about with these wild stories of His alleged appearances. This does have, at first sight, a measure of feasibility that is missing from the previous suggestions, and is the story which the Roman guards were bribed to repeat. They were even assured that they would not suffer the usual penalty for having ‘lost’ a prisoner (their own deaths) as the chief priests would square things up with the governor! (Matt.28:11–15).

Certainly, it could be argued that the disciples had a motive for so doing (although, remembering that they were scared for their own lives, such an action seems unlikely). But any police officer will assure us that, in investigating a crime, motive alone is insufficient. So, we must also ask about opportunity. How could the disciples have got past the guard and remove the body – and done so without disturbing the grave–clothes in any way? And is it reasonable to expect that a group of people, whose morale was completely gone, who were shattered and frightened, who were locked away “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19), would have made such an attempt in any case?

Of course, it is always possible, as others argue, that the authorities – Roman and/or Jewish – could have removed the body to a different location in order to ensure that the tomb did not become a focus point for other dissidents! There would have been no problem with the guards, and they could have arranged for the safe disposal of the body. However, if that had been what happened one must ask why, when the reports of the resurrection started to circulate, they did not simply produce the body and parade it around Jerusalem! Such a simple action would have stopped the spread of the Christian Church right at the beginning. The irrefutable fact that they didn't do so, is evidence enough that they had not removed the body!

What we may state, with certainty, is that none of the ‘alternative’ explanations for the resurrection of Jesus - and there are others! - stands up to any sort of serious investigation, and we are left with only one conclusion; one that explains so much more – the later appearances of Jesus; the amazing change in the disciples; the very existence of the church. It is simply this: “... the third day, He rose again from the dead ...”.

The Christ's resurrection is proved as well as any historical fact, and in that, on this Resurrection Day, we may rejoice!

Friday, 25 March 2016

Were you there? - Part 3.

On this Good Friday, we look at the remaining characters who were involved in the crucifixion, in one way or another.  We begin by thinking of two who, most certainly, were not there by choice!   They were the two who were crucified with Jesus: "And with Him they crucified two robbers, one on His right and one on His left." (Mark 15:27).

Three men; three crosses!  How similar - yet how different!  One was a cross of contempt.  On it hung a man who derided Jesus as He hung there, dying.  "Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!" (Luke 23:39).  There he hung, dying himself, alongside the Saviour of mankind.  He had the opportunity of life eternal - but he threw it away, and took the path of hostility, derision, and contempt.  In the most solemn hour in the history of the world, this condemned criminal cursed his way to a Christ-less eternity.

But, on the other side of the Lord Jesus was another cross - a cross of contrition. On it hung a man who has become known as "the penitent thief".  In the midst of his own pain and humiliation something touched him as he gazed across at the Man in the middle.  He realised that this was no ordinary man!  He had watched the soldiers nail Him to the wood; he had seen the blood that spurted from His wounds; and he had heard, not the torrent of curses that he would have expected - and that, in all probability, he had himself uttered - but a prayer that still hung, as it were, in the air around him: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34).  As the very shadow of death hovered around them, he sensed that Jesus was more than a mere man, and cried out: "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."(Luke 23:42).  And from that central Cross, the Cross of compassion, came the welcome response: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43).   What joy must have flooded that man's spirit, in the midst of the physical agony that he, too, was experiencing!

Finally, we remember that there was, at the Cross on that first Good Friday, a little company of the Saviour's own friends, and His mother.  John was there, and Jesus fulfilled His final earthly duty as the eldest Son, by committing his mother to the care of "the beloved disciple".  Mary of Magdala was there, as was Mary, the wife of Clopas, and his un-named aunt - his mother's sister. (see John:19:25-27).  Humanly speaking there was little that they could do - but do not many of us understand the strength that is drawn , in times of difficulty, pain, or crisis, from loved ones who say nothing, and do nothing, but who are "there" for us?

To be nailed, stark naked, to a cross; and then to be lifted up above the heads of the watching crowd; was an ordeal that we can barely imagine.  Those dear ones who stayed with Him were, in effect, saying: "Whatever shame there is in this; whatever pain You are bearing; whatever agony You are experiencing; we are here, with You."

What is your attitude to the Christ on this Good Friday, 2016?  Could it be that, like the first thief, you have noting but contempt for the One Who gave His life to pay for your sins?   I trust that you are not like that but that, if you have never done so before, you will see, even in that battered, bruised, figure on a Cross; described, centuries before the event as having "... no form or comeliness that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from Whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with His stripes we are healed." (Isa 53:2-5; emphases added), not a mere man dying, but the King marching to Glory, and accept the salvation for which He paid the price!

If you already are a disciple of Jesus then, like the rest of us, you may know that you constantly let Him down.  Will you resolve, with me, on this Good Friday, to be more available to Him, in the strength of God the Holy Spirit?

It's Friday - but Sunday's coming.  Please return to this blog for the Resurrection Day post!

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Were you there? - Part 2.

In the previous post, we looked at the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Judas Iscariot. In this one, I want to consider some other characters involved in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

One prominent figure was, of course, Pontius Pilate.  He was the Roman Procurator - a relatively minor official, answerable to the governor who was responsible for all of the region and, ultimately, to the Caesar himself.  As a Roman, he belonged to a people who had conquered most of the then-known world and, for this reason alone, had an over-bearing arrogance, accompanied by a deep contempt and dismissiveness for the people he governed.  In the midst of the trials of Jesus, he found himself on the horns of a dilemma.  Outside there were Jews who, under their leaders, were clamouring for the death of this Jesus of Nazareth.  Inside, in front of him, the silent Prisoner.  Pilate was all too aware that the charges brought against this Man were false: "... he knew that it was out of envy that [the Jewish hierarchy] had delivered Him up." (Matt 27:18; inter al).  He was further troubled when he received a message from his wife: "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream." (Matt 27:19).  Eventually, however, the self-centred element in him won.  He was not prepared to risk complications with his superiors.  Deliberately, and knowingly, he condemned an innocent Man to death.  Moral values clashed with self-preservation - and he chose the latter. 

That crowd to whom we have already made reference, are also worthy of examination.  What part did they play in the grim drama of that first Good Friday? There can be little doubt that, amongst that baying mob, were some of those who had, just those few days earlier, followed Him into Jerusalem, excited by the idea that, at last, Messiah had come.  However, when nothing dramatic occurred, and the prophet from Nazareth made no move to overthrow the Roman oppressors, they turned their backs on Him to the extent that, when Pilate asked them: "Then what shall I do with Jesus Who is called Christ?" They all said, "Let Him be crucified." (Matt 27:22).  Even when the Procurator went on to ask: "Why, what evil has He done?" ... they shouted all the more, "Let Him be crucified." (Matt 27:23).  The record continues: "So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this Man's blood; see to it yourselves."  And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matt 27:24-25).

How responsible were the crowd for the crucifixion of Jesus?  There are those who would claim that they were no more than pawns, moved by their leaders, and that they did not realise what it was they were doing.  The one thing of which we may be certain, because we know it from personal experience, is that fallen human nature is so fickle that, especially in a crowd, it can vote for itself even against all that is true and just.  "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9).  The crowd that demanded the crucifixion of Jesus was giving full expression to the inner rebellion against our Creator that lives in each of our hearts.  "We do not want this man to reign over us." (Luke 19:14).

Once again, we are faced with demanding questions.  Who is to be first - me, or Jesus?  It is an inevitable choice.  When moral choices clash with earthly choices, which will we choose?  It may be eternity itself that reveals the answer to that question, but revealed it will be.  Are we permitting the enemy of our souls to easily move us in opposition to the One Who came that we "... might have life, life in all its fulness."? (John 10:10).  Important questions; personal questions; questions that must be answered!

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

The title to this post is, as many will recognise, the first line of an old Negro spiritual - songs that were sung by African slaves in the cotton plantations of the southern states of the "New World" of North America.  The answer, of course, is that all of us were represented as the Lamb, slain from before the foundation of the world, hung on that old rugged Cross.

But who was there, physically, on that day almost 2,000 years ago?  Well, there were the men who engineered His death - the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  The Pharisees were teachers of the Mosaic Law.  They ran the schools and synagogues and, in a sense, considered themselves to be the national conscience of the Jewish people.  They were men of high moral character.   Jesus, Himself, said "... unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 5:20).  They certainly had very strict attitude to life and their religious beliefs. They accepted the Scriptures (our Old Testament) as the Word of God.  Why should such men have wanted to destroy Jesus?  Simply because he was a threat to their status and authority!  They regarded it as their sole prerogative to keep the nation together spiritually, so when Jesus said: "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." (John 14:6), they were angered to the point of scheming His death.  They are an illustration of how men who are moral and upright can go wrong!

Then there were the Sadducees.  They were a group of aristocratic priests who were not only the spiritual leaders of the people, but also statesmen.  At the time when the Lord Jesus lived out His incarnate life, they were more concerned about politics than spirituality, and went out of their way to maintain good relationships with the occupying Roman forces.  Concerned for their own position, they were concerned that Jesus might start an insurrection that would bring the might of Imperial Rome down upon them, and upon the nation.  The well-known words of their leader - the High Priest, Caiaphas: "... that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." (John 11:50), reveal the deep intent of their hearts.  They saw the Lord as a hindrance to their self-interest and self-concerns.  So, because it seemed to them to be expedient, they had Him nailed to a Cross.

This topic is going to take two posts, but permit me to mention one other person. He was not physically present at the crucifixion - but was instrumental in bringing it about.  His name was Judas Iscariot.  I don't know what a modern psycho-analyst would discover if he could have Judas Iscariot on his consulting room couch for a full session.  However, two questions surely arise when we look at this man - how could anyone who had know the Christ so well; who hard lived with Him, travelled with Him, dined with Him, listened to His teaching; do such a traitorous thing? Secondly, why would he do it for such a paltry sum of money - the price laid down for a slave!? (see Ex.21:32).  The only answer with which we may come up is that it was a mixture of greed, and attempting to 'force the hand' of Jesus. He may have travelled with the Lord, but did he ever enter into a genuine relationship with Him?  

In the very first sermon that I ever preached - almost fifty years ago! - I made the point that there were those who sit in church buildings, Sunday by Sunday, without any serious commitment to the Christ in their hearts.  They may persuade themselves that, because they have gone through certain ecclesiastical rituals, and have their names on a membership roll, that they are "Christians"! However, they are merely using the name, without any real relationship to the Lord.  Judas Iscariot would seem to have been of that ilk!

Of course, when we look at these people, we must also look at ourselves.   Perhaps at this mid-point of this Holy Week, we need to check who is in control in our lives. Does Jesus have full authority - or is He a threat to the authority we want to retain for ourselves?  Are we more concerned for our own position in society, than for His honour and glory?   Do we have a genuine relationship with Jesus - or are we depending on externals?  These are important questions.  They are personal questions.  They are questions that need to be asked - and answered - honestly!







Monday, 21 March 2016

What is God like?

In what we know as Matthew 16, the evangelist has recorded two contrasting episodes concerning the apostle Peter.   In verse 176, we read of Peter's great confession.  Jesus has asked the disciples what people were saying about His identity.  He then asks; "What about you?  Who do you say that I am?" It is Peter who answers on behalf of them all, with what is referred to as his great confession: "You are the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of the living God." (v16).  

That confession was made at Caesarea Philippi, where there was a grotto at which an image of the Caesar was worshipped as a god.  The issue was clear - is the power behind the universe a Caesar-like power-force; or is it a Christ-like power-suffering love?  Once the issue of Who He was had been settled, He began to make clear to the inner band what was involved in His being the Messiah, "... the son of the living God".  It was then that Peter took Him by the arm, and began to rebuke Him!  "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to You." (v.22).  Peter obviously thought that the Messiah would be self-assertive, and forceful; conquering the world by a demonstration of supreme power. He didn't understand the meaning of Isaiah 53 and other passages that pointed to the Suffering Servant. He is then, we may safely assume, shattered by the response of Jesus: "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men." (v.23).

In other words, the Christ was making clear that, in taking the way of the Cross, He was revealing the nature of God - the way, as we have already noted, of self-surrender, and self-sacrifice.  Peter, on the other hand, was manifesting the self-assertive side of life that is, of course, the very opposite of God's intention.  Remember: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Matt 5:5); "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matt 5:9); "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt 5:11-12). 

So Jesus called Peter the "satan" - the adversary!  Was that not being very harsh?  Many would have taken great offence at such words as Jesus spoke to His friend.  But the issue at stake was great. What is God like?  Is He like the Caesar - or like the Christ?  When Peter rejected the concept of the Cross, and the suffering that went with it, the Lord had to identify the source of such thoughts - and He did so with precision!  They came from the satan, for that is exactly how he became the one he is - by seeking to put himself, instead of God, at the centre.

But Jesus went even further!  John records, in what we know as the 17th chapter of his account of the Gospel record, one of the final acts of the Saviour prior to His arrest.  "... during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray Him Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. Then He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded." (John 13:2-5).  How could the Christ, knowing that the hour of His greatest humiliation - the Cross - was at hand, humiliate Himself further by taking on the task of the lowliest servant, and washing His disciples' feet? 

The answer is that He had already humiliated Himself in eternity when He decided, freely, to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sin, and become "... the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world." (Rev.13:8; AV).  In that act, in eternity, He fulfilled the deepest law of the universe: "... he who loses his life ... will find it." (Matt 10:39).   Possessing all through self-surrender, He was now free to conquer all - death, hell, and the grave.  The Servant of all becomes the greatest of all.

That is the secret for you and for me as well!  As George Mathieson wrote:

"Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free.
Force me to render up my sword,
And I shall conqueror be."

Have you submitted your life to Him?  It's the only way to true freedom!

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The highest watermark.

In his letter to the believers in the early church in the Imperial City of Rome, Paul writes these words: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." (12:1-2).

It was many years ago that I was taught that, when one reads the word "therefore" in the Bible, one should ask "What is it there for?"  In those words, it refers to all of the teaching that Paul has previously provided to the recipients.  It is, indeed, the pivot word on which this section of Romans turns from belief to behaviour.  Up until this point, Paul has been explaining what God has done to redeem us.  He now challenges his readers (now, as well as then!) to surrender themselves, totally, into God's hands.

Self-surrender and self-sacrifice have, of course, been demonstrated by God before He demands them from us!  Tomorrow (Saturday) is, of course, the Jewish Shabbat.  Judaism has its own "lectionary" - set readings from the Scriptures for each week, or even day.  In synagogues around the world, one of the passages that will be read on this particular Shabbat is from the Book of Leviticus: "Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When any man of you brings an offering to YHWH, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock.  If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before YHWH."  (1:2-3).  The Hebrew word korbanot  means to be close and the point is that the sacrifices, once accepted by God, restore closeness and intimacy between Him and His people.  Why is this necessary?  Because our iniquities and sins separate us from God and prevent us from establishing or maintaining a close relationship with Him.  "But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear." (Isaiah 59:2). For we who live under the New Covenant, the perfect sacrifice was made by God Himself, in the Persona of the Son.

It is our sin - yours and mine - that took Jesus to the cross in the greatest act of self-sacrifice in all of history.  When He asks us to surrender ourselves, He is not asking us to do, or give, anything that He has not already done, and given.

The story is told of a missionary who shared this truth with a highly intellectual Hindu, and added, "I believe that to be the high watermark of the universe".  The Hindu removed his spectacles, wiped away an involuntary tear, and replied, "High watermark?  That's the highest watermark of which the human mind could ever conceive!"  How true!  In the self-giving of Himself, Almighty God set the standard for the universe.  Nothing in either God, or in man, can ever go beyond it.  It is the highest truth conceivable.

Have you submitted yourself to Him?  Have you presented yourself, a living sacrifice?  It is, indeed, no more than "reasonable service"!




Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The suffering of love.

It's a couple of years now since my younger daughter informed my wife and me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Even if you have never been in such a situation, I am sure that most folk can at least begin to imagine the emotional turmoil that followed that announcement!  Then there were many months of tests, an operation, chemo-therapy, and radium therapy.

We managed to be with our daughter for all but one of the chemo-therapy sessions. They were the ones that she found most distressing (not, I believe, an uncommon reaction!).  How often I wanted to be able to take her place - to suffer what she was suffering, on her behalf (with her healing as the eventual outcome!).

This, of course, is the very nature of love.  But if God is love (I John 4:8, 16), and if it is the nature of love to take upon itself the burdens and sorrows of the ones it loves, then we would expect that His love would become suffering as it came into contact with the sins, and sinfulness, of the ones it loves. This is precisely what happened at the moment of creation.  As Almighty God, the Creator, prepared to create a universe, with a humanity that He knew would tear itself away from His loving grip, a Cross appeared.  It simply had to be!  If that had not taken place, then the universe would have been one giant disappointment!  

In my teaching career, I endeavoured to abide by the rules that I applied to my pupils. I dressed appropriately; I didn't leave the classroom in the middle of a class in order to go to the toilet; I ensured that I was in my classroom to welcome every class that came to me.  It is an amazing thought, but God obeys every rule that He has set for us!  This applies, especially, to the law of self-giving; of self-sacrifice; of self-surrender.  In Rev.7:17, John records: "For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water; ..."  The Lamb - that same Lamb that was "... slain from the foundation of the world." (Rev.13:8) - will be their Shepherd!  That means that God rules, not only with absolute power, but also in absolute goodness.  He rules, not only from a heavenly throne, but also from a Cross!

All that He asks of us is, therefore, founded on what He does, more than on what He commands.  He not only demands love - He demonstrates it.  What He asks of us is not founded on some divine whim, but on His very character.  He not only shows me what I should do; He also shows me how to do it!

What an amazing God!  He is truly worthy of all of the love, and devotion of which feeble human hearts are capable.  And this is really just the preparation time!  John Newton got it absolutely correct:

"Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought."

Maran'atha.  Come, Lord Jesus.




Saturday, 12 March 2016

Belief, and behaviour!

When I was teaching, I often pointed out to my pupils that what we believe effects how we behave, and that how we behave displays what we believe.  

The previous two posts have tried to deal with a very difficult, but important, concept - that the Cross of Jesus is not just an event in time, but that it was birthed in the very hearty of Almighty God from before the creation of the universe.  I realise that, for many, those posts may have been a little too 'academic', but we now move on to matters that are very practical!

The question that arises from the previous posts is simply this: If, as the written Word of God, the Bible, teaches, the Cross is something that lay upon God's heart in eternity (timelessness, not endless time - see my book Great Words of the Faith), what are the practical implications of that upon the daily lives of those who claim to be disciples of the Christ?

So often, we tend to separate our belief from our behaviour.  The truth that we hold in our heads is not allowed to penetrate our hearts.  Is the truth of the Cross - lying on God's heart in eternity - merely something to intrigue our minds; or did He intend it to be a motivation for our daily living?  I firmly believe that "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, ..." (II Tim 3:16), and that, although Paul was referring there, only to the scriptures of the Old Testament, the words apply equally to the writings of the New Testament.  I further believe that those words are to be an inspiration to us in our daily lives.  So how does this amazing truth about the Cross fit in with that?

May I suggest that it does so by revealing to us what is at the heart of the universe? You see, what determines our view of the universe will, ultimately, determine our lives, and our living!  What is at the heart of our understanding of the universe will be at the heart of our conduct.  Belief  D Behaviour!

What lies at the heart of your universe?  What effects your behaviour?   Is it justice; or power; or personal pleasure?   For the disciple of Jesus, it is love - self-giving, sacrificial love.  It is the love that held Jesus to that Cross - love for you; love for me.  

Let us live our lives in the light of that love - and see the difference that we will make in the world!

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

In death, is life!

In the previous post, I suggested that the Cross is all around us.  This picture is exactly the kind of thing to which I was referring!  The sign, of course, gives it added value!

The Cross of Jesus was not something that began in the minds of men, but was conceived and enacted in the very heart of Almighty God in eternity.  When God laid down the broad beams on which He built the very structure of the universe, those beams were stained red with the blood of the atoning sacrifice of the only-begotten of the Father - for He was, as we noted, "the Lamb, slain from before the foundation of the world."

This means that the Cross is not only written into the text of the written Word of God - the Bible - but is also ploughed into the very texture of the universe itself!  We may discern this everywhere - no life without death.  As Spring approaches, gardeners will be sowing their seeds.  Jesus said: "... unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24).  The seed must die to produce the life that produces the fruit!


The Cross is not some bizarre absurdity that occurred on the first "Good Friday" - it has been in the whole of life from the very beginning!  The sublime act of the death of Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus, the Messiah) on that hilltop outside the wall of the city of Jerusalem, some 2,000 years ago, focuses in a ,moment of time something that is actually timeless!  It is a mystery - but a wonderful mystery. Over the next few posts, we will try to understand it better - approaching it with reverence, and awe.

Come with me on this journey of discovery - it could change your life, not only for time, but also for eternity!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The cosmic significance of the cross!

This is the first part of a series that I should probably have started at the beginning of Lent! However, better late than never so it is my intention (DV) to publish a number of posts, between now and Resurrection Day, that focus on the Lord Jesus, the Christ (Yeshua HaMashiach).

In John's great vision, recorded for us as "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to His servants ..." (Rev 1:1), the apostle refers to "... the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." (Rev 13:8; NKJV).  This is, of course, a reference to Jesus, the sinless, spotless, Lamb of God; the perfect, all-sufficient, atoning sacrifice.

But hold on a minute!  Was not Jesus crucified a mere 2,000 (app) years ago, on the first "Good Friday"?  So what is the Bible, the inerrant Word of the Living God, talking about when it says that He was "... slain from the foundation of the world"?

The cross is, in fact, an event of cosmic significance.  It is not merely an event that took place on a specific day in time.  The cross stands in time in order that we might see something that is eternal - i.e.timeless.  From His eternal perspective, outwith time, Father God saw the cross long before, in time, it was raised on Calvary.  It was in His heart (if I may use an anthropomorphism) in eternity, before, in time, it stood outside Jerusalem.  The cross transcends time.

Had the crucifixion of Jesus merely taken place in time, it would have been just another event in the history of mankind.  But because it was planned in eternity, it shows me that what was 'captured' in a moment of time, is held eternally in the heart of God.

The story is told of a young boy who was visiting a large cathedral.  As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he looked up at what is known as the "rood screen" and said, "There's a cross up there."  The adult who was accompanying him pointed to the floor of the cathedral, and said, "There's a cross down here as well!"  Indeed, the whole building was a cross.  It was a cruciform building - the chancel and the nave symbolising the upright; the two transepts symbolising the cross-beam.

Take time to look for the cross in your everyday life - the letter 't'; a telegraph pole; the sword on a War Memorial.  It is everywhere.

Of course, if you have never come to the foot of that cross in repentance and faith, then for you it was, and is, a cosmic waste!  It is through the sacrificial blood of the Christ, and by no other way, that we may receive forgiveness, and know God's wonderful peace in our lives.

"Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you washed in the blood;
In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?
Are your garments spotless; are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?"       (Elisha Albright Hoffman).

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Spreading the fragrance.

Writing to the early believers in the great metropolis of Corinth, Paul reminded them that "We are, unto God, a sweet savour of Christ."  (II Cor. 2:15).  J.B.Phillips translates those words like this: "... through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere.  We Christians have the unmistakeable scent (or 'fragrance') of Christ."

Rita Snowden was a Christian authoress in the last century.  She tells a story of being on holiday, sitting at the window of the house in which she was staying, and suddenly experiencing a fragrance that filled the room.  It was so noticeable, and so powerful, that she was at a loss to work out its origin.  When she looked out of the window, all that she could see was ordinary men and women walking down the street..  She went outside, only to discover that the fragrance was stronger than ever.  She went back in and asked her hostess: "Where is this beautiful fragrance coming from?"   "Didn't you know?" asked that lady.  "All of these people work in a nearby perfume factory.  They live in the fragrance all day and, when they go home for lunch, they bring that fragrance with them!"

I wonder just how much those of us who, today, claim to be disciples of Jesus, bear His fragrance with us?  Not a physical aroma, of course, but that certain something that people notice, and that makes them want to follow, and find out our secret.

It's an integral part of the witnessing to which I referred on Tuesday and, indeed, the previous Tuesday as well!  It's part of our witnessing for Jesus - letting the world know that we are His.

Are you spreading "... the fragrance of the knowledge of Him - everywhere"?!  Do you "... have the unmistakeable scent of Christ"?!


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Being a witness!

I have just been reading about a large law office in which someone was enjoying a birthday anniversary celebration. As the cake was brought into the room, everyone sang a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

At the end of the song, the woman leading the celebration said, “Now, let’s sing the second verse,” and proceeded to lead everyone in “How old are you …” And everyone laughed when the woman whose birthday anniversary it was declined to reveal her age. Then the leader suggested singing the third verse and began to sing, “May God bless you.” Politely, a co-worker interrupted and objected: “I thought we’re not supposed to bring religion into the workplace,” he said.

The leader quickly responded, “Actually, religion comes in when I do!”

How simple, and yet how profound, was that answer! Regardless of how people may talk about the division between sacred and secular; religious and humanist; even the separation of church and state; the fact is that God can never be removed or legislated away - He is present everywhere, and He enters specifically through the lives of those who trust Him.

Have you ever thought of the countless discussions there are about how Christians can make a difference in the world, sharing the gospel and witnessing to their friends and neighbours. The truth is that the most effective witness is Christians - disciples of Jesus -, like that woman, living for the Christ wherever they are, and then gently and lovingly telling of their faith when the opportunity arises.  It's called "witnessing" and is what every disciple of Jesus is called to do!   


Remember Jesus' final words to His disciples as He returned to the Father?  "... you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."? (Acts 1:8).  That same Holy Spirit power is available to you and to me.  That same command is to us, also!

What about you and your office, store, factory, classroom, warehouse, restaurant -wherever you work? Does God come in when you do? Has God made a difference in your life that others can see? What do your co-workers know about God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, because of the way you live?