Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Golden Rule (Matt.7:12)

This verse seems to be a summary statement of the teaching that Jesus has given in the Sermon on the Mount. Often it is said that preachers should be able to summarise the message of their sermon in a sentence. Whether that is the case or not I cannot say, although it is of interest that Jesus, the master preacher, did so here.

The obvious deduction that can be made from this verse is the importance of relationships. It is important to note the positive element in Jesus’ teaching. He does not say, ‘Don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you.’ The words of Jesus demand far more. He says, ‘Do unto others what you would like them to do unto you, whether they do so or not.’ We know the best behaviour that other persons should have and we are not to wait until they show it. Instead we are to show them how to do it. Jesus wants his followers to live out the Sermon on the Mount wherever they are and whoever they are with.

The context would indicate that Jesus is speaking to those whom he has addressed on the subject of prayer. He has instructed his disciples to ask, seek and knock in prayer, with the promise that their prayers would be successful. At first glance, it seems as if the Saviour has given an unlimited assurance that our prayers will always be heard. Yet we know that sometimes our prayers are not answered. There must be a connection between answered prayer and the development and maintaining of this attitude towards others.

A little reflection is sufficient for us to realise the impossibly of keeping this commandment without divine help. Since the work of the Spirit in sanctification is essential for obeying this commandment, it is clear that Jesus is speaking to his disciples in particular and not to the world in general. Here is the crucial difference between the church and the world: for the world, this principle is only an inspiring wish which can never be attained; for the church, the outworking of this principle is the evidence of true spirituality, the proof that we are indwelt and instructed by the Holy Spirit.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Knocking in prayer (Matt. 7:7-11)

The third type of prayer mentioned by Jesus is connected to approaching a door. Some writers argue that the door here is the door of providence, such as those described in the letter to the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3), except that it is a door that is shut temporarily. This may be the case, but it seems to me that the illustration points to knocking at a door on which the Father is at the other side. I suspect that the illustration is pointing to the possibility of disciples obtaining access in a special way to the presence of God. The illustration pictures a believer coming to the door of a building and knocking persistently in order to obtain access.

Of course, God does not have a literal house to which we can go. He dwells in the heavens. Yet the imagery points to the prospect of a disciple enjoying with God the parallel experiences that can be known in a house. For example, in a house there is usually a place where people can eat together, or a place where they can rest, or a place where they can enjoy privacy. It is possible for a believer to find himself in the place described in Psalm 91:1: ‘He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’ Home is usually a secret place for those who live there; it is also usually the place where they feel very secure and where they are satisfied. In a far higher sense, it is possible to have a secret place to meet with God, where no enemy can intrude and where the soul is enraptured by the beauty of God. This should be the highest aim of our prayer lives.

Why does God deal with us in this way?

Several reasons can be given in answer to this question. One is that God tests our determination to aim for the best things even in the Christian life. Sometimes we can be satisfied with second best, even in spiritual things. It is sad, but true, that some believers do not make much advance in discovering the riches of God. What they have is wonderful, but they could have so much more.

A second reason is that God wants his people to be diligent in their use of prayer. If the best things came our way with ease, then we would not make much effort. Most things that are worthwhile require ongoing effort. It is the same with prayer. The more diligent we are in prayer, the more we will receive out of God’s storehouse. We need both determination and diligence – determination makes us choose the right path and diligence keeps us on the right path. We don’t want determination without diligence – that is only good resolutions without action.  We don’t want diligence without determination – that can mean being busy doing wrong things.

A third reason is that God wants to be the desire and delight of our hearts. He wants us to move on past the gifts to the Giver, to appreciate his beauty more than his bounty, to know his love as well as his blessings. Prayer should be progressive all through our Christian lives. We should enjoy God more today than we did yesterday, and determined, diligent prayer is essential for that experience.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Searching prayer (Matt. 7:7-11)

The second type of prayer that Jesus mentions is illustrated by a person searching for something that he has not yet found. God has placed certain blessings in locations to which the Christian has not yet been. There are many such places, and I can only mention some of them. Before I do so, it is worth reminding ourselves that when we are searching for a location, we need certain tools to help us find them. The obvious one that comes to mind is an atlas. God has provided spiritual maps which help us walk around the situations into which he calls us. These maps are found in the Bible.

One obvious blessing for which we search is fellowship with Christ. He himself told his hearers that if they searched the scriptures they would discover that the Word of God testified of Christ. The scriptures to which Jesus was referring was the Old Testament. It is important for us to remember that the Old Testament is not primarily an historical account of the history of the Jews. Of course, there are references to many historical persons and incidents. Yet above all these details, the Old Testament is a revelation of Christ. When we read Genesis 1, we should say to ourselves, ‘Here is the Son of God at work.’ And we can do this throughout the Old Testament. Jesus is hidden there, and if we prayerfully use the map of the Bible to locate places where we can have fellowship with Jesus, we will be directed to those locations. And when we go there, whether it is in Genesis or Malachi, we will find Jesus is there, waiting to have fellowship with us through his living book.

Something else that we search for in prayer is the significance of times of trouble. We confess freely that God is sovereign, that providence is the outworking of his control. But do we search for the reasons for our periods of distress and confusion? There is a wonderful promise of God to Cyrus in Isaiah 45:3: ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.’ Rulers in the ancient world used to hide treasures below the ground or in other secure places. The prophecy states that when Cyrus conquered Babylon he would find the hidden treasures of that city. When Cyrus would go into these dark locations, he might suspect that there would be no benefit, yet he would come out of them far richer than when he went in. In another sense, we can go into a dark situation and, instead of finding destruction and disappointment, we find spiritual treasures put there for us by God.

In Psalm 71:20, the aged writer of the psalm surveys his life and says to God, ‘You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.’ His troubles had taught him about the faithfulness of God. Something similar is seen in the instance of Job. While his experience was far more intense than what occurs to most believers, it is clear that he also benefited from his troubles because they revealed to him the greatness of God. Samuel Rutherford testified to the great discoveries of grace that he made during his period of exile in Aberdeen. Although on the outside, he seemed to be confined and restrained, inside he was making great discoveries of the nature of grace.

There are many blessings for which we can search, using the atlas of scripture. I would mention one more. In addition to discovering about the Jesus, and finding out the significance of our sufferings, we can also search for strength to fight against the enemies of God’s kingdom. Of course, the unseen source of strength is the Holy Spirit, and his work is assumed in what I am describing. One way of obtaining strength is by feeding our souls on God's many great and precious promised. They encourage us about the road we have to travel through enemy country.

We will be surprised by what we can find when we search in prayer.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Variety in Prayer (Matt. 7:7-11)

In these verses, Jesus teaches that there is more than one way to pray. One type of prayer is illustrated by asking, a second type is illustrated by searching, and a third type is illustrated by knocking. The first type describes simple, straightforward interaction between the child of God and the heavenly Father; the second type describes the child of God actively looking for blessings that God has hidden somewhere in order for his child to find; the third type describes the child of God patiently wanting access to what is on the other side of a closed door.

It is important to note that each of the three illustrations points to persistent praying. Each of the verbs are present imperatives, which means that we are to engage in these aspects of prayer continually. Jesus is not indicating that we move from a period of asking to a period of seeking in our prayer lives. Rather, each of them – asking, seeking and knocking – can exist simultaneously.

Further, in verse 11, Jesus reminds his disciples that all answered prayer comes from the Father. ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ In other words, whatever is received through asking, seeking and knocking is a family blessing. They describe features connected to the status of adoption. These features are summarised in the Shorter Catechism answer 34: ‘ Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.’

Jesus makes it clear that each type of prayer can know success. We may not be surprised that prayer can receive straightforward answers. At the beginning of our Christian life, we may wonder that the holy God should listen to a sinner. Yet we soon discover that each of his children is welcome to come to him and ask for basic blessings. So while we will remain amazed that God answers those prayers, we are not surprised. 

But should we be surprised at answers to the other two forms of prayer? We will think about them tomorrow.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

What kind of judge are you? (Matt. 7:1-5)

As we know, the word ‘judge’ can have a variety of meanings. One meaning, found in law courts, means to make a binding decision on whether a person has done right or wrong. Another meaning is ‘discern’, where a person may not have to choose between a good and a bad option, but between two or more good options; in such a scenario a wide range of facts may have to be considered. Another meaning is ‘criticise’, and of course criticism can be either valid or invalid.

It is clear that the judging that Jesus has in mind here is inappropriate judgement. Yet what makes the judgement inappropriate is not the problem in the other person, which is there and which Jesus says should be removed. Instead the problem is in the person who is aware of the defect in the other person, but awareness in itself does not qualify a person to try and remedy the defect. Before the person interferes in the life of the other with a defect, he has to check his own state first. A Puritan called Thomas Adams described humans in this way: ‘All men are like barbers. They trim all men but themselves.’ This is what we do when we pass unjust judgements.

In verse 2, Jesus points out that those who judge will be judged by others according to the same standard. He is reminding us of an obvious feature of daily life which is that others expect us to live up to our own standards. This reality should have a sobering effect upon us: before we attempt to assess the problem in another person, we should say to ourselves, ‘Others are going to treat me in the same way as I will treat this other person with a defect.’

Jesus uses a very striking and humorous illustration. He imagines a person walking about with a big plank of wood sticking out of his eye. With his other eye, he observes that another person has a speck of dust or sand in an eye. The man with the plank wants to remove the speck, but we can imagine what takes place. The closer the man with the plank comes to the person, the more likely it is that he will hurt the other by striking him with the plank of wood. Instead of helping the other person, he will only make the situation worse.

This illustration reminds us of the danger of exalting our own opinions. Sometimes the blank may be an idea we have that we think every other person should adopt. It becomes so big in our lives that it becomes our identifying mark. We can imagine this man’s neighbours saying, ‘Here comes the man with the plank.’ Similarly we can be known as the man or woman with the …. Our opinion, which may have been legitimate for us, becomes so big that it prevents us from helping our brothers with their little faults. Rather bizarrely, we can become quite proud of our plank, imagining that it makes us attractive, when in reality it makes us ugly and dangerous.

The illustration reminds us that there are degrees of sin. While we cannot say that there is such a thing as a small sin, we do recognise that individuals may have traits that are not as serious as others. A speck of dust in the eye can cause a lot of pain, but it is usually only sore for the individual himself. On the other hand, a plank is not only a burden for the person who has it, it can also cause pain to others when it hits them.

The illustration reminds us that usually we are to regard the faults of others as specks and to regard our own sins as planks. Obviously there will be times when the sins of others will require a strong response. Yet in our interactions with one another, we are always to be harder on ourselves than on others. When I see another person losing his temper, I should say to myself, ‘What is my temper like, and what would I have done in the same situation?’ We can ask, is there any particular reason why the person has this speck at this time? Has anyone else caused him to have the speck in his eye?

The illustration reminds us that we should deal with others in a gentle manner. This is obvious from the care that has to be taken when dealing with eyes. Gentleness is fruit of the Spirit, and it is not found in a self-righteous person. Jesus expects his disciples to remove specks from one another’s eyes, but he expects them to imitate his way of dealing with them. We know how he does it by the way he deals with our own faults. Jesus forgives us our faults, and we should forgive the faults of one another. He forgave us gently – after all, each of our sins deserves severe punishment. It is a sign that we have a plank in our eye when we are reluctant to forgive and help a believer with a speck in his eye.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Can we judge? (Matt. 7:1-5)

The statement of Jesus – ‘Judge not, that you be not judged’ – is one of the most frequently quoted statements of Jesus. Yet I would say that it is also one of the most frequently misquoted statements that Jesus made. Often it is cited in circumstances in which a person(s) wants to avoid appropriate criticism. It is often used in self-defence to prevent any external assessment by others. Of course, such a usage means that we should never judge whether an action is right or wrong.

Jesus does tell his disciples to make judgements. In verse 6, he commands them not to throw their pearls to the swine, and in order to follow this command they have to decide who the swine are. He tells his listeners in John 7:24: ‘Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.’ So the teaching of Jesus here cannot be used for tolerating every opinion and action found in another person.

We find the same emphasis elsewhere in the Bible concerning the necessity of making judgements. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul tells his readers that instead of taking one another to court over trivial matters they should appoint a wise member(s) of the congregation to assess the problem. And in 1 Corinthians 10, a chapter in which he has explained the dangers of associating with idolatry, Paul says in verses 14-15: ‘Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.’

The apostle John commands us to ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 John 4:1).  This is an obligation on all believers, not just those who are in authority in a church. Whatever else this commandment from John indicates, it clearly demands that we judge whether a prophet or preacher is telling the truth or not.

Once again, Jesus is criticising the common practice of the Pharisees. They had set themselves up as the persons who decided what was allowable in the lives of God’s people. Over a period of time they had produced a large set of rules that covered most situations that God’s people would face in life. Inevitably, it became impossible for the followers of the Pharisees to do anything right. At the same time, they were being harassed by their leaders who themselves had massive faults that prevented them functioning in a helpful way.

Jesus is reminding his disciples that the citizens of his kingdom operate on different rules. His use of the term ‘brother’ suggests that he has the members of his family in mind. The context of the verse concerns hypocritical judging as opposed to honest judging,  and in verse 5 Jesus indicates that honest judging can take place: ’You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’   

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Anxiety (3) (Matt. 6:25-34)

Jesus reminds his disciples of the great priority of their lives - seek first the kingdom of God. His use of the word ‘first’ does not mean that we should spend the first hours of a day focussing on God and then spend the remaining time on other matters. Rather he means that in whatever we are engaged, it must be connected to the growth of God’s kingdom. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 10:31: ‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.’ It is useful to spend the initial time of a day in personal devotions, yet the fact is that throughout the whole of each day we are to live for God.

‘First’ points to the importance of choice. Every day, we will have to make choices that will affect our commitment to the kingdom of God. The choice is not usually between what is good and what is bad. Rather it is often a choice between what is better and what is best. This feature of choice will occur in an endless number of ways, and putting God ‘first’ will mean choosing what is best.

The word also challenges us to the amount of energy we put into the task. Usually a person puts the most energy into the practices that mean the most to him. These practices require his total focus and not his half-hearted intention. Sometimes a person will try and read a book and watch the TV simultaneously. The obvious result is that the person will achieve neither task, and if he thinks he has, then we know that there is something wrong with his sense of what was required for either interest. He should have made a choice and then put all his concentration into fulfilling that choice. It is not possible to focus on the kingdom of God and on something else simultaneously; and it is not possible to focus on the kingdom of God casually.

In verse 34, Jesus tells his disciples that they should aim to live one day at a time. This does not mean that they should not make preparations for the future – a Christian farmer has to sow his seed in anticipation of a future harvest. Yet they are forbidden to worry about the future. As has been pointed out, worry about the future can be pointless because the thing feared may not happen, and if it does happen we will have worried about it longer than we had to.

How can we live one day at a time? By thinking of God. We could think of him in this way. When we waken up in the morning, we should say to ourselves, ‘I don’t know what is going to happen to me today. Yet I know that God is in control of today by his providence. I also know that whatever happens today is part of God’s great purpose by which he is going to bring great glory to his own name at the end. Further, I know that nothing that happens today can prevent God from fulfilling many of his great and precious promises.’

At the close of each day, we can review it and say, ‘Today God took care of me in many different ways. And if in one or two ways, things did not go as I wanted, yet I also know that he will work these things for my spiritual benefit now and for my eternal benefit in the future. It is also the case that throughout this day God has kept many of his promises to me: I have been kept safe through temptations, I have been given thoughts about heaven, I have been enabled to pray at the throne of grace etc.’

When we think of God every day, when his kingdom becomes our present focus, then the cares of the future will become eclipsed by the spiritual achievements and responsibilities of the present. Focusing on the troubles of the future prevents us serving God in the present. Serving God in the present helps us through the troubles of each day, and if persevered in will eventually deal with future troubles as well.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Anxiety (2) (Matt. 6:25-34)

Sometimes the cause of anxiety can be in the past. Often such anxiety is connected to a particular sin we committed. Perhaps we said something to our parents that we regret, and we would give anything to be able to apologise to them. Yet they have gone from this world. Or perhaps we did something to another person – perhaps we were economical with the truth in what we said or did. At the time, our action seemed to help us, but now, years later, it rises in our memories and condemns us. Conscience can be a great cause of anxiety.

If our present anxiety is caused by something from the past, the way to deal with it is twofold. We need to repent of the wrong action and ask God for forgiveness and assurance of mercy. With regard to those who have passed on into the other world, we cannot do anything else. Nevertheless if we are genuinely sorry and confess the matter to God, he will give his peace instead of the anxiety caused by conscience.

With regard to those who are still alive and regarding whom we have anxiety because of our actions and words, in addition to repenting before God of our sins we also have to sort the matter out with the other person(s). The second feature is evidence of the reality of our repentance. Those who have done it have testified to the great spiritual benefit they have received – it became a canal along which the peace of God did flow from heaven into their hearts.

Anxiety can also be caused by the future. What has Jesus to say to us about this? As we listen to him, we will sense that his advice, which is twofold, is very simple.

First, Jesus tells us that God is informed about our situations. He knows everything that we need. Second, Jesus tells us that God is involved in our lives: just as he feeds the birds, so he will provide for our needs. Therefore, we have to remind ourselves continually that in every situation we face, God is neither ignorant of any of its details or absent from any of its moments. Of course, as Spurgeon pointed out, ‘these are soothing words to read, but difficult words to put into practice.’

Jesus is telling his disciples to use their minds when they find themselves in situations of difficulty. They are to remind themselves that they are valuable in God’s sight, far more than what birds are worth, and that he has an eternity planned for them, not like the grass which lasts for only a short time.

The Saviour reminds his disciples that there is more to life than food and clothing. Those who are not his disciples will focus on earthly things. His disciples have to be different. Jesus mentions this difference in verse 33 when he says that they should ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ In other words, if you live for this world, you will lose everything, even that which you have procured; if you live for God, things will be different; even necessary material things will be provided for you.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Anxiety (1) (Matt. 6:25-34)

I want to take three or four readings to reflect on the issue of anxiety  After all, it is well-known that anxiety is one of the common problems of modern life. Depending on how we look at it, anxiety is a cause of unemployment because it can prevent people working to their full capacity or it is a cause of employment because there is almost an entire industry connected to it through counsellors, psychiatrists, producers of medicines, carers, not to mention the benefit that books about anxiety has been to publishers and authors. Nevertheless, anxiety is not merely a modern issue caused by the complexities and uncertainties of contemporary life; it was also present in all the previous periods of history and since Jesus addressed the topic it must have been present among his disciples.

People try and cope with anxiety in different ways. Some attempt to conquer it by diverting their thoughts on to good things, and obviously there is an element of wisdom in such a method. Others practise relaxation techniques, and no doubt these practices can help at times. The problem with all such responses is that they leave out of the equation the One who should be at the centre of life – God himself.

What advice did Jesus give to his disciples? It would be simplistic to suggest that Jesus is advocating a trouble-free life – only an irresponsible person would not worry about ill-health or a collapsing economy or poverty or crime or the continuing presence of injustice; it would be sinful to suggest that he is teaching we should ignore the causes of our cares as if we should abandon all responsibility for how we react to our current situations. Instead Jesus is teaching that we should not worry about things concerning which there is no real reason for worry. The answer to such wrong worries is a God-centred view of life.

In the immediately preceding verses of his sermon, Jesus has stressed two details. First, he pointed out the benefits as well as the importance of having a perspective that takes into account the realities of the eternal world. His disciples are to use this life to accumulate heavenly riches rather than earthly ones. Second, he stressed that his disciples can only have one Master, and that Master must be the Lord. It is essential that we understand his comments about anxiety in light of these two details.

In coming to speak about inappropriate worry, Jesus continues speaking about these two themes. He uses three illustrations, each of which highlights the difficulty of living without an heavenly perspective and of forgetting that God is the Master we serve. Jesus mentions an individual who has a good harvest, and then worries about what will happen to the crops; he mentions individuals who are not happy with their bodies; and he mentions people who are preoccupied with their clothing, about what they are going to wear in the days ahead. Each of these concerns is future-orientated: the man with the good harvest is worried about whether a thief will steal his crops or a fire will burn his barns; the person with a concern about their physical shape is worried about how others will see them tomorrow; the individual concerned about his attire is bothered about whether or not his wardrobe will last.

Sinclair Ferguson mentions a curious similarity between hypocrisy and worry. Each sin is a failure to take proper notice of God. The hypocrite wants others to impress others rather than God (he is taken up with their opinion); the worrier looks at himself instead of at God.

We will consider other aspects of anxiety tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Who is my Master? (2) (Matt. 6:24)

In the Bible, there are lovely examples of how to use our assets in a way that pleases God. There is Philemon, who gladly let the church in Colosse meet in his home (Phile 2). There is Joseph, the landowner from Cyprus, who sold some of his property and used what he received to help the church in Jerusalem; for this and other actions the apostles called him ‘the son of consolation’ (Acts 4:36-37). There is Lydia, the businesswoman who offered her property in order that the work of the gospel in Philippi could proceed (Acts 16:14-15, 40), and as a consequence the gospel flourished there. There is Joseph of Arimathea, who has gained lasting fame because he gave his tomb to Jesus for a couple of nights.

Those who behave in such a biblical way have already realised two very basic truths. The first is that everything belongs to the Lord in the first place. Whatever they have been given by him is given to them as his stewards. The day will come when he will give it to someone else. Therefore they use whatever they have, aware that they are accountable to God for how they manage his assets.

The second basic truth that they realise is that their whole life is an act of worship. Wherever they are, and whatever they are doing, they function as servants of God who are dedicated to his will. They have heeded Paul’s exhortation in 12:1-2: ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ A person who has adopted these basic outlooks on life will not serve mammon.

The contrast with money points to at least two other features that should mark a follower of Jesus. The first is that they should find their security in God. Those who serve mammon find their safety in what it can give, and often discover that it is very insecure. Disciples of Jesus have perfect and endless security in their God: ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:38-39).

The second feature is that disciples of Jesus should be satisfied with God and his dealings with them. In our use of language, the pronoun ‘my’ indicates what we possess. What more can a person say than ‘my God’, and what more will a person eventually want? If he has God, he has found the source of living water that will satisfy his soul for ever.

James Boice asks this very challenging question: ‘Can anything be more insulting to God, who has redeemed us from the slavery of sin, put us in Christ, and given us all things richly to enjoy than  to take the name of our God upon us, to be called by his name, and then to demonstrate by every action and every decision of life that we actually serve money?’ 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Who is my Master? (Matt. 6:24)

Jesus uses an illustration of two men with different priorities to illustrate that a Christian cannot serve God and money. What can we deduce from his story?

First, the contrast between serving money or God is a reminder that we all serve someone or something. The kind of service that Jesus is describing is slavery, that of total submission. Today we hear a lot about freedom, whether it is freedom of lifestyle or freedom of speech. Yet nobody is totally free because each person serves someone or something. We cannot, by nature, avoid serving in this way because it is how we are made. The only Person who is not a slave is God. He alone possesses total freedom to act independent of all creatures and things. But we must serve, and the service always comes down to a choice between God and something else. If we cease to serve God, we still serve.

Second, Jesus forbids dabbling with God. Today, it is very common for people to have a wide variety of interests. They want to try a little of everything, and rather unusually they conclude that a sample of a range of things makes them experts on the various things they have tried. One example is that people spend a fortnight annually in other parts of the world, and many of them then speak as if they were experts on the parts of the world which they have visited. At one level, we can smile at such claims. Yet the same attitude is adopted with regard to God. Just as the media has its religious slot, so individuals have their religious space in which they dabble with various religious ideas. Jesus forbids such a treatment of God. The Lord does not want a fraction of our lives, he demands all of it.

Sometimes we can unwittingly go along with this idea. For example, with regard to the fourth commandment, we can give the impression that we have six days to do what we like and only have to give one day exclusively to God. Yet the reality is that God expects us to serve him wholeheartedly during the six weekdays as well, whether in business, leisure or other activities. God claims the whole week for himself, and we dare not have a period in which he is not in charge.

Thirdly, Jesus forbids compromise when he says that we cannot serve God and mammon. I suppose that the feature that distinguishes the western world from other areas is our focus on finance. We even speak of western countries as western economies. This feature has its own set of values, and sometimes its values are directly opposed to biblical values. I remember a few years ago when there was the striking contrast between Europe with its overflowing silos and Africa with its starving populations. Europe did not need the food in its silos, but the food was not sent to Africa because these countries could not afford it. Christian ethics would insist on giving the surplus food away for nothing.

We will consider some other aspects of Christian service tomorrow.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

What details does a healthy Christian see? (Matt. 6:22-23)

Many answers could be given to this question, and I will mention four of them.

First, he sees that when he sins he has an Advocate in heaven. This remarkable strength of vision is described by the apostle John in 1 John 2:1: ‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.’ A spiritually-healthy believer will sin, because there is not such a person as a sinless believer here on earth. His spiritual discernment will notice his sins in a very clear and precise manner; he will recognise them for what they are. And he will not attempt to make excuses for them. Instead he will confess them for what they are – sins against a reconciled God. With gladness, through his tears of repentance, he will see his representative in God’s presence. This representative is his Advocate, Jesus Christ. As he looks at his Advocate, he will observe that his Agent is not only in heaven, but is also on the throne in heaven, able to speak with power and authority on his behalf. As he focuses on his Advocate, he hears him say that his client is guilty, but that his debts have been paid, and that he is entitled to pardon.

Second, the spiritually-healthy Christian sees the value of holiness. Despite the fact that he is a sinner, he has experienced the promise of the Saviour given in the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ He knows that a fuller experience of purity in the eternal place of blessedness yet awaits him. Yet in the meantime he experiences sweet fellowship with God and discovers that the main barrier to seeing God day by day is sin.  Therefore he resolves to fight against personal sin as determinately as he can. Often he prays that God would deal with his tendencies to draw way from looking at the beauty of the Lord. His priority is described in Psalm 27:4: ‘One thing have I asked of the Lord , that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.’ The more he sees God, the more like God he becomes, and therefore he loves holiness increasingly.

Third, the spiritually-healthy Christian sees the hand of God in providence. Often he finds himself in a difficult situation, and observes that others seem to lose hope in the gruelling experience. Although he feels the pain and distress, even the confusion, connected to his situation, he sees that the current trouble is part of a process planned for him by his heavenly Father. He sees that, in a way not explained in earthly remedies, his troubles will bring about great blessings for him. He sits down beside Job and states with confidence regarding God: ‘Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold’ (Job 23:8-10). Or he moves along and sits besides Paul and confesses: ‘So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’ (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Fourth, the spiritually-healthy Christian loves to look at heaven. We may ask, how can a person in this life possibly see heaven because it is so far away? The answer to this question is to use the telescope that God has given to each of his people. This telescope is the Bible. Bunyan, if we recall, describes how travellers to the Celestial City can, on a clear day, look through a glass and see the gates of the heavenly city. The promises of the Bible jump over centuries of earthly history. We have the same descriptions and promises as encouraged the Christian believers in the first century. By using them, and training our eyes how to direct the telescope of God’s Word, we can from this world see beautiful sights in the heavenly world. We can see the rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents, we can see the activities of the King of the church as he defends and develops his kingdom on earth, we can see the arrival of a saint to his heavenly home, we can see ahead to the day of Christ’s return, and we can see the onset and the life of the new heavens and new earth.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Good eyesight (Matt. 6:22-23)

Jesus makes an analogy between one’s physical body and one’s spiritual perception. One’s eye is what enables the person to see. Other parts of our body depend on our vision. Without sight, we cannot use our hands or feet to the same extent; we cannot select our food and eat various foodstuffs – for example, we would not know the difference between good food and bad food.

The spiritual life needs healthy vision in order to develop. When I was in school, the nurse there would always look into my eyes to see if there was anything wrong. I had no idea what she was looking for, but she regarded it as very important. Jesus here is indicating that his disciples should get the eyes of their soul tested frequently.

The word that is translated ‘healthy’ can mean simple, sincere, straightforward, dedicated, even generous. Some of the Jewish rabbis referred to selfishness as the evil eye, and we can see a possible connection to generosity in the context because Jesus tells his disciples not to lay up treasures for themselves and not to be slaves of mammon. Yet I suspect that generosity is only one of the results of having spiritual vision; other consequences will include the other biblical aspects included under the service of Christ.

Peter mentions some visual problems in 2 Peter 1:9. In verse 5-8 he lists several features of a healthy spiritual life: ‘For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge,  and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,  and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.’ These qualities will give us an experimental knowledge of Jesus Christ (v. 8). But if we fail to increase in these aspects, the apostle’s prognosis is that we have a problem with our vision: ‘For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind.’ Perhaps mixing his medical metaphors, Peter says that problems with spiritual vision are connected to a poor memory: such a person has ‘forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins’ (v. 9).

In the previous verses of Matthew 6, Jesus has instructed his disciples about ensuring that they possess spiritual riches. Inevitably his comments on spiritual vision must be connected, at least initially, with that requirement. By way of illustration, he is teaching that his disciples, when in a healthy spiritual state, will be marked by a good long vision; they will be able to see into heaven and apply to themselves here what is going on there.

As far as natural sight is concerned, we know that often the key to a difficult task is to have a steady eye looking at a fixed point. A businessman has a plan that at a certain time he will have made a certain amount of progress; if his plan is sound, he knows that as long as he does not divert from his marked-out goal he will be successful.

So how does a Christian see? Obviously he needs heavenly enlightenment, a reminder that a Christian sees heavenly things through a renewed understanding of spiritual realities. This enlightenment is given to him through the teaching of the Holy Spirit.

This increase in understanding is not dependent on natural intelligence. Obviously an individual with greater mental capabilities will be able to have a certain depth of understanding, and there is always the possibility that such will be confused with spiritual enlightenment. For example, a person with a good intellect will grasp the various viewpoints that there are held about a particular biblical doctrine. If this knowledge helps him see the value of the true interpretation, then it is a help. But if it does not help him decide regarding the true interpretation, then he is in a worse position than the Christian with little intellectual knowledge who yet understands through the Spirit’s teaching the true meaning of the passage.

Our prayer should always be that of the psalmist in Psalm 86:11: ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.’ In addition, we can use the prayer found in Psalm 119:29: ‘Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law!’

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Treasures in Heaven (Matt. 6:19-21)

As we consider what the Bank of Heaven has to offer, we can see that it is the opposite of the Bank of Earth which we thought about yesterday. 

First, the manager of this bank is Jesus Christ. There is also a queue outside this bank because those in it have been attracted by an amazing offer – this bank promises to right off everyone’s debt than they owe to God. Each person has incalculable outstanding debts caused by their failure to live according to God’s law and for his glory. Yet they can be written off because the Manager, who possesses sufficient riches (his own obedience to God’s law and his payment of the penalty for their failure), freely gives of these riches to the bankrupts and makes them all wealthy.

There is something surprising about this queue. Each person is weeping (because of their sins), each one is seen immediately (no waiting time), and each one is given great riches. In fact, the Manager declares that they now have been adopted into the same family as himself (his Father owns the Bank) and they have become joint-heirs with him of all the wealth of the Bank of Heaven.

Unlike the Bank of Earth, the heavenly bank has an impenetrable security system that the rogue traders cannot access. Much as they would like to discover the codes, they are beyond the ability of any creature to locate. Therefore, they cannot do any damage to the accounts lodged in the heavenly bank.

Also, the Bank of Heaven has a long-term policy that will survive the Crunch when it comes.  Death does not bring an end to its policies. Instead the policy holders will discover that the Bank has achieved high earnings on their behalf and they are now rich beyond calculation. Each one of them receives a crown and an eternal inheritance.

The customers of this bank are involved often in its affairs. Each time that they come to speak to the Owner or to the Manager (in prayer) their account increases in value. Out of their resources, they give to the customer what he or she asks for – commodities such as love, joy, peace, strength – and these goods help increase the contents of the customer’s account. Further, the Bank has a rewards scheme – every time that an existing customer manages to get a new customer (evangelism), both of them receive an additional amount into their account. A third policy of the bank is that if a customer shares what he has with another customer, then he will receive a reward for his generosity. In fact, this is the striking feature of all the customers of the Bank of Heaven – they are marked by generosity.

Which bank are you investing in today?

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Treasures not in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21)

Jesus continues to address the issue of the priorities of his disciples. He has already taught them about priorities in the spiritual disciplines of almsgiving, prayer and fasting, which is to seek the approval of God and not to be concerned about the opinions of humans. In other words, he is demanding that his disciples will not be guilty of hypocrisy.

The Saviour turns the attention of his disciples to the issue of accumulating possessions and other treasures. In particular he speaks concerning the danger of covetousness. Covetousness reveals itself in many ways. Yet basically it is an attitude that is earthly-centred and self-centred (Jesus does only say here that we are not to lay up treasures on earth; he also says that we are not to lay up treasures for ourselves on earth). Its assessment of what is valuable is deduced from what is regarded as important by the world. We can see one aspect of covetousness in the wrong practices that Jesus has just condemned. The religious leaders of Israel coveted the plaudits of their fellow humans.

Of course, we are not to assume that Jesus is saying that his followers should not have any earthly wealth. We know that many individuals in the Bible were wealthy. Yet riches and other possessions require those who have them to be careful regarding them. 

I suppose we could say that the Saviour here is like a financial adviser. We go to such a person to get advice for our lending and for our savings. Such a person will point out the downsides of investing in one bank or company and the benefits of putting our assets in another bank or company. Jesus says that the institution called the Bank of Earth is very insecure whereas the establishment called the Bank of Heaven is totally secure.

The manager of the Bank of Earth looks like a very charming person and he is always ready with his advice. His name is Mr. Devil, and he is marked by an inability to tell the truth. Nevertheless there is a permanent queue outside his office composed of individuals who want to strike it rich in this world. On the walls of the corridors outside his office are many posters indicating the variety of riches that he promises to provide. They highlight the range of pleasures that we could enjoy if we follow his advice and use our assets according to his suggestions. There is a policy for every type of person, suitably adjusted to their personal tastes and interests.

Yet upon closer examination, there are several important defects in this bank. Jesus states some of these defects. First, this bank is full of rogue traders, some of whom work in the bank and some of whom are trying to steal its assets. Strangely, both those working in the bank and those stealing from the bank are employees of the manager. The aims of these rogue traders is to make every customer of the bank into a pauper. They work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and don’t take any holidays. Although the people in the queue may think the staff are very busy, they don’t realise that they are busy impoverishing those who previously stood in the queue. In fact, if a person stays with this bank, he will eventually lose his soul.

A second defect of the bank’s policies is the short-sighted nature of the terms of each one. None of them offer the potential clients a long-term investment of more than a few decades. The policies cannot survive a particular crisis that is ahead of each of the clients, a credit crunch which is called Death. This bank has no answers for this situation, in fact it does not care that its clients will face total ruin when that moment comes. It cannot even guarantee that its clients, once they adopt one of the policies, will be able to enjoy them for one day because, for all they know, the Crunch for them be come very soon. As far as the customers of this bank are concerned, it is impossible to have a prosperous future after the Crunch. Each one of them will be a pauper for ever.

A third defect of the bank’s policies is the negative effect they have on the customers. Instead of giving to the investors a sense of security, they receive a sense of unease with how their assets are being handled, of disappointment with the returns, of trepidation about the future, of concern as they realise their investments are locked into a process that is destroying them. The prospects that at one time seemed to promise so much evaporate, leaving dissatisfaction and dismay in the outlook of the investors as their policies draw near to maturation.

What about the Bank of Heaven? We will think about it tomorrow.