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.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Jesus, the Word

In John 1:1ff., the author describes the activities of the eternal Son before he became a man. One of those activities was his participation in the divine work of creation, which was when other forms of life commenced. Before then, only the eternal God existed, and did so as the three persons of the Trinity.

Within the Trinity, the Son (the Word) was face to face with the Father. In using the title 'the Word', John indicates that communication was taking place. While it is not possible to insist on what were the specific details shared between them, it is reasonable to suggest that they were delighting in the divine plan of salvation because that was how divine glory would be revealed.

The interaction between the three persons was without beginning. Nor was the sharing a process of discovery about the details of the divine plan. The fellowship within the Trinity was one of omniscience as well as of love. The Father, the Son and the Spirit enjoyed unending delight in contemplating the revelation of glory that was yet to commence elsewhere.

In John 1:14, the author explains how this revelation would be possible. it would occur after the Word was made flesh. The Incarnation of the Son, him becoming man, was a great miracle. He did not cease to be the Word, so his identity remained unchanged. Yet his audience did, because on earth he now communicated with men and women and children about the divine plan for their salvation.

In contrast to the response in heaven, the sharing on earth was rejected by many. This rejection commenced at his birth. Although he had not personally said anything as a man, sufficient revelation was given about him to recognise who he was. Shepherds and wise men believed in him, rulers and religious leaders did not.

The rejection showed itself later when the inhabitants of his hometown Nazareth opposed his teaching. They were not the last to do during his years of public ministry. Yet John says that there were those who received him and became members of God's family. They saw the glory that he had come to show to them, a glory that was marked by grace and truth.

They saw his glory in his interactions with sinners as he spoke and acted graciously and truthfully. The 'they' included all kinds of people - fishermen who became apostles, religious leaders like Nicodemus, social outcasts like the woman of Samaria. Eventually they discovered that the communication of glory would involve the darkness of the cross.

They did not understand this initially. Then the resurrection of Jesus brought new insights for them regarding his communication about his coming and what would occur afterwards. Now their desire was to serve him here and then go to be with him in heaven and discover more of what he has to say to them about the plan of God that had been the focus of the Trinity from everlasting. And his communication of the divine purpose will never cease because he will continue to lead them, and all other believers, to the fountains of the waters of life (Rev. 8:17).

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Jesus our Advocate

The apostle John reminds his readers that as Christians they have an advocate with the Father, and that their advocate is Jesus (1 John 2:1). Perhaps we are surprised by that information. After all, have they not been forgiven all their sins by their heavenly Father? So why do they need Jesus as an advocate?

Perhaps the problem we have is caused by us assuming John has in mind the roles that advocates play in our legal system. In our courtrooms, an advocate stands before the judge because he has no say in the verdict. It is different with Jesus because he sits alongside the Judge on the heavenly throne – he sits on the same place as where God the Father is.

Moreover, when an advocate takes part in a court case, he does not know what is going through the mind of the person he represents. He may suspect that the accused person is guilty of the crime, yet his task is to persuade the jury and the judge that the accused is innocent. Nor does the advocate know if the judge is interested in the person on trial; after all it is likely that the judge and the accused have never met before.

With Jesus, it is very different. He knows everything about his clients and about the Judge, his heavenly Father. Jesus knows that his clients are guilty, in fact he has a policy of only representing those who are guilty. And when he speaks about them to the Judge he stresses that they are guilty of their sins. Jesus also knows that the Judge loves them as his children.

An advocate in our courtrooms, when he senses that the case for his client is bad, will look for mitigating circumstances to try and reduce the sentence. Jesus does not present any mitigating factors: he does not base his argument on our regret for past errors or our good intentions for the future. Instead, Jesus points to the wounds that mark his body. Those wounds are the permanent reminder in the heavenly courtroom that the price of sin has been paid. Unlike earthly advocates, Jesus does not have to make a speech urging clemency. Indeed, he does not have to say anything because his wounds speak very loudly.

Murray McCheyne has recorded how he interpreted this verse: ‘I feel, when I have sinned, an immediate reluctance to go to Christ. I am ashamed to go. I feel as if it would do no good to go, as if it were making Christ a minister of sin, to go straight from the swine-trough to the best robe, and a thousand other excuses; but I am persuaded they are all lies, direct from hell. John argues the opposite way: “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father.” I am sure there is neither peace nor safety from deeper sin, but in going directly to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is God’s way of peace and holiness. It is folly to the world and the beclouded heart, but it is the way.’

Monday, 7 November 2016

A Robber's Repentance (Luke 23:39-43)

This nameless criminal had joined his fellow in mocking the suffering Saviour (Matt. 27:44). A short time later, he changed his outlook and instead rebuked his former partner in crime. What brought about the change cannot be fully known. Yet we can observe some details that Luke mentions.

First, the condemned men knew in a vague way initially what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ. We can see that was the case from the way the other criminal spoke to Jesus (Luke 23:39). He joined together the word 'Christ' and the concept of salvation when he asked that Jesus would save them from the cross. Of course, he may have been mocking, and he only wanted to be rescued from crucifixion in any case. Still they linked together the Messiah and salvation, which is a pointer towards them having some grasp of the message of the Old Testament. And the penitent criminal became aware that Jesus was the Messiah with a very different salvation on offer.

Second, the criminal who repented had been thinking about God, and thinking about him as the judge. We can see that was the case from the way that he addressed his fellow-criminal. He appreciated that the proper response towards God was one of reverential fear. In addition, he realised that in a short time he would stand before God as Judge and give account for his actions. And he knew that condemnation for his actions would be completely just as far as God was concerned.

Third, the penitent criminal recognised the uniqueness of Jesus when he stated that he had done nothing wrong. He came to the same conclusion as did the centurion later because they both stated that Jesus was innocent. One assumes it was connected to the demeanour of Jesus on the cross. People behave usually according to their circumstances. If an individual finds himself in a place of cruelty and pain from which there is no escape he will show his response by his angry and desperate words. Yet the criminal had observed that Jesus behaved totally differently. Instead of hatred, there was love revealed when he prayed for the soldiers. The criminal heard words that would have indicated to him that the One suffering beside him knew how great sinners could be forgiven.

Repentance occurs when we grasp that Jesus is the Saviour of sinners. It follows the realisation that we will give an account of our lives to the God we have offended. And a penitent person recognises the great difference between his imperfection and the perfection of Jesus.

Did the dying criminal put those three things together – Jesus being the Christ, his fear of God the Judge, and the prayer of Jesus for the soldiers – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? There could have been many other aspects to his case, but they all led him to make an incredible request.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A surprising conversion (Luke 23:39-43)

There are some surprising conversion accounts in the Bible, and several of them are described by Luke. Obviously, all the accounts in the Book of Acts were written by him, and among them is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Luke also has surprising stories in his Gospel, such as the conversion of Zacchaeus. But none of them are as surprising as the conversion experienced by the individual known as the thief on the cross.

This man may well have indulged in acts of thievery, but he was much more than a common thief. The reason why he was crucified was because he had participated in an attempted revolt against the Roman authorities, a revolt in which people had been killed. This means that he was probably a nationalistic Jew with a deep desire for the liberation of his countrymen, and was prepared to fight for his convictions. He may even have been religious.

It was the custom for the civil authorities to place above the condemned person’s head the reason for his execution. So everyone who passed by Calvary would know what the Roman authorities thought about him. He was suffering because he had rebelled against their authority.

Many people have written and spoken about him since then, but not because of the reasons that would have been mentioned above his head. Spurgeon, in a sermon, reminds us that the criminal was the last companion of Jesus on earth and his first companion to follow him into heaven. He then pictures the criminal reaching heaven and mentions that this privilege of entering soon after Jesus was not given to an apostle or to a martyr. Instead, it was given to a lowly sinner, and Spurgeon describes Jesus as saying to the heavenly host, ‘I bring a sinner with me; he is a sample of the rest.’

John Calvin mentioned four things about the condemned man: ‘In this wicked man a striking mirror of the unexpected and incredible grace of God is held out to us, (1) not only in his being suddenly changed into a new man, when he was near death, (2) and drawn from hell itself to heaven, (3) but likewise in having obtained in a moment the forgiveness of all the sins in which he had been plunged through his whole life, and (4) in having been thus admitted to heaven before the apostles and first-fruits of the new Church.’

Here are six details that we can deduce from the conversion of the criminal: (1) He is a reminder that a person can be saved at the end of life. (2) He is a reminder that a person can be converted within a very short period of time. (3) He is a reminder that divine grace reaches down to the very bottom and lifts sinners very high. (4) He is a reminder that uncongenial circumstances are not a barrier to conversion. (5) He reminds us that close friends and colleagues can go through the same circumstances and experience very different outcomes. (6) He reminds that grace can give new insights very quickly.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

James 5:7-11 – Patience today

As we think of James’ focus on patience, three applications seem suitable. First, the requirement for patience is very counter cultural and that in two ways. Often the response of people when they have suffered is to take revenge. Here the believers are being told to leave revenge with the Lord and not to take it themselves. Again, today we live in instant society where we are led to assume that answers will be provided immediately. But that is not the law of God’s kingdom. He works to his own timetable, and our response is to be steadfastness or persistence.

Second, we should choose our heroes from those who are good examples of devoted service for Jesus. We all need role models. Sadly, today people try and copy celebrities and most of them are not good examples for Christians. Instead we should follow those who serve the Lord from the heart. We can read about them in biographies and see some of them in videos. It is also inevitable, given the nature of God’s grace, that we will see them in churches to which we belong. The best ones are in the Bible because there we have God’s descriptions of their lives. Not one of them was perfect, but all of them were dedicated servants of the Lord.

Third, the words of James here about the second coming challenge us to think about how our lives will look when they are assessed on the Day of Judgement. What will Jesus the Judge think then of our words and actions said and done today? He knows all the details and he will pronounce an accurate verdict. Our degree of dedication and the value of our words will resurface on that day. It is good to know that the Lord is merciful, but it is also important to remember that he is truthful and impartial, and we will discover each of them when we stand before him at the end of the day.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

James 5:9-11 – Grumbling doesn’t help

When James mentions grumbling here, he connects it to the second coming of Jesus, except that on this occasion he describes Jesus as the Judge. The picture James uses is that of the Judge observing what is happening and listening to what is said. 

Obviously, this fits with James’ ongoing comments on the misuse of the tongue. It may be the case that times of opposition are occasions when grumbling is more likely. Yet grumbling, whenever it occurs, is an inaccurate comment on the providence of God, and is obviously not an expression of brotherly love.

Instead of grumbling, James says that his readers should think about Old Testament examples of persevering in times of trial. The first example are the Old Testament prophets who remained steadfast in times of severe opposition. We should be able to recall what happened to some of them. Jeremiah was placed in a pit, Daniel was put in a den of lions, and Isaiah was sawn in two. The message given to each by God resulted in very strong opposition and several paid for their testimony with their lives. But they persevered!

The second example mentioned by James is an individual, Job. We know his story, how he had to persevere in his faith through a sequence of tragedies involving his possessions, his family and his health. How did Job cope with his troubles? He did not get much help from the advice of his friends. Instead he thought of the coming of the Lord. 

We are familiar with the words recorded in Job 19:25-27: ‘For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!’ 

In that verse, he accepts the possibility that things in this life might get even worse for him, yet he also affirms that eventually he would meet with God in the form of a Redeemer, a wonderful description of Jesus. And so he persevered.