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.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The approach of the leper (Matthew 8:1-4)

We are not told how the leper knew he could come to Jesus nor why he should want to come to Jesus. The assumption is that he had heard of the miracles that Jesus had already performed (Matthew 4:23) and decided that since Jesus had helped others he could help him as well. Such a deduction is part of the logic of saving faith because it learns from the experience of others. He had heard that others had been helped by Jesus and therefore was optimistic that he would help him also.

The leper’s approach to Jesus shows to us how a sinner should come to Jesus for mercy. First, he acknowledged that Jesus was divine. It would be possible to suggest that the title ‘Lord’ was only one of respect, yet when combined with his action of kneeling we can see that the leper recognised that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Here we have an example of God’s amazing grace in which he enlightens an unexpected person to confess the superiority of Jesus.

At the same time, the leper expressed his submission to Jesus when he focussed on whether or not the Lord was willing to help him. Of course, the leper is not suggesting that Jesus would be reluctant to heal. Instead he is expressing his conviction that Jesus is sovereign even in how he chooses to help needy people. The leper recognised that he was not in a position to make demands of Jesus. And we must come to that realisation. Desperation is not a valid reason for disrespect.

The leper’s confession also highlights his spirituality. After all, he did not ask Jesus to heal him. Instead he asked Jesus to make him clean. His focus on cleansing informs us he wanted to worship God in the temple with his people. If all that he wanted was to be able to go in and out in the community, he only needed physical healing. But he also wanted to be right with God, which tells us that there was a spiritual desire in his request. 

His grasp that he needed cleansing points to the reality that he recognised that he was a sinner. So we can deduce that in his request there was an expression of repentance. This recognition can also be seen in his awareness that Jesus was divine. Why else would he have gone to Jesus for help?

Sunday, 10 December 2017

A picture of sin (Matthew 8:1-4)

There are various ways in the Bible by which leprosy pictured sin. Leprosy prevented someone from approaching the temple to worship God. This means that leprosy illustrated someone who was separated from God, and sin does this in a far more serious way that leprosy does. There will be lepers in heaven who were never healed of their leprosy, but there will be no sinners in heaven who were not healed of sin and its consequences. It is a solemn fact that sin creates a separation between us and God.

Another feature of leprosy is that it is not a static disease. The person who has it knows that his state will get worse. That is what sin does to people as well. We see young children and they seem so innocent, but who knows what they will do when they become adults. Many a teenager played with a sin and they are now under its grip and they are very different from what they once were. Everyone knows that bad habits have consequences. The real name for bad habits is sin. The fact is, if we don’t do something about our sins, our sins will do something to us and make us worse.

A third way in which leprosy depicts sin is that it brings sorrow in its path. Imagine the devastation that would come into a family if one of the members was affected by the disease. What sorrows and disappointments there would be! And sin leaves a trail of sorrow behind it. How much sorrow is in the world, no one can say. But we can say about the sorrows that in one way or another they are here because of sin.

There is a fourth way in which leprosy depicts sin and that is that it leads to death. We know that some illnesses are incurable sadly and will lead eventually to death. And that is where sin is taking every person living today, it is where it has taken every person who lived in the past, and it will take every person who will live in the future. Sin guarantees a definite result. Those who are sinners will die, not just physically but also eternally.

So we see four ways at least in which leprosy is a picture of us in our sins. It separates, it progresses, it saddens and it will bring about death. We can imagine how desolating the poor leper must have felt. The reality is that our sins should make us feel far more desolate because sin is a worse disease than leprosy. For most of his life, at least since he had become a leper, this man would have had no hope. But one day he heard about Jesus and determined to see if he could be helped by him.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Jesus and needy individuals (Matthew 8:1-4)

Matthew mentions that Jesus was followed by great crowds and no doubt each of them had a story to tell about what they thought of Jesus and perhaps some of them had received a great blessing from him. Nevertheless, in this chapter, Matthew chooses to describe isolated incidents in which Jesus helped unlikely people.

The Gospel of Matthew was constructed by him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we could learn about Jesus. In this chapter he includes several occasions when Jesus performed a miracle. Matthew has already mentioned that Jesus performed miracles, but until now he did not say very much about them. Now he chooses several that reveal among other things the power of Jesus over disease, death and demonic destruction, things that were the consequences of sin. Each incident tells us other details about Jesus as well, but the overall design is to reveal the incredible power of Jesus over other kinds of power. 

As far as the ritual religion of Israel was concerned, lepers were banned from the temple and could not participate in any of the services. This did not mean that a leper could not worship God in private. Yet the nature of his illness meant that he lived life in isolation because he was not allowed to mix with society. Lepers were outcasts both as far as religion and daily interaction was concerned.

Why did Matthew include this story? One obvious reason is that the performance of such a miracle was evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. The Old Testament contains many predictions about the activities of the Messiah and one was that he would help people in great need. A second reason would be his desire to tell social outcasts, of which there were many at that time, that Jesus, although now exalted to heaven by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, welcomes such outcasts into his company. A third reason is that leprosy is a picture of sin and therefore when someone was cured of leprosy he illustrated what Jesus can do for sinners in the gospel. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

Two houses and two foundations (Matthew 7:24-29)

The imagery of a building and its foundation is often used in the Bible to illustrate different points. For example, Jesus told Peter about how the church would be built on the foundation mentioned by Peter. Paul described the church as a building erected on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. He also referred to the possibility of believers erecting good or bad buildings on the foundation of Jesus. And here Jesus mentions two foundations, each of which had a good-looking building erected on it.

In this illustration, unlike the other examples just mentioned, the problem with one of the houses is the foundation. The other house had a good foundation, the teachings of Jesus. What would the bad foundation of sand be? Anything apart from the teachings of Jesus. There are lots of alternative foundations – religions, traditions, novelties, philosophies, but the point of a foundation is that it will remain solid no matter the weather.

One day, a storm will come and overthrow the building on the wrong foundation. Probably, the storm here is the Day of Judgement. We can imagine someone expressing confidence that his religion or his other ideas will do him very well when the judgement comes. Picture his surprise and shock when he discovers that it is otherwise. And then picture his sorrow that it is too late.

The obvious application is to obey the instructions of Jesus at all times. That is the mark of real disciples. It is obvious that the crowd were impressed by what Jesus said and by how he taught with authority. But being impressed is not enough. There has to be recognition in our hearts of his Lordship and a determination to practice, with his help, what he requires.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

False teachers (Matthew 7:15-25)

Jesus informs his disciples that false teachers will look good because they wear sheep’s clothing. The danger is in their hearts. Yet how can we know false prophets since we cannot read their hearts. Jesus points out that we can know them by their fruits, which is another way of describing their followers. Their followers will be spiritually unhealthy. 

How can we discover the unhealthy fruit? Jesus says that we should not focus on what they say about him, but on how they react to his teaching about discipleship. He mentions that they will call him Lord quite earnestly (they say the title twice), but that in itself is not evidence that they are healthy. In addition, there must be submission to the revealed will of Jesus, which he calls here the will of his Father in heaven.

In verses 21-23, Jesus may be describing the false prophets themselves or he may be referring to both them and their followers. We are not meant to read those comments about prophesying and casting out demons, and then try and work out which groups today engage in those practices, and then condemn them. After all, Jesus and his disciples also did those activities. What we are seeing here is the solemn fact that those not connected to Jesus can do things that give the impression initially that they are serving Jesus.

Those persons are described by Jesus in two ways. One is that they are workers of lawlessness, which is another way of saying that they do not do his revealed will for his disciples. We have seen in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus prioritised the state of the heart. If the heart is not right, outward actions are meaningless.

The Saviour also mentioned that he will say to such persons on the Day of Judgement that he never knew them. He did not say that he did not know about them. From that point of view he knew everything about them. What he meant was that he and they did not have an intimate relationship. At as basic level, they had not spent time together. True disciples experience his presence as they read his Word, pray and obey his will. They have his company at such times and it can be said of them that he knows them very well from regular contact with him.

The obvious feature that stands out in this section of the passage is the emptiness of a merely external religion, even when right words are said and right actions are performed. Instead the question is, How well do I know Jesus by experience and how well does he know us by intimate contact?

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Two roads (Matthew 7:13-14)

The key to this illustration is the gate into each road. It looks as if Jesus is using a crossroads to illustrate his point. The gate to the broad road is wide, the road itself is downhill (is that what he means by easy?), and its terminus is destruction. There is a signpost indicating where the road will take those who travel on it. The gate is so wide you can take everything with you as you journey along. Because it is downhill, the journey is not hard, even for those who have problems.

In contrast, the gate to the other path is narrow. We are familiar with stiles, and it is very hard to go through them with a lot of baggage. Moreover, the choice to enter through this gate is unpopular, with not many going through it. Also the road is at times difficult to find, maybe because of overgrowth, but for those who travel all the way it leads to life.

Why is the narrow gate unpopular? Various answers can be given to this question. First, since it is narrow, it is not easily seen. And we know how difficult today it can be for the gospel to have a space in the lives of people. Second, others when they see it, don’t like what they see because in their eyes it looks very unattractive because of its seeming limitations as a road to anywhere meaningful.

It looks to me that Jesus is saying that what is needed are two things. First, at the entrance to the narrow way, one must get rid of baggage, which is a reference to our sins, which requires repentance. Second, when one is on the narrow way, one needs information about how to deal with issues that come along. This information comes from the teaching of Jesus, which is also a reminder that he is present to help on the narrow way.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The relevance of the Old Testament (Matthew 7:12)

Jesus teaches his disciples that this attitude is not only a summary of his Sermon on the Mount. He also states that it is a summary of the message of the Old Testament scriptures. The phrase ‘the law and the prophets’ is another way of saying the Old Testament. 

There is a tendency today to regard the Old Testament as inferior to the New and therefore less suitable for believers of this era. It is the case that those who lived in Old Testament times had less light and inferior experiences compared to New Testament believers. Yet the admittance of this historical distinction does not mean that the Old Testament itself should be regarded as inferior by us. The inability of Israelites and others to understand the Old Testament does not mean it does not contain very important teaching – information and instruction that continues today. 

Paul makes it clear that the Old Testament is given by God for the help of New Testament believers: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work’ (2. Tim. 3:16-17). Further Peter states that the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah were actually intended for New Testament believers: ‘Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look’ (1 Pet. 1:10-12).  So the Old Testament has the same message for believers as the New Testament does. 

Lloyd-Jones once commented that the law was not meant to be praised, but practiced. Jesus did not give the Sermon on the Mount for us to comment on, but to carry out. From those comments by Lloyd-Jones we can see that the Old Testament is a very practical book, full of instruction. Jesus elsewhere says that the Law and the prophets can be summed up as loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). Since that twofold description of love summarises the Ten Commandments we can also see that the Decalogue is the basis for life. The Golden Rule is obviously one way of expressing love for our neighbours.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Golden Rule (Matthew 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 their message 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. A brief survey of the Sermon on the Mount will remind us of several crucial features of the Christian life: Christian character as expressed in the Beatitudes; function as salt and light; a believer’s prayer life as summarised in the Lord’s Prayer and in the exhortations to ask, seek and knock; the need of mortification of inward sin as detailed in Jesus’ application of the ten commandments; and not to engage in wrong judging. We can then ask ourselves, What is the common goal of these spiritual disciplines? The answer to this important question is given in 7:12, and it is ‘healthy 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.’ That negative way of speaking has been found in other religions and in non-Christian philosophies. I don’t want a person to steal from me, and therefore I should not steal from him. I don’t want another person to speak badly about me, therefore I should not speak badly about him. Of course, it is good not to steal or to speak badly about others.

The words of Jesus demand far more. He says, ‘Do unto others what you would like them to do unto you, whether they do them or not.’ In other words, we know the best behaviour that another person should have. We are not to wait until they show it. Instead we are to show them how to do it, to become an example to others. In other words, Jesus wants his followers to live out the Sermon on the Mount wherever they are and whoever they are with. 

Certainty of answers (Matthew 7:6-12)

Concerning each of the methods of prayer in these verses, Jesus says that it will be successful. Here he teaches with emphasis that prayer is answered. This means that we can say that prayer proves the faithfulness of God to his promises, the wisdom of God regarding how he produces the answers, and the love and joy that he shows when doing so. Maybe it will be the case that when we get to the judgement seat we will discover how much we could have received if we had prayed oftener.

What reasons can be given for this failure? I will mention three. One of them is spiritual lethargy. We could say that since God knows what we need, he will give without us praying. But he has told us to pray for our needs. Or we could say that since God has planned everything, we don’t need to pray because our prayers will make no difference. That suggestion is evidence of spiritual laziness.

A second reason is our attitude towards God. Jesus mentions that here when he talks about a person not giving a stone instead of bread or a serpent instead of a fish. The one we pray to is the heavenly Father who delights to give good things to his children. I suspect that we have no idea how much the Father delights in the prayers of his people and in answering them.

A third reason is a failure to persevere, and we can see that perseverance is part of the description of prayer given here by Jesus. Why should we persevere? In addition to the fact that prayer is obedience to a divine command, persisting in prayer brings us repeatedly to God. It is inevitable, then, persistent prayer will change us and that is a blessing. And it may be the case that God delays the answer because we value it more than we value him.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The places of prayer (Matthew 7:6-12)

It is clear from his illustrations that Jesus has three different locations of prayer in mind. The locations are (1) where a person asks, (2) where a person seeks, and (3) where a person knocks.

When it comes to asking, Jesus gives us a clue to the place that he has in mind when he refers to a child asking his father for food. Asking in prayer is like a child drawing near to his father in dependence on him to meet every day needs. Of course, Jesus is not limiting this kind of prayer to literal children. Instead he is reminding his disciples that often they will be able to pray in such a straightforward way.

What kind of person is illustrated by the individual seeking in prayer? A person who seeks is usually focussed on something that can be found. So we can work out that a seeking person has listened to what the Bible says on the topic of prayer. At the same time, a person usually seeks for items that he regards as valuable. 

Knocking points to respect. I would not walk into a person’s house without knocking first. Similarly, when we draw near the throne of God we will be marked by reverence for the One who rules. Yet since Jesus uses the perfect tense here, we can work out that knocking includes perseverance to get access. This does not mean that God is reluctant to hear our prayers. He has not told us why he delays to answer our petitions at times.

Obviously, Jesus mentions three ways to pray. Is he saying that one form is more advanced than the others, that we start by asking, then move to seeking, and eventually become marked by knocking? I don’t think he is advocating that process. Instead, I would suggest that he is highlighting that there will be different kinds of prayers depending on the circumstances. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Ask, Seek and Knock (Matt. 7:6-12)

Clearly, Jesus uses three pictures to illustrate prayer. As we look at them, what ideas come into our minds? Here are five suggestions. One is simplicity, a second is nearness, a third is desire, a fourth is specificity and a fifth is persistence.

The simplicity is seen in the verbs that Jesus uses – ask, seek and knock. They are taken from everyday activities that each of his listeners had engaged in. We all know what it is to ask for something, to look for something, to knock at someone’s door. Here again we have an example of how Jesus taught – he took everyday instances and used them to teach spiritual truth in a manner that people could easily understand.

The three examples also indicate nearness. If we want to ask for something, we have to be within hearing distance of the person. If we seek for something, we need to be near the space where it can be found. And if we knock at a door, it is obvious that we have to be beside it. Prayer is drawing near to God. Of course, the disciples would have known that was the case because they had many examples in the Old Testament of individuals who had done so.

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

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

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

Friday, 1 December 2017

Ask, Seek and Knock (Matt. 7:6-12)

Jesus in this brief section returns to the topic of prayer. He has already given to his disciples the pattern prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer. We can deduce from the fact that he spoke again about prayer that he regarded it as an important activity for his disciples.

A question that arises is whether or not there are differences between what he said about the Lord’s Prayer and what he says here. Perhaps one is that the Lord’s Prayer guides us what to say in prayer and the verses here guide us regarding how we pray.

It is also the case that here Jesus indicates that not all prayer is the same. After all, there are obvious differences between asking, seeking and knocking in everyday life. Each of us may engage in them numerous times daily, but we would never describe them as the same activity.

Jesus here calls his disciples ‘evil’. What does he mean by that description? He does not mean that they are as bad as they could be. Rather he means that they are not good in the way that God is, perfectly good. His description highlights that we need grace, whether common or special, in order to live together. At the same time, his description is an encouragement because it means that only sinful people can pray (there is no other kind of believer in this life) and it is only sinful people who receive answers to prayer. Perhaps the disciples were thinking that Jesus, because he was different, always received answers to prayer. Whether they did or not, he points out that his followers also receive answers to prayer.

Obviously, this set of verses is not the only teaching in the Bible on prayer. We cannot use these verses by themselves and ignore what is said elsewhere. For example, we are told that we must pray according to God’s will, which is likely a reference to matters that he has revealed as suitable things to pray about. And we are also told in one of the psalms that if we regard sin in our hearts the Lord will not hear us. We can say that in order to pray Matthew 7:7-13 we also need to be submissive to God’s will and cleansed from sin.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

An example of judging (Matthew 7:1-6)

The Saviour instructs his disciples not to give what is holy to dogs or their pearls to swine. Obviously, a dog would not understand what to do with something that is dedicated to God and nor would a pig know what to do with pearls. At one level, this is common sense. Jesus is teaching his disciples that they have some things that others will not appreciate.

Jesus also teaches that it is not wise to try and give what is holy and what is valuable to people who are going to be enraged by it. This means that his disciples must work out if a situation is appropriate for them to mention what is holy or talk about their pearls. Although his people will be opposed at times, they have to judge when to speak.

We need to work out what is meant by holy and pearls and who are meant by dogs and pigs. Things that are holy belong to God and things that are pearls are valuable and attractive. It is not hard to see here a reference to the gospel and its benefits. Dogs and pigs describe animals that move aggressively in packs and herds. All they are interested in is their next meal. Did Jesus have the Pharisees and Sadducees in mind by those animal pictures? They would be the initial opponents of the disciples.

The disciples of Jesus will discover that many people will hate and despise and oppose the gospel, and sometimes do so violently, as is happening in many places today. Therefore, they need to be wise when they share their spiritual treasures with hostile unbelievers. In the Book of Acts, the apostles stopped preaching in the synagogues whenever the listeners became abusive and threatening. Spiritual treasures include the gospel, the teachings of the Bible, and the personal experiences of Christians.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Who is Jesus rebuking? (Matthew 7:1-6)

It is obvious that Jesus is describing a possible problem in the lives of his disciples. We can see this from his use of the term ‘brother’. Yet he is also probably describing a wrong way of dealing with people that was common at that time. He is still speaking about the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees that his disciples are to exceed.

The righteousness of the Pharisees was connected to all the additional rules that they added to God’s requirements. There were several hundred such additions to God’s law. Those additions were not required by God, but the Pharisees made them as important as God’s commandments, and they judged anyone who failed to meet their extra rules.

Jesus likens those extra requirements to a big log that is in the Pharisee’s eye. What does this illustration tell us about their extra rules? First, it means that they had no vision. In Psalm 19, David tells us what the effects of God’s commandments are – they give light, enabling a believer to make progress in the life of faith. In contrast, the rules that the Pharisees added were of no help at all in discovering the revealed will of God. Remember that Jesus later called them blind Pharisees.

Second, the rules they produced prevented close contact with other people. Whenever a person met a Pharisee, he would be hit by the log in the Pharisee’s eye. Jesus is saying that the requirements of the Pharisees damaged other people severely. They would not get a little tap from the log – after all, it was not a splinter that was sticking out of the Pharisee’s eye.

Third, the Pharisees found fault with trivial things. Jesus likens the matters they criticised to specks. Of course, the specks were not good, but they were not dangerous. Yet the self-righteous Pharisees majored on the minors. Of course, in order to find a speck, one has to engage in focussed scrutiny. Most people would not notice specks, but Pharisees do.

Fourth, the requirement for a person dealing with the faults of others is to get rid of his own faults first. How was the individual in the illustration going to get rid of the plank in his eye? It would be impossible for him to pull it out because it was beyond his reach. So he would need to get help from someone else. He could ask a friend to help him, but would his friends have the skills to deal with it? They would not. Instead, the only person who could remove the plank safely is God. It looks as if Jesus was saying that such sins can only be removed by the special treatment of the heavenly Physician.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

When to Judge, or how Not to Judge (Matthew 7:1-6)

One of the outlooks of contemporary life is that everyone should be free to do what they want. A consequence has been that most people are aware of verse 1, whether or not they know that it comes from the Bible. It has become very difficult to say that certain activities are wrong, especially if they are not harming anyone else. We should not be judgemental, we are told. Does Jesus support such an attitude in his teaching here about judging?

This particular instruction has been taken out of its context and used in a manner that forbids any critique of what others say and do. It is obvious from other biblical passages that the disciples of Jesus must assess what they hear and see, which means that they have to judge. If there is a biblical statement that forbids a particular practice, then the biblical statement must be obeyed, and it is appropriate for others to judge those who disobey it. The alternative is to allow everything and to accept that nothing is wrong.

In what kind of situations must we judge? Here are a few examples that the Bible mentions:
  • All believers are to assess the contents of the teachings they hear by the Bible. They are not to assume that what they hear is the truth (1 John 4:1).
  • The elders of a church, on behalf of the church, are to judge if a member should be disciplined and to what extent he or she should be disciplined (Matt. 18:17). An example of this occurred in Corinth (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
  • Church members should assess when other believers are causing problems and should respond to them in a biblical way (1 Thess. 5:14).
  • An individual Christian, when he sees a brother do something that is wrong, should make every effort to restore him (Matt. 18:15). But he cannot do this unless he has judged the activity to be wrong.
On the other hand, there are some situations in which we should not judge another believer. Here are some of them:
  • We should respect the consciences of individual Christians regarding issues that in themselves are neither right or wrong. Paul describes how they should be treated when he discusses weak and strong believers in Romans and 1 Corinthians.
  • We should not judge people by appearances. James warns his readers not to assume that rich, well-dressed people who attended the Christian gatherings would help, and he also warned them not to despise the poor.
  • We should not judge the service that another Christian gives to the Lord as long as that believer is following biblical guidelines (1 Cor. 4:1-5).
  • We should not attempt to judge another person’s motives. After all, only God knows the heart.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Putting God’s kingdom first (Matthew 6:33)

Worry becomes a problem when it prevents us from engaging in what should be our priority. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God must have priority in the outlook of his disciples. This means that they should obey his instructions. Here are four requirements that our King spells out for his followers.

The first requirement is that his disciples should speak to him and to his Father. Jesus has already mentioned the importance of prayer in what we call the Lord’s Prayer and he will mention other details about prayer in the next chapter. As we can see from what he taught, speaking to him should be simple and spiritual.

A second way of seeking first the kingdom is that his disciples show love for and to the other members of his kingdom. After all, the kingdom that he came to set up is one that is marked by love. This mutual love will be displayed in numerous ways, but each expression is a sign that those involved are seeking first the kingdom of God.

A third way of doing this is that the followers of Jesus should oppose those who resist the advance of the kingdom of Jesus. Behind those who try this are the powers of darkness. The disciples of Jesus are conscious that they are involved in a spiritual battle that requires them to be alert always to the possibility of spiritual attack. And when it happens, usually through false teaching, they will refuse to accept what is being said.

And a fourth way of seeking first the kingdom of God is by them working to extend its influence. They know that this takes place through the spread of the gospel. In a sense, spreading the gospel can be summarised as speaking about the King of the kingdom. Members of the kingdom of Jesus delight to speak about him in ways suitable to the circumstance they find themselves in.

Jesus provides special assurance here when he promises his disciples that living for the kingdom does mean that they will find themselves without future needs being met. He assures them that their food and clothing – depicting whatever they need for life in this world – will be provided for them. This promise liberates them to serve Jesus wherever they are without worrying about the future.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Should we worry that we’re worried? (Matthew 6:25-34)

Jesus here is not speaking about legitimate concerns church leaders may have or parents may have or employers may have or governments may have. It is important for people to care about the influence of Christianity, about the future of their families, about finding areas of work, about the concerns of the government. 

Jesus asks his disciples to think about what is most important in life. Is life primarily about food and clothes? As we can see, Jesus refers to birds who are fed by God. Jesus is not suggesting inactivity because birds have to search for food every day, and sometimes it seems scarce. Yet the birds don’t begin the day worrying about their food – they expect to find it. They don’t know it, but the responsibility belongs to someone else, to God. Believers know that God has promised to give them what they need.

Jesus also points out that people often worry about things they cannot change. He mentions trying to add years to our lives. Who knows how long a person will live? God does, and the psalmist reminds us in Psalm 139 that all our days have been planned by God. The Father will provide, says Jesus, for the needs of his people every day. Why does he do so? Because his people mean something to him that the birds do not – after all, his people are his children.

It looks as if clothing was a big concern at that time. Unlike us, who tend to throw clothes away, good clothing then was a means of wealth and sometimes such clothing was handed on as family heirlooms. The problem in their attitude here seems to have been worrying about what clothes they would have in a few years’ time. 

Does God care about clothes in this sense? Jesus refers to what God does with lilies. The point is that God spends a lot of care on something whose existence is short-lived. Probably, the disciples should have deduced that God would show greater care for them every day. It is inconceivable that he would express greater concern for short-lived flowers. Worry reveals what we think God’s priorities are – it is an expression of distrust towards his commitment to meet the needs of his people.

Jesus highlights the root of the problem when he describes his disciples as ‘little faith’. It is important to realise that this name expresses his love and not his anger. After all, it was true faith that they had showed when they became disciples. But their faith had to grow and therefore they should focus on God and his promises of care

Friday, 24 November 2017

Storing heavenly riches (Matthew 6:19-24)

Jesus here teaches his disciples that they should engage in storing heavenly riches. How do they do so? A simple but correct answer would be to say that they engage in the various features that Jesus has already mentioned in this sermon on the mount. By doing them, his disciples will store up treasures in heaven. So we can think about that briefly.

The first example is almsgiving. Who were the people helping when they gave alms? Usually it was their fellow Jews. They were helping those that they knew were depending on God to meet their needs. I think Jesus expects his people who have assets to help those of his people who do not have any. This is the thrust of his parable about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. In that parable, Jesus speaks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so on. He even says that when they did so, they were doing it to him, a reminder of the union that believers have with Jesus.

This does not mean that they should not give to other needy people. Jesus on one occasion told a parable about inviting guests to a feast. He said not to invite those who can invite you back but to invite those who cannot. Then he said that if his disciples did this they would be recompensed at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:12-14).

The second example from his sermon was prayer. As far as praying about people is concerned, there are two options. We can pray for those we know and we can pray for those we don’t know. Imagine standing there at the Day of Judgement and discovering that your prayers brought about the conversions of people in other parts of the world. Perhaps on a certain day, you found yourselves wanting to pray for people in a certain place, and then you forgot about it. But on the great day you discover that on that previous day many people were converted, and that Jesus brought them to conversion through a preacher or whatever method, and that he did not do so until he had led you and others to pray about it. I suspect that Jesus does not lead us to do such a specific thing unless we are in the habit of praying earnestly for the progress of his kingdom everywhere. Such types of prayer are an incredible way of storing up heavenly treasure.

Of course, they are not only types of prayer connected to progress in the kingdom. Another way of growth is personal spiritual development. We pray about such matters in ourselves, but we also pray about things that we see in other people. I would suggest that is one reason why God reveals such details to you. Have you ever wondered why other people don’t see an issue in someone that is obvious to you? God is giving you an opportunity to store up heavenly riches by praying for that individual and his or her defect. Of course, you should not mention it to them by saying something like, ‘I am praying about your bad temper.’ Such a way of speaking is probably a statement of pride. But just take the matter to the heavenly banker and wait to see how much treasure has been laid up.

If we stay with the items mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, we will see that one of them concerned the willingness of Christ’s disciples to forgive one another. Forgiving in this way is an expression of brotherly love and it is the case that deeds of brotherly love will be rewarded. Jesus said that if a disciple gives a cup of cold water to another disciple he will be rewarded (Mark 9:41). There are many other ways of showing brotherly love, and they will all produce treasure in heaven.

The third discipline that Jesus mentioned was setting aside time from legitimate things (fasting) in order to enjoy the presence of God. When someone does that properly, Jesus told him or her not to hide the joy. Imagine the effect that a happy man has on his contacts. Many of them are looking for happiness in earthly treasures, and he is showing them that greater joy is found in knowing God. And the more he does that, the more treasures he has in heaven.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Priority (Matthew 6:19-24)

Often we discuss what are the biggest hindrances to authentic Christianity in our society. Answers range from secularism to alternative religions. In his Sermon on the Mount, what did Jesus say would be a hindrance to authentic discipleship? In the verses we are going to consider, he mentions a focus on accumulating possessions as being a hindrance. 

Our version mentions money as the problem, but since people in the first century did not live with much money, the word means more than cash. Rather, Jesus refers to things. At first glance, we may wonder why he decided to speak about this issue at that time. I suppose the answer is obvious. We live in a world where it is impossible to escape from things. It looks as if materialism in a first century form was regarded by him as dangerous for his disciples, and no doubt its twenty-first century form is also dangerous. 

It is important to observe that Jesus does not say that it is wrong to have possessions, but he does say that it is possible to have wrong ideas about them. After all, there are many rich believers in the Bible whose lives are commended. Abraham, Job, Joseph of Arimathea and Philemon are such examples. So it is not the actual possession of things that are the problem.

The point I am making is obvious. Some used their possessions wisely and became a blessing to people they helped. Some kept it for themselves and lost out. And that is what Jesus says here when he says that his disciples should not lay up treasures for themselves on earth. 

Obviously, for some people, the accumulation of possessions becomes the priority of their lives. Sadly, they are never satisfied with what they have. Even more sad is the fact that they are going to lose them all. We know that is the case. Moreover, even when they have earthly riches, they worry about what is going to happen to them and to their possessions. Having a lot does not always mean having a lot of comfort or a lot of pleasure. It can mean a lot of stress.

Jesus does not want his disciples to have no spiritual treasure when they die. Yet they will only have such treasure if they engage in certain activities throughout their lives. He takes the example of people who strive for earthly riches and says to his disciples that they should show as much interest in accumulating heavenly treasure.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Five aspects of prayer (Matthew 6:9-15)

Jesus provides his disciples with a prayer that has five concerns and these are the details that he wants them to mention in their personal prayers. The concerns are praise of God, progress of his kingdom, provision of daily needs, pardon for our sins and protection from the devil.

The first feature in prayer should be praise of God, and here Jesus mentions three areas of praise. One is God’s name – Father. How did he become our Father? He did so by adopting us into his family after we had trusted in Jesus. Another is his location – heaven. Heaven is the Father’s house, home. In the secret place with the Father we are reminded of his real abode. And there is his character – holiness. This implies that the petitioner has spent some time thinking about what God is like – he is perfect and a true disciple delights in that the Father will always be so. And the Father who sees in secret is pleased.

Second, in true prayer, there should be a longing for progress in the spread of the Father’s kingdom. Obviously, this only happens through the gospel being embraced. Therefore, a person who prays is passionate for conversions. He desires that sinners will become obedient saints. When he mentions this feature in prayer, he may wish to speak about items he has read which indicate that the gospel is being blessed. Or he may speak about places where the gospel is in decline. He will probably do both. In doing so, he pleads with God to work. And the Father who sees in secret is pleased.

Third, the disciple prays that God would meet his needs for the day. This petition suggests that the prayer should be made in the morning, although it is the case that we can pray more than once. One of the psalmists prayed seven times a day. Again, this petition implies some form of preparation regarding what is liable to happen that day, and then the items are mentioned to God.

Fourth, a true disciple asks for pardon and is marked by a forgiving spirit. Those two details go together because Jesus points out in verses 14 and 15 that the Father only forgives those who have forgiven those who have offended them. Of course, when someone offends us, our response should be to remind ourselves that we have offended God far more often. It is obvious that one cannot go into the secret place with an unforgiving attitude.

Fifth, a disciple when he prays remembers that he is in the middle of a spiritual battle. Every day, he is going to face some form of interaction from the enemy of his soul. Christ’s people face dangerous territory all the way. There is nothing that they face that cannot be turned into a temptation by the devil, and sometimes he will, but we don’t know when he will. So they ask God to protect them all the time.

The petitions in our prayers reveal our longings. Jesus mentions at least five longings that should mark our prayers – praise, progress, provision, pardon and protection. The Father’s answers are the rewards that he gives in his grace.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Giving, Praying and Self-denial (Matthew 6:1-18)

It is possible to give to God’s cause in a mechanical way. The picture is of a disciple who spends time with God and then comes across someone in need and gives him something. I suspect that Jesus is indicating that when a disciple gives in this manner his giving will reflect the God who he has been with. Therefore, he will give graciously.

When Jesus tells his fasting disciple that he should anoint his head and wash his face he does not mean that his disciple engages in a form of pretence. Instead he is instructing his disciple that his outward look should reveal his heart. People who see him should see his joy, but they should not discover that he is doing without legitimate things in order to enjoy the presence of God. 

Jesus mentions two wrong ways to pray. These are the prayers of the Pharisees and the prayers of the pagans. Usually, a person would say that there is nothing similar between those options, but Jesus points out that neither method is true prayer. So what is prayer?

Prayer is special, so special that the petitioner makes sure that there is a suitable private place in which it can take place. The choice of place is not made by God, but the disciple must find this place of privacy.

Prayer is expressed simply. Sometimes, people only pray when they are in a desperate situation. When that happens, they may use lots of words, but if you listen to them it is obvious that they don’t know anything about the God to whom they are praying. In contrast, the disciple of Jesus knows that prayer is not about giving God information and therefore prays straightforwardly.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Living for God (Matthew 6:1-18)

Jesus refers three features of righteous living among the Jews – almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Of course, it is important to stress that Jesus here is referring to personal, voluntary expressions of those practices. 

The Saviour points out a basic principle connected to personal acts of discipleship. If we engage in them in order to get a reputation among men, we will succeed in doing so. On the other hand, if we engage in them to receive blessings from God, we will succeed in doing so. The problem is that we cannot have both.

But Jesus does more that point out that principle. He also says that his disciples should be afraid of doing them like the Pharisees who were focussed on getting a reputation among men. His warning begins with the word, beware, and that word is only used when there is danger around. To have the attitude of the Pharisees means we are in trouble.

Jesus focuses on either a love of secrecy or a love of publicity. The Pharisees revealed to their audiences when they gave to the needy, when they prayed and when they fasted. The audience admired them for their devotion, which was what they wanted. Instead, Jesus’ disciples engage in their religious duties in the presence of the Father.

What is the presence of the Father? Jesus is not referring to God’s omnipresence, nor is he referring to God’s family presence such as occurs when his people do something together. Instead he is describing what takes place between an individual and his God. Some people have a literal place where they like to pray, and obviously that is helpful. Yet this secret place can be anywhere. What marks it is that the Father is there and is pleased with what he sees.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Responding to what Jesus said (Matthew 5:17-48)

There are several applications that we can make from this passage. The first concerns the authority of Jesus. He does not depend on the opinion of others. Instead he claims for himself full and final authority to say what the Word of God means. He does not offer suggestions, instead he provides the correct understanding regarding how the Lord requires his Word to be obeyed. Jesus had this authority because he is God.

Second, it is clear from the way that Jesus interpreted the examples he mentioned that it is crucial for his disciples to remember the reality of eternity. The reason why we don’t get angry and the reason why we don’t allow immoral thoughts is that there are eternal consequences if we do not repent of such sins. It is a question that is worth pondering – did we think of eternity today? I don’t mean that we should recognise that we will die, because that is obvious. Instead, the question is, where will we be in eternity?

Third, it is required of Christ’s disciples that they treat other humans with dignity, even when they are not treating the disciples in such a manner. Such a respect is seen in the examples that Jesus gives about turning the other cheek, carrying a load and helping the needy. A disciple of Jesus recognises that other people are made in the image of God.

Fourth, it is obvious that Jesus taught that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. God’s law is not mainly about outward conformity to its requirements, although outward alignment is important. Instead he is concerned about what we think about and why we say things and do things. Refraining from the physical acts of murder and adultery does not mean that we are obeying God’s law from the heart. There has to be inner change.

What does it mean to have a right heart? Is it to replace a wrong thought with a right one? So if I have hateful thoughts about someone, do I replace them with nice thoughts about that person? I would suggest that is to aim too low. We can only have right thoughts about other people when the One who fills our heart is God. I would suggest that is why Jesus tells his disciples to model themselves on God and not on what they might deduce are good intentions. If we love sinners the way God does, then we will do our best for them. If we love purity the way that God does, we will fill our minds with thoughts about his holiness and will admire his beauty.