Dec 072016
 

I was recently asked to explain what was behind some of the language used in Isaiah 35:1-10 with references to:

  • Desert and parched land (Is 35:1)
  • Holy Highway (Is 35:10)

These words were written to give hope to God’s people – people who were going to experience exile  out of their land – hope that one day they would be able to return home. And they are written following on from Is 34 which speaks of a world that has become desert and desolate where no-one is safe to be or to travel. They speak about how God is going to restore what has been damaged and tarnished.

It is possible that the desert and the parched land refers to the Syrian desert across which the returning exiles would have to travel. But it is more likely that the terms are being used to refer to the entire world – physical, social, spiritual – which we have managed to mess up in so many ways. But that God is going to act, to work on this world, and it is going to be restored to wonder and glory once again. And all of creation will rejoice when it sees this happening.

And this picks up on the idea in Isaiah 32:15 which speaks about God’s spirit being poured out on the desert and turning it into a “fertile field”.

So:

  • Is 35:1-2 are speaking about God acting in power to restore
  • Is 35:3-4 is to encourage people to prepare themselves and to dare to hope again
  • Is 35:5-7 are examples of the outworking of God’s power in salvation both for people and for situations. There is healing, there is restoration, there is provision

And then in Is 35:8-10 there is talk about a safe and secure “highway” that the redeemed will walk on as they return home. And the idea of a highway to return home keeps on cropping up in Isaiah (Is 11:16, 19:23 – which is about other nations entering into God’s blessing as well, Is 35:8, 40:3 – and here the idea is a highway for God to return, Is 49:11, 62:10).

isaiah-403-4-widescreen

It speaks physically about the journey that the exiles will take as they return to Zion (Jerusalem) the city of God and it speaks more widely of the journey that all people can take as they respond to God and come to him to receive his blessing. It is a safe road, a good road and a road that ends in joy and celebration.

 

 

 

 

Nov 212016
 

For our “Bible Chapter a Day” project (BCaD) we are moving focus to the Book of Psalms.

Often recognised as the “hymnbook” of the people of Israel this collection of poetic writings has been a real source of encouragement and blessing to many through the centuries.

They contain powerful expressions of worship, statements of faith, heart-felt prayers for God to act, expressions of sincere thankfulness, descriptions of God’s character and so much more.

While many of them could be seen as songs of praise there are also many which are “songs of lament” as people cry out to God from their depth of suffering and ask God to act and to restore.

They are open, they are honest, they give real insights into the human experience and show how people can relate to God in a powerful and authentic way.

They are generally classified into five “books”:

  • Psalms 1-41
  • Psalms 42-72
  • Psalms 73-89
  • Psalms 90-106
  •  Psalms 107-150

and approximately half of them are attributed to King David.

This is what will occupy us for the next five months or so.

ps-34v8

 

Oct 262016
 

In the BCaD project we’ve just finished the book of Judges.

And for those who are wondering what this project is about, it is reading a chapter of the Bible each day and posting a short summary / reflection from it on social media. And if you would like to get involved please feel free to do so.

So far we have worked through:

Old Testament:

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy
  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Job

New Testament:

  • Matthew
  • Luke
  • Acts
  • Galatians

And as we read through the book of Judges we saw – from relatively good beginnings – things getting worse and worse as the people turned away from following God and did what they each thought was right.

To give us a glimmer of hope we’re going to look briefly at the book of Ruth, a story of a few individuals that took place:

In the days when the judges ruled, (Ruth 1:1a)

And as we do so we will see that God is still at work and that His purposes for His people will still be carried out. It ends with a family tree giving the people hope that a king would come – and a king who was able to bring the people back into a better relationship with God.ruh-4v22

 

And after thinking about the story of Ruth we’ll turn our attention to another of the Gospels, to John, that tells the story of a greater king, a king recognised by some as the king of Israel

john-1v49

But whose reign actually extends over the whole earth.

 

Oct 052016
 

The book of Joshua draws to a close with the words:

Israel served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the Lord had done for Israel. (Joshua 24:31)

And there is a hint that after Joshua, and after these elders who had experienced so much of God’s goodness, the people may turn away from God and choose another way, follow other gods.

And to see how the story develops we’re going to go on and work through the book of Judges – where we will see that, unfortunately, the people got into a cycle of turning away from God, of God punishing them, the people calling on God, God sending someone to rescue them.

A difficult time in the life of the people of Israel and one which ends with some sad words:

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. (Judges 21:25)

How had a moment of such promise turned into such a fragmented society with no real purpose and direction? We’ll find out as we trace the story over the next few weeks.

But in the darkness we will also see rays of light as a few people commit to serving and praising God

judges-5v3

Sep 112016
 

At the beginning of June we left the people of Israel at the edge of the land that God had promised to give them.

Moses, the man chosen by God to lead them out of Egypt and the one who had faithfully led them for 40 years, was dead and the people were on the brink of a new chapter in their story.

They had a new leader, Joshua, but the promise was an old one – they were to enter the land and to possess it.

And, from tomorrow (12th September 2016)  we’re going to pick up their story by working through the book of Joshua – and journey with them as they face the challenges of living in this new land. Many stories of success, but stories of failure and lack of obedience to God as well. Stories that encourage, stories that really challenge our thinking and understanding.

Deuteronomy leaves us with a note of confidence – in God and with the leader He has chosen:

Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses. Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, (Deuteronomy 34:9–10)

In the first chapter we see God’s promise to be with them.

joshua-1v9

Let’s see how it works out.

Jul 212016
 

Having just completed reading through Job we are now (starting tomorrow – 22nd July) turning our attention to two books in the Bible which tell the story of Jesus and the early church – both written by Luke (a doctor and sometime companion of Paul) to provide an accurate account of what happened while Jesus was alive and immediately after He returned to heaven.

Luke introduces his first book with these words:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1–4)

And he introduces his second book:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. (Acts 1:1–2)

So the book of Acts is presented as the “sequel” to the Gospel and telling the story of what Jesus continued to do – after His return to heaven – through his apostles and the power of His Spirit.

We will see stories of the birth of Jesus, a very little of His early life, His public ministry culminating in His death and resurrection. And we will see how the work that He started continued on as the church was born and started to grow. It is all centred around the person who died and was powerfully brought back to eternal life.

lk 24v6-7

As we read let’s be prepared to be challenged as we are confronted (again or for the first time) with the person and work of Jesus.

Jun 042016
 

This is a quick update for those following – or interested in – the #BCaD project.

For those not familiar with it, it is the challenge of reading a chapter from the Bible each day (Bible Chapter a Day) and posting about it on social media – a summary, a thought it sparked, a key idea.

Dave introduced it in October 2015 and since then we have worked through the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy – as well as Matthew’s Gospel.

We’re not going straight through the Bible from beginning to end but alternating between the two Testaments and different genre.

I was speaking with Dave earlier this week and he asked me to take over BCaD scheduling – something I am very happy to do.

Bible Backgrounds Galatians

Our next book is Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia. This is the first of Paul’s letters we will have done and my plan is to work through them in the order they were written. Recognising that there is some disagreement over the order of the letters (and which were actually written by Paul himself) I’m going to follow the chronology from the revised edition of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (page 699) which has:

  1. Galatians
  2. 1 Thessalonians
  3. 2 Thessalonians
  4. 1 Corinthians
  5. Philippians (ISBE actually splits this into two but we’ll do it in all together!)
  6. 2 Corinthians
  7. Romans
  8. Colossians
  9. Philemon
  10. Ephesians
  11. Titus
  12. 1 Timothy
  13. 2 TimothyBible Backgrounds Job

After Galatians we’ll move on to the book of Job – which explores, among other things, the sovereignty of God and questions about suffering.

Follow on social media using the hashtag #BCaD or join in with writing your thoughts and reflections.

Feb 192016
 

As part of a project to write a daily comment on each chapter in the Bible (#BCaD) I said this about Matthew 20:

Mt 20: The kingdom of God – not about what we can earn or gaining high position, but about mercy and service and self-sacrifice.

A friend of mine responded to this and said:

would be interested to know how you think this fits with passages in the bible that talk about storing up your reward in heaven or persecuted Christians reward being great in heaven. Mathew 6:20, Matthew 16:27 and so on. How does this fit with being saved by grace and not works and Mathew 20? Would be interested to hear your thoughts!

A great question and here is how I think it all hangs together.

It’s important to think about what the three Matthew passages are saying as they are all providing different insights into living as a disciple of Jesus and what it means to be a citizen of his kingdom.

Matthew 6:20 is in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is speaking about what it means to be ” a kingdom person” – it’s about being blessed in all manner of situations (Matt 5:3-12), living as salt and light (Matt 5:13-16) , living righteously (Matt 5:17-20), the way we think and not just the way w
e act (Matt 5:21-30), seeking to understand God’s principles for living (Matt 5:31-6:4), a proper approach to God in prayer and fasting (Matt 6:5-18), focusing on what is important to God as opposed to what is important to us (Matt 6:19-24), trusting in God (Matt 6:25-34) and so forth.

And these were words that Jesus spoke to people in Israel before he died on the cross, before people really started to grasp what he was going to do and the significance of it. They were words spoken to a people who had been brought up to know about God and to try and obey his law and here Jesus was recasting and reframing things to get them to try and understand what living as part of God’s people was really all about. And, from that context, he calls on them to live in a way that will build up rewards and blessing in heaven as opposed to seeking to better themselves on earth. It was a question of focus, a question of “what do we think is important”, a question about where we are going to invest our time and energy – and recognising that there will be rewards for those who seek to do what God is calling them to do.

In Matthew 16:27 Jesus is looking past his death & resurrection and on to the time when he will return in glory and speaking about the rewards he will give to those who have lived for him. And the sort of life he is calling on people to live is spelled out in the previous verses (Matt 16:24-26) where Jesus speaks about being prepared to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses and to follow him. This, he says, is the way of finding and experiencing life and – for such people – there will be rewards. And Jesus picks up this theme again in Matt 19:29 where he promises rewards for those who gives up things for him.

Coming to Matthew 20 we find four separate sections:

  1. A parable about workers in a vineyard (Matt 20:1-16)
  2. The third time Jesus speaks about his forthcoming death and resurrection (Matt 20:17-19)
  3. The mother of two of his disciples asking Jesus if her sons can have a special place of honour with him in his kingdom and Jesus reminding his followers that the way of his kingdom is a way of service (Matt 20:20-28)
  4. Two blind men calling out to Jesus for mercy and receiving it (Matt 20:29-34)

The first reminds us that – even as we are called to serve God – the rewards we will receive are from his generous grace (there is much more to be said about this parable but not here!), the second is another reminder of how far Jesus will go for us, the third shows that greatness is in service and the fourth, again, draws our attention back to God’s mercy. So there are rewards for God’s people and those who choose to live and serve Jesus but they are due to God’s grace and not something we should seek.

So all these passages testify to the fact that there will be rewards and blessings for those who follow Jesus, who seek to live as citizens of his kingdom, but that the rewards themselves shouldn’t be the focus – rather we should be rejoicing in God’s mercy and seeking opportunities to serve.

Is there any tension between this and being “saved by grace and not works”? 

To answer this we need to recognise that most of the words Jesus was speaking in Matthew were aimed at those who were in “the kingdom” and encouraging them in how to behave. If one is a child of God how should we live, what should be our focus and what should we be looking forward to?

And we get very similar ideas from Paul who doesn’t see a contradiction here as he:

  1. Makes it clear that we have been saved by grace and through faith – and as a result of God’s gracious gift to us (Eph 2:8)
  2.  Speaks about people building on their foundation in Christ and receiving a reward (1 Cor 3:10-15).
  3. Looks forward to a “crown of righteousness” that God will award him and others (2 Tim 4:8)

For Paul, our becoming part of God’s family, our “being saved”, is a total act of grace on the part of God but the consequence of this is that we live out our lives in service and we can look forward to a reward from God.

James, speaking about the relationship between faith and works, makes his famous statement about “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Here he isn’t arguing that faith isn’t important but he is arguing that people of faith should live lives, should do things, that demonstrate it.

So there isn’t any disagreement here at all. We become Christians through an act of God’s grace which we receive by faith; as a consequence of that we are called to live lives of discipleship & service in grateful recognition of what God has done; we look forward to a time when we will receive, from God’s grace, a reward for the things we have done as his people.

But just as our motivation for service shouldn’t be the prospect of a reward but rather a response to grace; so our “use” of our rewards will also be a response to God’s grace. In Revelation 4:9-11, the 24 elders around the throne of God fall down and worship God, laying their crowns before his throne. These elders refer to God’s people through history (warning alert – many different views on this but this is what I think!) as represented by the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Jesus. And they take the crowns they have been given, the rewards and standing they have achieved, and they offer them to God. In Revelation 5 this worship and praise is extended to the person of Jesus (Rev 5:8-10, 14). And so the rewards we receive will be things we can offer to God so that he will receive all glory and honour and praise.

Glory to the Lamb

Jan 192016
 

Last year, in our church, we had a preaching series on the book of Revelation – an opportunity to share together something of the greatness of God and His Lamb (Jesus), to hear the words of Jesus to His church, to gain insight into what is going on in the world and how God’s people are called to engage with it, and to look ahead to the wonderful future that is in store for us as God completes the work of re-creation and comes to dwell with His people (Rev 21:3).revelation cover

A number of people who weren’t able to get to some of the services asked for notes about what had been said so they could “keep up” and so I thought it might be helpful to make the entire set available.

There are, as is well known, many ways to look at the book of Revelation and I am sure some people will see it differently from how I present it in this book. But my hope and prayer is that it will encourage people to look again at what the book says, to wrestle with it, and to hear God’s voice speaking through it.

The book is available in a number of formats:

  • As a Kindle book (I had hoped to publish it for free but couldn’t find a way to do so in this format so it costs 99p)
  • As a “Personal Book” to be compiled as a Bible Commentary into Logos Software (the zip file contains the document, a cover file and a suggestion of how to install it)
  • As a downloadable PDF document

Enjoy!