Matthew 3:7-12

Study Notes on Matthew’s Gospel: Fruits of True Repentance

Matthew 3:7-12 (NIVUK): “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptising, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’”

In these verses, we hear John challenging the motives of the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come with the crowds to be baptised by him.

First off, let us look at these two groups. The Pharisees and the Sadducees had very little in common – they had a history of vying for power against each other – and their influence at any point in time was dependent on their respective relationships with the current ruler.

The Pharisees came to prominence in 135-105 BC after the Maccabean revolt which saw Israel break free of Greek influence. Pharisees were seen as champions of Hebrew religious life and sought to rid Israel of all Hellenistic cultural traits. They looked to the Hebrew Bible for guidance and developed a detailed oral tradition based on their interpretation of Scripture.

Sadducees on the other hand took a very literal view of the Torah, and accepted only the first five books (Pentateuch) and they completely rejected the notion of oral tradition. They did not believe in resurrection of the body. They were wealthy aristocrats who controlled all aspects of temple life, including the collection of temple tax and the running of the major festivals. Although small in number they exerted considerable influence on religious life in Jerusalem. The high priests of this period were Sadducees.

In summary, these two groups had very little in common and their relationship with each other was often hostile.

Now, back to Matthew – members of the two groups were coming to John for baptism and because of the mutual hostility they would not have been travelling together. John says something to them which is quite insightful – he calls them a brood of vipers – identifying a common characteristic – they had no intention of honestly repenting of their sinful ways (basically because they did not see themselves as sinful). I also read that calling a person a viper (snake) at this time was the equivalent of calling them a hypocrite.

Another interesting point is that John calls them offspring of vipers – they were the product of the people who proceeded them. In a way they were poisoning the whole nation with their deadly deception and had been doing so for a number of generations

The central plank for salvation for these people was that they were descendants of Abraham yet their deeds did not demonstrate the same faith as Abraham. The outward signs they looked for in people was their adherence to the laws of Moses, especially the purity laws and separation from sinful people.

The Pharisees may have started out with good intentions when they championed Hebrew religious laws over Greek culture but they misunderstood the role of faith and replaced it with a works-based theology to the extent that they lost sight of the requirements of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

In regard to the other group. the Sadducees, they disappeared  after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and their religious philosophy faded from view. However, the Pharisees went on to set the scene for the next two thousand years – a scene centred on isolation and cultural purity.

Let’s look at some verses concerning these people, the first one from Matthew 23:1-3 “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach.”

Matthew 9:10-12, “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?

Matthew 12:1-3, “At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some ears of corn and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’”

Matthew 15:1-3, “Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’ Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Matthew 23:23-24, “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

I think you get the picture, the Pharisees were preoccupied with the letter of the law but did not have a relationship with the law-giver; they were more interested in their standing before men and ignored their relationship with their God; they loved the law but they failed to love God and their neighbour. Worst of all they were, in general, hypocrites who failed to do what they preached.

The Call to Repentance

Now to bring this all together, John the Baptist was calling people to repentance through baptism; and what are the fruits of repentance? In Acts 26:20b, we read, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.” Repentance is always demonstrated in a transformed life.

God sees the deeds we do and these deeds reflect the spiritual status of our lives. True repentance means turning your back on sin, to  learn from God through Scripture with the Holy Spirit’s help, how to act righteously. Then to seek justice, relief for the oppressed, to defend the fatherless and to care for the widow.

As John could discern that, in general, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him for baptism as unrepentant hypocrites. However, John’s strong words may have been a wake-up call for a few of them who came to see that their legal approach to the law of Moses and their traditions were placing a burden on people and not helping them fulfil the spirit of God’s commands through faith.

It’s the same today, many people are called to repentance but they fail to see their sinfulness and do not understand their dire need for forgiveness because in their eyes, ‘they are basically good people’.  Yet, we are told throughout Scripture, that all have sinned and therefore we all must repent.

I’ll end with Romans 3:22-25: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith. … “

Any comments?

Additional Notes on True Repentance

Repentance is a gift from God and God grants this gift in a three-fold way – the intellectual, the emotional and the will to change by committing to a course of action.

Repentance begins when there is a knowledge and recognition of sin, involving a sense of personal guilt, a sense of personal defilement and a sense of personal helplessness to change without God’s help.

In Psalm 51, we see these three components: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”

The recognition of sin is the first step, but true repentance always involves a willingness to change Pharaoh (Exodus 9:27), Balaam (Numbers 22:24), Achan (Joshua 7:20), Saul (1 Samuel 15:24) and Judas (Matthew 25:4-5) all recognised that they had sinned but their subsequent actions clearly indicated that they had not changed their sinful hearts.

When one recognises not only the fact that one has sinned, but that sin is hateful to an holy God then there is an overwhelming sense of guilt in the emotions. In Matthew 5:4, we read about the natural response to the understanding that we have offended God by our sinfulness, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We suffer emotional grief when we realise what our sins do to our Holy Lord, and we plead for mercy and if genuine then we will receive God’s forgiveness.

The rubber hits the road, so to speak, by an act of our will to change our ways – to turn around and leave our sinful habits behind. In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:18-20a), we read that first the son decides to go back to his father, and then he acts on this decision – he got up and went – “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father.” All to often, this final step of true repentance is not carried out.

One last point: We recognise that salvation came with the first coming of Christ and judgement will come when the Lord returns. Those who don’t believe in Jesus and have not truly repented for their sins will suffer (Matthew 3:12) the flames of an unquenchable fire. That’s the ‘choice’ we all face. There is no third option!

Your view?

References: 

  • Bible Study Notes prepared by the late Rev. Eric Bird (mostly used for framework and headings). His notes were, in turn, based on the following primary source: “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Matthew, Volumes 1-5″, published by the Moody Bible Institute. [Note: I don’t fully endorse Dr John MacArthur’s work, so I’ll try to steer away from any detailed references or quotes.]
  • Extensive on-line searches – especially in the area of translation variations.
  • Notes on Matthew’s Gospel as compiled by Fr. Bernie Patterson, sourced from multiple references.
  • Overall – I’ve selected material, which fits into my view of Matthew’s Gospel – naturally!

Matthew 3:1-6

Study Notes on Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew 3:1-6 (NIVUK): “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt round his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan.”

(First Draft)

The Man: John the Baptist

In Matthew 11:11,14, we hear Jesus say something quite amazing about John: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. … And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

And what are we told about this amazing man, was there anything about his background that stood out, such that the average person would have been impressed by his status? Was he a powerful ruler, or an extremely wealthy man, or did he exert a great influence over the religious teachers and other celebrities of his time? No, he stood out because he appeared to be the opposite of a successful and influential leader of high social standing. In regard to social standing, John the Baptist had more in common with his young, carpenter cousin living in Nazareth than with the ruling royal class.

Jesus tells us that John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah (Matthew 11:14), meaning that there was going to be a prophet of similar nature to Elijah, who would proclaim the coming of the Messiah. This is not to say that John was literally Elijah.

[In John 1:21a, we hear this response from John to this question: “They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’” That’s a very clear response.]

However, there are some intriguing similarities, we read in 2 Kings 1:8, “The king asked them, ‘What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?’ They replied, ‘He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt round his waist.’ The king said, ‘That was Elijah the Tishbite.’”

Looking back to 1 Kings 17:1, Elijah appears (unannounced) on the scene when the northern kingdom under king Ahab has entered a particularly evil phase: Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.’”  If we compare this to the sudden appearance of John after years in the wilderness, Matthew 3:1, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.”

Yet, the most striking similarity is their anointing of the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at Luke 1:14-17, “He (John) will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’”

It’s also clear that Elijah was anointed with God’s Spirit, 1 Kings 17:23b-24, “He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’ Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.’”

Just before we leave this point that John was a man in the spirit of Elijah, we should look briefly at Elisha, 2 Kings 2:14-15a, “He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. ‘Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, ‘The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.’”

In essence, the ‘spirit’ of Elijah is a manifestation of the powerful anointing of God’s Spirit.

THE MISSION

John the Baptist key mission was to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the Messiah.

In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah we hear harsh words of judgment, and now let’s look at Isaiah 40:1-5, Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”

In addition, we have the last two verses of the Old Testament, which point to what will happen next – after a long period of silence; Malachi 4:5-6, “‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.’” (See Luke 1:17 above, he will turn people’s hearts from their evil ways, to prepare them for the Messiah’s message of salvation.)

Returning to Luke 1:67-80, Zechariah’s Song, regarding his son John: “His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.”

This is a rather beautiful song: and it summarises perfectly the mission of John the Baptist: ‘to prepare the way for Jesus, to give God’s people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins’.

THE MESSAGE

John’s message was simple: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’ (Matthew 3:2). It was the same message to be preached by Jesus (Matthew 4:17).

Before we can continue. it’s important to have a clear understanding of what repentance means in a Christian context. It is not a general feeling of sorrow caused by an awareness that you have done or said something wrong. The wrong inflicted on another is not resolved by saying ‘sorry’, even non-Christians know it means more than that, and that it carries with it a resolve not to ‘trespass across the line’ in the future.

In the Christian context – repentance means total change – a re-birth into a new creation, in-Christ.

The Greek word used in Scripture for ‘repent’ means to ‘turn around’. To turn around your heart and mind away from sin to holiness. It means conversion from our old sinful nature to becoming a child of God, in the likeness of Jesus.

Jesus covers this aspect in His discussion with Nicodemus, John 3:5-8,17-18: “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ … For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

The good news is that salvation is found in Jesus; the bad news is that whoever does not believe, those who refuse to turn their lives around, ‘will be burnt up like chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12)’.

This was the simple message of John the Baptist, that the Jews were not ready to accept their Messiah until they had repented of their sins.

THE SUCCESSFUL MINISTRY OF JOHN THE BAPTISTL

We are told that John’s ministry was successful. Matthew 3:5-6, “People went out to John the Baptist from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan.”

As John was speaking words of truth as inspired by the Holy Spirit, his words convicted the hearts and minds of those Jews who mourned their sinfulness, and they responded by coming from all parts of Judea, including Jerusalem, to publically declare their repentance through their baptism in the Jordan River. Such is the power of God’s Spirit.

Secondly, he knew his mission was over after he had baptised Jesus, (John 3:26-30: “They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – look, he is baptising, and everyone is going to him.’ To this John replied, ‘A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, “I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.” The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.’“)

CONCLUDING REMARKS

John the Baptist is a role model for all of us, he was recognised by Jesus as a great man and we have covered some of the reasons which contributed to his greatness. Yet Jesus had this to say: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)”

We are not necessarily greater than John in terms of human character but we are greater in terms of privilege when we understand that we “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)”

Any comments?

References: 

  • Bible Study Notes prepared by the late Rev. Eric Bird (mostly used for framework and headings). His notes were, in turn, based on the following primary source: “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Matthew, Volumes 1-5″, published by the Moody Bible Institute. [Note: I don’t fully endorse Dr John MacArthur’s work, so I’ll try to steer away from any detailed references or quotes.]
  • Extensive on-line searches – especially in the area of translation variations.
  • Notes on Matthew’s Gospel as compiled by Fr. Bernie Patterson, sourced from multiple references.
  • Overall – I’ve selected material, which fits into my view of Matthew’s Gospel – naturally!

Suffering – what the Book of Job tells us

Suffering

The Book of Job helps us to understand why there is suffering in this world. It does not provide a complete answer, but it enables us to believe that our loving and holy God is in control, and that in all things He works for the good of all those who love Him.

Last Sunday, I heard this excellent sermon on Chapter 42 of Job, given by Richard Utber, the senior pastor of Nowra Baptist Church. It’s worth, you time to listen to it.

Job 42:1-17 (UK-NIV): “Then Job replied to the Lord: ‘I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. ‘You said, “Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’

After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.’ So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.
After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.

The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters. The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.

After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. And so Job died, an old man and full of years.”

It is really an amazing ending – but so too, your life story will end, in such a wonderful way – if you love and trust our holy, good and loving Creator in both the good and bad times.

The sermon:

Any comments?

 

Sermon on John 17:13-26

I love John’s Gospel, and in particular the prayer of Jesus, to His Father.

Sermon by Dr Bruce Dipple [ L.Th., Dip. RE. (Morling/MCD), D.Miss. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). A graduate of Glasgow Bible College, Morling College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago. He has pastored Baptist churches in Queenbeyan, Cooma, Parramatta, Riverstone and Leichhardt. He served for 8 years in Niger as a missionary, 10 years as the Australian Director of the mission organization SIM and 12 years as the Director of the SMBC School of Cross Cultural Mission.]

Bruce recently delivered this sermon, at the Nowra Baptist Church; he talks about our mission – and, he clearly articulates God’s purpose as revealed in Scripture. I think it is a fantastic sermon.

The following text, John 17:13-26 (NIV) is the main vehicle, which Bruce uses to highlight a number of important points about our purpose and mission.

In these verses, we hear a part of Jesus’ prayer: “I am coming to you (Father) now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.

May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them  even as you have loved me.

Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them,  and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

The important factor of this talk – is that we (you and me) are all sent to make Jesus known in this world. To make known that Jesus’ main purpose was to do the will of the Father, who sent Him; and, that is, to bring salvation to mankind and to proclaim the kingdom of God.

Any comments?

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Sunday – an ordinary 15th one

The reading for today, in a local church, was Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians 3:1-18, as follows (New Living Translation): “Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we ask you to pray for us. Pray that the Lord’s message will spread rapidly and be honored wherever it goes, just as when it came to you. Pray, too, that we will be rescued from wicked and evil people, for not everyone is a believer. But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. And we are confident in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we commanded you.

May the Lord lead your hearts into a full understanding and expression of the love of God and the patient endurance that comes from Christ.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, we give you this command in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Stay away from all believers who live idle lives and don’t follow the tradition they received from us. For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. We certainly had the right to ask you to feed us, but we wanted to give you an example to follow.

Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.” Yet we hear that some of you are living idle lives, refusing to work and meddling in other people’s business. We command such people and urge them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and work to earn their own living. As for the rest of you, dear brothers and sisters, never get tired of doing good. Take note of those who refuse to obey what we say in this letter. Stay away from them so they will be ashamed. Don’t think of them as enemies, but warn them as you would a brother or sister.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you his peace at all times and in every situation. The Lord be with you all. Here is my greeting in my own handwriting—Paul. I do this in all my letters to prove they are from me. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”

The call to spread the Lord’s message is an on-going requirement, and we should commit as much time (or resources) as possible to this calling – not only should we give just our time but we should also aim to do the best we can – to aim for excellence, even in those times when we feel tired and exhausted.

In addition, where we have the skills and ability and not limited by illness or other disabilities, we should undertake work to support ourselves and not to be idle – especially, when there are things that need doing. Idleness, in a real sense undervalues the limited life-time we have – it’s the only life we will have to freely serve God – it’s too valuable to waste. God paid for us with His blood – that’s how much He values us – should we not love and live in accordance with His values?

Are you digging your own eternal grave – by doing nothing?

A discussion on the Parable of the Talents

The parable of the talents Matthew 25:14-30, is the second in a set of three parables; which Jesus told his disciples in the last stages of His ministry. They are part of His final instructions and deal with His glorious return.

The parable of the talents used to worry me; mainly, because of what happened to the third servant. For some reason, I never worried about the five foolish bridesmaids in the same way; yet, the same issue arises. However, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats was easier to understand, God separates the Sheep from the Goats based on His judgement of a person’s heart.

To better understand the context of the parable of the talents, I suggest you read all three. I’ve reproduced them here, and I’ve used the New International Version (NIV) translation:

Matthew, Chapter 25 (NIV)

Parable of the Bridesmaids

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids (the NIV has ‘virgins‘ but I think the word ‘bridesmaids’, presents a clearer meaning) who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

” ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The bridesmaids who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. ‘

The Parable of the Talents/Money

 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

” ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

The Sheep and the Goats

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Discussion: [Note: My thoughts on these issues were clarified after reading Rev. Eric Bird’s Bible Study Notes that he prepared for St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Shoalhaven Heads, NSW. Rev. Eric (retired) compiled material from a range of sources but the main contribution came from material written by John F. MacArthur, Jr.]

I once thought that the third servant (Parable of the Talents) was a Christian who lost their salvation because they were lazy. I now hold a slightly different view – they were never part of Christ’s flock. Although, they identified themselves as a fellow servant – the evidence for their faith was not there – not that their faith was dead, it was never ‘alive; in the first place. Expressed another way – their faith was never ‘born’, so there was no life to extinguish.

The Parable of the Bridesmaids tells us to be in a state of readiness for Jesus’ return. A simple enough story, Jesus will return after a long time, because of this long wait, many will put off, getting their life under control, and won’t be ready, either death will intervene or the Bridegroom will return; and, there will be no second chance. If you do not respond to His call to enter His Kingdom before the door closes, then God will not open it for you. His sheep heard His voice and entered the gate when He called out their name. If you were not there to hear your name – then you are a goat. Consequently, He does not recognise you as one of His sheep – because you refused to recognise, hear and obey His Word.

The second parable, the Parable of the Talents, informs us that God expects us to use our abilities to serve His purposes within His kingdom on earth. There are four main features to be found in this parable: our given responsibilities; our response; our day of reckoning with God; and, our reward.

Our given responsibilities

Christ calls on His servants, and a number of people respond to His call, they range in type, from those like Peter through to those like Judas. They comprise two basic sub-groups; those that actually do belong to Him; and a second group who say they are members of His flock but by their actions demonstrate that they don’t belong to Him. We are told in the gospels that many followed Jesus during His early days in Galilee, because of the ‘signs’, including the ‘free’ food and ‘free’ healing. As soon as He starting talking about the sacrifice of His body and blood, and that His followers can expect to carry their own crosses, as well, then many left Him. Free food is one thing, free-will crucifixion is another!

In giving the different number of talents (money) suggests that the master knows the abilities of each of his servants – he portions out to each servant that which he believes they are capable of handling properly. God does not call on His followers to do things they can’t handle. We have been given in a real sense various levels of ability and that is what we are to use, in the Lord’s interest, until He returns. [To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. ]

Our response

True faithfulness is what our Lord calls for – how do we demonstrate our faithfulness?

Look at verse 16: ‘The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more.’ This man went at once and started work on furthering his master’s interests. He understood what his master wanted and he was eager to carry out the task assigned to him. Upon his master’s return, he is confident that what he has done will be in accordance with his master’s will. He says, ‘See … (Take a look – I have done what you requested.)’

There is a relationship between servant and master; the servant loves his master and is keen to do exactly what is required.

I head a sermon when I was in Jerusalem in 1999, that focused on three stages of Christian growth. The sermon went along these lines: New Christians were often like, a two year old child, each sentence starts with, ‘I want … ‘. Their prayer life reflects this outlook, and often takes the form of a spiritual shopping list – ‘I want good health, a good job, a good wage, a good marriage, a good worship service’, and so on.

Later on, they become teenagers – they start to think of others around them, and seek the endorsement of their peers on their lifestyles – and, they develop their own ideas, without consultation with wiser heads, on how best they should serve God. At least, they are starting to think of doing work for their community but it’s all in the context of what they think is the best way forward.

Finally, they mature into adults: now, not only do they want to serve in God’s earthly kingdom, but they seek God’s will and leave behind their own ideas on how His work should be done. Their love matures and they are totally focused on listening to God’s Word, they have put aside their own agendas, they have sacrificed their own desires – they now find meaning in being focused on doing their Father’s will. Their prayers are now requests for guidance and direction, they trust entirely on God to provide the necessities of life. They address only the worries of the day and depend entirely on the Holy Spirit’s power to undertake their spiritual work – in the confidence that they are doing God’s work, they can sleep soundly at night.

I think, from what I’ve observed, and read – many in our churches – prefer to remain as children (to be feed bread and milk) and don’t want to take on the responsibilities of an adult. Do you agree?

The third servant in the parable, did nothing with the money given to him. He did absolutely nothing with it and wasted his opportunity, wasted his privilege. Even when given only a little, we are still responsible for it. Even if given limited opportunities to work for God’s kingdom we still have a responsibility to take up these available opportunities.

 
Our day of reckoning – the last day

There is a coming time of reckoning, (verse 19), ‘After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.’

One day – you will bend your knee and bow before God – Jesus will then ask you to settle your account with Him. There is no escaping this moment before God.

These are my thoughts on what it might be like. Forget the billions of others who will be there – at that moment, I think you will be aware of only two entities – God and you. His eyes will be upon you; your words, your response will demonstrate your relationship with the one, true God. At the end of your answer – you will hear; either, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your God’s happiness!’; or, ‘Depart from me … you never wanted to know Me, you never sought my love, you wanted to follow your own desires. You wanted nothing to do with me, You never wanted to do my work – to faithfully follow me – I now give you what you always wanted – yourself, without me – now, depart. To a place without love, without light – a place full of hate and loneliness. The realisation and understanding of this will burn forever in your spirit.’

This time of reckoning is a time when God identifies who are His true servants and who are His false servants. It will be a time of separating the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

The servant who buried his money in the ground had no relationship with God. He did not ‘know’ Him – this is obvious because he describes God as unmerciful, ungracious and lacking compassion – a thief no less, who reaps crops belonging to other people. Did he really know the character of his master? No!

This servant explained that his actions were based on fear and self-preservation; he had no interest in progressing his master’s business. It was not a relationship based on love and respect. In fact, his actions demonstrate hatred towards his master.

Finally, he did not act in a way that would logically reflect what he said he believed. Otherwise, he would have worked overtime to please such a harsh and ruthless master, to escape his displeasure. He just didn’t care – any excuse would do – which further showed that he just didn’t value what his master thought; and, perhaps of the consequences. Perhaps he thought – what could he do to me? I’m the master of my own fate! This is the pattern, which most evil people follow.

 
Our rewards

Those who believe in Jesus and base their service to Christ on a solid foundation of love – will receive their rewards – and whatever they achieve with their talents, they will be given more – and have an abundance.

I agree with the view that there will be different rewards, roles, assignments for each of us in eternity; as individuals, we each have a special and unique place of service.

This quote comes from Rev. Eric Bird’s Bible Study Notes, and it summarises well, what I feel is the case: ‘Each one of us will be exactly like Jesus, exactly perfect, absolutely sinless, so that whatever service we render, it will be infinitely eternal and perfectly satisfying. There will be no sense of greater or lesser privilege, because the privilege we occupy there will be in exact accord with our eternal God’ our service will be perfectly designed by God to match our God-given capabilities.

The counterfeit servants – those lazy people who love themselves and have no relationship with God – the goats – the weeds – they will be locked ‘outside’, to be consumed by fire.

I think, ‘Outside’ is a place, where God’s love and peace does not go. This is a place where everyone hates each other. There is total loneliness, being in a crowd of people who are unable to have a relationship. There is complete darkness, there is anxiety, fear and hopelessness. The knowledge of their separation from God’s love will be like burning coals on their heads. They will always be restless, there will always be conflict, fights and hostility – their weeping will never stop – it will be hell, without end.

Summary

One day, maybe today, maybe tomorrow; Jesus will return and He will separate His true servants from the false servants.

All excuses will be set aside, false service will be ended. His sheep will know His voice and follow Him into His eternal rest – His promised land.

I like these verses from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 2 (NIV), they explain the spiritual difference between the sheep and the goats: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”

We (who are full of the Holy Spirit), who are His sheep, hear His words; and; we can understand and quickly act upon His call, for service. Everyone else, will not hear His call – they will not follow – they will stay where they are; and the light of His love will leave them where they choose to be – on the wrong side of life.

The servant who buried his talent – dug his grave – and, did nothing – to save his life.

Do you agree?

Rest in God’s grace to do good works

Related to this discussion, is a sermon ‘Actively Resting’, that I recently heard (22 Feb 2009) at Nowra Baptist Church.     [display_podcast]

 

Pastor Richard Utber, talked about resting in God’s grace, part of a series called, Extreme Church – you can hear the other sermons in the series if you go to their web site.

The main message of Pastor Richard’s sermon is that we rest in God’s grace to do good works. The central theme is best described by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, the first 10 verses of Chapter 2 (NIV): “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The words I’ve highlighted above are truly amazing – keep them in mind, as you listen to this sermon – it goes for about 32 minutes but it’s worth your time.

 

Psalm 3

Psalm 3

A psalm of David, regarding the time David fled from his son Absalom.

O Lord, I have so many enemies; so many are against me. So many are saying, “God will never rescue him!”
                         
But you, O Lord, are a shield around me; you are my glory, the one who holds my head high. I cried out to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy mountain.

I lay down and slept, yet I woke up in safety, for the Lord was watching over me. I am not afraid of ten thousand enemies who surround me on every side.

Arise, O Lord! Rescue me, my God! Slap all my enemies in the face! Shatter the teeth of the wicked! Victory comes from you, O Lord. May you bless your people.

Discussion

Psalm 3 is a Psalm written by King David about the time, when he fled from his son Absalom who wants to take-over his father’s throne. The main theme is David’s confidence in God’s power to rescue him from overwhelming odds. This is best seen in his ability to sleep knowing that the Lord is watching over him.

This Psalm is comprised of four parts, each part contains two verses.

It describes an act of betrayal and represents a cry from a father’s heart to God asking for deliverance from his enemies. The anguish is all the more intense because his own son is leading the revolution.

To understand the background to this Psalm, you first need to read Chapters 12 to 19 of the second book of Samuel. I’ll present some of the highlights from these Chapters, in an effort to provide the backdrop to the first two verses of this amazing Psalm.

This Psalm is so packed with meaning that most of it’s value will be lost if at first you don’t spend some time looking at the context.

The genesis of Absalom’s revolt can be found back in Chapter 12, verses 9 to 13 (Nathan, as God’s messenger, is telling David the consequences of his actions): “Why, then, have you despised the word of the Lord and done this horrible deed? For you have murdered Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the Ammonites and stolen his wife. From this time on, your family will live by the sword because you have despised me by taking Uriah’s wife to be your own. “This is what the Lord says: Because of what you have done, I will cause your own household to rebel against you. I will give your wives to another man before your very eyes, and he will go to bed with them in public view. You did it secretly, but I will make this happen to you openly in the sight of all Israel.”

Then David confessed to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replied, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin

Three points to remember from these verses, God tells David: one, that: his own household will rebel against him; two, that another man will go to bed with his wives. [This prophecy comes to pass in 2 Samuel 16:21-22: ‘Ahithophel told Absalom, “Go and sleep with your father’s concubines, for he has left them here to look after the palace. Then all Israel will know that you have insulted your father beyond hope of reconciliation, and they will throw their support to you.” So they set up a tent on the palace roof where everyone could see it, and Absalom went in and had sex with his father’s concubines.]; and three, the Lord has forgiven him and David won’t die for this sin.

In Chapter 15, we read about Absalom embarking on a plan to win the support of the people, by implying that if he had the judicial power he would ensure that judgments would be awarded in their favor. In 2 Samuel 15:6b: ‘ … and so he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.’

Later, we read that after four years (the revolution has been carefully planned over a number of years) Absalom goes to Hebron to prepare the final phase of the revolt against his father, and, in verse 12, we are told that ‘many others also joined Absalom, and the conspiracy gained momentum.” Biblical historians believe that Absalom was about 30 years of age, at this time, and the revolt occurs early in the last decade of David’s 40 year reign.

Now, we move to another important piece of background information, see 2 Samuel 16:5-13: “As King David came to Bahurim (while fleeing from Absalom), a man came out of the village cursing them. It was Shimei son of Gera, from the same clan as Saul’s family. … “Get out of here, you murderer, you scoundrel!” he shouted at David. “The Lord is paying you back for all the bloodshed in Saul’s clan. You stole his throne, and now the Lord has given it to your son Absalom. At last you will taste some of your own medicine, for you are a murderer!”

When one of David’s supporter’s suggested to David that Shimei, should be killed – David said: “If the Lord has told him to curse me, who are you to stop him?”

Later on, we come to see that this curse did not come from God, David survives the revolution, Absalom is killed. Further on, David promises Shimei that he won’t take his life, but the punishment for Shimei’s sin, remains, as it was against Mosaic law to curse the Lord’s anointed. It finally comes to pass that David’s son Solomon; after he becomes King, executes Shimei, after he breaks an agreement with Solomon.

The revolt: In verse 2 Samuel 15:13-14, we read: “A messenger soon arrived in Jerusalem to tell David, “All Israel has joined Absalom in a conspiracy against you!” “Then we must flee at once, or it will be too late!” David urged his men. “Hurry! If we get out of the city before Absalom arrives, both we and the city of Jerusalem will be spared from disaster.” Later in this Chapter, we catch a glimpse of David’s trust in God’s judgment: “Then the king instructed Zadok to take the Ark of God back into the city. “If the Lord sees fit,” David said, “he will bring me back to see the Ark and the Tabernacle again. But if he is through with me, then let him do what seems best to him.”

David, I feel, has total confidence in God’s word; he remembers Nathan telling him that God has forgiven him, and he will not die for these sins (adultery and murder). Yet, he is constantly reminded – especially by the curses of Shimei – that he has blood on his hands; many are saying that God will not rescue him. Consequently, the Psalm opens with these  desperate words: ‘O Lord, I have so many enemies; so many are against me. So many are saying, “God will never rescue him!” ‘

The next two verses: “But you, O Lord, are a shield around me; you are my glory, the one who holds my head high. I cried out to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy mountain.” Confirms that David has placed his future in God’s hands – he has instructed Zadok, the priest, to take the Ark of God back into the city. He knows God is in control and sits on His throne on His holy mountain. He trusts that whatever happens – it’s God’s just and perfect will.

We know from reading the account of the revolution that those who support Absalom’s revolution number in the tens of thousands and that David becomes tired and weary by the pace of his urgent retreat. In 2 Samuel 16:14, we read: “The king and all who were with him grew weary along the way, so they rested when they reached the Jordan River.”

Even under these circumstances, David demonstrates not just hope but strong faith, to the extent that his faith is stronger than his fear, and that he is able to sleep – he is not lying awake worrying about what terrible things may happen to him – he can say: “I lay down and slept, yet I woke up in safety, for the Lord was watching over me. I am not afraid of ten thousand enemies who surround me on every side.”

The final two verses foreshadow David’s victory over his son Absalom; and he clearly sees that it’s God who provides the victory, not the fighting ability of his men. “Arise, O Lord! Rescue me, my God! Slap all my enemies in the face! Shatter the teeth of the wicked! Victory (deliverance) comes from you, O Lord. May you bless your people.”

These verses echo throughout all the ages – it is God who is victorious – it is He, who delivers His people – It is through God that we are blessed. You would have to agree that this is one great Psalm, albeit only eight verses in length. David’s faith in God – is a faith that we too can share – it is a gift from God.

Reflection on Psalm 3

My Lord and my God, I often feel that there are many who walk past me.
They say, ‘who is this man, who claims that his Lord has set him free?’

I know my Lord, that You are the Holy One, it is You alone who saves.
I cry out to you, day and night; You comfort me; it is Your Word I crave.

At night, in the darkness of this world, you cover your servant with a blanket of love.
You are always by my side and Your presence keeps away the prowling lions.
Even in the depths of painful solitude; your Spirit descends on me, like a dove.
I’m never alone, You are my blessing. In You, I have victory over a rebel’s mind. 

All Praise and Glory to our loving God.

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The Centurion’s Faith by Richard Wright

The Centurion’s Faith; Luke 7: 1-10

A Centurion’s servant was seriously ill. Matthew’s gospel says that he was paralysed.  Whatever the nature of the illness, he was about to die. The centurion sent some Jewish elders to see Jesus and ask him to heal him. When Jesus approached the home of the centurion some friends came with a message that the centurion considered himself unworthy to have Jesus enter his house. But the centurion was a man who was under authority and exercised authority. He understood the authority that Jesus had and that it came from God. If Jesus spoke the word then the servant would be healed. And that is what happened.

Jesus declared that he had not yet seen such faith, even in Israel. A simple story, but with a few strange elements to it. Let’s deal with a few apparent anomalies first. These events were also described by Matthew in chapter 8 of his Gospel. But there a couple of differences. In Matthew’s gospel we read that the centurion spoke to Jesus personally. But this isn’t really a problem. Matthew and Luke had different emphases in their stories. And even today when an emissary is sent on behalf of someone, the most common occurrence is when an ambassador speaks on behalf of a government, whether it is the emissary or the person who sent him, who speaks is immaterial.

In this case it doesn’t matter that Matthew says it was the centurion who spoke, because the Jewish elders in Luke’s account are not speaking their own words, but supposedly those of the centurion. The second strange thing about this story is this. In verse 3 we read that the elders asked Jesus to come and heal the servant. But before Jesus could get to the house some friends of the centurion came with another message suggesting that Jesus not enter the house, in verse 6.

There are two possible explanations. Perhaps the Jewish elders did not give the original message as they had been asked. If the centurion had told the elders to ask Jesus to heal the servant they could easily have interpreted his request as come and heal, and that is what they passed on to Jesus. Alternatively, the centurion could have had a change of heart. And this seems, to me, to be more likely. He had heard about Jesus, and he must have heard that Jesus had come to Capernaum. So he asked some Jewish elders to take his request to Jesus. But upon reflection he decided that Jesus should not enter his house.

And for a number of reasons he would suggest that Jesus not enter his house. The first reason is that Jesus was a Jew and the centurion was a gentile. A Jew entering a gentile’s house would become unclean under Jewish law. And the centurion was both aware of, and to some extent sympathetic to, the Jewish law; in verse 5 we read that he had built a synagogue. The second reason is the one that is presented here. The centurion considered himself unworthy to have Jesus in his house, and because of the authority which Jesus had, it was not necessary for him to be there. And this is what this passage is really all about.

Let’s take a closer look at the centurion. The word centurion literally means one in charge of a hundred men but it roughly conforms to a current army company. A centurion is much like a modern day captain or major, a senior field officer, one who commands soldiers on the battle ground. The New Testament always speaks well of centurions. This itself is surprising because the Romans were not well received by the Jews, as is the case of any occupying force. And we see this today, almost everyday, on our television news programs when we see of new outbreaks of violence often aimed at the occupying forces in Iraq. And it stands to reason, no one likes invaders taking over their land. But this centurion appeared to be well liked, or at least respected. The elders in verse 4 pleaded earnestly. “This man deserves to have you do this because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

So the question arises, did Jesus heal the centurion’s servant because the centurion deserved it, as the elders attested? Verse 6 may imply this with the word so. But this may mean that Jesus went, not as a result of the centurion’s deserving the healing, but as a result of the request of the elders. But in Matthew’s account we read in Matt 8: 13, Jesus said “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” So it seems that it isn’t the worthiness of the centurion that matters. What was important was that the centurion asked and Jesus, for whatever reason, answered his request. And we cannot assume that it was because of the centurion’s deservedness, nor even because of his faith, although that is the crux of the story and we will get to it in a moment.

But look down at the next section of this chapter, from verses 11 to 17. Here the only son of a widow had died and was being carried out of the town. The mother was obviously distressed and she was weeping, as you would expect. There is no mention here of her faith, or of her asking anything of Jesus. But verse 13 says “When the Lord saw her , his heart went out to her.” He then approached the dead man and told him to get up. And immediately the dead man came back to life and sat up and began to speak.

In this case Jesus gave the man back his life because he chose to. It was an act of pure grace without any human intervention. And this is the nature of the power of God. He exercises his saving power, or his healing power when and where he chooses. Sometimes, as in the case of the centurion, as an answer to prayer, sometimes, as we also see with the centurion, it appears to be as a result of faith. In the case of the widow’s son we can find no reason at all, except that Jesus wanted to. Whether we think there is a reason or not, the ultimate reason is that God has chosen to pour out his grace upon us. So Jesus decided that he would go to the centurion and heal his servant. But on the way friends of the centurion intercept with the message found in verses 6 to 8.

This is an extraordinary message for a number of reasons. First, the centurion declares that he does not deserve to have Jesus come under his roof. He says that he is not worthy. He was not even worthy to speak to Jesus in person. We would expect it to be the other way round, that the centurion would consider that Jesus, a small town rabbi in a troublesome far off part of the Roman Empire, would not be worthy to enter the centurion’s house. Secondly, this gentile pagan has a profound understanding of the power and authority of Jesus. Remember, this is early in Jesus ministry. No one had seen Jesus perform miracles at a distance before.

In chapter 4 we see the beginning of Jesus’ healing ministry. He went to the home of Peter’s mother in law and healed her. In verse 40 we read “When the sun was setting the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying hands on each one, he healed them.” And even later, in chapter 8 Jesus heals a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. She came and touched his cloak and was healed. In verse 46 Jesus says “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”

All the indications were that Jesus needed to be with the person to heal them. Now today, with all the scriptures available to us, and a multitude of scholars behind us, we know that that is not the case. But prior to the centurion, no one had suggested that Jesus could heal from a distance. How did he know? He knew because of the third extraordinary statement that he made in verse 8. He declares that he is a man under authority but then goes on to explain how he is a man in authority. “I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion could exercise authority because he was under authority. His men would not go or come or do this just on his say so. They did it because his authority over them was based upon him being under the authority of the emperor. So when he gave an order, it was the same as the emperor giving the order. The centurion understood that Jesus’ authority came from God. So when he spoke it was the same as God speaking. And if he tells a disease to go, it goes.

There is a verse in the Bible that everyone knows, but few of us really believe. It is Genesis 1: 3: And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. This verse set the pattern for all that was to come in scripture. When God speaks things happen. If God can speak everything to come into existence out of nothing, then why do we not believe that he has authority over everything else? But the centurion did believe this. He knew that Jesus spoke with the authority of God. He didn’t know all the doctrine associated with the Trinity or the incarnation, or Jesus’ relationship with his Father. He didn’t need to. He did know that Jesus spoke for God, and that God had power over disease. So if Jesus speaks the word
then his servant would be healed. What could be simpler?

But things are even better for us. After Jesus died on the cross and rose again he told his disciples in Matthew 28: 18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”Finally Jesus said in verse 9: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” The Jews knew that all power and authority vested in God. But that authority has now been given to Jesus. The centurion recognised that as did Paul when he wrote to the Philippians: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

[This is the text of a sermon, Richard gave in February 2007. In it, Richard gives a really good outline of God’s grace in action and also covers the important point that God’s authority has been given to Jesus. I think it’s an excellent semon on this topic – one of the best I’ve seen.]

Which god do you serve?

I like this article taken from last week’s Weekly Bulletin, prepared for Graham’s parish. It’s a useful article to read in association with my ‘viewpoint’ piece on John Spong.

 “The question of which god we serve is the most critical question of our lives. Today many people are attracted to what they call “non-theism” – in other words they seek to live their lives without reference to any god at all. Such people do not see the need or the importance of finding any power or being beyond the physical world in which we live.

Yet the reality is that there is always someone or something that we serve and give priority to in our lives. It may be our homes or families, our careers, our leisure, our community involvement, even our own comfort and pleasure. Our gods take many forms, even if we may not call them gods. Sometimes we are like polytheists, trying to keep each god in its proper place.

When we read the Bible, we discover that the Lord, the God of Israel, claims total and exclusive allegiance from his people. Indeed the God’s message to Cyrus, the King of Persia, was this: I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.” (Isaiah 45.5) This is the true that enabled Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to stand up to the demands of King Nebuchadnezzar, that they bow before the golden image that he had set up. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand” (Daniel 3.17)

Human rulers in their arrogance at times go beyond the boundaries of their power and authority. When they do so they ought to be challenged and opposed. But even if they are not challenged, it is important for us to realise that God himself will bring them down in his time, as he did with Nebuchadnezzar. No human rule which opposes God, will survive for very long.”

Rev Graham Fairbairn, 18 August 2007 (www.culburraanglican.org.au)

The Promise of Christ’s Coming

Advent, is the season, leading up to Christmas, during which we should look forward and prepare, not just for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also his return at the end of this present age in glory to judge the world and to bring in the age to come. There will always be scoffers who question the return of Christ -“where is this coming he promised?” (2 Peter 3:9) The fact that our world continues to experience the cycle of years and seasons may lead some to indifferences and even scepticism.

Jesus reminded his own disciples when they asked about the timing of his return that his coming would be sudden and unexpected. Yet there are signs which surround us. “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars … nation will rise against nation … there will be famines and earthquakes in various places … these are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8).

When we look at the problems such as global warming which the earth is facing we tend to think that convincing everyone to do their bit – conserve water, reduce the use of fossil fuels – will be the means of saving humanity from global catastrophe. That is not enough. If we leave God out of the picture, we will never eliminate the problem of human selfishness and greed which lie at the heart of all of our troubles.

What must we do? We must stand firm in our faith, knowing that it is only our Lord Jesus who will ultimately save us from whatever calamity threatens to destroy us. We must continue to proclaim the gospel of Christ’s kingly rule to the whole world. “Then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

Rev Graham Fairbairn